You might say that the 2005-06 year will be President V. Lane Rawlins’ golden year at Washington State University. Rawlins, who will turn 68 on Nov. 30, began work at the university in ’68 as a faculty member in the Department of Economics.
No, he hasn’t been at WSU the entire time. He left in 1986 to become vice chancellor at the University of Alabama, and later was president of the University of Memphis for nine years. In 2000, however, he returned to become WSU’s ninth president.
Rawlins wasted no time in setting the tone for his presidency, beginning work with faculty and staff to create a strategic plan that would guide the university. His first State of the University address, Sept. 18, 2000, appropriately was titled “Our Vision: Planning Together for Washington State’s Future.” (This year’s address will begin at 4:10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, in Bryan Hall.)
An economics professor at the core, Rawlins knows the importance of connecting the budget to the strategic plan. As a result, goals and priorities over the past five years have been developed, sought and funded based upon the strategic plan. The plan provided everyone with a charted course; the budget provided the fuel and incentive to ensure those goals were pursued.
And, as you might expect of an economist, he wants those efforts measurable, recorded and evaluated.
WSU Today recently asked Rawlins to review the most significant accomplishments made during his tenure as president and to offer insights into his priorities for the next few years.
Q: What do you perceive as the top major advancements that WSU has made over the past five years?
Rawlins: Advancements don’t take place in big leaps. But, if you look back over the past five years, you can see we’ve made some significant accomplishments and changes.
• The number one advancement, I think, has been improving admissions and the undergraduate experience. Five years ago we were accepting anyone who applied. Today, we have a surplus of applicants and the entering students are better qualified to succeed. The average grade point of incoming freshmen is over 3.5. The whole undergraduate experience and concept has matured — from emphasizing recruiting and admissions to emphasizing curriculum and contact between students and faculty.
Major steps leading the way include reorganization of the Provost’s Office, development of the Office of Undergraduate Education, creation of a vice president of academic affairs post, development of the Regents Scholars Program, as well as development of a more holistic way of evaluating applications. And this year we added Freshman Focus, with 80 percent of our incoming students participating. We’ve made some great strides, but we have a long way to go.
• Second, I would point to the development of a research emphasis. WSU’s faculty members have always been expected to remain current in their field, (publish their research and scholarship) and compete for research grants. So that’s not new.
But the new requirements emphasize team research, big grants and creating a physical environment that strongly supports research. To that end, we strengthened the vice provost for research position and created collaborative environments, like the Center for Integrated Biotechnology. Those emphases, as well as others like the Missions to D.C. program, have led to more collaboration, large-scale research projects, and probable increases in research and scholarship.
Early evidence of that success was seen as competitive grant support increased in 2003-04. And I believe the groundwork has been laid that will lead to overall increases in the future. We can already see momentum in many areas like health sciences, plant biosciences, biotechnology, shock physics and many others.
In the past year, there were actually fewer grant applications being submitted, but they are larger and more collaborative, which is right on target for what public and private organizations are funding.
A good example of that is a $9.9 million food safety grant given via the National Institutes of Health to a collaborative project including the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, and the College of Engineering and Architecture. These researchers are seeking ways to protect the safety of the nation’s food and water supply.
• Third, over the past two years we have increased our emphasis toward improving the campus climate regarding equity and diversity. This is an important goal and, to ensure progress, we created a vice president for equity and diversity position in 2004 and established the Office of Equity and Diversity in 2005.
Through the leadership of Michael Tate, we are bringing unity, focus and efficiency to a wide variety of offices formerly scattered throughout the university, including the Center for Human Rights; Disability Resource Center; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Allies Program; the Women’s Resource Center, and the Office of Multicultural Student Services.
We want to serve the diverse population of this region and nation well, including recruiting, retaining and graduating or promoting a diverse community of students, faculty and staff. We are working to ensure that every person at WSU receives fair and ethical treatment. And we are trying to foster an understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures that will eliminate prejudice and hate.
• Fourth, I would point to the ongoing refinement of WSU’s statewide system.
Starting our branch or urban campuses in the 1990s was somewhat revolutionary. In the last five years, we have been refining and differentiating their missions and roles, working to move them to the next level. We also have changed the governance process somewhat, including the establishment of chancellorships.
Due to their growth and maturation, we are moving towards campuses that operate independently, and yet cooperatively, as part of the total university we call WSU.
WSU Spokane is now a co-location of our main Pullman campus, and the center for our health sciences. This past year, the Legislature made a huge decision, allowing WSU Vancouver to develop as a four-year institution.
WSU Tri-Cities is developing rapidly in its own right, receiving joint funding from the Legislature and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) to construct a new biotech building. This is a model for ongoing partnerships with private industry for cooperative research. In addition, I would point to the establishment of the viticulture program in the Tri-Cities area as an example of our continuing obligation to maintain WSU as a national and state leader in the agricultural industry.
