Cuban-Born College President Ruben Armiñana
by Jonah Raskin, March 16, 2016
After twenty-four years at the helm of the institution that he has radically transformed, Sonoma State University President, Ruben Armiñana, will retire on July 1, 2016. But first he has to run a kind of gauntlet: a strike by faculty members that’s slated to run from April 13 to 15, and then again from April 18-19. If the strike does indeed take place, all 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system, will be involved. The mega institution of higher learning offers nearly 2,000 bachelor’s degree programs in almost 250 subject areas. It has 460,200 students, 24,405 teachers and 23,012 staff members.
If Armiñana is counting the days until teachers walk picket lines and carry signs, he’s not the only one. Twenty-two other CSU presidents, from San Diego and Los Angeles to San Jose and San Francisco, are also counting the days until the date, and hoping against hope that a settlement will be reached and a strike averted.
Not surprisingly, money is the stumbling block. The California Faculty Association, which represents teachers, is calling for a five percent raise for faculty members. The CSU is offering two percent. For the moment, the gulf between the two sides appears to be nearly irreconcilable.
Born in Cuba in 1947, Armiñana arrived in the United States as a boy with only a dime in his pocket, or so family legend has it. His mother and father sent him to the States when he was 14, soon after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and the arrival of Russians from the Soviet Union who aimed to help build a communist economy on the island. Ruben Armiñana’s father, a lawyer and judge, was not a revolutionary, but in 1959 he officiated at Che Guevara’s marriage to his Cuban wife, Aleida March. Che and his guerrillas turned the Armiñana home in Santa Clara, Cuba, into their military headquarters and a base of operations that they used to attack and then defeat the army of the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. They didn’t recruit Ruben. Moreover, his parents sent him as far away from the revolution as they could.
“Make something of yourself in the States,” his parents told him. Indeed, he did. He attended Hill College, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of New Orleans. His degrees are in economics and political science.
While other Cuban-born American citizens have also served as university and college presidents in the U.S., Armiñana is the most visible, the best known and the most successful fund-raiser.
Ever since 1992, when he took office as president of SSU, he has raised millions and millions of dollars for the Jean and Charles Schulz Information Center, the Green Music Center and the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, a state-of-the-art concert facility that has given SSU a national reputation and that some, though not all faculty members resented.
No wonder Armiñana has called himself “a beggar in a tie.” He adds, "I’ve had a good product to sell. I ask for investments, not for gifts and I ask investors who have been good at investing.”
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Q: At all the entrances to SSU, signs from the California Faculty Association say, “I don’t want to strike but I will.” How likely is a strike?
A: There’s a distinct possibility. I was hoping that it would not happen on my watch. I don’t like strikes. A strike leaves a bad taste in almost everyone’s mouth. It creates tensions and brings about fractures that take years to heal. This strike is unprecedented because it’s system-wide. It’s big, complicated and complex.
Q: The strike couldn’t come at a worse time for you personally.
A: If I could persuade people to wait until next fall when I’m gone I would.
Q: What about the issue of increased pay?
A: For the past seven years, no one has had a salary increase except through promotion. Faculty members are underpaid.
Q: Is that something you say publicly?
A: Absolutely and the chancellor of the CSU system says it, too, but what the faculty is asking for might not be doable. The system is offering a two percent increase. The faculty wants a lot more. The other unions have a me-too clause. If the teachers get an increase they get an increase, too. The money just isn’t there to meet the demands.
Q: I’ve heard that money really is available.
A: Our campus doesn’t have it. I don’t have a drawer with millions. I tell people if you can find my secret stash I will give you 99% of it.
Q: Is there room for leeway between the CSA and the CSU?
A: Possibly. I can envision an increase of five percent over a three-year period, but not all at once.
Q: Graduating seniors seem to be worried about finishing classes and receiving their degrees.
A: No one wants to create undue stress on the students, especially those who are slated to graduate. I suspect that faculty will make accommodations and that students will receive credit even though actual classes won’t physically meet.
Q: Some teachers say that the strategy of the SSU administration is to divide students from faculty and then to conquer both.
A: We’re not that smart and we’re not that effective.
Q: Aside from the fact that you don’t like strikes, would you agree that teachers have a legal right to strike?
A: I respect their right to strike and to express their feelings. Still, the campus cannot allow safety to be threatened. We can’t have anyone blocking the entrance to SSU. I have asked everyone to be accommodating, flexible and understanding.
