It's Humboldt State University President Lisa Rossbacher's first day on campus and she's grabbing a bite to eat in the College Creek Marketplace. Although the campus is practically empty for the summer, a few students are at the deli buying lunch.

Rossbacher, who's never one to pass up an opportunity to connect with someone, introduces herself and they begin to chat. They talk about their majors and interests outside class. She asks them about their plans for the future.

That kind of openness is typical of the new president. Friends and former colleagues describe her approach as smart, friendly, and accessible.

"PEOPLE ARE INTIMIDATED by her because she's the president," says Alana Kyriakakis, a former colleague. "She's brilliant and a strong leader, but she's also very compassionate and down to earth. It's kind of the perfect combination."

Rossbacher, who arrived on campus July 14, is HSU's first female president. She was also the first female president at her previous institution, Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU) in Georgia, where she served for 16 years.

The path that brought Rossbacher, her husband, Dallas, and Tango, their 8-year-old Doberman pinscher, to Humboldt State has been roundabout, she says, and also years in the making.

"We always knew we were going to come back to California," says Rossbacher, who first visited the North Coast in the 1980s and fell in love with the place. "We just didn't know how long it was going to take."

BORN AND RAISED in Virginia, Rossbacher is the eldest of three daughters. She attended elementary and middle school on a naval base, where her father was a civilian researcher for the Department of Defense.

"The education I got there was incredible," she says. "Every day I was in the library reading and writing. I remember the librarian would sneak me books because I had read everything in the little kid's section by third grade."

Rossbacher's love of literature continued at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where she planned to major in English. But everything changed freshman year when she took a geology class on a whim and fell in love with the discipline. One of the things that drew her to geology, she says, was "the language of science, the vocabulary and the words."

From there, she went on to earn two master's degrees—one in Geological Sciences from the State University of New York at Binghamton and one in Geological and Geophysical Sciences from Princeton University, where she also earned a Ph.D.

It was also around that time that she met Dallas Rhodes, a geology professor at the University of Vermont. They met at a conference, but it wasn't until a few years later that they reconnected and started dating. By then, he was teaching at Whittier College in Southern California. "He didn't remember meeting me at first," says Rossbacher. Several years later, they were married.

Soon after, the two lived in Scandinavia for a year and both held research appointments at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. They returned to California a year later, and she accepted a geology teaching position at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.

A few years into her appointment, Rossbacher came to an unsettling realization. "The only other people I knew on campus were my department members and other science faculty who happened to teach classes on same floor of the science building," she says. "That didn't really fit my idea of what working at a college or university should be about."

As luck would have it, Rossbacher got a call that summer from then-Cal Poly Pomona President Hugh LaBounty. He was conducting a long-range planning study for the university and wanted Rossbacher to lead it.

"He said, 'If you agree to do this, I have to warn you that you're going to have to take a year off teaching, you're going to have to work with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community people,' " she recalls. "And I said 'yes.' "

From there, Rossbacher made a gradual transition from the classroom to administration. Over the next 11 years, she held various leadership positions in higher education—Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Cal Poly Pomona, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Whittier College, and Dean of the Faculty at her alma mater, Dickinson. In 1998, she took the helm of SPSU.

Kyriakakis believes Rossbacher's early scientific training—in a traditionally male-dominated field—prepared her for leadership. "She's still very true to that scientist side of herself. She gathers the data, processes the information and then makes a decision or communicates based on the information she has gathered. She doesn't act out of ego or emotion but rather what she thinks is best outcome for a particular situation."

At the same time, she embraces all of who she is. "She's compassionate and thoughtful and that was the key to her success at SPSU," Kyriakakis says. "She puts a high value on a sense of community and appreciates everyone's contribution."

IN HER 16 years at SPSU, Rossbacher became known as a trailblazer. "She's truly a rock star of a president," Kyriakakis says.

One of the first things Rossbacher did after arriving was start a women's basketball team. "We had no women's sports at SPSU," she says. "My husband warned me, 'You should have no illusion they're going to have immediate success.' " In the longer term, the team did, and the Lady Hornets advanced to the regional NAIA tournament the last three years in a row, finishing the 2013-14 season ranked 29th in the NAIA Division I Coaches' Poll.

