Lisa Rossbacher hiked all around campus on her first day on the job, July 14, as Humboldt State University's new president, meeting the people who keep the place humming — the sign makers, the plumbers, the vehicle mechanics, the facility managers, the test coordinator, the grant writers, the ID card makers, the librarians, the printers, the keepers of the maps and plans, the garbage men, the disability coordinator, the sustainability boss, the shipping and receiving crew, the veterans helping other veterans get an education.
And nearly everyone she met, she wanted their story: What do you do? How long have you been doing it? What were you doing before? What did you study?
Often she probed further: Do you handle all of the university's mail here? What have you printed on this 3-D printer? What do you find is the single most important need of veterans? What do you have in terms of chemicals that are being discarded? What about old IT? How are you tackling that big water leak?
She was serious, her voice low and calm, but also quick to quip. While signing a form granting her use of a campus key, she joked, "OK, this says you can withhold my grades if I lose it." When Facilities Services Manager Ed Goodeyon told her he's worked at HSU for 34 years, she teased, "Before that you were in eighth grade."
In the sign shop on campus, Rossbacher watched two HSU employees getting the official seal ready to place permanently on the time capsule that commemorates the university's centennial. They handled the coppery disc, with a big "H" in its center ringed by the words "Humboldt State University Founded 1913," gently. Then she and her tour guides moved briskly on to yet more formal introductions and mini interviews.
The day was humid. The campus hills steep. Rossbacher, dressed in a dark pants-and-blazer combo with a green shirt, showed no sign of flagging. But at an open back door of a maintenance warehouse leading to the outside, she did pause a moment to gaze upon an unruly green space. It lacked the cultivated perfection of the formal landscaping that graces the university's main thoroughfares. Dandelions and daisies spread wildly around picnic tables, a green bench and a tattered orange chair set randomly in the patchy grass. An EarthTub composter squatted nearby. Empty plastic pots tipped about, and others holding plants lined a shady edge.
"Does this ever get used?" Rossbacher asked. "It looks kind of nice."
"The guys sit out here," said Traci Ferdolage, associate vice president of facilities management, adding, "It's just an informal area."
A reporter asked if she'd mind posing in the scruffy oasis for a photo, and Rossbacher strode to one of the tables, sat, plucked a daisy and stuck it between her teeth and grinned. Then she whipped the flower out of her mouth and held it in her lap with her red leather notebook and phone case, composing herself for a more formal shot.
Humboldt, meet your new president.
Lisa Rossbacher is HSU's seventh president, replacing Rollin Richmond, who retired this spring after 12 years at the helm — a relative short-timer, considering the lengthy terms of most of his predecessors, including fifth president Alistair McCrone, who served 28 years. Rossbacher's also the 100-year-old institution's first woman president.
The 61-year-old Virginia native is not, however, new to being a president. She spent the past 16 years as the head of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. She was also that university's first female president, and was the first female geologist in the country to become a university president.
But being the first woman anything is not, Rossbacher says, what has motivated her. When she started her career in geology almost 40 years ago, around 10 percent of geologists with Ph.D.s were women (today, it's a little over 40 percent). When she was chosen to try out for the astronaut training program in 1984, a few women had been in space, including American Sally Ride, but it was a mostly male arena. Today, only five of the 23 California State University system presidents are women.
"It's just that a lot of other people attracted to some of the same things I am happen to be men," she says.
Rossbacher spent much of her childhood on the Navy base in Dahlgren, Virginia, where her dad, a civilian mathematician, helped develop ballistic warheads. He also worked on escape devices for helicopters, which had to be different than those used in airplanes which eject the pilot straight up.
The base also had one of the earliest space surveillance systems, which could track satellites — rare wonders, at that time. Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite, had launched just a few years before, in 1957. They knew when a satellite would be passing overhead, and sometimes everyone went outside to watch it, Rossbacher says.
Rossbacher liked botany and being outdoors. She was a Girl Scout, and from fifth grade on she went to conservation education camp — first as a camper, then as an instructor and, by the time she started college, as director of instruction. She also read a lot of books — mostly fiction. Her mother was an English major, but both of her parents loved to read.
"They both had very eclectic interests," she says. "In college, they both took German, and they spoke it around the house. They thought my sisters and I wouldn't know what they were talking about."
When Rossbacher herself took German in college, she already had a strong vocabulary.
At Dickinson College, a small liberal arts school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, she was planning to major in English. Then she'd write the great American novel.
"I just figured I'd get my science class out of the way and do the writing and literature stuff," she says.
She got stuck with geology — and then hooked by it.
