March 2, 2008 in City

Recruiter at work: Rodolfo Arévalo

Shawn Vestal The Spokesman-Review
 

When Rodolfo Arévalo spent the day recently at Othello High School, he was in service of some of his priorities as president of Eastern Washington University.

Increasing the enrollment of minorities. Reaching out to students whose parents didn’t attend college. His message – based on his own childhood in a family of Texas migrant workers – was simple: “If I can do it and be a college president, then you can do it and be a computer engineer, a dental hygienist or whatever.”

That message is doubtlessly important to the students at Othello and throughout the region. It also may be a crucial element in defining Arévalo’s presidency at EWU. After 19 straight quarters of enrollment growth, Eastern posted a dip in numbers last fall. With high school populations expected to flatten out in coming years, colleges are looking for ways to maintain enrollment levels, which determine funding from the state and often serve as shorthand indications of a college’s overall health.

“It’s a concern of mine,” Arévalo said. “It’s hard to launch new programs or work on improvement of existing programs when you’re on a downward slope in funding and enrollment.”

As Arévalo nears the end of his second year as EWU’s president, one of the hallmarks of his administration has been an aggressive public-relations effort that started the same day he did. Arévalo also has developed a focus on diversity initiatives and international relationships with other colleges, and overseen EWU’s move from downtown Spokane to the Riverpoint campus and efforts to expand its presence in Spokane.

Supporters say he’s a good listener and collaborator, and they give him credit for allowing others to participate in decision-making. Detractors – including faculty members who have just concluded contentious salary negotiations – say he has not done enough to emphasize the importance of academics and the marketing campaign is image over substance.

EWU faculty salaries lag behind peer schools, and many professors feel that neither Arévalo nor his predecessor, Stephen Jordan, has done enough to correct that.

Many professors feel “his actions would appear to indicate that he has little respect for his faculty and that faculty salaries (and thus by implication, educational quality) are not one of his priorities,” said chemistry professor Jeff Corkill in an e-mail interview conducted before faculty reached a tentative agreement on salaries in mid-February.

Arévalo’s bosses – the Board of Trustees – gave him a raise last summer after a year on the job, and board chairman Paul Tanaka said they’re pleased with the job he’s done. But Tanaka did say that Arévalo and board members have established a list of expectations, and “there’s still a long ways to go” on many of those goals, including maintaining enrollments and the unfolding of EWU’s Riverpoint operations.

Arévalo’s compensation has been a subject of complaint among faculty, who frequently refer to his 13 percent raise. Arévalo and Tanaka say that’s unfair math – he received an 8.2 percent raise in his $200,000 salary, and 5 percent in deferred salary, which won’t be paid until he’s here four more years.

Still, faculty salaries under the new agreement would increase between 9 percent and 10 percent over two years. Some professors say there should be more equity among the raises.

“If the tide lifted all boats, I don’t think it’d be quite so distressing,” said Michael Conlin, associate professor of history.

‘A very good listener’

Conlin and others also criticized Arévalo for something they see as endemic in modern universities: an emphasis on a business-style management and a greater value on administration and management than on classroom teaching and scholarship.

“I think it’s an extension of the whole trend of the corporatization of higher education,” he said.

Arévalo has said he’s trying to improve faculty salaries, and he recognizes that they’re behind Central and Western Washington universities. He also said the average administrative raise at EWU has been smaller than those for faculty for the past two years and will be the upcoming two years.

Many people interviewed about Arévalo tiptoed around a comparison that is often made in private conversations, noting that his predecessor, Jordan, was known as a dynamic speaker and high-profile personality. By contrast, Arévalo is quieter and less forceful, though some say he is also stronger at working with people directly and making decisions regarding details of policies and programs.

Arévalo says he’s had to learn the public – or “external” – side of being a university president. But he said that raising the profile of the university is his priority.

“He had visibility,” Arévalo said of Jordan. “I don’t know whether the institution had visibility.”

When Arévalo arrived in April 2006, he began a long process of meeting with different groups – academic departments, students, community leaders, other college presidents and legislators.

Tanaka said Arévalo’s quiet demeanor was especially pronounced during his first several months on the job, as he spent most of his time listening to people.

“He’s a very good listener. … I think people initially thought he didn’t have anything to say,” he said. Now, “I see him being much more assertive in meetings, speaking up and offering his views on things.”

A change in hiring

Among the first challenges Arévalo faced was hiring several top administrators: a provost, athletic director and several deans, among others. A new athletic director, Darren Hamilton, was hired several months after Arévalo arrived. Hamilton was fired after seven months on the job, after staff turnover, budget problems, an NCAA investigation and two allegations – never substantiated – of sexual harassment.

Arévalo said that he came in late in the process for selecting Hamilton and that he’s revamped the hiring procedures in the wake of that incident. In the hiring of Hamilton’s replacement, Bill Chaves, EWU went out in search of candidates, rather than just saying “let’s put out an ad and see who shows up.”

Tanaka said that while Hamilton didn’t work out, he saw Arévalo’s decision to make a change quickly as a good sign.

“Not letting that issue fester and impact any more than it did … I thought that was just essential,” he said.

Lisa Poplawski, director of alumni advancement, was among those who worked on EWU’s new marketing campaign, which was nearing the end when Arévalo was hired. She said she liked the fact that Arévalo allowed the campaign to go forward as planned by the people who’d worked on it for months.

“It really could have gone a different direction,” she said. “A lot of leaders really want to take the reins, but he really trusted in the process put in place to develop it.”

Michael Allen, director of corporate and foundation relations for EWU and a former administrator in the athletic department, echoed those sentiments.

“He’s very collaborative,” said Allen, who was recently appointed to Spokane City Council. “He listens to all sides of a problem or an issue, and then he makes the best decision based on the information he’s been able to gather. … You know your voice is being heard in the process.”

Growth in Spokane

Arévalo’s commitment to ethnic diversity includes a few new efforts at the school, including a scholarship program for first-generation students and joint agreements with universities in Mexico, Japan and China.

He also sees an expanded presence in Spokane as a big piece of EWU’s future, with more programs and offerings in the health sciences especially, as Eastern and WSU further develop the Riverpoint campus. He said EWU’s piece of the new medical program set to begin next year is often underestimated.

“It’s not a very well-known fact that we’re going to be teaching the majority of the courses” in that program, he said.

Eastern initially planned to construct its own building at Riverpoint after it sold its downtown center in July, but now Arévalo says a joint building with Washington State University is more likely. He and WSU President Elson Floyd may approach the Legislature for funding next session.

Meanwhile, EWU is sharing space and using temporary quarters at Riverpoint. The move was sometimes rocky, with some Spokane faculty and students feeling left out of the decision-making, and some angry at being moved back to Cheney.

But boosting enrollments outside Cheney is an important part of the overall strategy. EWU offers degree-completion programs through community colleges on the West Side and is likely to expand such offerings, Arévalo said.

Fall quarter was the first time in years that enrollment hasn’t gone up at EWU, dropping by 1.6 percent to 9,841. Tanaka and Arévalo both said their goal was to see enrollment at least stay level in the coming years.

Arévalo said he sees the enrollment challenge as twofold – he wants to encourage more students to attend college for their own sake and for the change it can bring to their lives; and he wants to keep Eastern’s enrollment healthy for the school’s sake.

“It’s an issue all of us are concerned about,” Tanaka said.


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