In 2007, Rossbacher cleared another hurdle when she became the first president of a public university in Georgia to sign the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment to reduce SPSU's carbon footprint. "It was a big thing because Cobb County is one of most politically conservative counties in the country," says Jim Cooper, SPSU's Assistant Vice President for University Communications. "But she won the community over."

"We always knew we were going to come back to California. We just didn't know how long it was going to take." — President Rossbacher

Whether it's relating with students or the community, communication is one of Rossbacher's strong points, says Cooper, who's also a good family friend. "It's very important to her. She really cares about how her message resonates with people and how it's received," he says. "And she's always trying to innovate and get better."

A few years ago, for example, SPSU changed the format of its prospective student open house. Instead of a traditional welcome, the event incorporated a late night talk show with a faculty rock band. "She was totally supportive of that idea—a lot of presidents wouldn't be—and it was wildly successful," Cooper says.

Another one of Rossbacher's priorities at SPSU was maintaining strong external ties—she chaired the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and was active in the Marietta Kiwanis Club. On campus, her tenure saw big gains in enrollment—from 3,678 to 5,021 students—and more than $100 million in new facilities, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.

On campus, Rossbacher was a familiar and friendly face. She was well known for sending hand-written notes to colleagues and staff and making it known that she valued everyone's contribution. She frequently brought Tango to meetings and walked her on campus. "People would approach her, pet the dog, and have a conversation," Cooper says. "It was her open door policy."

Rossbacher wants to bring that same spirit of openness and inclusivity to HSU. At a recent sit-down on campus with local media, she outlined some of her upcoming priorities.

First on her list is updating HSU's Strategic Plan, which will guide the university for the next three to five years. She wants to include students, faculty, staff, and alumni in the planning process.

She wants to make sure HSU offers a good balance of academic programs and builds on its reputation as a leader in social and environmental responsibility. "I like how sustainability projects are student-driven at HSU," she says. "And I think it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Rossbacher thinks that the statewide budget situation will be challenging but that the strategic plan will provide a roadmap for the next few years. She also thinks the university needs to operate as efficiently as possible and seek more support from donors and alumni.

"Transparency, collegiality, respect, and integrity create trust, which makes everything possible," she says.

WHEN HSU ANNOUNCED last fall that it would be searching for a new president, a few of Rossbacher's friends thought it was a match made in heaven.

"When I saw that job opening, I thought This sounds like her,' "says Cooper. "I mentioned it to her and it turns out she had already seen it."

Kyriakakis felt the same way. "It was one of those situations where we were all sad, but you couldn't help but be happy because it was absolutely the perfect fit. She loves California, she loves the outdoors, she's committed to sustainability and the community. She thrives in an environment where she can be engaged with students, faculty, and staff. You barely have to dig to see that HSU was made just for her."

At Rossbacher's farewell party in May, SPSU hosted a big party on campus with a live band, food, and margaritas mixed with the fruit drink Tang. They called it a Tangorita after her dog, Tango.

Rossbacher even dyed her hair green for the occasion.

"She's not your typical president," says Kyriakakis. "She will amaze you guys and I'm incredibly jealous." End Story

"She's brilliant and a strong leader, but she's also very compassionate and down to earth. It's kind of the perfect combination." — Alana Kyriakakis

Trying on some shades with Lumberjack editor Israel LeFrak.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Rossbacher's mother was an English major and helped instill her love of reading. (Rossbacher is on the left and her younger sister Amy is on the right.) • After taking a geology class at Dickinson College on a whim, she fell in love with the discipline. • Rossbacher's group of interviewees for NASA's Astronaut Candidate Program, at the Johnson Space Center, in 1984. (Rossbacher is fourth from the right.) • On a field trip to Death Valley with a Whittier College student.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Rossbacher's geological research took her on field trips around this country, including to California's Carrizo Plain with her roommate from Princeton University, Dr. Lisa Pratt. • With Sting, SPSU's mascot, and former University Counsel Alana Kyriakakis. • On the trail to the Hike Inn, an eco-lodge in the North Georgia mountains that requires a five-mile one-way hike to reach. • At a rehearsal for the Nutcracker with the Georgia Ballet in 2009.