"I loved the concept of time and wrapping your mind around four and a half billion years' worth of stuff happening," she says. "And I also liked the fact that, when I was in a geology class, I could walk out and look around me and see something about the world that I hadn't understood an hour before."
She got her B.S. (summa cum laude) in geology, then went to State University of New York at Binghamton to work on a master's degree with a female geomorphologist she admired. She also taught geology courses back at Dickinson College. Then she went to Princeton for a second master's and a Ph.D., working with a professor who'd co-authored the introductory geology book that had first made her swoon for the subject. She gravitated toward Mars for her dissertation, focusing on the role of water and water ice in shaping it. She was one of many students from around the country whom NASA hired to pore through the data still coming back from the first soft-landing spacecraft to land on Mars.
"In the geology department at Princeton, there's this huge globe in the lobby, and students would put push pins in it to show where their field area was," Rossbacher says. "So people had pins in the Adirondacks, they had pins in the Great Barrier Reef, they had pins all over the world. And some joker just hung a string from the ceiling with an arrow that pointed into outer space. The other graduate students used to kid me a lot and say, 'Rossbacher, when are you going to do some actual field work?'"
So when NASA put out a call for applicants to its astronaut candidate program, Rossbacher applied, "just to shut people up," she says. She figured she wouldn't get in, what with her eyeglasses and tendency to get queasy in cars. She passed the eye exams, however, and was invited for a week of exhausting interviews and psychological and physical tests at Johnson Space Center. Some of the tests doubled as research experiments, including one to help NASA design off-the-rack space suits to replace the expensive, individually tailored ones in use. Rossbacher remembers feeling dizzyingly sick at times. In one test for claustrophobia, however — couched slyly, she says, as an experiment to test a rescue sphere to be used in the event of a space station disaster — she almost fell asleep inside the beachball-sized capsule.
She did well in everything. But she didn't fly, and much of the program is about flight and flying. She was told to take flying lessons, get her pilot's license "and express more interested in aviation, and then reapply."
But someone told her that NASA never selected college professors into the astronaut program. "When mission control says, 'Do this,' they want to hear 'Roger that,'" she says. "They do not want to hear, 'Well, have you thought about it this way?'"
And another person told her even if she got in, she probably wouldn't be able to do her own research in space.
Aside from diversions — a science reporting fellowship at National Public Radio, a job editing reports for a geothermal exploration company and a stint with the United States Geological Survey — Rossbacher's career has persisted in academia. She's been a professor and administrator at Dickinson College, Whittier College (in California) and California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. She did research at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. She belongs to dozens of organizations, committees and boards and has authored and co-authored scores of professional publications and several geology books (including one that won an "outstanding trade book for children" award). She writes a higher education leadership blog, and since 1988 has written a regular geology column in Earth magazine. (One of her recent "Geologic Column" pieces, "Beer's secret ingredient: geology," should resonate with rock hounds, beer connoisseurs and locavores alike.)
Rossbacher became president of Southern Polytechnic in 1998, and was there until her move this summer to Humboldt.
She apparently left a good impression in Georgia, where she was named president emerita when she left. A news release this June from Southern Polytechnic said that she led the university "to unprecedented heights" during her tenure: Enrollment increased 78 percent to more than 6,500 students; on-campus housing tripled; 10 new academic and support facilities were built; five new bachelor's programs and several graduate programs were added plus a school of engineering; incoming freshmen had among the highest SAT scores in Georgia; and Southern Polytechnic had the most African-American students earning engineering-related bachelor's degrees of any school in the country. The university system also credits her with expanding opportunities for underrepresented groups, including Hispanics and women, enabling distance learning, and building strong ties with the business community.
"President Rossbacher's enormous heart for the students set her apart from other university presidents," said former regent Willis Potts in the news release. "She cared deeply, it showed, and she made a difference in thousands of lives as a result. Humboldt State is getting a jewel!"
Southern Polytechnic was actually in great upheaval when Rossbacher left, dealing with the news that it was likely going to be absorbed into the much bigger Kennesaw State University. Another in a string of consolidations the University System of Georgia has undertaken in recent years, the move came as part of an overarching scheme to streamline administrative duties, boost student opportunities and save money. Rossbacher was slated to lose her position in the deal. But, she says, long before she'd learned of the proposed consolidation, she'd been looking for a president's post elsewhere. She says she and her husband, Dallas D. Rhodes — also a geologist, and former department chair of geology and geography at Georgia Southern University — wanted to move back West. The pair had spent about 20 years in California, and Rhode's research focuses on the San Andreas Fault. They hoped for something with mountains or an ocean. And maybe rivers.
