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Ruben Armi?na was 14, verging on chubby, and, as he tells it five decades later, had only a dime in his pocket.

It was Nov. 6, 1961, and he was saying goodbye to his parents, preparing to enter "the fishbowl," a glassed-in departure lounge at Cuba's Jose Marti International Airport.

He was one of 14,000 Cuban children extracted from post-revolution Communist Cuba in the U.S.-sponsored Operation Peter Pan. Armi?na would not see his parents for nine years.

Before he left, he promised them two things.

"I will go to college," he said. "And nobody will ever bully me into anything."

Today, at age 64, he is in many ways still in a fishbowl: the presidency of Sonoma State University.

When he arrived at the Rohnert Park campus 19 years ago, SSU depended largely on commuter students and was among California State University sites being considered for closure because of faltering enrollment. Now 10 students apply for every available seat at SSU and Armi?na is its longest-serving president.

"And I have kept those promises," he said.

Armi?na's mother used to call him "cabeza dura," or hard head, and Armi?na says she was right. "In some ways I have the temper, the temperament of a Cuban," he said. Indeed, he says, many years ago in New Orleans, he brandished an empty revolver at a man who was threatening him, ending the confrontation.

A refusal to be turned aside from his goals has been his signature as SSU's chief executive and he has attained largely what he set out to do.

"I'm pretty confident in what I have done and how I have done it and what I have achieved," he said in a two-hour interview conducted in his modest office filled with masks collected from around the world.

The sixth SSU president, he will in two weeks lead faculty and students in his 18th graduation ceremony on a campus that now has 7,592 full-time students, up from 5,783 in 1992.

He is recovered from an ulcer condition two years ago that sapped his strength and just two months ago secured a huge donation that all but assures completion of the Green Music Center, a signature symbol of his tenure.

Now, his skin ruddy, he rapped for emphasis on an office supply store-issued table, saying he has no plans to retire soon.

"I'm in better health than I have been in probably a very long time," he said. "I think I'm still intellectually pretty sharp. I think there are still things to do."

He is the highest-paid public official in Sonoma County, earning $351,000 a year, and has remade a university once known — both fondly and derisively — as Granola U.

"Its academic reputation has changed," said California State University Chancellor Charles Reed. "If you look all the way back, it was a giant community college."

Recruiting efforts

When he joined the university, 35 percent of the student body was from outside the region of Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Marin and Solano counties. This year 75 percent, or 6,220 students, come from outside the region, many from Southern California, where the school recruits heavily.

The campus has changed, perhaps most dramatically, in visual terms, with the addition of more than 1million square feet of new buildings.

Of those, the boldest symbol of Armi?na's vision — and the most reflective of controversies during his tenure — is the $120 million Green Music Center.

The facility is now nearing completion after 15 years of constant cost overruns; its supporters promise it will be one of the world's finest performing arts venues when it opens in fall 2012.

The center also has been a mirror for Armi?na's fundraising prowess. Nearly half its costs came from the private sector, most recently in a gift secured from one of America's foremost donors to the fine arts.

Through it all, Armi?na has battled with vocal faculty critics who have questioned his leadership and four years ago pushed through a no-confidence vote against him.

He also has dealt with incessant budget cuts that next year will amount to a 25percent reduction over two years, and faced a severe health crisis that visibly withered him.

But today he appears vigorous and fully recovered from a bleeding ulcer that went undetected after a 2008 gastric bypass surgery to lose weight.

The ulcer, bleeding internally for close to a year, led to a gradual decline in health that left Armi?na 100 pounds lighter, gray-skinned and noticeably gaunt. On one night in July 2009 he lost half his blood and later underwent emergency surgery.

Asked whether the medical crisis — he went to the doctor only on his wife's insistence — frightened him, he said: "I don't get frightened that easily."

Driven despite criticism

Such confidence has served Armi?na well.

He has weathered steady criticism from faculty members who doubt his vision for SSU, saying he doesn't consult with them, disregards their concerns and has emphasized grandiose buildings over educational quality.

"He's driven to do the kinds of things that he's done, whether we like it or not," said longtime critic Bob Karlsrud, a history professor and dean emeritus of the School of Social Sciences.

On that point, Armi?na's supporters agree, though they say that his determination has pushed the university forward.

"He has a vision and commitments that he made to people and there was no way that a bunch of complaining faculty were going to stop him," said Lynn Cominsky, a physics and astronomy professor.

Outsiders say he has earned a reputation as an administrator who has skillfully steered the school through budget cuts that have left SSU's annual budget about where it was 15 years ago, at roughly $50 million.

