Enjoying leading in the midst of seismic flux

PULLMAN – John Fraire’s world is in seismic flux – restructuring of his division, doctoral thesis deadlines, changing student demographics, enrollment growth expectations and, like everyone else, budget cuts. But despite the demanding challenge, he’s enjoying it.
Seven months ago, WSU President Elson S. Floyd announced a major reorganization of the university’s management structure to help reduce costs and deal with ongoing cuts in state funding. The plan eliminated three vice president positions and consolidated five administrative divisions into two. For most employees that was an alteration in the org chart, a change in view from a 3,000-foot level. For Fraire (pronounced Fri-day), it was ground zero.
Fraire’s title was suddenly transformed from vice president of Enrollment Management to vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment. To the average pedestrian those words mean little. For Fraire, it means he now oversees the university’s second largest division with approximately 328 employees.
Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of the reorganization: The areas of equity and diversity were transferred from under the purview of student affairs to that of the Provost’s Office. At the same time, Fraire remained as vice president over enrollment, plus took on all other aspects of student affairs and Multicultural Student Services, and added University Recreation, the CUB, and Housing and Dining Services. (See related sidebar for a list of departments Fraire oversees.)
Shifting foundations
Now overseeing a broad number of departments, Fraire’s goal is to reorganize his division as quickly and efficiently as possible. The problem is, several foundational factors continue to shift:

  • Click image to enlarge

    Demographics are changing dramatically in Washington, with minority populations jumping from 11.5 percent of the statewide population in 1990, to 24.5 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

  • The state economy has tanked, with a forecast budget deficit for 2011-13 of $4.6 billion.
  • The state’s support of higher education has dropped precipitously, about 30 percent in ten years, and declining rapidly. (See related graph.)
  • Tuition rates at WSU continue to rise sharply to offset lack of state funding – up 56 percent in five years (from $5,506 in 2005-06 to $8,592 in 2010-11) – thereby pushing education out of reach for many families.
All in all, as vice president of student affairs and enrollment, Fraire face serious challenges, from recruiting to financial aid, enrollment, retention, and all aspects of student affairs. Following is an interview that WSU Today recently had with Fraire.

Offices that John Fraire oversees
Student Affairs includes:

o Academic Enrichment Center

o Multicultural Student Mentor Program

o Strategic Team Approach to Retention (STAR) program

o Leadership and Professional Development Opportunities – helps develop mentors, tutors, student interns and office assistants 

o Student Centers – African American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Chicana/o Latina/o, and Native American

Enrollment management includes:

Q: Given your added assignments, how do you view the recent merging and restructuring of the divisions?

