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Fix-it Man: Can Rollin Richmond restore HSU's good name?

by ANDREW EDWARDS


ROLLIN RICHMOND IS INCREDIBLY HARD TO GET AHOLD OF. HE'S IN, but busy. He's out, but busy. He's on his way to this meeting. He's on his way to that meeting. Basketball games, gatherings of business leaders, dinners, art openings, talks with faculty committees. He seems to be everywhere.

"The man has an awesome amount of energy. I can't believe the amount of things he's doing," said Judith Little, chair of Humboldt State University's Academic Senate Finance Committee.

"I've never seen anyone so active," chimed in HSU's President of Associated Students Gretchen Kinney. "The man doesn't rest."

It took two weeks just to schedule an interview with him for this article.

All the hurrying about is understandable; the peripatetic new president has had a lot on his plate. Last July he took over the reins from Alistair McCrone, who retired after a record 27 years in office. In so doing he inherited a university with major problems: frayed community relations, a devastating fund-raising scandal, a demoralized staff, stagnant enrollment.

He also walked into a situation where the state was hamstrung by a record budget deficit, one that threatens to leave the California State University system with a whopping 10 percent overall budget cut in the coming year. If a cut of that magnitude were made to the HSU budget, it would represent a loss of roughly $8 million. Workers would have to be laid off; programs would have to be reduced or eliminated.

Already, $1.3 million has been removed from HSU's budget for the current fiscal year, a result of cuts to this year's CSU budget totaling $125 million. While much of the shortfall can be made up by using revenue from student fees, year-end funds and existing reserves, Richmond announced in a press release late Tuesday that "we still must reduce our planned expenditures by nearly $361,000." He is proposing to take the lion's share of the money -- $228,000 -- out of the budget for academic affairs, a cut of more than four percent.

What all this means, in essence, is that Richmond is grappling with HSU's stormy past and its uncertain future at the same time. There's little question that this 58-year-old whirlwind has the energy for the job. And he also appears to have the smarts. Whether he has the steel or not only time will tell. But what can be said now, six months into his tenure, is this: Rollin Richmond is both mending fences and shaking things up.

Offering an `olive branch'

When Richmond came on board the university was embroiled in a knock-down, drag-out over the placement of a new Behavioral and Social Sciences building on campus. A neighborhood group, the Union Street Association, and the HSU administration had reached an icy impasse, chilled by several unsuccessful lawsuits filed by the city of Arcata to get the proposed structure scaled down in size, moved elsewhere or scrapped altogether. Within a month of Richmond's arrival, feathers were smoothed and the building was back on track.

How did he do it?

"They [the building's potential neighbors] just wanted someone to listen to them, not just sit there and not respond, but really listen to them. They were willing to compromise," Richmond said in an interview at his office overlooking the courtyard in front of the university's library. In person Richmond speaks quickly and fluidly, as if tapping into a vast well of data for each individual question.

Richmond went to one of the group's meetings, heard the concerns, spoke to the City Council, and finally approved a $1 million redesign that essentially walks a fine line: While a combination of landscaping and architectural changes promises to make the building less intrusive, the modifications do not appear to be so great that they risk the money the state has allocated for the project.

"If ever there was an olive branch to the community, that was it," said Arcata City Councilmember Michael Machi, who serves as a liaison between the city and the university. "He is doing his best to reduce the impact of the building, cut the hill down, move it forward."

The neighborhood group seems, if not ecstatic, at least placated by what's been worked out so far.

"It's not everything we wanted, but it's the best compromise we're going to get," said Damon Maguire, one of the neighborhood group's leaders.

The city and the university now meet on a regular basis. And they have begun to work together on a number of new projects, including looking for solutions to the longstanding shortage of faculty and student housing, the off-campus parking problem, and how to create a corridor for emergency vehicles to get across Highway 101 in case a major disaster downs the bridges.

"He's a breath of fresh air," said longtime Councilmember Connie Stewart.

The city of Eureka's most pressing issue with the university -- the Daly building complex --not be so easy to resolve.

In 1998, under the previous HSU administration, the Humboldt State University Foundation purchased the property with hopes of establishing a Eureka-based performing arts center. An architect drew up plans that included restoring the State Theater, part of the complex, and estimated it would take $8 million for the work. Two years passed and after finding no major donors, university officials abandoned the project, leaving many city officials angry.

The university's attempt to find a suitable buyer so far has been fruitless, but according to sources close to the negotiations, Richmond has been on the phone and meeting with Eureka city officials and others regarding possible solutions.

A new direction

Richmond is moving on other fronts as well. As part of an effort to improve community relations, he has taken steps toward getting the university more involved in fostering the region's economic development.

When he was an administrator at the State University of New York on Long Island, he oversaw development of a "high-tech incubator," a facility that rented inexpensive space to high-tech start-ups and provided access to the university's facilities and resources.