• Fifth would be development of our physical facilities and campuses. We have invested huge amounts of money, time and thought into new buildings, roads, beautification and making the campus more functional, accessible and inviting.
These modernizations and facilities are necessary and will allow us to achieve the goals we have set to become a nationally recognized undergraduate and research university and to expand our grant support. We already have begun to see evidence of that. For example, Shock Physics has already landed several research grants. And the new Plant Biosciences Building will help us do more of that.
• The sixth area of achievement is a bit more intangible but maybe more important in the long run. It is hard to quantify but data accumulated by surveys over the past few years shows that WSU has established a different image. We have much more top-of-mind recognition in the state and region as a major university. This is true whether you are talking about average citizens, prospective students, businesses or peers.
I think our relationships and connections with the University of Washington have added to that reputation.
We certainly have diminished our past image as an isolated party school and established ourselves as a leading research university, playing an important role in the state’s growth and economy.
Keep in mind, there are a multitude of other advancements that I haven’t mentioned, but I have tried to list those I regard as most significant.
Q: Overall, how would you evaluate WSU’s progress during the past five years?
Rawlins: We haven’t progressed as rapidly as we’d like, primarily because we have been trying to do it in an era when state finances and funding have been essentially flat. Most progress has been accomplished by reorganizing and reprioritizing our existing resources. The faculty’s willingness to step up and strive for excellence has really been the source of all this change. Our faculty has responded above and beyond what’s expected.
In some cases, we were stretched too far, particularly in the area of faculty salaries. I hope and believe faculty recognize that they were part of an effort to improve the quality of our teaching and research. Together with their colleagues and the administration, we are striving to achieve world-class excellence.
Improving salaries continues to be a top priority. We received a 3.2 percent increase from the state this year and augmented that with support from the WSU budget. We intend to augment salaries again next year.
My focus for five years has been to help an institution that was very ready to take the next step as a major research university. To do that at a time when we were not getting additional resources was hard and frustrating, especially for the faculty, but hopefully we now can make up some ground.
Q: Turn your focus to the future for a moment. What to you see ahead for WSU in the next year or two?
Rawlins: We’ve recently done some administrative restructuring and (Provost) Bob Bates will continue to keep the university focusing on the overall strategic plan goals. Meanwhile, I need to focus my attention on three issues in the next period, and it seems they are going to demand a lot of attention. Unfortunately they all appear to be external. I say unfortunately because I love working at home (in Pullman).
• First, I need to focus on private fund raising. While we have caught up with some of our peers on the quality of our students and the volume of our research, we still lag considerably behind in private fund raising. And I have to take some responsibility to get us to a competitive level there.
• Second, I need to work with University Relations and Government Relations to reach key leaders in the state. We have made some progress in changing our image across the state, but with most of our research programs and students located in isolated areas, our connections with leaders in business and government need to be strengthened. That also means building partnerships and relationships across the state that involve political and financial commitments to this institution.
• Third, with the development of WSU as a statewide system with independent urban campuses, all administrators have to work together to ensure both consistency and excellence across the system. We need to make sure that WSU and its components work smoothly together. We need to ensure that growth and success at one campus or unit is not at the expense of another, and that WSU’s image of quality is uniform.
That doesn’t mean that we do the same thing at Vancouver and Pullman, but we need to have the same level of quality and excellence. So a lot of attention to the management of the system will be necessary.
For example, we have two engineering programs, one in Vancouver and one in Pullman, that interact. They are both WSU engineering programs and both offer WSU degrees. Yet they are different. So, how do we ensure the quality and excellence are maintained, and that the admission standards for freshmen and graduate students are the same on both campuses?
We need to define what it means to be a chancellor and how that relates to the provost, president, deans and faculty. A lot of organizational questions still need to be dealt with.
And, we’ll need to spend a lot of time planning the next 10 years, determining how the system should grow and evolve, and that planning includes the president.
Q: If you could go back and start the last 5 years over at WSU, what would you do differently?
Rawlins: I think I would have approached the University of Washington earlier in lobbying the Legislature. That relationship has been very useful and helpful to us. It has helped us to refine our own vision. I wish I would have started that as soon as I got here.
I also wish I would have paid a little bit more attention to fund raising. I’ve learned quite a bit this past five years about fund raising in this environment. But, we haven’t come along as rapidly as I would have liked in private fund raising and that is a disappointment to me.
I also wish we would have been a little better prepared for the tidal wave of student applications we received in the first couple years of our strategic plan implementation….
Most surprises I have had in coming back to WSU, though, have been pleasant surprises.
Q: You’ve often mentioned your love for teaching. Do you ever see yourself going back to the classroom again?
Rawlins: I never intended to get out of teaching. I even tried teaching as a vice chancellor and a president in other locations. But it turns out to be not a very effective thing to do, because you don’t have control over your own time.
I always loved teaching, and maybe it would be kind of a nice way to end.