JF: I support the decision. It united virtually all the departments and services that are related to prospective students and current students under one unit.
Q: What advantage does that offer?
JF: Let me answer that by giving you an example. Prior to the reorganization, housing was separate from enrollment. But what drives housing is the incoming freshman class, because freshmen are required to live on campus the first year. So, housing needs to have current enrollment information and this reorganization will allow us to better collaborate and share information.
It also makes it more convenient for students and recruitment staff. Students would much rather be admitted, have their enrollment confirmed and know about their housing arrangement right away. Now with all of it in one division, that can be done fairly easily.
Q: What are your short-term goals, over the next 6-12 months?
JF: Right now, a lot of the reporting lines are fairly flat, which means many people report directly to me. So my immediate goal is to assess these areas and bring enrollment management and student affairs into one coordinated unit, so our staff can work together efficiently and effectively.
Another area we need to keep reviewing, developing and advancing is student conduct.
The title is unfortunate. I don’t think it’s really an issue of ‘student conduct,’ but rather an issue of responsibilities and rights, and I’d like our offices to reflect that. We want our students to graduate with good records.
Just the name “student conduct” implies there is a certain conduct that you have to follow, and if you break it, you get punished. I don’t think that’s how a student conduct office should run.
I take the approach that we are there to make sure the students get the support they need. And that is more of an issue of students understanding their responsibilities and rights.
For example, when a student goes in front of a hearing board, it’s not an inquisition. The hearing board is just trying to deal with violations or challenges. It’s not a court, and they are not prosecutors. It’s our goal is to try to avoid as many hearings as possible.
I also want to develop and advance some of the strong positive areas in student affairs, like University Recreation, the Center for Civic Engagement and activities at Compton Student Union. I’m a strong believer in the physical, emotional and social development of students, as well as the academic. There are so many positive activities and opportunities in which our students are involved, and I’d like our prospective students to know about them.
WSUT: What is the current outlook for enrollment?
JF: The unit leaders in enrollment are very experienced and accomplished, and it is running very solidly and professionally. Over the next several years, I want to continue to stabilize our enrollment, increase diversity, and broaden our outreach to attract top academic and talented students.
The most prevalent reasons that students enroll at a university are determined by whether that university has the academic programs they are interested in and whether it has class sizes that will allow them to have a relationship with their professors. To that end, I would like to find a way to involve faculty members more directly in reaching out to and contacting our students. Unfortunately, that goal is difficult to achieve, particularly in these economic times, because there already are so many pressures and demands on faculty.
I can’t ask them to volunteer to do this work as well. I wished we had more resources to draw from to make this possible, not only would it help the students, but it would help to bring in better academically prepared students.
The Board of Regents has set a goal of growing our total enrollment from about 26,000 today, to 30,000 by fall 2020. So we need to achieve at least a 3-4 percent enrollment growth over the next several years. It’s not going to be easy to do that, but I think we can.
The challenge is that state demographics show that the number of high school graduates is decreasing, and that is going to continue for several years. At the same time the fastest growing ethnic group is the Hispanic community, but the high school dropout rate among Hispanics also is the highest. The combination of these trends poses a challenge to future enrollment levels.
WSUT: What is your plan to address the Hispanic demographics issue?
JF: One of WSU’s success stories is its efforts to diversify its enrollment. Six to seven years ago we were not considered a very diverse school, but today’s freshman class is comprised of about 25 percent students of color. That is huge. We have become the school of choice for Latino students.
President Floyd hired me several years ago to improve the enrollment program, and part of that was to address the diversity recruiting issue. When I came, one of the first things I noticed was how little recruitment we had been doing in central Washington.
During my first year here I visited Warden High School, which is in our back yard, and discovered that I was the first person from WSU to visit there in four years. That’s just not acceptable. Yakima, Tri-Cities, Sunnyside, Moses Lake, Grandview, Omak — they’re not huge metropolitan areas but they’re in our back yard.
One of the ways we’ve been able to increase enrollment, among both Hispanics and first-generation students, is by going to those smaller communities and recruiting. In the past, school officials were led to believe that their region was not a priority recruitment area for WSU’ and that our focus was on Seattle.
We recently received a $100,000 grant from the Higher Education Coordinating Board to support the “Imagine U” at WSU program, in which we go to underserved high schools with faculty, staff and alumni. In essence, we take over the school for a day, providing workshops, academic presentations, speakers and parent meetings.
Three years ago we conducted Imagine You in two schools. In 2010, we did it in 15 schools. This grant allows us to expand and continue the program because it’s been successful. The program represents a modern and culturally acceptable way to reach diverse and first-generation students.
WSUT: Are there additional recruiting strategies?
JF: Yes. Over the past several years, we have been meeting with the guidance counselors throughout the state, and increasing our activities with students both at high school sites and on the WSU campus. We’ve improved our understanding of how to communicate with different communities. And, we’ve become one of the leaders in the state in using technology, like video conferencing. I refer to it as the ABCs of recruiting, and I believe it’s resulted in better, more effective marketing and recruitment.
I’d rather invest our limited resources into conducting these types of programs and into bringing students to (the WSU) campus, than spending it on printing and mailing fancy brochures and advertising.

