A Leader Who Serves

President Richard Rush gets high marks as a visionary, caring and community-oriented leader

President Rush congratulates a graduate

As hundreds of excited new students descended on the CI campus for summer orientation, they were greeted by someone who was even more enthusiastic about their arrival.

“Welcome to CI,” said President Richard Rush, warmly trading handshakes and fist bumps with students, chatting up parents, and delivering what would be one of dozens of unscripted and inspirational speeches that month.

It’s not uncommon to find Rush greeting new freshmen, speaking to visiting middle schoolers about the importance of college, hosting a dinner at his home for student government leaders, or stepping into a classroom to teach a course on University Life and College Success. As a leader who built CI on the mission of a student-centered education, Rush sets the example from the top that the most effective leaders are those who also know how to serve.

“For me, it’s a great delight to spend time with the students, faculty and staff, so I go everywhere that I’m invited as often as I can,” Rush said. “I don’t want the students to think I’m locked away in some ivory tower.”

In 10 years, Rush has cultivated a close-knit, congenial campus where administrators greet students by name, faculty and students collaborate on research and service projects, and everyone rallies behind the mission of an educational experience focused on the student.

“If we’re ever discussing policy and procedure and we get lost, the President will always come back and say, ‘Where’s the student?’ And that helps formulate all that we do,” said Dr. Wm. Gregory Sawyer, Vice President for Student Affairs, and one of Rush’s first-hired administrators at the newly-formed campus in 2002.

“President Rush is the reason we all live and breathe the mission,” said Associate Professor and Psychology Program Chair Virgil Adams, a faculty member since 2003. “I’ve worked at other universities where the only focus was on research and publishing. At CI, everybody is focused on providing a great experience for students and sending them off into the world to do great things. It all emanates from him.”

Rush’s dedication to student success and world-class, research-based programs, along with his approachability and sense of humor, create a loyal and supportive fan base among administrators, faculty, staff and students.

“He’s the sweetest man ever. He walks around campus and says ‘hi’ to everyone and comes to a lot of our student events,” said recent CI graduate Veronica Palafox. “I love that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. We don’t have to treat him like royalty – even though he is.”

Palafox recalls how she once jokingly suggested that Rush shave his head to raise money for a campus Relay for Life event.

“He said, ‘There’s not enough money in the world. I’ll just let nature take its toll,’” she recalled.

Rush offered a generous donation instead.

An agile public speaker who shifts effortlessly from inspiring eloquence and arcane literary references to pop culture and self-deprecating humor, Rush often addresses groups without the benefit of a single note. He prefers to work the crowd rather than stand behind the podium. Each semester, he joins students for “Pizza with the President,” where he fields questions and offers candid responses.

“He always stays around afterward and talks to the students, so he can answer questions that they may not have been comfortable asking in a large crowd,” said Damien Peña, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students. “He has a special way of connecting with everyone. It really means a lot to staff members when their President greets them by name and says, ‘Hey, I know who you are and I value what you do.’”

Rush and students

When Rush arrived at CI in June 2001, he faced the herculean task of opening CI’s doors in fall 2002. That gave him just over a year to hire the first faculty, administrators and staff; renovate old Camarillo State Hospital buildings for student learning; and create and put in place curriculum, strategy, policy and procedure – all while maintaining a grueling schedule of community meetings and speaking engagements. As a 20- year veteran administrator and faculty member in the CSU system who helped create CSU San Marcos, and 9-year President at Minnesota State University at Mankato, Rush had plenty of prior experience building and growing campuses.

Professor of Economics Dennis Muraoka said Rush’s drive was “dazzling” even before he officially started the job. While finishing up his work in Minnesota during the week, Rush spent weekends flying back and forth to California, so he could interview all 70 finalists for the first CI faculty positions. Rush later called Muraoka to invite him to become one of CI’s 13 original faculty members – a personal gesture he continues to extend to new faculty to this day.

“He had a very clear vision of what the culture should be like on this campus and he exercised great care in selecting the people he brought here. He continues to do that. He believes that key administration and faculty positions are so important that he wants to make sure he gets the right people here,” said Muraoka. “One of the things he told me early on is: ‘I am a member of the faculty. I just have a slightly different job.’ That’s true. He’s a Professor of English. And that was a significant thing because what he was trying to convey is that we’re all on the same team here. He works well with the faculty because he’s one of us.”

The campus earned full accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) in near-record time and for the longest period possible. The WASC reviewers commended CI as the “campus of innovation,” showing an “institution-wide commitment to and implementation of learning-centered practices that place it far ahead of many much older and better-established universities within the CSU, state and nation.” Rush is committed to maintaining that spirit of innovation even as the campus slowly grows toward its eventual goal of 15,000 students.

These days, Rush is focused on helping CI thrive in an era of severe state funding cutbacks. He earns high praise from community and business leaders for his innovation in pursuing partnerships and grants, and for building programs to benefit the region.

“Dr. Rush approached me upon arriving at CSU Channel Islands with one question: ‘How can CI help you in meeting future workforce needs?’” recalled Ron Werft, President and CEO of Cottage Health System. “Dr. Rush backed it up by opening a new Bachelor of Science in Nursing program on campus within a few years. He then asked, ‘What can CI do now?’ Again, within a few years, we partnered in opening a BSN program in Goleta so that those individuals on waiting lists are now able obtain their education locally while remaining a part of our community. I would describe his efforts as inspiring. He not only asks how the University can be a better partner, he follows through, as does his great staff, in making it happen.”

“He is a driven man, but he’s driven in a way that is focused for the good of the students and the community. Dick does what he does with no political agenda, nothing other than the love of helping,” said George Leis, President and Chief Operating Officer of Pacific Capital Bancorp and Chair of the CI Foundation Board. “He sees a partially painted canvas at CI and he’s not going to let up until he’s done. His imprint will be felt for a long, long time.”

Rush and employees

Rush stays on top of regional education, business and philanthropic needs by serving on nearly a dozen community boards and committees and representing CI at events ranging from Rotary Club breakfasts to Chamber of Commerce luncheons. Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Stan Mantooth works with Rush on the Ventura County Regional P-16 Council, a group of educational, community and business leaders that Rush chairs. The group focuses on helping students succeed from preschool through higher education and improving college-going rates.

“One of the things he’s known for saying is, ‘I don’t want to hold meetings unless they result in concrete action,’” Mantooth said. “He is a man of action and a wonderful advocate for education at all levels. He has brought CI to a full flowering as a public university here in Ventura County, exponentially increasing its offerings and diversity while keeping it clearly rooted in the community.”

No wonder Rush sheepishly admits he has little time left over for hobbies, which include “bleeding Dodger blue,” cheering on the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, reading, and hiking with his wife, Jane. Leading CI to a future as a national model for higher education and community enrichment is his primary passion and pastime.

“It’s been a 10-year process of deep satisfaction and we’re only getting started,” he said. “This University’s potential is just beginning to be tapped. Every day, it’s exciting for me to come to work. I’m passionate about this University and its future.”