New WSUV chancellor is an experienced hand at helm

Interim leader has been at WSUV for 14 years

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Lynn Valenter occupies the corner office that still bears the nameplate of Hal Dengerink, Washington State University Vancouver’s founding and only chancellor.

But only for portions of her days.

WSUV’s top budget official for the past decade takes her “interim chancellor” title seriously. Most times, she still camps out in her old office. She sits on the search committee to find a full-time replacement for Dengerink, which only recently held its first meeting (a goal of announcing a new hire by spring is realistic).

Yet, Valenter, 50, is smart enough not to slam any doors shut.

“I’ve learned never to say never,” she says, smiling, but doesn’t consider herself a candidate for the permanent top job.

What she is, is plenty: An experienced hand on campus who can pitch its virtues well to prospective students and faculty and staff and business leaders alike; who knows where the deepest budget challenges lie and the vast, educational and job-producing potential remains.

On the eve of Monday’s start of the 2011-12 school year, The Columbian sat down to find out more about Valenter, and WSUV’s near-term future.

How has the job gone, since Dengerink’s retirement in June?

“It’s been surprisingly ‘normal.’ Since I’ve been here, I’ve done two jobs a lot. It’s turned out to be a natural extension of what I’ve been doing.” She had helped “backstop” Dengerink many times, and is comfortable taking the fore. “Hal was great” about giving his administrators the chance to grow and broaden their expertise, she adds.

“WSUV is an incredible asset to Clark County. The next leader means a lot.” During the transition, “I’ll be extending Hal’s vision for the last 14 years” — the length of Valenter’s career at Salmon Creek.

Your favorite part of the job?

“The interaction with students, and the extremely rewarding interaction with staff and faculty. We continue to grow, we expect record enrollment.” (Last year, WSUV topped 3,000 part- and full-time students for the first time). That includes more young freshman students who “have really brought with them an energy and an interest level” markedly different from the dominant grad-student population.

There’s been a corresponding “explosion” in more student-life amenities on campus. For instance, student clubs now number about 50, up from 30 just a year ago.

As for faculty, Valenter can’t praise them enough. “We have got such quality individuals throughout this campus, frankly, it just makes it a pleasure to come to work every day,” a line she uses often with employees. “You are going to work with some absolutely stellar individuals.”

The least favorite part?

“It is the budget: Trying to deliver on the mission with diminishing resources, and trying to stretch and not break.”

State legislators have pushed huge tuition hikes the past three to four years to stem multibillion dollar state budget deficits. That papers over short-term pain, but “it’s not sustainable over the long run,” Valenter says. More is asked of faculty whose pay has steadily slipped behind that elsewhere, including “the privates (universities) that have been eating our lunch.”

“We’re saying goodbye to some incredible faculty members. We can’t compete. It’s one of my biggest concerns.” Washington’s public universities can offer a decent assistant professor entry salary, but instructors quickly hit a ceiling other employers can exploit, she says.

What’s new this year?

By spring, WSUV’s long-awaited, $43.5 million engineering and computer science building, will host classes and prized labs. The building delivers on the promise made by the 2008 addition of an electrical engineering degree program, long desired by Southwest Washington tech employers. There are 25 electrical engineering students currently on the degree track and 57 pending declarations to major in that field of study.

There’s been strong growth in mechanical engineering and computer science programs. Part of the WSUV master plan is to develop a small research park, either on or adjacent to the campus. The fields of “scientific devices” or digital communications could be an early driver.

WSUV is producing more “pre-graduate health majors,” ready to pursue dentistry or physician careers, Valenter said. Health science programs are receiving higher emphasis, to fill local and regional occupational needs — buttressed by an excellent partnership with Clark College.

It may be years away, still, but WSU officials in Pullman have hired a consultant to explore student housing at branch campuses, including Salmon Creek. Valenter notes a large chunk of young freshman and sophomore students — still not the norm, a career-changer age 30 or older who takes upper division courses — don’t elect to remain living with their parents.

Is WSUV really a comprehensive university, or should it focus on “job-ready” occupations?

Both, essentially. “An educated person is an educated person,” Valenter says. WSUV’s liberal arts college, which includes popular options such as its digital media in communications program, is the school’s largest college.

Even in Clark County’s deep recession, adults with a bachelor’s degree suffer barely a 5 percent unemployment rate, compared to countywide figures of 13 percent or more, Valenter says. Liberal arts graduates raise the knowledge bar across the community and workplace.

But, no question, employers are salivating over those engineering and computer science graduates.

What’s your background?

Valenter is an MBA alumnus at WSUV; her undergraduate degree is in hotel administration. She earned an academic scholarship to Cornell University, out of Beaverton, Ore.’s Sunset High School. (She even played basketball there, although transition from center at Sunset to Ivy League point guard didn’t go so swell).

She oversaw facilities and operations and facilities at Westin Hotel locations (including Portland’s Benson Hotel), and then worked for a Phoenix, Ariz., resort and a hotel holding company based in Sacramento, Calif. (“I miss this,” she said during a hot, cloudless August afternoon on campus).

Relocating in Vancouver-Portland, she took a turn as a stay-at-home mother (five children, of which two are at WSU Pullman, one at the University of Washington). She would earn her MBA in 1997, only the second year that WSUV existed, after starting at Bauer Hall at Clark College.

She was hired as facilities and auxiliary services manager, building on her hotel experience. In late 1999, Dengerink chose her for director of finance and operations. She was promoted to Vice Chancellor in 2005, then took the interim tag in early 2010, as Dengerink battled health issues.

After all that, she’s totally at ease showing off “this fantastic campus,” and selling the school’s mission to all comers — “just making sure the community gets as much as they can from us,” she says.

Weather or not, she welcomes the arrival of WSUV’s new season.

“There’s an energy that comes with a fall enrollment. Having the students back is great.”

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.