As a result, on-site admissions is another area of success. We host on-campus conferences for minority students from all over the state. Those students are asked to bring transcripts and applications, which are reviewed during their visit. Then, on the last day of the conference at the dinner we recognize those who have been admitted.
In November at the CASHE Conference for Hispanic students, we had 53 students (out of about 250 participants) who were granted admission and recognized in front of their peers. At the VIBES (Visionaries Inspiring Black Empowered Students) events we admitted 57 students. Invariably those announcements are met with wild, thunderous applause by other students. That is a cultural event, and I believe it really impacts those students.
WSUT: What are the short-term goals for Student Affairs?
JF: Student Affairs leadership is very solid, but we have some immediate needs. In addition to the challenge of the ongoing budget cuts, we have been struggling with piecemeal funding from the state, donations and fees. There are not many dependable and continual sources of income. So, we have to find a way to stabilize that.
WSUT: What are your long-term goals, over the next two to five years, for Student Affairs?
JF: I want to promote the overall development of students. I want to get beyond the separation of the academic development and student affairs, and focus on the overall combined development of our students — academic, emotional, cultural and social. Student Affairs plays a key role in that by providing programs in training and leadership development.
Studies have shown that about 75 percent of overall student learning occurs outside the classroom. We need to build that environment so students develop in a whole host of ways. That’s not to downplay the academics, because that is what is core here.
Another long-term priority is the safety of our students, and I say that in a very broad perspective. Residence halls and building should be solid. We should be continually upgrading our housing and dining services. We also need to be able to respond quickly and professionally to all incidents that arise – accidents, fires, students getting in trouble, etc. Students need to be safe from all bullying, discriminatory acts, or any types of attacks.
It needs to be a welcoming safe environment for all people and supported by the community universitywide.
WSUT: Any other goals?
JF: I’d also like to see a change in our image. I hate to sound simplistic, but I’d like the expression “Coug it” to become synonymous with excellence. In other words, if you aced an exam, you Coug-ed it.
WSUT: Is there something that has not worked well that you would do differently, if you could do it again?

JF: One thing that did not work well was that we tried to change, at least in part, the Regents’ Scholarship Program. The program was formed in 2001 to attract high-level academic students. It allowed every high school in the state to nominate two candidates, who would be guaranteed some scholarship, although some would earn larger ones than others. But many of the scholarships were only guaranteed for two years.