LEFT: Rossbacher was welcomed on her first day with a surprise performance outside her office by the Marching Lumberjacks. TOP RIGHT: Sharing thoughts during a radio interview with KHSU. BOTTOM RIGHT: Students Allison Bronson and Simeon Haynes point out what makes HSU so special on a campus tour.

Follow President Rossbacher on Twitter
and Instagram @hsupres.

Six Questions

Favorite rock? Gneiss (pronounced "nice"). It has evolved through heat and pressure. The crystals have been reoriented and grown. It's a wonderful metaphor for people and organizations as they undergo change but maintain the same fundamental composition.

Coffee or tea? Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.

Favorite meal? Any place my husband is cooking. (Although we're told she bakes a mean pie. She even won a cherry pie baking contest in grade school. "Pie making is becoming a lost art," she says)

Beatles or Rolling Stones? Beatles. My first record was a Beatles' 45.

Dream concert at the Van Duzer Theatre? Lyle Lovett.

Star Wars or Star Trek? Both. I especially like the original Star Treks. They were wonderful morality stories about intergalactic peace and respecting civilizations different from your own.

Read her EARTH magazine column on the life lessons of Star Trek here:

Husband Dallas Rhodes

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rossbacher's husband, Dallas Rhodes, shares her love of Dobermans, travel, and geology.

In fact, Rhodes, who was previously Department Chair of Geology and Geography at Georgia Southern University, plans to continue his research on the San Andreas Fault at Humboldt State.

A more recent passion, he says, is the issue of food insecurity, which has become a problem on college campuses around the country. "We not only need to make sure kids have enough to eat, but also that they have access to proper food and recipes," he says.

Fun Facts

  • A DOBERMAN FAMILY The president and Dallas' first Doberman—Obie Wan Ka Dobie—was a rescue dog from California that ended up in Georgia. Tango was born in Georgia and now lives in California. She loves big trees, rivers and chasing squirrels. And yes, she has a Twitter account. Follow her @TangoTakes2.
  • TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME "Dallas grew up in Missouri and is a lifelong Cardinals fan. When we got married, he required two things as a prenuptial agreement. I foolishly asked for nothing. He demanded that I learn how to score baseball and I could only root for the St. Louis Cardinals."
  • JILL-OF-ALL-TRADES Before deciding on higher education, Rossbacher was a science reporter for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. (listen to audio at and a finalist in NASA's astronaut candidate program.
  • ONCE A WRITER Since 1988, she's penned a bi-monthly column for EARTH magazine. She also authors a blog on leadership in higher education at
  • 10,000 STEPSA DAY She's a firm believer in staying active, which is why she tracks her steps every day with a Fitbit.
  • THE GREAT OUTDOORS From an early age, Rossbacher attended a conservation education summer camp sponsored by the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs. She eventually became a camp instructor, teaching everything from botany to ornithology. It was where she developed her love of the environment and the outdoors.

Returning to Humboldt

The first time Rossbacher and her husband came to Humboldt County in the 1980s, they were visiting an HSU faculty member in the History Department.

"I remember being struck by how different the coastline was from Southern California," says Rossbacher, who lived in the Los Angeles area for 20 years with her husband, Dallas. "It was so open."

Over the following years, they made several more trips to visit friends, take vacations, and go on geology field trips.

One of Rossbacher's most vivid memories from that time is a morning excursion to get fresh crab from Humboldt Bay. "We got up early to get the crab, drove to a hotel in Weaverville, sat on the floor, ate crab, and drank champagne," she says. "That was when we first started fantasizing about buying an old hotel in Weaverville."

The first thing Rossbacher did when she arrived in Humboldt County this July was take in the scenery. She drove to the scenic overlook north of the airport, where the Little River meets Clam Beach.

"I arrived in the afternoon, drove to the overlook, and admired the view," she says. "It was amazing."