Even on the hardest days of his presidency at the University of North Texas, Lane Rawlins could find a reason to smile just by leaving his office in the Hurley Administration Building and interacting with students.
“One time, it was a really hard and long day, and I was kind of depressed,” he said recently, as he sat in his office. “I went over to the Winspear auditorium, and our combined symphony and chorus were doing the Mozart Requiem, and I was moved to tears. I remember thinking, no matter how bad it gets anywhere, no one is good enough to actually deserve to hear this music. It’s a gift.”
Rawlins will step down from the role of president at the end of the week and transition into the role of president emeritus, one where he can still walk through campus and enjoy student work. His successor will be Neal Smatresk, outgoing president of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
During his more than three years in office, Rawlins helped increase recruitment, retention and research, oversaw a five-year strategic plan and led the university to a Heart of Dallas Bowl victory in football. However, his focus on students marked his tenure at UNT, with students the driving force behind virtually every decision he made, according to those who worked with him. It is there he hopes he made his mark.
“The legacy I would like to leave, what I would like to be remembered for, is just that I did my best to make higher education better, because it’s important,” he said. “And if I’m successful, a few people will have some advantages they wouldn’t otherwise have. Ultimately, that’s all it is. That’s all there is.”
His decisions were also deeply rooted in logic with an emphasis on data, leading to strong financial and strategic planning, Provost Warren Burggren said.
“In the three-and-a-half years that he’s been here, I’ve greatly appreciated his consistency, his profound sense of ethics that affects all of his decision-making, and his objective and analytical approaches,” Burggren said.
The key to Rawlins’ leadership has been a guiding quote and self-proclaimed motto: “It’s not my job to straighten people out; it’s my job to lift them up.”
A calming influence
When Rawlins started in 2010 as the interim president of UNT, it was a time of instability. Gretchen Bataille had abruptly resigned as president in February, and Phil Diebel had served as interim president until April, when Rawlins stepped in as yet another interim.
“I took the job on an interim position and did find there was unrest here,” Rawlins said. “The departure of the previous president happened suddenly. People were, I think, a little paranoid about things and wondering if they could really do things or not. I just felt it was important to be a calming influence, and to try to convince people that they really are as good as I know they are.”
At the time, Rawlins was in retirement after serving as president at Washington State University and the University of Memphis, and he had no interest in taking the full-time position. But as he spent more time on campus, he said he “quickly fell in love.” When he was offered the permanent position, he realized there were more things he wanted to accomplish before leaving Denton.
“It’s very unusual to have as much prior experience as a president as Lane Rawlins brought to UNT,” said Chancellor Lee Jackson. “The confidence that came from that experience was evident immediately — he gained respect on campus, in the community, in the UNT system and with the Board of Regents.”
His first focus was on student excellence, Rawlins said, putting more money into scholarships and pushing faculty members to become more competitive on a national scale. He stepped up recruitment and retention, and oversaw creation of a strategic plan outlining the university’s goals.
He won’t be the one to say he led the effort, however, deferring questions about his accomplishments to his co-workers.
“If I have an accomplishment here — if there are any accomplishments I’ve been involved in — my only role would have been to try to get the teams working together because it’s all up to them,” he said.
Rawlins’ connections extended past the university and into Denton. He worked with the city on special projects and sits on the Joint Economic Development Partnership Board.
“He’s a real believer in leveraging the resources of community, city and university and did so very effectively,” Mayor Mark Burroughs said. “He was so good at pulling out what the true issues were and cutting to the chase. For that reason, even though he was at the university for a relatively short time, his impact was really felt by the city.”
Rawlins sat on the board during his entire tenure at UNT, and provided meaningful commentary and led discussion even when the issue did not directly concern the university, said Chuck Carpenter, president of the Denton Chamber of Commerce. Rawlins actively engaged others and always took notes, but never looked at his cellphone, Carpenter said.
“I’ve appreciated that man’s time. It’s split and it’s valuable, and he’s expected to be everywhere,” Carpenter said. “He has so many different and diverse constituencies, so for him then to take an hour and a half every month to come sit down with the regular, free-enterprise civilians and help us with our decisions, I’ve just been real dang impressed.”
The motto of lifting people up also extended into his community discussions. If Rawlins differed in opinion or discussed a controversial topic, he maintained a calm attitude and didn’t get worked up, Carpenter said.
“He can participate in a controversial topic when there’s obvious disagreement, and at the end of it you still feel like you want to go have a Kodak moment with him, or a hug,” he said.
Rawlins is credited with strengthening academics, student affairs, alumni involvement and athletics at UNT.
In fall 2011, he led the creation of the new five-year strategic plan that outlined the university’s self-proclaimed “four bold goals” that were presented at the beginning of every class and were on the walls of administrators’ offices: providing the best undergraduate educational experience in the state, conducting research and other endeavors to become a Tier One institution, becoming a national leader in student support and workplace culture and engaging in partnerships with the community.
He also oversaw the opening of three new buildings and the start of a new student union. The three completed buildings are all Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certified, and officials plan to also have the union become certified.
This growth was not as much as he had hoped, however, Rawlins said. He cites as his biggest disappointment the lack of support from the Texas Legislature in funding more campus infrastructure, and he plans to continue to fight on UNT’s behalf as president emeritus.
Rawlins also secured the largest donation in the university’s history — $22 million from Thai businessman Charn Uswachoke, a UNT graduate — a moment the president remembers well and says is one of his finest while at UNT.
“He loves this place,” Rawlins said of Uswachoke. “Listening to him tell the stories about when he came over here from Thailand, and how much he appreciated the kindness of the people he met, and then I presented him with a proposal of three different ways to donate up to $10 million, and all three separately added up to $22 million. I remember the moment when he said, ‘I want them all,’ and signed the pledge. That’s a very special moment to me.”
Overseeing the Mean Green win in the Heart of Dallas Bowl after UNT’s first season in Conference USA was also a favorite, Rawlins said.
While he again wouldn’t take credit for the football team’s success this season despite his strong support of the program and athletics, he did concede that he helped lead the team to success indirectly.
“I did a few things right that contributed to that, and I think that’s the role of a president,” he said.
The bonds he’s formed with the community will help shape his upcoming retirement. He and his wife, Mary Jo, own a home in Denton and plan to stay in the area most of the year. While he’s transitioned into retirement before, he said it is never easy, and joked about getting a dog so he has someone to supervise.
In addition to serving as president emeritus, Rawlins thinks he will return to the classroom as well.
For Ruby Raines, who worked alongside Rawlins as executive assistant to the president, their one-on-one conversations will be what she misses most.
“We had a lot of talks, and I could talk with him and he would, of course, have a story that he can always tell you and make you feel better,” she said. “No matter what, he will make you feel better.”
Rawlins hopes he leaves behind a better university than when he started.
“If it’s a better place, then that’s all I want,” he said. “I would be most moved by having a few students remember that when I was their president, I helped do some things that made their education better. And that’s really it — all legacies go away one way or another.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.