CSUCI President Rush reflects on 15 years of building a university

by Michael Sullivan
michael@vcreporter.com

As California State University, Channel Islands, Founding President Richard Rush, Ph.D., prepares for his final commencement on May 21 before retirement, going down memory lane is bittersweet. Without a doubt, he is filled with pride over the success of the students, the faculty and the development of the campus, which includes the Broome Library, the Martin V. Smith Center and the Student Union. Frustration lingers over the state’s failure to better support the campus financially. But where there is a will, there has been President Rush. While he won’t actually hand over the baton to his successor, Erika D. Beck, until August, Rush will be winding down his 15-year tenure, leaving the campus in a stable place ready for growth.

Rush sat down with the VCReporter this week to reflect on all things CSUCI, with some surprising twists and turns about what it’s like to build a university from an old abandoned structure to a modern campus.

VCReporter: Why did you decide to retire at this point?

Richard Rush: I decided to retire because right now it’s a clean break. We’re reaccredited for almost a decade, the board of trustees has affirmed the authority of the president to build the campus without relying solely on the state of California, [which] means that we can find ways of financing our own capital projects so it gives us a lot of flexibility. While I have a number of ideas about what I would do, if I start them and my successor doesn’t want to do them for whatever reason, then it won’t be fair to that person or the university. So that’s a clean break. Plus it’s time for my current wife and me to do some things that we’ve wanted to do. High on the list is to see our grandkids — we have seven.

What was it like when you first came here and to put together the faculty?

When I came here the beautiful buildings were in disrepair and I was the only employee of Cal State, Channel Islands, on the 18th of June 2001. There were other folks here but they all had appointments elsewhere. It was exhilarating, it was exciting — I was really honored to be selected.

This was my second time around — I did all the original planning for Cal State, San Marcos, and so at that time I was intimately involved in interviewing the faculty, the candidates there, so I had a sense of how to go about it. Up until last year, I have interviewed every faculty candidate, over 800 of them, and I’ve appointed the ones I’ve thought were the best fit for the campus and I haven’t been disappointed. They’ve done an astounding job and I’ll match this faculty against anybody.

campusTell us about how you came to CSU, Channel Islands.

[The CSU system] had an executive search firm and the representative from that firm called me and said that I had been nominated for this position and CSU hoped that I would apply. It was the right time in my life for a change. My wife had passed away and I wasn’t certain I could stay where I was though I was happy with the people and the university; the memories seemed maybe too much. Then they had a national search and the chancellor and the trustees selected me.

What were some of the hurdles that you and the campus have had to overcome?

The first thing was funding. We have never been adequately funded for a start-up operation. We have been funded only on the margin, which means the difference between this year’s enrollment and next year’s so we only get more money as we have more enrollment. We didn’t have facilities so the first basic challenge was to design the programs. The faculty and I did that. Then I got the faculty in who could deliver the programs and we had to have the funding to enable the faculty to do it and the administration staff to support the faculty. But then we had to get these facilities fixed and they were a mess. The buildings were beautiful but there were foot-thick concrete walls, floors and ceilings, so you don’t move the walls very easily. The architects had a real challenge on their hands. Those were initial challenges: Get the programs so we could open the university, get the very best faculty we could and we did, and then fix up the place so that we would have classrooms and laboratories and offices and support areas.

What was your vision, the focus of learning, for CSU, Channel Islands?

We came to listen and to hear what the region needed because our immediate service, if you will, is for Ventura County, north Los Angeles and southern Santa Barbara … and then the state and beyond. But we needed to listen. We’re surrounded by a hundred hi-tech and biotech firms. The naval base has not only military but civilian positions; there are a lot of positions out there. We came to build a great university, not to build one that would be mediocre, and so I said that to all the faculty candidates, “Build programs for the future … and see what the future is going to call for in your discipline.” And then everything we did was interdisciplinary because that’s the way the world operates. We’re strong in the sciences, we’re strong in the arts, we’re strong in teacher education and in business. We have a very strong profile across the board.

Do CSUCI graduates stay in the area?

We asked our graduates, “How many of you intend to stay here when you graduate?” and 87 percent said they want to stay in the region.

With respect to the location of CSUCI in Camarillo, there seems to be lingering resentment about officials not embracing opening the school in Ventura. What are your thoughts on it?

This is a geographic center of Ventura County and the buildings and the property are beautiful, they’re gorgeous. We look like we’re an old university but then you go inside and you see what’s inside and you see what the faculty are teaching and it’s state-of-the-art so there’s that delicious irony. But if we had been in Ventura on that site that was proposed on the Taylor Ranch, the cost of infrastructure would have been prohibitive to pull all that infrastructure up that hill. I doubt that if we were in Ventura, we would have more than one building, especially since we had that economic downturn. 

It doesn’t seem that the state has been very financially supportive of Channel Islands.

It hasn’t been. It hasn’t been in large amounts.

Is that surprising to you?

It’s disappointing. I mean, there’s a jewel here and we can give you all sorts of material showing you the awards that the faculty, the students, the staff, the university have won just, say, in the last five years but the state does not reward success.

What are some of your most remarkable accomplishments?

Wow, there are so many. I’m very proud of our students’ achievements. We have had graduate students in business who have competed internationally in a business strategy competition with 1,300 other teams from 800 universities and they took first place. We have our students in media arts who have dominated the statewide media arts competition for most of our 14 years. We’ve had two students who won Barry Goldwater science awards and one who won another prestigious award in science — she’s finishing her doctorate at Yale. I heard from a student a couple of weeks ago; he’s finishing his doctorate at Johns Hopkins in neurobiology and he’s coming to UCLA for a post-doc next year. Those are just students. We’ve had two faculty members who have had national science foundation career awards. When I counted them, only nine of the 23 CSUs had (had) one. We have two. Two of our mathematicians — a full professor was awarded the Outstanding Faculty Member in Mathematics by the Mathematics Association of America; an associate professor was awarded the Younger Faculty same thing, Outstanding Faculty Member in Mathematics in the nation. I mean, I can keep going on and on. We’re 15 years old and we play with the big kids and our people excel.

What will you miss the most?

I’ll miss the people. I’ve huge respect for the faculty and they’re my friends, I’ve hired them all. For the administrative staff, they’re outstanding; the staff in my office are just the best. I’m going to miss the people and I’m going to miss the students. I love talking smack with the students. They call me “P. Rush” as in P. Diddy.