Photo of Erika D. Beck, Ph.D.

Lisa A. Rossbacher, Ph.D.

former President | Humboldt State

“Our university community and society at large are better and stronger if we all contribute.”

When she started college, Lisa A. Rossbacher, Ph.D., president of Humboldt State University, was set on majoring in English; someday, she thought, she’d write the Great American Novel.

Fate had other things in mind.

Faced with registering for a required science course, she saw that geology was the only class left with available seats, so she signed up in an attempt to, she remembers, “get it out of the way.”

Within weeks, though, the freshman had fallen absolutely in love with the field. Changing majors would lead to a number of adventures for Rossbacher, including researching cold-region landforms and processes in Sweden and becoming a finalist for NASA’s astronaut selection in 1984.

“Thinking about things that are four-and-a-half billion years old puts the frustrations of today in a better perspective,” she laughs.

It was frustration, in fact, that spurred Rossbacher’s journey to becoming a college president. Her time as a professor of geological sciences at Cal Poly Pomona made clear to her the transformative power of public higher education, but she longed to work with people from across the entire universityand beyond.

So when CPP’s president asked Rossbacher to lead a strategic planning project that would require collaborating with faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors and the community, she jumped at the chance. “It was exactly what I was looking for,” recalls Rossbacher. “The following year, I was offered the job of associate vice president for academic affairs.”

The same desire to work across an entire institution would draw the Virginia native to other leadership roles: interim executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer at the University System of Georgia, Atlanta; president of Southern Polytechnic State University, Marietta, Georgia; and, now, president of Humboldt State, where she is the first woman to hold that title.

“My leadership style has always been focused on trying to build consensus,” she explains. “I have come to realize you can’t always reach consensus, so I’ve learned to try to achieve it but [also] to recognize when we have to move ahead without it.”


"I get inspired by nature in general and especially by the natural environment here on the northwestern coast of California."

Since her arrival at HSU in 2014, Rossbacher’s number-one focus has been to facilitate student success. That effort is paying off. With help from Graduation Initiative 2025, Humboldt recently achieved its highest-ever four-year graduation rate (an increase of 51 percent since 2015), an accomplishment that leaves her beaming with pride.

Though she grew up on a naval base, Rossbacher didn’t visit the ocean until the age of 17. So watching waves break on the shore every day as she drives to work at HSU still takes her breath away. “I get inspired by nature in general and especially by the natural environment here on the northwestern coast of California,” she says. “I find the scenery, the grandeur, the pristine quality really inspiring.”

In 2018, Rossbacher celebrated her 21st year as a university president. Even as a higher ed veteran, she’s still impressed by what she sees Humboldt’s students accomplish. She takes her lead from them, in fact.

“It's important to understand what st​​udents’ interests are, what their concerns are and what the university can do to make sure we're really serving the students’ needs,” she says. “The expectations students have, the environment around us, the politics, the economy are always changing, so it's really important to stay in touch with what students are thinking about.

“In the bigger picture, our university community and society at large are better and stronger if we all contribute.”

And she still hasn't given up that plan to write the Great American Novel.

Update: Lisa A. Rossbacher retired in June 2019.

encouraging Consensus 

BY Lisa A. Rossbacher, Ph.D.


Listen to President Rossbacher’s essay

I have always believed a critical leadership skill is building consensus. Achieving this goal isn’t always possible, but the process of trying to reach consensus is almost always worth the effort.

My introduction to the concept of consensus began early in my career at Whittier College in Southern California. Whittier was founded by the Religious Society of Friendsthe Quakersin 1887, and although the college has not had a formal affiliation with the Quakers for nearly eight decades, many aspects of the college still follow the principles of consensus. Decision-making processes there include the expectation that the faculty must reach consensus in any decision, including changes in the curriculum. The process is sometimes slow, but the effort is always worthwhile.

Consensus is an idea that is frequently misunderstood. It does not mean everyone loves a particular decision. It may not be anyone’s favorite idea. But consensus means everyone is prepared to accept a decision as being in the best interest of the larger group. If any individual has a moral objection to the decision, achieving true consensus means the discussion continues until those concerns have been addressed.

Reaching consensus places responsibility on every member of the community.  Everyone has a responsibility to speak their mindas well as a responsibility to listen carefully to all perspectives. 

Consensus is not a unanimous vote. It isn’t a vote at all, although I have been in meetings where people have proposed that the group “vote on whether we have consensus.” Consensus is a collective understanding of the group’s opinion about how to move forward. And a leader, in this context, has the responsibility to guide the discussion, to be sure concerns are explored and addressed and to propose different approaches that may result in a new and creative option that is ultimately stronger than the original proposal. Ultimately, the leader is the one who states whether the group has reached consensus. Listening and reading the roomand body languageare important leadership skills.

Achieving consensus can be challenging. It takes time. In higher education, reaching consensus may not always be possible, and leaders have to recognize when a decision must be made anyway. But the process of trying to get to this point is valuable. Alternative options are explored, and everyone’s ideas and perspectives are shared and heard. 

When a leader of any group is able to declare they have reached a decision by consensus, the support for the outcome will be far stronger than if the conversation had been shorter, perhaps more efficient, but potentially more divisive in the outcome. The time a leader spends in developing consensus is a great investment in the success of the group’s decision.

And that’s a great example of leadership.

PHOTOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD; courtesy of Humboldt State


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