They got all three in Humboldt.
Some press photos show Rossbacher in a red power suit, with short blond hair sleekly coiffed. The photo that accompanied Southern Polytechnic's announcement of her president emerita status this June showed a slightly more laid-back figure: stylish pant suit with green accents, a woven green bracelet, and medium-length, naturally wavy hair with a streak of green paint in it (green is one of Southern Polytechnic's colors). In both photos, she wears a golden bear charm on a chain — a gift Rhodes gave her more than 35 years ago, not long after they met, and which she's only taken off three times.
She was similarly less formal (but minus the paint streak) on another recent walkabout/photo shoot on Humboldt's campus. First, she wanted her picture taken at the art department, in a colorfully dark hallway that, years ago, was swallowed up and transformed by a sculpted representation of Jonah and the Whale. Rossbacher is a landscape watercolorist. She likes the mixing of water and geology, the pigments derived from ground-up minerals. And she likes to use the water from the place she's painting — if her husband's in a river fly fishing, you might find her on the bank, painting with the river water.
In Georgia, she took watercolor classes alongside university students. The professor would "out" her right away and often use her work to critique and point out errors.
"I was really trying to model that it was OK to make mistakes," she said. "And I loved the opportunity to interact with the students. There are students I was in class with, who've since graduated, that I still keep in touch with."
In the art hallway at HSU, she stood by a sharp-toothed window that could be the whale's mouth and glanced around at the ornate ceiling. "I need you to tell me if I'm standing in front of something that's got a horn coming out of it," she joked.
Back out in the bright day, traversing campus, her group surprised a pair of student ambassadors leading a tour just as one of them, Stephanie Loganayagam, was asking if any of the new students in tow were geology majors.
Then Loganayagam noticed Rossbacher and said, "Hi, President!"
"No geology majors?" Rossbacher asked, looking at the group. "I'm a geologist." She looked back at the ambassadors and said, "This is great. This is part of the standard tour?"
Yes, they said, and the other ambassador, Dayshia Lesueur, laughed, reached out to touch Rossbacher's arm and said, "Lisa, when are you going to come on our tour? When are you coming? I'm supposed to be your tour guide."
"As soon as I can get it on the schedule," Rossbacher said.
To Loganayagam she said, "If I hadn't interrupted you, what were you about to say?"
"I was going to tell them that Humboldt County is amazing because we are geologically rich, with so many land formations, so many rivers and beaches," Loganayagam, an English major, said.
Walking again, Rossbacher shared one of her favorite themes: Being a geologist is good preparation for leadership. As a geologist, you know that "you will never have all the information that you want when you have to come to a conclusion," she said.
"It might be on another planet," she said. "It could be buried five miles beneath the surface of the earth. It could have been eroded a hundred million years ago. It may be there and you haven't got the technology yet, or you don't have enough money to afford the technology to get to what you need. But if you wait until you have all the information that you want, you will never make a decision. And geologists understand that."
She said she has many goals as president of Humboldt State, but that she also plans to build on the efforts of her predecessors.
"High on the list is continuing to support the existing strengths that the university has both in the sciences and environment and natural resources, as well as the arts," she said.
Another aim is to improve diversity, much as she did in Georgia — although the needs of Humboldt are quite different from those of Southern Polytechnic, which is ethnically and racially very diverse.
"The issue there was that the percentage of women students was only about 22 percent," she said.
There, Rossbacher said, the university needed not only to entice more women into the technological sciences, such as engineering, math and computer science, but to figure out how to keep them. She founded a women-in leadership program, and promoted the hiring of more female faculty and staff to provide more female mentors and role models.
At Humboldt, where there's a good balance between men and women, it is racial and ethnic diversity that could still use a boost to build on the gains made by Richmond's administration.
There are more tasks ahead.
University presidents, everywhere, face budget challenges — "and that's not just about not having enough money," Rossbacher said. "It's figuring out how to manage the resources that the institution already has in ways that are sustainable."
This could include making operations more efficient and generating more revenue through partnerships with the private sector, she said.
Humboldt students, meanwhile, have been emailing her to share their concerns ever since her presidency was announced. They want a bigger voice in conversations on campus. They're worried about the rising price of higher education as costs shift from the state to them and their parents. They're also concerned, as are faculty Rossbacher's talked to, about the decline in tenure-track faculty over the past five or so years, while the number of students has increased. This can make it harder for students to connect with faculty, access advising and do research. In a bigger community, there'd be a larger pool of adjunct faculty to draw upon, Rossbacher said. In small Humboldt, the solution probably lies in the budget. For example, she said, when there's money to add faculty positions, make them tenure-track ones.
