Reflecting on the Richmond Years
BY THE TIME ROLLIN RICHMOND took office as the sixth president of Humboldt State University in 2002 the campus had grown from its beginnings as a teacher’s college with 62 students into a leading center for the study of biology, forestry, wildlife, kinesiology, arts and humanities with an enrollment of 7,289. An evolutionary biologist leading a school where biological sciences is the top enrolled major seems like a natural fit. And Richmond was ideally suited to guide the university into the 21st century.
RICHMOND, WHO BEGAN A LIFE in higher education as a work-study student majoring in pre-med at San Diego State University, has risen to the top of his profession using a mixture of intellectual curiosity and an ability to foster collaboration among groups ranging from academic departments, to research institutes, governments and beyond.
In 2013, Richmond, a lifelong educator and university administrator with more than four decades of experience in higher education, announced he would retire at the end of the 2013-14 academic year.
“Together we have made substantial improvements in our curricula, shared governance and physical facilities,” Richmond wrote in a campus message announcing his retirement. “All of these changes have resulted in better experiences for our students, faculty and staff. I have enjoyed my years serving you.”
When President Richmond arrived on campus he was immediately impressed by the high level of campus involvement and students’ commitment to environmental and social justice. He also welcomed the opportunities he had to learn from the students about their views on higher education. “That’s one of the things I like about being here at Humboldt. It’s a small enough institution that I have time to talk with students. The thing I like about young people is they question you. They don’t outright accept your values and approaches and it makes you think hard about what you’re doing.”
He has frequently described Humboldt State students as fundamentally different than others he has encountered. Nowhere has he encountered students so focused on making a positive difference in the world.
“This is the sixth university I’ve served at in my career. I think the students here are more involved in making sure the things they consider to be of social significance get done and get the attention of people in authority. I think we’ve made real progress and a lot of it is a result of student ideas and student action.”
Richmond has been dedicated to technology during his time as president. He’s worked closely with the Cal State Chancellor’s office to develop Cal State Online, and still serves on its board of directors. For students, this has led to an increase in the availability of online courses and, beginning in fall 2014, HSU students will be the first campus in the CSU system to have the option to complete their entire general education coursework online (See “Humboldt First CSU to Put Full GE Program Online,” page 7). “One of the things I think about a lot is ‘how can we serve all of the students in the CSU?’ I hear students say they tried to sign up for a course, but it was full and so they had to stay another semester. If they could take that class online, it would really benefit them.” He has also worked closely with faculty from the Department of Social Work and the School of Education to develop innovative online graduate programs in both those areas. Students benefit from the chance to enhance their careers, while living and working in parts of California that would make attending HSU impossible.
Over the years, Richmond has worked to involve students in campus decision-making. He has strongly supported student-led efforts to make changes. “One of the things I’m really proudest of is the Humboldt Energy Independence Fund. That was not a faculty idea. That was a student idea. They came to me and said we want to do this, we’re willing to charge ourselves $10 a semester and we know it will generate about $170,000 a year and we’re going to make progress toward being energy independent. I said, ‘Gosh, that’s a fabulous idea.’”
The founding of HEIF has led to student-designed and installed energy-saving projects across campus, from the photovoltaic power system atop the Music Building to innovative lighting in Redwood Bowl that both reduces energy consumption and prevents light pollution in the nearby neighborhoods.
Richmond has encouraged the campus to diversify, and students from underrepresented groups now make up 31 percent of the student body. That is up from 13 percent a decade ago. This year, Humboldt State set a record for enrollment with 8,293 students and reached a major milestone with a Latino/a student population of 25.6 percent, allowing the university to qualify as a Hispanic-Serving Institute.
Diversity and access to new ideas have always been at the heart of Richmond’s approach to education. In 2010 the university established a dual-degree program with X’ian University in China. Known officially as the “Sino-American 1+2+1 Dual Degree Program,” Humboldt State’s trans-Pacific project enables Chinese students to study their freshman year at their native school, spend the two middle years at HSU, then return to China for their senior year and earn bachelor’s degrees from both universities.
For Richmond, increasing access to higher education is imperative in deciding to undertake programs like the dual-degree program. During his tenure, the International Studies Program has expanded its recruitment efforts to attract students from all over the world. Similarly, HSU has increased its efforts in recruiting and providing support for former military personnel through the Veterans Enrollment and Transition Services office, earning recognition as a top school for military veterans for several years in a row.
During President Richmond’s time at HSU, the campus increased its emphasis on research by faculty and students. He has stressed that such research complements teaching and enriches the student experience. “I’ve been so impressed by the quality of what our faculty do for students here. I see students working closely with faculty and it really makes a difference in their lives.”
