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GUEST SPEAKERS

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Kristen Soares

President, AICCU

Kristen Soares is the fourth president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU). Soares works in partnership with leaders around the state to shape policy for California’s independent colleges and universities. Under her leadership to advance new policy initiatives to address the needs of today’s students, AICCU adopted an agreement with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to adopt the Associate Degree for Transfer pathway, a groundbreaking program to improve community college transfer for students. Soares has an extensive background in higher education, policy, administration, and governmental advocacy. Before coming to AICCU, Soares spent nearly 25 years at the University of Southern California (USC). She served as the senior associate vice president for government relations and civic engagement, where she provided strategic direction and leadership for USC’s government and community relations offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.

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Alex Graves

Vice President for Government Relations, AICCU

Alex Graves is the chief lobbyist and is responsible for legislative advocacy and public policy leadership in support of independent higher education. Graves serves as the liaison between AICCU and the Governor’s Office, the California Legislature, California Student Aid Commission, and other public bodies. Prior to joining AICCU, he worked as the legislative advocate at the California State University Office of Advocacy & State Relations, where he staffed legislation pertaining to admissions, financial aid, K-12 and teacher preparation, student basic needs, and transfer. He has also worked as a legislative assistant at the Alzheimer’s Association, and as a graduate research assistant at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy. In 2016-17 he completed the California Education Policy Fellowship Program, a year-long program designed to help equip education leaders address the state’s unique education policy needs.

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Thomas Vu

Vice President for Policy, AICCU

Thomas Vu develops and manages the execution of AICCU’s agenda on state and federal policy. This includes outreach and engagement responsibilities with federal and state policymakers; providing original policy development; and cultivating and managing the internal and external stakeholders required for successful policy development and implementation. He also staffs the AICCU Deans and Directors of Education group and liaisons with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Vu’s career has been spent in government relations and public policy. Prior to joining AICCU, he worked at the California Chamber of Commerce as a policy advocate with a portfolio that included transportation and infrastructure, workers’ compensation, and international relations and trade. Vu was the legislative director for the California Special Districts Association, where he lobbied on local government-related legislation. He also has policy experience in healthcare, land use, and economic development. Vu graduated from UC San Diego with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and Economics, and a minor in Literature and has a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California.

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Ann McElaney-Johnson

President, Mount Saint Mary's University Los Angeles

Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson is the 12th president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, the only women’s university in Los Angeles and one of the most diverse in the nation. She has over 30 years of experience and is recognized as a thought leader for the advancement of women and a champion for innovative teaching and learning. Since her appointment in 2011, Dr. McElaney-Johnson led and implemented a strategic vision for the University that fosters a culture of inclusiveness and excellence, preparing students to be global leaders and pursue purpose-filled lives. Her vision is rooted in the traditions and heritage of the University’s founding Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, as well as the University’s institutional mission. She serves on several executive boards including: Chair of the Board for the Women’s College Coalition, Advisory Board Member of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s, Chair of the Board of the AICCU Executive Committee, Member of the Board of St. Joseph Center, and Member of the Executive Committee of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

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Sonya Christian

Chancellor, California Community Colleges

Sonya Christian, PhD, is a fierce advocate for the life-changing ability of community colleges to reach underserved populations and educate the future workforce. She is committed to advancing work through distributed leadership and collaborative communities of learning, and to promoting the value of equity in student learning, access, success and economic mobility. Throughout her career Dr. Christian has been committed to advancing work through distributed leadership and collaborative communities of learning, and to promoting the value of equity in student learning, access, success and economic mobility. Her dedication to student success with equity led her to statewide and national leadership roles where she advocated for the cost benefits of adopting a Guided Pathways model. Christian spearheaded the statewide coalition in 2015 that led to securing philanthropic funding for the 20-college Guided Pathways demonstration project in California, leading to a $150M state investment in Guided Pathways and ultimately to the Vision for Success metrics adopted by the Board of Governors in 2017. Christian advanced the framework of Guided Pathways through the newsletter Trailblazers from 2016 to 2020, creating a fundamental base of information for scaling the work statewide. Her work in student success with equity also extends to her leadership in developing and implementing the Early College Program.

