Richmond Reflects

HSU's retiring president looks back, and forward, in his own words



Thirteen years ago, Rollin Richmond came to Arcata as Humboldt State University's new president and surveyed a campus in crisis. There were the frayed relations with the city of Arcata and surrounding community, a 2001 fundraising scandal that shook the university to its core, a demoralized staff and stagnant enrollment. Oh, and a 10-percent cut in state funding loomed.

The crises of yesterday seemed quickly forgotten during Richmond's 12-year tenure. In their place, headlines and conversations focused instead on a series of ribbon cuttings that combined to remake the campus, and surging enrollment numbers. There were also relentless state budget cuts throughout the Great Recession that devastated the California State University System, protests and even a no-confidence vote. But, through it all, Richmond endured and retired this fall, handing over a distinctly different campus to incoming President Lisa Rossbacher than the one he inherited more than a decade ago. For better or for worse, Richmond will be remembered as a transformative figure in HSU's history.

Recovering from hip surgery, Richmond, 70, recently sat down with the North Coast Journal, his right leg propped up on a stool in front of him as he chatted on the porch of his Bayside home. Dressed in khakis, a dress shirt and a fleece vest, Richmond's bright blue eyes sparkled, glowered and even teared up as he looked back on his tenure, discussed the state of higher education in the United States and his plans for retirement. Here are the highlights.

On a new school year starting without him:

"I miss being around young people a lot. ... They bring new perspectives to things ... and I think that makes me think hard about things. ... You guys are the future. And, while the future doesn't look like it's going to be too long for me, I have children and grandchildren and I fret about them."

On a great frustration:

"One of my biggest frustrations ... is just the lack of support for higher education. When I was an undergraduate at San Diego State ... I paid $105 a semester in fees. We didn't have tuition then. When you look at what's happened with [inflation], that's about $750 today. We're now charging students about $3,000 a semester, so we've really moved a lot of the responsibility for financing education onto the backs of students from a general tax perspective. I think that's a horrible mistake.

"Partly, it's my emotional attachment to education, but it's also a fact that a highly educated population is, number one, very good for your economy — it reduces problems with health care, legal issues and so on — and I have just been so frustrated by our political leaders here who have just not done a very good job supporting education. They just have not. Are there problems? Yes. No question. The universities need to rethink how they do things. One of the things I've been a strong supporter of is the use of technology in education, and we are making some progress there. But, I think, [broadening access to higher education is] critical for our society in general, not only in America but our society throughout the world. There are places that do a much better job. American is now ranked, what, 26 or something like that in mathematics education throughout the world and 30-something in literacy? How can this be true?

"So, that's one of my biggest frustrations is just that failure. And, I think, partly, we are responsible for that because I don't think we've done a good job as academics — and I'm certainly a classic example of that — of writing things for newspapers, telling local media how important it is to support higher education and what the consequences are.

"One of the other problems in this country, which I don't blame higher education for, I blame business for, is we have a very short time horizon. We'll look at the next quarter but we don't look years in the future. I think our local Native American people are really smart. They have the Seventh Generation Fund. If you're going to do something big, you ask yourself the question, will this make a difference seven generations from now? I think that's a very good question to ask."

On retirement:

"When [my wife and I] get these two hips fixed — it's going to take about six to eight months — one of the things we do want to do is spend a little bit more time with our grandkids, all of whom live on the East Coast. ...

"One of the things I fret a lot about in Humboldt County is the level of poverty that we have among our children. The California Center for Rural Policy that we got started six to eight years ago, [studied] the level of poverty locally. How you measure it is questionable, but something like 18 to 22 percent of the children in Humboldt County live in poverty. Number one, there's an ethical issue there. Are you going to let people really struggle? And the second thing is that if you care about what it costs to keep government running, a lot of those people are going to end up in trouble with the law because they need to steal to have food and clothing, et cetera, and that's going to cost you a lot more. What's the annual rate now to keep a person in prison who's a regular, healthy young person? It's about $60,000 a year. If you're my age in prison, I read recently, it's more than $270,000. You have to repair hips and stuff like that (laughs).

"So, one of the things I want to do is continue working with the local K-12 system. I've been working with this Decade of Difference initiative that [Assistant Superintendent of Schools] Jon Sapper and [County Superintendent of Schools] Garry Eagles put together. I've worked for a couple of years out at the Arcata Elementary School, helping first and second graders. I get out there two or three times a week and spend about 20 minutes each with about three kids at a time and help them. ...

