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Evola Bates looks back

April 11, 2000

Nick Marinello

Evola Bates came to Tulane in 1985 to continue her education in psychology. Come this June, she departs the university not with the formal graduate degree she had in mind, but with a 15-year crash course in the ways humans think, work and generally get along with each other.

Bates, who has been vice president of human resources since 1993, is leaving Tulane to join her former supervisor and mentor Ron Mason at Jackson State University. Mason was named president of the institution earlier this year, and will name Bates as his chief of staff, a position in which she is certain to draw upon the variety and depth of her experiences at Tulane.

"You have to see every employee as the same," says Bates, offering a bottom-line bit of wisdom gained over the years. "I tried to be fair with all employees regardless of whomever they were or whatever situation they were in."

A New Orleans native who majored in psychology at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., Bates began her professional career by returning to New Orleans to work for the federally funded anti-poverty program, Total Community Action.

Thinking she could "change the world," Bates worked her way up from being an outreach coordinator at the agency to becoming its director of personnel. After 10 years with Total Community Action, she applied for a position as Tulane's employee relations coordinator, a drop in status and pay, because she wanted the tuition waiver to work on a master's degree in psychology.

"I still believed that one day I would be a child psychologist," she says. As it turns out, the professional and social demands of her new job made the additional burden of graduate coursework impossible to shoulder.

Not only was she adjusting to new responsibilities and a new workplace, she was astonished by the extra demands made on her time simply because she was an African-American professional. Bates soon learned that she was one of the few exempt African-American employees on Tulane's payroll.

"People thought my hiring was a big deal and I was surprised," she said. Bates took two psychology courses and no more. These were transitional times for Tulane's minority employees, says Bates. "When I first came here there were no tenure-track African-American faculty members," she says. "Martin Luther King Day was not a holiday on campus. Morale was not good among minorities."

During this time several minority employees were forming the Minority Advisory Group to represent the issues and interests of minorities on campus. Bates said she was cautioned by another employee not to associate with the group but she "secretly joined" despite the warning. Her first few years at the university unfolded at a fast pace.

"As employee relations coordinator I played a small role but it was one of the best jobs ever," she says. "It was a job where you assisted employees with problems and planned social activities to help employees feel good about working at the university."

Mason, who was the university general counsel, soon tapped her to be Tulane's affirmative action officer. In order to keep her in the personnel department, then director Russell Dunn offered Bates the position of assistant director. She wound up doing both jobs in a joint appointment. By 1988, Tulane hired Mary Smith as its full-time affirmative action officer and Bates went on to become assistant vice president of personnel. In 1992 she was named associate vice president of human resources when Dunn retired.

In 1993 Bates was promoted to vice president of human resources. During this time she began working on the university's compensation program, an effort to develop a standardized, graded pay scale that also aligned Tulane salaries with salaries of comparable positions in the job market.

"The process we went through to arrive at that final document was the most interesting experience I've had here," she says. "It was at a time when you were asking employees to bear with you because employees' titles, status and wages were being reviewed."

The early 1990s were a turbulent time at Tulane, she says. On one hand, she was working with Mason and other administrators to create a compensation package, create a staff-development program called TUSTEP (Tulane University Staff Training and Enhancement Program), and institute a staff-recognition program. On the other hand, budget belt-tightening meant that not only did these programs go under-funded but, even more critically, a series of layoffs and other personnel-reduction programs sank campus morale.

"From 1990 to 1996 was hard," she admits. "Evola and I felt like we went through a war," says Yvette Jones, senior vice president for planning and administration. "Because of the downsizing in the '90s, we did not have the resources to put the programs in to place. That's why 'people' are the No. 1 priority of the strategic plan."

"Ten years after we started we have a new president who is talking about the same things," says Bates. "But now we have the money and the commitment of all the senior officers from the top all the way down."

Despite the high and low points, Bates says the most significant work she has done is that which has been most routine and almost transparent to employees. "The most important work in this office is ensuring compliance of all the legal requirements," she says. "These are the things that help keep us in operation."

Not only has she been administrator for the Tulane health plan, but she also oversees life and disability insurance benefits, the workers' compensation plan, the flexible-spending plan and the retirement plan.

"She keeps us out of jail," quips Jones. "It is important to realize we have 5,000 employees at Tulane. Evola and her staff are dealing with a mountain of issues." Jones, who considers Bates a good friend, says Bates has "a very positive outlook on life. She cares about people and that shows in the work that she does."

Both women, who have shared a front seat in Tulane's rollercoaster ride into the new millennium, share something else. Both will graduate children from Tulane this May. Bates' twins sons, Rashi and Ravi, are graduating with degrees in electrical engineering and exercise and sport sciences, respectively. Jones' daughter, Shannon, is graduating with a degree in media arts.

"We are going to miss Evola," says Jones. "She has been an important part of Tulane." Jones, who is chairing the search committee to find Bates' successor, says that the university is currently advertising the position on a nationwide basis. "We would like to hire the new person before Evola leaves in June," she says, "but that may not be possible."

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