In a similar vein, at HSU he has initiated a project, headed up by economics Professor Steve Hackett, to create an economic development "portal" between the community and the university.

The concept is simple: Say a business owner is working on a problem or project and could use help from someone on campus. Usually that person would call a certain department and, more often than not, end up leaving a voicemail.

With the portal plan, HSU staff would do the legwork of finding the right help, making a connection and following through. The university has an ongoing "business partnership campaign," to raise money and awareness of the university's unfunded needs. But Richmond has expanded that effort with the portal project and appointed a group of business leaders to guide the effort.

"We want to make it easy for people to access the intellectual capacity of the university," Richmond said. "Our main purpose is to educate people, but if we can't convince this community that we're worth having here for reasons other than education, then I have failed."

"Our business partnership effort is much broader [than before]," added Maggie Hardy, director of university advancement. Student workers are placed with companies related to their field of study. Business owners are asked for input on courses taught.

"If someone with an idea for a start-up wants a business plan, a student can create one," she added.

Both county leadership and HSU faculty leadership seem excited at the idea of a more involved HSU.

"I was thrilled to see Dr. Richmond make economic development a priority for the administration at the university," said Humboldt County Supervisor Bonnie Neely, who has been working with the university on the project. "I think we're going to see a lot of results from that in the future."

Neely is not alone in her optimism.

"The thing I've been really impressed with is that everyone who talks to him comes away with a favorable impression," said art Professor Gwen Robertson. "That's the greatest thing he's done so far."

Student with baby and back pack, sitting on steps next to Rollin Richmond
President Rollin Richmond pauses to speak with HSU student Rhiannon and "future student" Terran Dunkley.

Storm clouds

The praise shouldn't be too surprising; former HSU President Alistair McCrone, after all, was initially seen as a refreshing replacement to his predecessor, Cornelius Siemens. Richmond, in other words, is still in the honeymoon period (he hasn't even been officially inaugurated yet; that's planned for May). Cognizant of this, the view of some on the faculty, while hopeful, is also cautious.

"He's vastly better than McCrone and I think the early signs are good," said philosophy Professor Bob Snyder, who serves on the Academic Senate Executive Committee. "But the proof's in the pudding. We're still early enough in the game that we have yet to see how it's going to work out."

With the state budget crisis, that pudding may be tested soon.

Since California's estimated budget deficit for next fiscal year may be as high as $35 to $40 billion, the CSU system is facing major reductions. The latest figures indicate a cut of $447.7 million, more than 10 percent of the system-wide budget for fiscal 2003-2004. This is in addition to $125.4 million in mid-year cuts in the current fiscal year that have already taken effect, and which prompted a 10 percent hike in student fees. (These cuts translated into a $1.3 million reduction in HSU's budget this semester, about $1 million of which will come from financial reserves with the remainder coming out of existing programs.)

The chancellor and trustees, "with the reluctant support," according to Richmond, of the university presidents, are nearly certain to raise fees another 25 percent next year. Under a proposal made public Tuesday by the chancellor of the CSU system, Charles B. Reed, undergraduate student fees would increase by $396 to $1,968 a year and graduate fees would increase by $348 to $2,082.

Despite the looming increases in fees, CSU enrollment is projected to go up as much as 5 percent next year. (Enrollment usually goes up during financial downturns as people go back to school to enhance their longterm stature in the job market.)

"The budget has been somewhat of an unpleasant surprise," Richmond confessed. "I knew there were going to be problems. I [struggled] in Iowa for years with budget problems. I knew California probably couldn't escape it. I just never knew it would be quite this bad."

Rebounding from scandal

In addition to facing budget cuts because of the state's economic crisis, Richmond inherited a dramatic drop in revenue from donations, grants and contracts.

According to reports compiled by the university, HSU was experiencing phenomenal success in its fund-raising efforts in 1999 and 2000, even winning HSU a national award. The only problem was that the reports were complete fabrications by John Sterns, then the director of university fund-raising. In one falsified document he claimed $15 million in donations that never existed.

Although Sterns is no longer with the university -- he was arrested in March 2001, convicted of embezzlement and fraud and sentenced to jail time -- the scandal shook the confidence of alumni, business leaders and others. It also decimated the university's fund-raising program.

The revised reports show alumni support actually dropped from $250,000 in 2000 to $168,000 in 2001. The total money given -- including gifts from corporations and wealthy individuals -- plunged from $4.3 million in 1999 to $1.8 million four years later.

A more detailed analysis shows that some of that loss was due to one-time gifts and the weakening national economy. The reports for last year show that HSU was rebounding from the drop in alumni support when Richmond took over.

"At first all our time and energy went toward reorganizing, regrouping and repairing the damage that had been done," said Hardy, who took over some of Sterns' responsibilites in August 2001.

