When V. Lane Rawlins was first approached about applying to be president of Washington State University, he thought it was too late.
“I really thought that my time for doing something like that was past,” said Rawlins, who’d passed age 60 and was serving as president of the University of Memphis.
Then he paid another visit to Pullman, where he’d spent 18 years as a professor and administrator.
“I realized the senior faculty at Washington State University were my friends,” Rawlins said. “They knew me when I wasn’t president. They watched me be promoted and tenured and all these kinds of things.”
That helped establish a strong relationship between Rawlins and the faculty when he did take over as president in 2000, a bond strengthened by his efforts to improve faculty pay and expand WSU’s research efforts.
That was among the achievements Rawlins’ admirers cited after he announced Friday that he’d retire in June 2007. Rawlins, 68, has fielded questions for years about his pending retirement and said he made the announcement now so he could focus on his final year on the job.
“He still has the support of the faculty,” said Ken Struckmeyer, chairman of the Faculty Senate and one of Rawlins’ long-time colleagues. “I know he always considered himself a member of the faculty.”
In fact, Rawlins said he expects to occupy a half-time faculty position for a year after he retires.
So far during his presidency, WSU has seen its enrollment and research funding rise, according to university figures. Enrollment has grown more selective; WSU’s incoming freshman have had higher average GPAs and SAT scores. And the university’s branch operations around the state have grown significantly, including more students and rapid expansion of buildings and programs at WSU-Spokane.
“I had goals,” Rawlins said, “but the accomplishment of those goals was really a massive team effort.”
Provost Bob Bates, the chief academic officer and essentially No. 2 administrator at WSU, said one of Rawlins’ key achievements was the development and implementation of a strategic plan shortly after arriving as president. Rawlins included a range of voices from all over campus and helped ensure that faculty members, staffers and administrators shared in the university’s goals of improving undergraduate education, research and overall quality.
A year ago, Rawlins made an adjustment in his duties, focusing on lobbying, fundraising and overseeing WSU as a statewide presence. The day-to-day operation of the Pullman campus was shifted to Bates and a team of top administrators.
Rawlins said the next president will likely continue with such a division of administrative duties. Rawlins has emphasized the statewide nature of WSU during the past year, saying it’s no longer primarily a single-campus institution. He also said the realities of university financing – with flat or declining state support – make it important for university presidents to work with lawmakers and raise money from private donors.
“We don’t have a choice anymore,” he said. “That’s the meat and potatoes that feed the institution.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a statement expressing her regret about Rawlins’ retirement and citing several issues they’d worked on together, ranging from expanding the nursing program in Spokane to adding four-year degree programs in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.
“Lane raised the stature of WSU as a premier research institution, a designation affirmed by the Carnegie Foundation when they named the school one of 96 top-tier research institutions in the country,” she said. “Washington is now the proud home to two top-caliber research schools.”
Rawlins, a tall, lanky native of Rexburg, Idaho, earned a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley. He joined the WSU faculty in 1968; his work was published widely in journals and he co-authored books on labor economics and public policy.
He eventually became economics department chairman and then vice provost before leaving in 1986 for an administrative position in Alabama. He served as president of the University of Memphis before returning to WSU in 2000. He is the ninth president of WSU.
Colleagues describe his leadership style as relaxed and collaborative; they say he’s focused on achieving the university’s goals. Bates, who entered a different role last year when Rawlins shifted his focus to external affairs, said the president was hands-on and interested in details but willing to delegate responsibility as well.
He said their division of duties is just part of the reality of “the modern university president,” and that the new president would also spend a lot of time on off-campus lobbying, community presence and fund-raising.
“On balance, I think it worked very well,” he said.
Struckmeyer said that Rawlins’ efforts to provide faculty raises and expand academic offerings won him support among the faculty. Professors also credit him with overseeing significant improvements to the Pullman campus, helping foster a better relationship with the University of Washington and insisting on high standards for student-athletes.
“Sometimes his decisions you may or may not agree with, but you know you’ve had input,” Struckmeyer said.
The university said it would launch a nationwide search for a replacement, and details will be announced about the time the school year starts in August. Bates said he might be interested in the position.
“I would say never say never,” he said.
Rawlins said he decided to announce his retirement now to get it out of the way. He said he’s got a lot of work to do in the coming year and didn’t want to keep answering questions about when he was stepping down.
“This is my last year. I’m going to give it 100 percent and then hang it up,” he said.
He does have other goals in mind for the coming years, however. Rawlins, who enjoys fly-fishing, has three grandsons.
“None of ‘em knows how to hold a fly rod,” he said.