It felt like coming home
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
His first thought was that it was too late. It was 1999, and V. Lane Rawlins caught word that Washington State University was looking for a new president. The 62-year-old was in his ninth year as president of the University of Memphis, and he and his wife, Mary Jo, were looking forward to retirement after a long career in higher education.
But then he had a second thought: "I felt good, I felt energetic. I figured that there were some things that I could do that could make a difference in five years." So he pursued the job, committing to work at WSU for at least five years. He would stay on for seven.
"It felt like coming home," says Rawlins, who in 1968 started his career teaching economics at WSU. Coming home meant that he could reconnect with his friends in Pullman, where he lived until 1986, and that he could be closer to family who lived in the Tri-Cities.
"We wanted to find someone who had some affection for the University and some connection to the Northwest," says Peter Goldmark, former president of the Board of Regents and chair of the search committee that found Rawlins. The group, which had surveyed faculty and staff about what qualities they wanted in the next president, was also looking for someone who had already been head or second-in-command at a major research institution.
"We really had to recruit him," says Goldmark, explaining that Rawlins never expected, or even dreamed, he would come back to WSU. "I think it really capped his career in a way that he had not foreseen."
At the time Rawlins was hired, WSU had a reputation as a party school, had branch campuses around the state but no real plan to organize them, and was struggling with enrollment and research development issues.
Rawlins knew he could attack the party label right away. "I've worked in the South. I know what a party school is," he says. "We were not like that. It was just that we hadn't worked hard enough on the academic image."
So, with the help of a new "World Class. Face to Face." slogan, Rawlins and his administration started working on image and enrollment. "We had slipped," he says.
As the ninth president of WSU, Rawlins took the time to study the successes and failures of his predecessors. He started with Enoch Bryan, the first president to stay a substantial amount of time and the one who pushed for the school to be a comprehensive university. Then came Ernest O. Holland, who fulfilled Bryan's vision. "The programs were put in place, the faculty were hired, and the buildings were built," says Rawlins. "We became a beloved land-grant institution."
Next came Wilson Compton, who shook things up. "He wanted to compete with the Eastern universities," says Rawlins. He was good at pushing the school, but stepped on some toes in the process. In the end he was fired. C. Clement French, "a careful man, a man of high principle," was a steady leader, but not equipped to handle the social and student unrest that came in the 1960s. That's why Glenn Terrell was such a good choice, says Rawlins. "He was not here to change our direction, but to reach out to the students. He wanted this to be a haven. His nature was to be inclusive and reach out."
Sam Smith took over in 1985. He had a big vision for the school, branching it across the state with the Distance Degree Program and campuses in the Tri-Cities, Vancouver, and Spokane. "It was a strong idea," says Rawlins. "But when you take a big bite like that, not all of it is chewable."
Rawlins arrived to find a school struggling to sort out what it wanted to be and where. "Our reputation as an undergraduate institution was suffering, and our research productivity was just measured by dollars and a few other things. . . it had been pretty flat for a while." In the fall of 2000, several months after returning to Pullman, Rawlins invited the University community to join in identifying the school's weaknesses and strengths, with the goal of developing a strategic plan. Among the ideas that emerged were improving the quality and diversity of the student body, recruiting high-quality faculty, and creating a new campus culture.
Part of the plan's success was the process. It brought out and engaged many members of the campus community, investing them in the University as a whole. Other results included the Regents Scholars Program, which uses scholarships to bring in high-achieving Washington high school students, redirected funds to recruit high-quality researchers for programs like the sleep study effort in Spokane, and the identification of a character and mission for each of the campuses.
"Lane stabilized a lot of the squabbling and squawking that went on around some of our branch campuses," says Chuck Pezeshki, an engineering professor and chair of the Faculty Senate. "He also reminded us that we were a Research One institution (a Carnegie Foundation classification), and that we needed to align our priorities with that in mind."
Many other elements and details will characterize Rawlins's presidency. In seven years, WSU has enjoyed a busy period of growth. The Murrow School of Communication has a new building, a new state-of-the-art plant biosciences structure now sits across the street from French Administration, and the Spokane campus has a handsome $33 million academic center.
Football is one of Rawlins's passions and, he admits with a shrug, a slight obsession. "When it gets tight, or when you get down to the end of the game, I kind of go off and sit by myself. People leave me alone," he says. "I want to focus on the game." When it gets down to eight minutes left, Rawlins removes himself from the president's box and places his six-foot-four figure down on the field. "I want the kids and coaches to know that football, or any other of our athletic events, are not separate or apart from our university. . . I don't know a better way to do that than to be on the sidelines."
His interest was rewarded with three bowl games over seven years: one Sun Bowl, one Rose Bowl, and one Holiday Bowl.
As Rawlins leaves, several major projects at the heart of campus are still in the early stages. A student-funded overhaul of the Compton Union Building should wrap up in the fall of 2008, and a four-stage remodel of Martin Stadium only recently broke ground.
While many of his goals have been realized, Rawlins is the first to admit he'd like to complete a few more projects. "Were I younger and ready to hang on for another six or seven years, I'd say, 'Let's pull together some new focus groups. Let's gut-check to see where we are. Let's ask ourselves what is the next phase,'" he says. His next big goal would be to attend more to students. "[It]'s not that we're not attentive, but we could do more."
But Rawlins feels he doesn't have six or seven more years to devote to WSU. Instead, it's a good time to "pass the ball to the next guy."
He'll be back to work with the board at the William D. Ruckelshaus Center on issues regarding policy development and multi-party dispute resolution, and to teach a class in economics.
"I think Lane will be remembered as the president who took WSU further away from that state college where you go if you can't get into the University of Washington, says Bill Marler '82, a former WSU regent and Seattle attorney. "WSU has become what a lot of people envisioned it could be."
Three years after Rawlins left the University of Memphis, that school dedicated a clock tower and service court in his name. "I had some good success there," he says. "But those are not the kind of things you want your legacy to be."
He has thought about how he'd like his presidency at WSU to be remembered and has come to the conclusion that he's leaving the school with a higher level of research and education. "I would like my legacy to be that we focused on quality," he says, "a legacy that says we're big, we're statewide. We're also the best."
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