"I've agreed to serve on Betty Chinn's board of directors for her organization to help homeless folks. The homeless issue is something I think about a lot and wonder about. And I'd like to try to understand a little bit better what more we can do, not just to help the folks who are homeless now, but what we can do to change homelessness so it doesn't happen as much. The thing that eats at me more than anything else is that when we drive down to Costco — there will frequently be people outside there begging — but when I see a family. There was a young family out there the other day with a couple of kids, I don't know maybe 5 and 7. I mean, Jesus Christ, what kind of society are we that allows that to happen?

"I'm a strong supporter of the League of Women Voters, so I'm going to continue to work with them and be a representative for them on the Access Humboldt board. So, that's where I am right now. As my wife will tell you, I struggle to say no. But we've enjoyed being in this community and my plan is to try to spend the rest of my life here, and I want to do whatever I can to help it."

On hiring:

"One of the things I want to say is that people like me are successful primarily because we're smart enough to hire people to work with us who are smarter than we are, and more effective. And, I've been really lucky in having really good people work with me."

On passion:

"Passion is very important. I tell students all the time, find a discipline you feel passionate about and don't worry about if you're going to make $1 billion a year doing it. The passion is what's going to keep you happy in the long run."

On program cuts:

"The one I still get asked about — especially since I've been talking to nurses and physicians — is why did you eliminate the nursing program? That's a very good question. If things had been better we wouldn't even have come close to doing it, but it was three times more expensive than the average program at Humboldt State. The department itself was not doing very well interacting and working with each other. They did not have good leadership there. Most of the students who got bachelors in nursing were not staying here in the community in part because there just weren't that many jobs here. So, it just did not look like something that was going to benefit the university or the community to keep it going, but we did get beat up a lot over it."

On the toll of budget cuts:

"It was hard. As you know, at one point there the Academic Senate had a vote of no confidence in me and succeeded. That made me think hard about what it was I was doing and why the faculty could not see we were trying our best to try to survive this thing. What they were most upset about was the fact that I had appointed a provost, essentially, without going through a normal traditional search process, which we'd done in the past and had not been particularly successful. It was a struggle, but I think having good people in place [helped]. I mentioned earlier [former Provost] Bob Snyder; really, I was blessing myself all the time for having hired him.

"Provosts are really important people. There are two really tough administrative jobs at universities and president is not one of them. Provost is one, because you've got the faculty and other administrators on one side and the president on the other side and you sort of have to balance the two. Department chair is the other one. I was the department chair at Indiana University for five years and, there, any decision you make, the people that are affected by it, you see them every day. As the president, I make decisions that affect a lot of people. Do I see them? No, I don't see them most of the time.

"I'll never forget when I was a department chair there was a faculty member there who was an excellent botanist, he really was. He had a tremendous reputation and was a member of the national academy of sciences. But he was probably in his late 60s and for 10 years he hadn't done anything. And, he had a huge laboratory and one of the best offices in the place. I went to him and said, Tony was his name, I said Tony, I've found a new lab for you and a new office. We're going to hire some new people. We can divide yours and create two laboratories for two new faculty members. I've given you a really great office with a nice view and so on, and we'd like to begin moving. He said absolutely not, I'm going directly to the president. At the time a man named John Ryan was the president, and he supported me. But Tony never forgave me. I mean, we would walk down the hall and pass one another and he would turn his head the other way.

"There are a few other examples like that, and a few people here at the university who are very unhappy with the decisions I've made and not happy to talk to me about it and so on. And that's hard. But the prime criterion I always apply to a decision is, will it help students? I think if you can answer that by saying yes, then it's probably a good decision. But, if you can't see a connection that's going to make a difference for students than I really wonder about spending for services on it.

On critics of advancement and an expanded administration:

"One of the things people don't realize is that a lot of the money the advancement foundation raises ... For example, they have a group of students that sits down and calls alumni and they have a significant conversation with them over the phone and it's amazing. I sit in there sometimes and listen to them as they talk with an alumnus about what's going on in this building or what's happening with professor X or Y and so on. And they raise anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million a year, and we use that money to support student and faculty travel and research, for example.