Richmond has galvanized HSU’s commitment to research and expanded opportunities in biology through his work and leadership with the CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology. A look at the results puts Richmond’s work in context: His leadership with CSUPERB helped secure more than $42 million in grants for the study of stem cell research from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine — or enough to fund 600 undergraduate researchers. This dedication led the faculty trustees of CSUPERB to create a new leadership prize and present the inaugural award to Richmond at his retirement reception at HSU.
On campus, Richmond’s work with CSUPERB and CIRM has translated into $1.6 million in funding to train motivated students for careers in the fields of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.
In addition to his work with CSUPERB, Richmond has been involved in other areas that have systemwide impact. He has contributed to efforts like the Council on Ocean Affairs, Science and Technology, and the Agricultural Research Initiative. He has also served as the CSU representative on the California Council for Science and Technology.
Another area where President Richmond has focused his attention is on enhancing the university’s relationship with the community. Richmond promoted the establishment of the Office of Economic, Community and Business Development that fosters faculty and student partnerships with local businesses. Owing to the strong support from campus, the HSU office became the Small Business Association’s regional center serving 10 Small Business Development Centers in Northern California.
“He’s laid the groundwork for a really productive relationship. We’ve done a lot of things together that are little building blocks, which over time, really build the relationship,” said Mark Wheetley, HSU alumnus and mayor of Arcata.
When the opportunity arises, Richmond blends his love of learning with community involvement: he’s been active in the area chapter of the United Way and volunteers his time to tutor first and second grade students in reading and mathematics at Arcata Elementary School through the United Way’s Schools of Hope program. Speaking at President Richmond’s retirement reception, Garry Eagles, Superintendent of the Humboldt County Office of Education, said, “I don’t think there has ever been, nor likely will ever be again, another California State University president who will be able to match Rollin’s deep commitment toward, and personal involvement with young children, while at the same time providing strong capable leadership in the higher education arena.”
Richmond also championed the development of the California Center for Rural Policy to directly aid the North Coast by providing grant support, assistance with business development and policy research. Many observers credit Richmond for town-gown relations that are the strongest in decades. In addition, he has focused attention on the need to encourage alumni and others to support the university. He established a new Advancement Foundation, and under his leadership the campus endowment has more than doubled over the last decade. In 2006, the university established its first endowed chair—the Kenneth L. Fisher Chair in Redwood Forest Ecology.
Richmond helped steward Humboldt State through many years of state budget cuts, including the severe reductions during the most recent recession. At the same time, he was able to gain state funding for substantial physical improvements to the campus. Most notably, the campus completed the Behavioral & Social Sciences classroom building, the Kinesiology & Athletics Building, and the College Creek Apartments. “The more I complained about the sorry state of the California budget, Rollin reminded me from the most challenging times come the most innovative opportunities and he was right,” said Burt Nordstrom, former Vice President of Administrative Affairs at HSU.
PRIOR TO COMING to Humboldt State, Richmond was provost and professor at Iowa State University, and he previously served as a distinguished faculty member and researcher at numerous institutions. As an evolutionary biologist he won grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, and has published dozens of articles in his field. His honors include fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (Australia), the University of South Florida President’s Award for Outstanding Performance and Enhancement of Affirmative Action in Higher Education, and an honorary doctorate from Georgia Agrarian State University.
Richmond started his career in higher education at San Diego State University and credits David Jameson, Professor of Biology, with sparking his passion for genetics. Richmond would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Zoology from SDSU and in the process found his love for research. As a work-study student, Richmond was searching for a job on campus when he approached Jameson about washing dishes in his laboratory. “After about two or three months Jameson could see I was really interested in the research he was doing, so he said ‘we’re wasting you washing dishes. We’ll get someone else and you come do research with me.’” It was an auspicious transition: the pair spent four years working on genetics research, focusing on species ranging from fruit flies to tree frogs. That connection led to Richmond interviewing for a graduate studies position at Rockefeller University in New York, where he would eventually earn his Ph.D. Some 80 research papers later, to abandon his original major—he was a pre-med student—and focus on genetics research was the decision of a lifetime.
Now, at the end of a career in which he reached the top of his profession, Richmond, and his wife, Ann, are excited to continue living on the North Coast, splitting time between Humboldt County and the couple’s Shelter Cove hideaway. Richmond’s retirement from education might be a retirement in name only, as the seasoned educator is eager to continue strengthening the community and work directly with elementary school children.