Q: You’d like the strike to be over as quickly as possible?
A: Like the flu, we’ll suffer through it. We just don’t want to create a situation where people are antagonistic to one another.
Q: The end of your time here at SSU coincides with a new chapter in Cuban/American relations. As a Cuban-born American citizen how do you feel about the opening, as it’s been called, between the two countries?
A: It’s the right thing to do. It benefits Cubans in Cuba and in the United States and it’s in the interests of the U.S., too. I’m in favor of diplomatic relations between the two countries and increased economic and cultural ties, too. The embargo of Cuba didn’t work. It didn’t topple the Castro government. It’s time for a change.
Q: Will you return to the land of your birth?
A: I hope to do so next year. I have not been back to Cuba since the 1970s when I traveled there with then Louisiana Congressman, John Breaux, to discuss trade relations. President Jimmy Carter approved our mission, but we were not successful.
Q: What would you like to do when you’re back in Cuba?
A: If possible, I would like to visit the cemetery where my grandfather and grandmother are buried. I’d like to enjoy a Cuban sandwich at a restaurant called La Caridad, and see my old home, school, church and the streets that I walked as a child.
Q: After your retirement will you continue to live in Sonoma County?
A: I am not sure. My wife, Marne, and I are considering our options. We could remain here where we have many friends, but we could also relocate to New Orleans where we met 29 years ago. Marne and I both know and like New Orleans. Another option is Austin, Texas, where I went to school and where I have many friends who retired there after long careers. There’s a rich cultural life in Austin. Marne liked it much better than she thought she would. In any case, we’ll be in Sonoma for a year after I no longer occupy the president’s chair.
Q: You’ve been fortunate to be married to the same woman all this time and to have many of the same interests.
A: She has Scandinavian roots while I’m a Latin American. She tends to be more thoughtful than me, and a better judge of character. We take a major trip once a year, usually to Europe and we travel well together. When we first met we discovered that we both collected nutcrackers. Now, we have 350.
Q: You also have your own collection of masks which is in your office and that you’ll take home with you when you leave.
A: The masks are all from Latin America and mostly from Mexico and Guatemala, but also from Peru, Colombia and Argentina.
Q: Do you also wear masks, metaphorically speaking, on the job?
A: As president I have to wear many different masks because I see many different people all day long and talk about many different subjects. I have, for example, my “Don’t Have Money Mask.”
Q: Faculty members often say that the president of a university has to serve the faculty and the students.
A: I mostly agree, though I would add that a college president also must serve the community. Public universities need to be integrated into the community. They can’t be isolated ivory towers.
Q: Universities often change slowly, don’t they?
A: We deliberate everything and we talk everything to death in the name of liberation. Universities rarely operate with a sense of urgency. That’s part of their legacy. The church as an institution doesn’t move with urgency, either. We’re both conservative institutions.
Q: Sonoma State is located in a region where citizens value slow food, slow money and a slow life style.
A: That’s one of the charms of this area and one of the impediments, too. We cherish the slow, but the slow has detrimental effects. We tend to strive for perfection and don’t have enough concern for the time factor. In journalism you might have a great story, but if you miss the deadline it loses its value. We have similar issues in academia.
Q: As SSU president are you a powerhouse?
A: One of the major misconceptions about universities is that the president and the administration have power. If you have a thirst for power don’t become a university president, though you can sometimes have the power of the pulpit. The job demands that you bring together different constituents. I can’t change a student’s grade and I have little say in the hiring of new faculty members. In the private sector it’s different. If a CEO says something, it’s done. Here it takes years before something gets a hearing.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: I hope that Sonoma will remember me as a president who helped to bring greater recognition from the community to the university. I think I have made SSU more visible. Over the past two-and-a-half decades we have raised a half-a-billion dollars, mostly from people in the area. In part due to my efforts, the community has come to see this institution as a valuable asset.
Q: Do you know SSU’s new, incoming president, Judy Sakaki?
A: I’ve known her for fifteen years and have followed her career as she has moved from CSU Hayward, as it was once called, to Fresno to UC Davis and for the last ten years at the office of the chancellor in Long Beach. Judy is highly capable, thoughtful and bright. Her commitment to students is very strong, especially to first generation students of color. She’s excited to be coming here. I hope she has a honeymoon and that the strike doesn’t detract from the start of her new job.