"Most people recognize that Sonoma has been successful as an institution in terms of providing the resources necessary," said John Travis, a Humboldt State University politics professor who heads the California Faculty Association's political action/legislative committee.

"I think the president has to get some credit for it," said Travis, who was president of the association from 2003 to 2007.

Reed agreed, saying that Armi?na has been able to regularly garner support from the CSU system "because he has a very clear vision" for Sonoma State.

That vision was most notably captured in 1995, Armi?na's third year at SSU, during his annual state-of-the-university address.

"Our identity is to be California's public ivy," he told the faculty then, describing that as being "the closest thing in California to a private institution in a public system, a hallmark of higher education in an intimate setting."

Changes instituted

To that end, he oversaw construction of a $40 million library widely considered among the best in the state's university system.

He pushed the creation of professional majors such as wine business, engineering and environmental planning, and deepened the school's ties to the business world.

In 1995, he ushered in a program — the first in the CSU system — requiring all students to have access to a personal computer.

He has made fundraising a priority, increasing the university's endowment by 10 times, to just under $30million.

And the student body has changed dramatically, becoming wealthier and younger. In 1995, 36 percent of SSU students were 21 or under, compared to 51 percent today.

Reed said that among parents and high school counselors and principals, Armi?na has resoundingly revamped the university's image.

"It gets referred to as the Ivy League campus in the California State University system," Reed said.

But to Armi?na's critics, his vision has been realized in the least desirable of ways.

"We are now a public ivy without the Ivy League curriculum," said art history professor Susan Moulton, a former chairwoman of the Academic Senate.

Detractors such as Moulton say Armi?na, by supporting increased student fees to pay for buildings like residence halls and a recreation center, has made it tougher for low-income students to go to SSU, making the school less diverse.

And, they have said for more than a decade, his focus on capital projects has compromised the school's academic mission.

Armi?na shrugs off the criticism.

The average incoming GPA, 3.16 in 2010, is evidence of the student body quality, he says. And the school, while among the least diverse in the system, is becoming more so, partly through recruitment efforts in Los Angeles and partnerships with largely Latino high schools such as Roseland University Prep and Elsie Allen in Santa Rosa.

Liberal arts emphasis

At the same time, he says, SSU has set itself apart through the liberal arts education it offers.

"I think the fundamental core of the university is this commitment to the liberal arts and sciences," he said. "In that, we have distinguished ourselves well, differentiated ourself well within the California State University system."

His fans on the faculty echo that view.

"He's been the president during this time of transformation to a place where students want to go and study and people want to go and teach," said Jonah Raskin, a communications professor who joined the university in 1981.

"It's no longer a backwater place," Raskin said of SSU. Armi?na won over Raskin after he became president and accepted an invitation to visit his class and showed up with a New Orleans-style cake and Mardi Gras beads.

"That was a sign of his leadership, that he was willing and did come into the classroom," Raskin said. "A president who goes to the classroom, brings cake to the students, that's a president that I like."

In more solid terms, Armi?na's vision has come to life in concrete and mortar.

The 269-acre campus has been transformed during his tenure. Two buildings have been totally renovated. Seven buildings have been erected, including the library and residence halls that Armi?na argued were key to attracting top-shelf students.

None have been as high-profile, nor as much a lightning rod for criticism, as the Green Music Center. As its costs climbed more than tenfold and deadlines for its completion rolled by, Armi?na's critics have used it as a cudgel to argue his priorities were misplaced.

The controversy and criticism peaked in 2007, when faculty passed a no-confidence vote against him, based partly on complaints that the music center was sapping university resources.

Armi?na dug in, saying before the vote: "If anybody is hoping I will retire or resign, let me assure you completely that will not happen."

Loan controversy

Two years later another crisis rocked both Armi?na and the broader institution when the university's Academic Foundation came in for a storm of criticism for making millions of dollars in loans to a prominent, and now bankrupt, local developer and former foundation board member, Clem Carinalli.

The foundation has found itself ensnared in bankruptcy court, trying to recover more than $1 million, and a board member was asked to resign, but throughout, Armi?na did not give an inch.

"It was absolutely legal, proper and appropriate," he said in a 2009 interview, defending the foundation's lending to Carinalli and other local landowners.

Again, there were suggestions that it was time for Armi?na to step down.

He says he never considered it.

"It is in those times, that you have the least inclination to consider something else. Because it would be an admittance that you did something wrong or might have done something different," he said.

"Those are the times when if anything, it secures me more to staying," he said.

Armi?na arrived at SSU in 1992 from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, where he'd been vice president of finance and development.

The CSU system, amid a state budget crisis, was changing. It was the start of a new era, when campus presidents gained newfound authority and responsibility for raising funds for their schools.