"But it doesn't happen in a single year," she said. "It's part of a longer, strategic plan."
The process for developing a new strategic plan — which happens every five or so years — has just begun.
"If strategic planning works the way it's supposed to, it will identify the major priorities for the institution," Rossbacher said. "And that will then help us with developing a whole set of implementation plans that focus on the academic programs, co-curricular programs, athletics, facilities, budget, housing ... and then that helps us understand where we need to invest our resources."
Back in her office, Rossbacher picked up a green Slinky from her desk and began to demonstrate the waves in an earthquake. With a straight nudge, the Slinky's rings rippled forward in compressional, in-line waves. With a twist, the Slinky started to wiggle with transverse waves, looking like a sidewinder. Compressional waves move faster and are the first ones you feel in an earthquake, Rossbacher said. The slower transverse waves come next. Eventually they mingle, but one might be able to tell how far away a quake is by noting the time lag between the two wave types, which increases with distance.
On a broad windowsill sat two soft globes: Earth and Mars. On her book shelves, a selection of mostly leadership and geology works, including the old field manual Rossbacher used on a geology trip in 1985 to Humboldt. Several slide rules sat on another shelf.
"This was my father's," she said, picking up one. "And this was my uncle's, who was an engineer." She lifted a third. "And this is what I used in college. I used to carry one in the glove compartment of my car and use it to calculate mileage. This was before cars had computers that would tell you what your miles per gallon were. People used to look at me like, 'Are you crazy?'"
But she's not stuck in the past. Geologic time, after all, stretches back to the beginning of time but also moseys and shakes right on up to the present. As soon as Rossbacher arrived in Humboldt, she got set up with Twitter and Instagram accounts. In one tweet, she says she found the Moon Trees — redwoods whose seeds orbited the moon in 1971 before being planted on campus.
"I'm not entirely in the rhythm of doing it yet," she said of the new social media. "But I find the two formats interesting in very different ways. The Twitter is really quick — so I've found myself really thinking about what the message should be."
Tango, Rossbacher's and Rhodes' Doberman, also has a Twitter account. On April 6, on a preview visit with her people, Tango tweeted (with Rossbacher's help), "The mouth of the Mad River looks like Dog Heaven to me!" An Aug. 10 tweet reveals that Tango has discovered how COLD the North Coast water is. But on Aug. 13, she tweeted, "I think I'm going to love being a California girl."
About Lisa Rossbacher
President, Humboldt State University.
Annual pay: $297,870 salary plus a $50,000 housing allowance
Education: Ph.D., Princeton University (geological and geophysical sciences, emphasis on Mars' landscape), 1983. M.A., Princeton University (geological and geophysical sciences), 1979. M.A., State University of New York at Binghamton (geological sciences), 1978. B.S., Dickinson College, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa (geology), 1975.
Professional Experience: Southern Polytechnic State University, Marietta, Georgia, 1998-2014, President; University System of Georgia, July-November 2007, Interim executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer; Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1995-1998, professor, dean; Whittier College, Whittier, California, 1993-1995, professor, dean, vice president for academic affairs; California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California, 1984-1993, professor, provost's associate and commission director for planning, associate vice president for academic affairs; University of Uppsala, Sweden, January-August 1984, visiting researcher; Whittier College, 1982-1984, professor; National Public Radio, Washington, D.C., summer 1982, science reporter; Republic Geothermal, Inc., Santa Fe Springs, California, 1979-1981, reports editor; U.S. Geological Survey, Astrogeology Branch, Flagstaff, Arizona, summer 1978, NASA intern in planetary geology (researching water and water ice in the history of Mars); Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1976-1977, geology instructor.
Memberships: Numerous, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geological Institute, Association for Women Geoscientists, Geological Society of America.
Publications: Hundreds of papers, books, manuals, radio scripts and articles, plus a higher education leadership blog and a regular column in Earth Magazine called "Geologic Column."
Family: Husband, Dallas D. Rhodes, is a geologist specializing in the San Andreas Fault and a consultant to geology departments across the country. He also plans to continue his geology research as an unpaid associate affiliated with HSU, and to help out with Food For People. Their Doberman, Tango, dabbles in Twitter (@TangoTakes2). (Also, watch out, squirrels.)
Hobbies: Tap, ballet and jazz, watercolor painting, hiking.
Musical taste: Eclectic, including the Avett Brothers, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett, Townes Van Zandt, John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen.