PULLMAN – For most people, college graduation is a one-time event.
For V. Lane Rawlins, it’s been more like a regular stop. During his time as a university president, he estimates he’s overseen nearly 90 commencement ceremonies.
But today is it for Rawlins, the retiring president of Washington State University – as well as this year’s commencement speaker and the man who will confer roughly 2,300 degrees on graduates.
“I’m still not tired of it,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s an electric feeling. You’re standing there, the orchestra’s playing ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ students in their robes are pouring into the auditorium and families are cheering … I get goose bumps.
“I always said when I get tired of commencement, I should retire. So I guess I’m retiring early.”
Over the next several weeks, the baton will pass formally from Rawlins, who’s been WSU president for seven years, to incoming President Elson Floyd. Then Rawlins will enter the emeritus life, with plans to teach freshman economics for two years before moving on to other retirement pursuits.
“I want to teach because I want to ride out on the horse I rode in on,” he said.
Rawlins rode in on that horse in 1968, when he joined the economics faculty at WSU. He left for other jobs and returned as president in 2000, and was recently inducted into the school’s Quarter Century Club for 25-year employees.
One of Rawlins’ fellow inductees was Jessica Cassleman, assistant dean for the Honors College. Cassleman said she was impressed by Rawlins’ performance as president, saying that he did a good job of communicating the school’s goals and empowering employees to act.
“I think he’s been an incredible leader,” she said. “There was a sense of unity – we’re doing this together.”
It’s a theme Rawlins sounds himself.
“We’ve had a remarkable seven years,” he said. “And I want to stress the ‘we.’ “
Rawlins leaves after a period of growth and prosperity at WSU.
Enrollments rose at the same time that WSU began attracting students with stronger academic credentials. Research efforts have expanded, and WSU’s network of campuses around the state has solidified in many ways.
At the Riverpoint campus in Spokane, for example, two new buildings and significant renovations occurred in the past seven years. WSU also helped bring in the collaborative medical school program set to enroll its first students in Spokane this fall.
And Rawlins is leaving as WSU is in the midst of a huge range of new construction. The Pullman campus is torn up for work on a new Compton Union Building and Life Sciences facility, and renovation work on Martin Stadium is ongoing. On the outskirts of campus, an ambitious golf course is being built.
“We’re in the middle of so many things right now,” he said.
The school is still raising money to pay for the completion of Martin Stadium work and the golf course expansion, though the work is well under way. Rawlins said, though, that the school can pay to finish the projects even if fundraising were to fall short.
Rawlins’ tenure has also been a time of rising tuition for students – not only at WSU, but at schools everywhere. Over the past decade, tuition at Washington colleges has risen at twice the rate of family incomes.
Rawlins and other university leaders have long pressed for Washington lawmakers to adopt a stable funding model for higher education, saying that state support for colleges and universities has stayed flat for years. It’s also been unreliable, changing from session to session.
College officials often say that trend, combined with rising costs, means that tuition is the only way schools have to simply keep up with costs; critics say schools should economize and become more efficient to prevent such consistent tuition increases.
In either case, this year’s legislative budget takes a step toward limiting tuition and requiring the state to provide a reliable level of funding. It caps tuition increases at 7 percent a year, and requires the state to fund WSU at a level comparable to its peer schools. But nothing would prevent future legislators from changing that commitment, and it will be tempting in tight budget years.
Still, Rawlins said, “It is a start and it’s a very good start.”
Spreading the word
The job description for WSU president has changed during Rawlins’ term.
There’s always been an “external” part of the job, from lobbying the Legislature to fundraising. But those have become the biggest part of the job now.
Two years ago, Rawlins restructured the position to focus more on off-campus activities and put Provost Bob Bates in charge of the day-to-day oversight of the Pullman campus.
Rawlins frequently emphasizes the statewide nature of the institution. He’s also been a good ambassador for the school, some say, and helped raise the school’s reputation around the state and nation.
Don Knowles, the coordinator for the federal Agricultural Research Service on campus, said Rawlins has helped strengthen the relationships among government entities to improve the research environment. Knowles was another 25-year employee with Rawlins and gave him a lot of credit for an inclusive style of leadership.
“What Lane does is bring people together,” Knowles said. “He reaches out to different entities in the community, and when you do that you make the community stronger.”
Rawlins has titled his speech today “The Big Blue Heart and North.”
In his final sendoff to students, he plans to emphasize the importance both of debate and of knowledge – of facts that aren’t subject to debate.
“Big Blue Heart” refers to a sculpture titled “Technicolor Heart” by prominent artist Jim Dine that sits on the Pullman campus and has been a source of controversy. In 2005, someone covered the sculpture with a tarp that had the words “Return to Sender” on it.
Rawlins said the debate over the aesthetics and value of the artwork is a worthwhile enterprise and an important part of an education.
“North, however, is that way,” he said, pointing his long arm in the right direction. “All opinions about which way is north are not equal.”