Dr. Paul Oliaro, vice president of student affairs, announced his retirement in September after a 42-year career in the student affairs profession at four colleges, including the last 11 years at Fresno State.
In an extensive interview with The Collegian, Oliaro talked about his career path that led him to Fresno State, his work at the school and the future he sees for the university.
THE COLLEGIAN: How did you come to Fresno State?
PAUL OLIARO: I began my involvement in student affairs back in 1969 as a graduate assistant in a residence hall in Michigan State University. I was working on my master’s degree and higher education administration and student affairs.
It was after I finished my master’s degree that I went into the Army for a few years in in 1969. I ended up in ROTC during my master’s degree program. I went into the Army as an officer.
In the Army, I was the alcohol and drug control officer for the post in Alabama, which created my interest in alcohol and drug abuse, which carried on throughout my career. But then I came back to Michigan State and got my Ph.D.
How long were you in the Army?
In 1972-1974. I was fortunately there for two years and ran that post, then went back to Michigan State and got my doctorate and worked full time at Michigan State in residence halls. Then I went to Vermont as director of residence life and dean of students.
I was there for 13 years, finishing off as assistant vice president of student affairs. In 1993, I became vice president of student affairs at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and then came here in 2002 as the vice president.
So that is a 42-year career all in public higher education.
What made you come to the West Coast?
We had been traveling a lot for vacations to California, but the president at the time, John Welty, is somebody I knew because he was a vice president of student affairs as well before he became president.
Our paths had crossed, and he had called me to see if I knew anybody that I wanted to nominate for the vacant vice president position here [at Fresno State].
I said, ‘Does that include me?’
He said, ‘Are you serious?’
I said, ‘Yeah, I am ready to make a move.’
I was 55 at the time, and I said I think I have one more good move left in me. So we talked a little bit, and I applied, and I was fortunate enough to be selected. So I have been here for the last 11 years.
Why are you retiring?
It’s time. We have grandchildren in Colorado and North Carolina who we still see quite regularly, but they are growing up.
I have been doing this for 42 years. I am 66 years old. I think it is time for us to move on to another phase of our life and give someone else the opportunity to be in this great role.
Now tell me a little bit about your wife.
Her name is Kathleen, and she is a social worker and she got a master’s degree in social work from Temple University.
She worked her entire time we were here at Children’s Hospital as a social worker. She retired from that in October of 2012.
So you are following her footsteps?
That’s right, just following her lead.
Are you going to stay in California?
We are going to be moving down to the Palm Springs area. We have always moved for me.
We met in college and have been married for 44 years, and we got married right after college. We moved to Michigan State, moved to Vermont, moved to Pennsylvania, moved to California.
So this time I said, ‘It’s your turn. You decide where you want to move.’ So she said she wanted to live in the desert. She went down and found a house, and we will be moving down there at the end of this semester.
The interim is going to be Dr. Carolyn Coon. Do you have anything to say about her?
She has been a wonderful dean of students since I have been here. She cares deeply about students. She has been responsible for our student-life area. She has been in touch with students.
She has developed wonderful relationships with our academic affairs colleagues. She is highly respected across campus for her fairness, her willingness to collaborate and for her compassion.
Now tell me a bit about programs and initiatives to improve retention rates and six-year graduation rates? Is it something that came to your attention that it was taking students six years to graduate?
Well, 10 years ago the provost and I created the student success task force. It was designed to take a look at what we can do to better help students graduate in a timely way.
That committee still exists. The provost and I still chair it, and right now we are particularly focused on the 2009 cohort of first-time, full-time freshmen. They are a very special project.
That cohort and the subsequent cohort in 2010 have had the highest first to second year to third year and now fourth year retention rates of any previous cohort. So we expect that they will show the highest graduation rate we have ever seen.
You have been chair of the athletic board of directors and served as the interim athletic director in 2005. What do you find interesting about athletics to stay involved so long?
Sports is such an integral part of our culture. Athletics gets a great deal of attention and brings a great deal of attention to the university, and we have a wonderful program from top to bottom.
Football, of course, gets more attention than most, so that has put us on the national stage.
What it does is it gives the university an opportunity to showcase all of its academic programs. When the whole nation is watching, we get an opportunity to do a television spot on ESPN when we are broadcasting, and those television spots highlight some of our academic programs—like our winery and our farm market. The visibility that athletics gives us gives us a chance to talk about what great academic programs and great faculty we have as well.
So it is a win-win for the university.
How do you think the transition will go with the things you have started?
They will go very well. Our division is very happy to hear that Dr. Coon will be serving in the interim role.
Regardless of whom is in this role, they are going to spend all their time to make sure that they get their work done to support students.
So the vice president provides leadership and support for that and is there to help in any way he or she can. But our staff will continue to serve students as best they can, and that will continue.
That will make the transition process easier.
There has been talk of higher enrollment next year. How do you think the school is equipped to handle that?
We are ready for enrollment growth.
We have consistently exceeded our targets for enrollment because the demand is high, and we feel strongly it is our responsibly to serve the students in the Valley who want to get a college degree.
We have the facilities, we have the classes and we have the commitment and services to continue to grow our enrollment to be sure students have a quality experience.
Do you have the faculty to do it?
We do have the classes. Now there are still occasionally some classes that are more difficult to get into, and we have tried to ensure that the students that are most in need of those classes, particularly the seniors, get access to those courses first.
We have tried to be as flexible as we can be, and for the most part, the vast majority of the time the courses are there. But we do have to admit that we still can do better.
There are still some courses that may be more difficult for juniors to get into. We do try to make adjustments every semester so we can maximize the students that get the courses they need.