The effort paid off. Donations from alumni inched back up to $200,000 for fiscal year 2002 in spite of the poor economy. Last fall's phone-a-thon, where current students telephoned alumni to ask for support, raised $100,000 in pledges -- the most ever for that campaign.

"University advancement [fund-raising] suffered greatly during the Sterns era. With Dr. Richmond's arrival, things are really starting to come around," said Debbie Goodwin, former executive director of the Humboldt Arts Council who was hired by HSU in 2002 as a senior advancement officer.

"He's particularly good at asking direct and important questions." Goodwin added. "He easily understands the essence of an issue. It's his strength and it is especially important to regain lost ground for the university."

Programs -- and jobs -- at risk

The past aside, it's becoming clear that the grim budget outlook is going to occupy more and more of Richmond's attention. He's going to be facing less money and more students. What is he going to do?

Layoffs are one possibility.

"If the worst case scenario or even close to it happens [the 10 percent budget cut], we would almost certainly have to lay off people as a consequence. I don't see how else we could do it," Richmond said. "You can't just give away everything you have in operating expenses."

Richmond pointed out that at HSU, like most universities, payroll and benefits comprise 75 percent of the operating budget.

But other parts of the university, such as the campus radio station, the Natural History Museum in Arcata and the First Street Gallery in Eureka could face even deeper cuts. Though Richmond said he hoped no programs would be eliminated, he hinted that some might have to be.

"The community is important to us, and certainly the museum and KHSU and the First Street Gallery are important ways in which the university delivers, I think, good services to the community," Richmond said. "On the other hand, if I'm hearing that we're going to have to reduce the number of English classes or `I can't teach this class or that class' and some student's not going to be able to graduate, then we will have difficult decisions to make.

"Will they be cut? Almost certainly. Will we eliminate them? I hope not."

Top-level reshuffling

Adding to the stress of his first year is the fact that Richmond's top administrative structure is in transition. Searches are currently underway for two out of three vice presidents -- the vice presidents of administrative and academic affairs -- as well as other key figures, such as the dean of enrollment. In addition, longtime budget director Shirley Messer is stepping down next month. Finally, Richmond is considering adding a vice president for advancement and community relations to oversee fundraising and public relations.

The new vice presidency, if it is created, is just part of the administrative shakeup. Another of Richmond's campaign promises was to increase shared governance with the faculty, which, according to some, had been lacking in the previous administration.

One faculty member compared the previous administration to that of a stern but benevolent father who genuinely cares for his children (the faculty) but treats them like children nonetheless.

The first and most concrete step Richmond has taken to change that was to make the chair of the Academic Senate a member of the president's executive council, the highest decision-making body on campus, consisting of the president and his vice presidents.

At first there was some debate over whether a faculty member could be trusted with the confidential matters discussed by the committee without blabbing to the rest of the campus community. That fear was soon overcome however, and after a one-semester trial period, Richmond has made the change permanent.

"Now there's a lot more communication and transfer of information," said Sue MacConnie, this year's chair of the Academic Senate. "There was transfer before, but it was a lot more limited."

In response, the Academic Senate asked Richmond to join its executive committee, and now both groups have regular "retreats" to discuss common issues.

Richmond has also created two new advisory bodies: a presidential cabinet and a president's council.

The president's council is composed of every position of administration in the university -- the vice presidents, deans, department chairs, directors -- about 150 in total. It meets twice a semester, both to advise the president and make decisions on courses of action.

The cabinet is an even larger, primarily advisory, body comprised of groups from all over the university, including faculty, staff, administration and students. Basically, it's a place for Richmond to let the campus know what he's doing, and to defend his decisions in a public forum.

"I'm a real believer that if I can't give somebody a clear, rational explanation for a decision, even it they disagree with it, I'm probably not making a good decision. So I'm more than willing to get up and defend my own and my team's administrative decisions in front of people," Richmond said. "And frankly, if someone asks me a question I hadn't thought of before then God bless `em.

"What I am trying to do here," he added, "is build a sense that this university does not get administered by a single person or a small group of people, but by a large group of people."

Sunny, but frank

With Richmond's initial flurry of activity, one wonders if he isn't tackling too much too soon.

"McCrone left so many things undone that part of what we need to do is figure out what to focus on," said Snyder, the Academic Senate Executive Committee member. "We need to sit down and decide what it is we need to work on in the short term."

Associated Students President Kinney agreed.

"I just hope he doesn't burn out," she said.

So far he seems to have done well, making inroads in the community, dealing with campus issues and making friends along the way.

But once the unpleasant budget realities set in, the goodwill he has so far engendered could evaporate. Then will come the real test of his leadership.

A good sign is that he seems to have the ability to be both positive and realistic. Last week, for instance, during a meeting with his budgetary committee to address the cuts in the state budget, he said:

"It does not look good. But you know me, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool optimist."

Publisher Judy Hodgson contributed to this report.


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