Q&A with Dr. Carlos Peñaloza, MCC’s new chief academic officer

Dr. Carlos Peñaloza, in his office in the Administrative Center, collects art depicting Simon Bolivar, a hero in his native Venezuela.
Dr. Carlos Peñaloza, in his Administrative Center office, collects art depicting Simón Bolívar, a hero in his native Venezuela. Above the two paintings you can see his paperweights featuring world leaders, including Bolívar.

Dr. Carlos Peñaloza, a New Yorker by way of Venezuela, became MCC’s vice chancellor for academic affairs on Aug. 1. His MCC bio tells you about his background in biology and the colleges at which he’s worked and earned degrees.

What it doesn’t mention are his four kids under the age of 6, the family’s menagerie of pets, or his collection of art featuring a certain South American revolutionary.

Oh, and he collects sweater vests, too — about 30 so far.

We talked to Peñaloza last week, who mentioned that he’d wrapped up his previous job (as assistant vice president of academic affairs at Schenectady County Community College) on a Friday and started here the following Monday. His wife, Fiorella, had already been here scouting for a place to live.

“I am a very down-to-earth guy,” Peñaloza says. “I’m more of a listener, and in this position all I really do is take the collective information from everyone and sort of put it together with a nice bow tie. Outside of that, the chief academic officer’s role is really to work with faculty to champion academics and to ensure that we are doing right by our students in terms of curricular matters.”

Excerpts from the conversation:

Q. So how’s your adjustment from Schenectady, N.Y., to Kansas City going?

A. The bulk of my life I lived in New York City, but the last two years I lived in the capital region of New York, the Albany region. That’s actually very different from New York City: more down-to-earth, less traffic, suburban. So Kansas City really represents something in the middle. I had been here a few times. It certainly was a place I felt comfortable coming to live. In terms of the transition, I see a benefit in every direction that I look. My wife got a job here; my oldest son started kindergarten already.

What has surprised you about Kansas City?

It’s much more of a bigger city than I had anticipated. But that’s not bad. That’s actually very good. What surprised me too is the diversity. I tell everyone I come from Venezuela, and I have found two places that sell Venezuelan food within five minutes of my main office.

But I can’t say that I’m surprised at too many things. I calculate a lot before I make a big move. I moved here with four kids. So I did a lot of research. (The children are 5, 4, 3 and 1.)

You attended community college yourself and have worked at other community colleges. What are you finding about MCC that seems to set it apart?

I have worked for community colleges that are single campuses with some satellite locations, and I graduated from a relatively large community college in New York City. One of the things that sets us apart is that we do have five very distinct campuses, each focusing on the needs of its immediate community.

We have very unique programs here at MCC. I’m learning this as I go to the different campuses. I visited the BT campus this past week and I was impressed facility-wise with what we offer and the hands-on experiences we give our students.

You mentioned being born and raised in Venezuela. How did you, an only child, wind up moving to New York at the age of 17?

My mom had moved to New York and wanted me to join her there. During what I’ll call a socioeconomic and political transition in Venezuela, I knew that if I stayed there I would not necessarily be able to get that professional scope I had targeted for myself. So I came to New York to complete high school and ultimately get into college — and never looked back.

Your doctoral dissertation was on deciphering molecular mechanisms responsible for sex differences in stress response. I don’t know what that means, but it’s probably a hit at parties.

(Laughs) It’s really interesting, because the way you become really famous in the sciences is if you have catchy titles. My science was always very popular because I always titled it “sex.”

Carlos lab
Peñaloza in the lab at Queens College, City University of New York, in 2005

My lab group was really interested in understanding why certain diseases were more prominent in one sex over the other. Systemic lupus, for example — there’s a 9-to-1 ratio of female to male that will encounter the disease. I took the molecular and genetic approach to that. We looked at why age-matched, health-matched male and female cells, when you stressed them with something — alcohol, for example — males and females will respond differently.

Why did you decide to make the turn from teaching and research to becoming an administrator?

It was natural. Being in the sciences, you start working with grants, and you find yourself being a little too busy to commit to teaching. Eventually you have students doing a lot of research for you and you have groups doing things for you, so you become a natural manager. Slowly, what started happening was that I was picked up as a reviewer and evaluator for grants, and I was hired as a consultant to develop science curriculum. That led to my first formal administrative title, which was dean of health sciences for an institution that wanted to grow in that area.

I still manage to get some science done, but I know that my focus now is bigger. I just love the idea of making change that will influence a bigger group of students.

Are you going to turn a corner of your office into a lab?

Eventually! In fact, I love pets, and I may bring them to my office sometime. We have two cockatoos and four land tortoises. Each tortoise is about a foot long. We love them, and there is a reason for them, and that’s that they are very long-lived. Each of my tortoises is willed to one of my kids.

Your youngest tortoise, who’s 4, doesn’t have a name yet?

You know what, after so many pets and so many kids, the naming became a bit of a challenge. (Laughs) We’re an interesting household, that’s for sure.

Carlos family
The Peñalozas on vacation (from left): Fiorella Elizabeth (1), Fiorella Isabel (3), Carlos Julian (4), Carlos Damian (5), Fiorella and Carlos. The children go by their middle names.

As far as your new job goes, what’s at the top of your plate in terms of goals?

A short-term goal is to focus on ensuring participation from all levels to work on our shared governance. A second goal is going to be on the strategic plan. My office is charged with developing a strategic plan, and I consider a strategic plan to be a document that’s used on a day-to-day basis by everyone. Those two major areas are really one-year goals.

In terms of long-term goals, we really need to align all processes so that everyone is working toward the mission of our institution. I’ll be working with academic folks to ensure that our practices, our curriculum, our offerings are aligned with community needs.

MCC was reaccredited by the Higher Learning Commission earlier this year, but the reviewers had concerns about shared governance and strategic planning. So what happens next on that front?

Prior to the (HLC) visit, we had self-reported concerns on shared governance and strategic planning, so wheels had already been turning. We need to submit focus reports (on those two areas) to HLC at the end of June 2017. What they’re looking for is a report suggesting that we’re making progress. We should be able to have more formal evidence that the institution has really been working toward shared governance, and we will have a strategic plan that will set our path for the next five years.

Finally, I have to ask you about this picture in your office of a regal-looking guy on regal-looking horse. What’s the story there?

I collect everything that is Simón Bolívar. He happens to be the equivalent of George Washington for South America. He liberated most of the Latin American countries. So anything that’s art on him, if I can get my hands on it I will. I have a lot more that you’ll see once my things go up on the walls.

Dr. Peñaloza’s welcome message to the MCC community: blogs.mcckc.edu/insider/a-message-from-dr-carlos-penaloza-new-vice-chancellor-for-academic-affairs/