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Michelle N. Deutchman

Executive Director, UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement

Michelle N. Deutchman is the inaugural executive director of the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. She oversees the Center’s operations, programming and research including its multidisciplinary national fellowship program. Deutchman facilitates workshops for staff, students, administrators and law enforcement on First Amendment principles and how to safeguard free speech at universities while simultaneously maintaining a safe and inclusive campus climate. Her work to study and shape the national discourse on expression and engagement touches all 10 UC campuses as well as higher education institutions across the county. Before joining the Center, Deutchman served for 14 years as western states civil rights counsel and national campus counsel for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a non-profit organization that combats bigotry, prejudice and anti-Semitism. As national campus counsel, she focused on emerging trends and challenges pertaining to free expression at colleges and universities. Her work included drafting state and federal legislative testimony and creating training modules for use with ADL’s award-winning anti-bias education program. During her tenure at ADL, Deutchman also developed subject matter expertise on hate crime laws and how to respond to bias-motivated incidents effectively. 

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Jonathan Fansmith

Senior Vice President of Government Relations and National Engagement
American Council on Education (ACE)

Jonathan Fansmith directs ACE’s comprehensive efforts to engage federal policymakers on a broad range of issues including student aid, government regulation, scientific research, and tax policy. His work involves representation before the U.S. Congress, administrative agencies, and the federal courts. As an expert voice on behalf of colleges and universities, he is quoted widely in national and international media on higher education issues. Fansmith plays a central part in developing public policy positions that impact all colleges and universities, furthering ACE’s historic role in coordinating the government relations efforts of approximately 60 associations in the Washington-based higher education community. Fansmith coordinates the efforts of the Student Aid Alliance, a coalition of over 80 higher education organizations. He is a member of the Think College National Coordinating Center Accreditation Workgroup, which was created as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. He also serves on the board of directors of the Foundation for Education Investment and the advisory board of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.

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Maureen O’Connor

President, Palo Alto University

Maureen O’Connor, PhD, J.D. is the president of Palo Alto University (PAU) which specializes in Psychology and Counseling. Prior to joining PAU, Dr. O’Connor held multiple roles at the City University of New York (CUNY) in New York City over a period of 18 years. Dr. O’Connor completed a PhD and J.D. in a dual degree program in psychology, law, and policy at the University of Arizona and clerked for the late Honorable Patricia Wald, then Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals prior to launching her academic career. An American Psychological Association (APA) Fellow, she has held numerous governance roles in APA, including as Chair of its Task Force on Human Rights. She has been active in the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI/APA Division 9) for many years, including serving as its President. Recent work focused on evidence-based pedagogy development for doctoral students, and on innovative mentoring strategies. Her 2019 book, Teaching Psychology: An Evidence-Based Approach (2019), with co-authors Drs. Jill Grose-Fifer and Patricia Brooks, was published by Wiley Press. She is a member of the 39th class of the American Leadership Fellows program in Silicon Valley and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

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Maggy Ralbovsky

President, RW Jones Agency

Maggy Ralbovsky develops communications strategies and provides issues management counsel in support of leaders at colleges, universities, policy institutes and foundations. She joined the RW Jones Agency in 2016 after two decades of providing national media relations counsel at Morrison & Tyson Communications. Previously, Ralbovsky was a member of the University Relations team at the University of Michigan, where her responsibilities included speechwriting, media relations and special communications projects for President Jim Duderstadt. She came to the University of Michigan by way of The New York Times, where she was a business correspondent. Additional professional adventures included positions as coordinator of the International Business program at the Universität Mannheim in Germany; account executive at Connors Communications, a public relations firm in New York; and government relations associate with the National Council of Savings Institutions in Washington.

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G. Gabrielle Starr

President, Pomona College

G. Gabrielle Starr took office as the 10th president of Pomona College in 2017 with a track record of promoting greater access to higher education. As dean of New York University’s College of Arts and Science, she had led the development of new cohort and first-year programs and launched a partnership with New York City’s largest community college. A Pomona College professor of English and neuroscience, Starr was appointed the McConnell Professor of Human Relations in 2022. Starr served on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s California Higher Education Recovery with Equity Taskforce, charged with envisioning a new approach for post-secondary education preparation and workforce readiness as the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Today she serves on the executive committee of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU). A member of the Council on Competitiveness, Starr also serves on the boards of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Cedars-Sinai and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and on the advisory board of the Everychild Foundation. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2020 and to the American Philosophical Society in 2024.

Additional Speakers to Be Announced

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