The original concept was that these scholarships would be funded by money raised by the regents through the WSU Foundation, but in reality very little money has been raised. So, we have been funding the program for a number of years through tuition waivers.
A couple years ago we changed the process because we weren’t convinced that program was attracting the students we were targeting. We made it so schools could recommend as many students as they wanted, then WSU would make the final decision as to who would receive the scholarships. There no longer was a guarantee that their students would be selected.
In looking at the results, we recognized that policy was not producing the results we were seeking either. So, this year we returned it so that schools once again would nominate two of their top academic students, and we increased the length of the scholarship to four years.
It’s too early to predict whether the new adjustments will work. But this year we received 324 nominations from high schools, and we anticipate awarding more than 200 Regents Scholarships.
Previously, schools were not necessarily recommending their two top students. Instead, they often selected two students they liked the best and who were committed to coming to WSU. By recommending students who already were planning to come to WSU, it was defeating the intent of the Regents Scholarship Program, which was to attract not only top academic students, but also students who might not have considered WSU otherwise.
The reality is, if top academic students did not receive the Regents Scholarship, they automatically would have received a two-year University Achievement Award based on the strength of their gpa and their SAT scores.
WSUT: What is your doctoral major?
JF: I’m working on a Ph.D. from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and specializing in interdisciplinary studies in the humanities.
It’s funny, people automatically assume that because I am administrator that I am working on a Ph.D. in educational administration or student affairs, but that’s not true. My degree is related to ethnic studies, history and humanities, and has nothing directly to do with student affairs or enrollment. The title of my dissertation is “Mexicans playing baseball in Indiana Harbor: The development of ethnic identity in post-ethnic, post-modern America.”
WSUT: Given the recent reorganization, you now oversee the second largest division within the university. Plus, you’re working on your Ph.D. What do you do for fun? Or is there any time for fun?
JF: It’s similar to the way I view the current separation between Students Affairs and Academic Affairs, and how that affects student development. One of my long-term goals is to get rid of that duality, that divided approach, and to look at the overall development of the student — cultural, emotional and academic.
Well, that’s how I think about life. Like everybody else, my life has its ups and downs, but overall it is fun. I enjoy my job, and I enjoy working on my doctorate. My doctorate for example is a very personal piece, because I am from the East Chicago and Gary, Indiana area. And the research I’m doing is about my family and my community, it’s about the Mexican community in northwest Indiana of which I am a product. In many respects I see the work I’m doing as a work for my home community … I kind of look at it as being a scribe for my people, my home community.
In other realms, I love to cook. I’m an enthusiastic sports fan. I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan since I was about five years old, so I’m thrilled to death that San Francisco Giants finally won a World Series. I try to attend as many Cougar football and basketball games as possible. I look forward to the games and have a blast going to them.
I also have a lot of fun producing theater. I’m a Washington State Arts Commissioner and a playwright. The first play I ever produced, “Who Will Dance With Pancho Villa,” was performed at the Castillo Theatre, in New York, in 1994. I write the plays with my oldest brother Gabriel, who is a newspaper editor in North Carolina, and have written several plays since then.
In 2008, I received financial support from Bob Felton, a 1963 graduate of Warden High School and former president of the WSU Foundation. We took 15 students from Warden High School had them write essays based on their answers to questions from college and scholarship applications. Then we conducted public speaking classes with the students. My brother and I converted the essays into a script and brought in an accomplished professional actress from New York City, hired a professional lighting designer and stage manager, and worked with those students for two weeks at Big Bend Community College. We treated the students like professional actors and created a 40-minute professional production based on their essays titled “Las Memorias.”
After days of practice, we took them on tour, performing in a variety of locations, including here at WSU. Between March and August, we took students who could barely look you in the eye or talk to you and turned them into actors … In some ways it was hilarious, in that they went from being barely able to say their name, to complaining that we were cutting their lines.
Partly because of that work and the recognition we received, I believe I was appointed to the state’s Art Commission. And, we have received funding to do the project again in 2011, and I’m hopeful it will turn into permanent funding. It’s incredibly important developmental experience for the students and it produces a genuine piece of community theatre that is performed in small communities that otherwise wouldn’t see that.
My partner says I am always working, but I like to think I am always playing. All that to say, I get enormous satisfaction and fun out of all that I do and don’t necessarily see it as work.
WSUT: How important is the current fundraising Campaign for Washington State University to your division?
JF: Extremely important! It could greatly affect the number of endowments we have and the number of scholarships we can offer. We also need to expand key areas of Student Affairs, like Center for Civic Engagement and Multicultural Student Services, which are severely underfunded.
For example, Multicultural Student Services was originally developed to serve diversity students, but as it’s developed it’s becoming more and more a center of support for all students … It seems that we should rename Multicultural Student Services to something more appropriate to reflect that. And, we would love to have someone provide a significant contribution and rename MSS center after that donor. I’m confident the university would have no problem doing that.
That’s just one of many areas where the campaign could help us immensely.
WSUT: Increasing the academic level of students has been a priority in the past. How does the university do that?
JF: One way to improve the academic background of our students is to work with those students who are already committed to coming to WSU … What I’m most concerned with for WSU is finding the student who wants to go to college and is already a good student, but who needs help. Maybe they come from a poor community where they work 40 hours a week, as well as go to high school. Maybe they attend a high school where advisors are so overwhelmed they can’t get help. Maybe they have parents who never went to college or speak limited English. Our task is to find those students, to see that they get the support they need, so they can come to college, because if you give them just a little bit of support, they are going to run with it.
It’s not our job to convince people to go to college, so we look for the students who are doing well and who want to come to college here and need help.
I don’t think WSU has done that particularly well in the past, but we are doing it much better now.
I think if you ask faculty and staff members whether they would prefer students based only on SAT scores, or on a variety of factors including demonstrated potential and a strong work ethic, most of them would choose the latter.
Students with good scores and good grades get in, that’s not a problem. They do well, we like to have them. But I think the test of a good university is what you do with the students who don’t have as high of SAT scores, but that have the potential. How do you access them and their potential of success? In those cases, we want to look at a whole host of characteristics, what’s sometimes referred to as a holistic approach.
You look at their essays, their noncognitive variables like their drive and determination. For example, I’m less inclined to prefer students who have a high SAT and a low GPA, over those who have average SAT scores but high GPAs – that’s who I want because they are working hard.
Low SAT scores could stem from a variety of reasons – poor school, lack of support, family in poverty. If you have those conditions, but still have a high GPA and have taken solid, challenging courses, man, that’s the sign of a hard-working student. And, that’s why we have assured admissions – if students are in top 10 percent of their class, or have a 3.5 or better GPA, and have taken the required classes, they are assured admission.