Against that backdrop, then-CSU Chancellor Barry Munitz said that some campuses might have to close. SSU was on that list.

"The old model was unsustainable, and had put the viability of SSU in danger," Armi?na said.

He took on the fundraising challenges with gusto.

"I knew that was the new thing to do in the CSU and that was going to be one of my principal tasks to accomplish," he said. "And for 19 years it has been."

His administration has boosted the university's endowment to $28 million from $3 million; it is now the 10th largest among the 23 CSU campuses after being last in 1987. The endowment is fourth-largest in terms of dollars per student.

Millions were raised for the Schulz Information Center library. And through the most sustained fundraising campaign in SSU history, nearly $60 million has been raised to build the Green Music Center, most recently in a $12 million gift from Sandy Weill, the former Citigroup chairman, and his wife, Joan.

But much of that private money has leveraged public debt. For example, the Green Center, originally meant to be wholly privately funded, has ultimately cost taxpayers about $45 million, much of it in education bonds.

"The mission and purpose of the university has not been respected because we need to fill our dorms to fund our debt," Moulton said.

More freshmen

A class of 1,800 freshmen is expected in fall 2011, or 22 percent of all students. In 1996, out of a student body of 6,995, 823 were freshmen, or 11 percent.

That, critics like Moulton say, has led to an emphasis on giving greater resources to general education classes for incoming students and less to the upper-division classes where students pursue their majors.

"We're looking more like a glorified junior college," Moulton said.

Armi?na fires back.

"Change is difficult for those wedded to a mystical past," he said.

"A major accomplishment of my administration," he said, has been to "transform the university ... to a truly four-year institution with full-time students, strong academic reputation and accepted by the community."

He accepts critics as part of the arena, but remains unswayed.

"They have their view of what the university should be, and it's not my view of what the university is or should be, to be honest," he said. "And that's natural."

Neither, he says, is he much given to introspection. In difficult times, he does not turn to texts or teachings to help steer his way.

"I play with my dogs," two Labrador retriever mixes, he said. "I'm not really good at walking backwards."

When neccessary, he says, he turns for guidance and support to his wife of 23 years, Marne Olson, and a small group of college friends scattered around the country, among them a U.S. Department of the Treasury consultant, a psychology writer and lecturer, and the former head of the Austin, Texas, arboretum.

"They are my closest friends, people I trust." he said.

No-confidence vote

He had occasion to turn to them in 2007, when by a 3-1 margin SSU faculty voted to approve a resolution expressing no confidence in him.

Armi?na responded in three ways.

First, he said the vote was misdirected, and that the faculty's anger should have been directed toward the state, which was cutting the CSU budget.

Then, he surprised many by suggesting, in vivid terms, that racism may have played a role in the vote, which came within a month of a no-confidence vote against Sacramento State University President Alexander Gonzalez.

Recalling the only previous no-confidence vote against a SSU president, Greece-born Peter Diamandopoulos, who resigned under pressure in 1982, Armi?na said in 2007 that both men were "foreign-born, short and with an accent."

This month he repeated his belief that race may have had a role in the vote.

"It all happened within a month of each other that the two presidents who received votes of no confidence, at Sacramento and Sonoma, both happened to be Hispanic," he said. "Coincidence?

"I'm not saying that people were active racists," he said, "I'm not saying that, but, you know, I found that two things happening at the same time strange."

Finally, months after the vote, Armi?na, to the applause of his critics, promised to be more open with the faculty.

"I think they have some valid concerns and they need to be addressed in practical, realistic ways," he said. "I think we need to communicate better and more often."

Need for communication

Four years later, he acknowledges that that is an area that could be considered a weakness.

"To be able to spend more time communicating primarily with the faculty, spend more time explaining my vision for the institution," he said.

"You get involved in so many things and you don't do as good a job communicating as you could do," he said.

Karlsrud says that is a "huge" weakness of Armi?na's — "his unwillingness to engage in meaningful consultation with either the faculty or even his own managers" when he decides on a project to pursue.

"I think he could have gotten a lot of support from the faculty, including for the Green Music Center, if he had just come to them and said, &‘Look this is what I want to do, and I need your help.'

"In all my time as the dean, I never saw him come in and say, &‘This is what I want to do and I need your help,'" Karlsrud said. "He would come in and say, &‘Bob this is what I'm going to do.' And you either fought it or supported it."

At the same time, Karlsrud said, referring to the fundraising trail that Armi?na has blazed and that has helped reshape the university, "He'll go down, I really do believe, as one of the greatest presidents in the CSU, and I don't say that grudgingly."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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