Sanford Education Center to focus on gender relations, joy of learning in La Jolla

Philanthropist funds namesake center in concert with National University, Arizona State

Philanthropist, South Dakota businessman and part-time La Jolla resident T. Denny Sanford was the man of the hour Sept. 18 during a grand opening celebration for National University’s $10 million Sanford Education Center in La Jolla.

The institution — located at 11355 N. Torrey Pines Road in former Jenny Craig office space — was funded in January by an initial $1 million from Sanford and a subsequent $9.2 million anonymous gift. It is designed to train educators and nonprofit leaders, focusing on three initiatives: charitable giving, strengthening gender relations and coaching students to be inspired learners.

Speaking to attendees in the center’s auditorium, Sanford noted the participation of Arizona State University (ASU) in establishing both the “Inspire” and “Harmony” programs.

“I conceived but I couldn’t complete (them),” he said. “It took a great organization, ASU, to do the research and the programing, and another type of organization, with a different type of methodology and a different characteristic, to put it all together — and that is National University.”

Founded in 1971, National University is the second-largest private, nonprofit institution of higher education in California, with 30,000 students and more than 140,000 alumni.

National University President Michael Cunningham, formerly dean of San Diego State University’s School of Business Administration, thanked the mayor and city for helping create the center, located adjacent National University’s existing La Jolla campus, in less than nine months.

Cunningham said National University is constantly working to assure its programs are innovative and relevant to societal needs.

“That’s a great segue way into the programs we’re offering here at the Sanford Education Center,” he said. “Our goal is by the end of two to three years to be in all the major (private, nonprofit) universities across the country, offering the Sanford-inspired programs.”

Sanford touted existing collaborations with other private, nonprofit institutions, such as Long Island University, with which National University signed a memorandum of understanding last week to offer The Sanford Harmony Program, which encourages positive relationships between girls and boys from pre-kindergarten through sixth grades.

Developed by ASU researchers, the program empowers teachers to foster relationships between boys and girls that increase cooperation, inclusion, mutual respect and empathy. Sanford said research has shown children in the program have improved test scores and enjoy the learning environment more, and that boys display less aggression.

Sanford referenced additional research that he said shows gender segregation in children can lead to relationship problems in men and women, as well as an increase in divorce, sexual harassment, abuse and workplace discrimination.

Sanford said there have been similar programs addressing the problem, “but they just don’t get the job done.”

“The Harmony Program came from two divorces that I had to go through and the recognition that the divorce rate in this country is about 65 percent … that’s unhealthy,” said Sanford, who initially approached John Gray, author of the classic “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” to write the curriculum. (Not coming from an academic background, Gray declined and Sanford approached ASU President Michael Crow.) However, the program does have a martian theme in the form of its gender-neutral space mascot, “Z from the Planet Z.”

The Sanford Harmony Program will be introduced to 30 classrooms in California, Florida and New York City by year’s end, center officials say.

The Sanford Inspire Program will provide teachers with tools and strategies needed to encourage student learning in kindergarten through 12th grade. Sanford said surveys show that most people can’t name three teachers they had in elementary and middle school that truly inspired them.

“Those are the most formative years, and the ones where someone has to help them light their own spark,” he said, adding the program mirrors the model of Teach for America, a nonprofit that enlists recent college graduates and professionals to teach for at least two years in low-income communities.

“Their primary attribute is to get kids inspired,” Sanford said. “They do it at poverty-level schools. We’re going to do it at all schools.”

The third center initiative, the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy, will provide training in nonprofit leadership with an emphasis on fundraising techniques, cause selling and relationship building, through programs being developed by National University’s School of Business and Management. Bob Kelly, who served for nearly 20 years as president of the San Diego Foundation, was hired as the institute’s executive-in-residence. Sanford Institute of Philanthropy is expected to launch a master of arts degree in Cause Leadership in Spring 2015.

Sanford Education Center includes a lecture hall space, capacity for 150-plus people and integrated video technology.