"It's easy for faculty — and I've been on that side of the thing as well — to be critical of advancements because what you see are fairly well-paid administrators who have nice offices, who oftentimes are travelling around the country having big parties and so on. But the fact that we've been able to double our endowment since 2005 — it ultimately makes a big difference for students. And, frankly, we don't have all that many administrators here. It's not all that bad. It really isn't. We did add a vice president for advancement position, and that I think has really made a big difference for us because our alumni association has been much more successful; the student phone group was something our advancement association organized, and that has brought in a lot of money that goes almost directly to faculty and students."

On the bus crash that killed 10 prospective HSU students:

"I think that's, emotionally, the worst thing that's happened to me in my almost 45 years in higher education. The night of the accident, Craig Wruck, the vice president of administration, and one of our colleagues drove us down there to visit the kids who survived in hospitals. Ahh. To see these kids with gashes on their bodies and stuff.

"I'll never forget going into a hospital and seeing this young woman — huge gash on her head. Her eyes were closed but she heard me come in and opened her eyes, smiled, held out her hand and said, 'Oh, I'm so glad to see you. Who are you?' I explained who I was and she said, 'Yes, I'm coming to Humboldt next year.' I thought, 'Oh my god.' It brings tears to my eyes. What it said to me is these young people have a lot of courage. Many of them were first-generation students and that's one of the thing I'm really very proud of is that Humboldt State does serve a lot of first-generation students. But I still sometimes wake up at night thinking about that. And it was just a pure matter of bad luck."

On change in education:

"I have a standard joke about universities. I say there are two very conservative institutions in our society: universities and the Catholic Church. And, with this new pope, we're beating out the Catholics in terms of being more conservative than they are. It takes so long to change and that's been one of my frustrations.

"You know, we've essentially been teaching the same way for centuries. There's been some change, but small amounts. I mean, if I had to do my career all over again — I spent 20 years teaching genetics at Indiana University — I would do it completely differently. I think the sage-upon-the-stage approach, which is the one I took, ... that's not necessarily the best way for students to learn. You need to interact with them. With technology, students and the rest of us can get almost complete access to all the information we need in the world on the web. But understanding it is not trivial and for that we need interaction."

On HSU's new president, Lisa Rossbacher:

"I told her, number one, that I'm really pleased to see a woman president there. I'm pleased to see the number of women in our country who have more significant professional positions and leadership positions in politics. I think we men have not done a great job in organizing our society. ... I'm pleased to see her there. I'm pleased she's a scientist. That's a prejudice of mine, but I'm a very, very strong believer in science and its interactions with the other disciplines. ...

"I also told her, look Lisa, I want to help you and I want to help the university. But I don't want to get in your way. If there are things I can do to help you, tell me. And if there are things I'm doing that you don't like, you tell me that and I'll stop doing it. So, I want to be as supportive of her as I possibly can be."

On the thing he'd most like to change:

"I think I would do everything I could to make education as cheap as possible, including free. Our K-12 system is almost free, though there's a lot of variation between quality by neighborhoods. But higher education is not free at all, and that really selects against people, especially students coming from underrepresented minorities or families struggling economically or who just don't have any experience with higher education. ...

"I think that's one of the things I would do, is to make it as inexpensive as possible, because in the long run — if you're willing to give it five to 10 years — it will make a big difference in the economy and that money will come back to the state in taxes. But, nobody believes that, despite the fact that it happened. I think about Pat Brown, who was the governor when I was a student. He must be turning over in his grave watching what his son is doing, because [Pat Brown] helped us create the educational systems in California and made a big difference in California's economy."

On HSU students:

"The students here — not every one of them, of course, but on average — are qualitatively different from the students at the five other universities I've spent significant time at. The students here do really care about social and environmental responsibility, and I think that's a remarkable thing and it's something that's really impacted me. You do not see that very much at other universities and I think that's been one of the things that I've really marveled at about the students here and the kind of students we're able to attract."

On Democracy and local government:

"The huge amounts of money coming into politics these days really mean the wealthy own the direction of this country, and that's not democracy. ...

"People like me, you like to see the big picture and you want to see the big change, but it's sort of slowly filtered into my thick skull that, 'Rollin, you're not going to change the federal government.' But, you could make a difference locally, which would impact a fair number of people and then might become an example and spread. I want to see it happen two weeks from now, but it's going to take 20 years or something like that. So, there's this issue of what's going to happen to our democracy and I think one of the things we can do is really support it locally, and the role the university plays in that is fairly significant."

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