Story by GEORGE RINGWALD
"You remember a couple days ago [this in early December] when we had one of these days that looks like late summer, a little warmer and there wasn't a cloud in the sky?" he asks. "And it was bright and clear." That would be the Crabill climate. "And you think today" -- when it's pouring rain outside -- "that's how much difference!"
And "in large part," he adds, that change can be attributed to the leadership style and vision of the present chief executive officer.
"I've never worked in an organization where communication is as open and free as it is here," Bobbitt says. "She's set a tone that is very much centered on the students. She never lets us forget that that's why we're here."
One student I encounter on the campus tells me: "She's very tenacious. She's doing a lot to reform the college, including putting up a new library." The student adds that the "new" president (as some still see her, although she's now in her third year) is "very personable on a social level" but a no-nonsense administrator. "You can tell she's tough, clawed her way up the professional ladder." (Well, maybe, although I couldn't tell anything like that in our recent interview. I found her open, engaging, straightforward, with a good sense of humor.)
David F. Harris, with CR's Computer Information Systems, notes another important difference in the present and past administrations:
"I believe that Casey's interest in building bridges to the community is sincere, genuine, and she has put tremendous efforts into that. And she has made it absolutely clear to everyone at this school that that is extremely important."
Harris, who is president of the CR Faculty Organization -- the college teacher's union -- recalls that there was some concern that the administration would want to change or modify the three-year contract negotiated during the past year. "And that didn't happen," he said. "It was an incredible display of integrity, and it's had a very powerful effect.
"Another area," Harris continues, "Casey is a little bit more of a risk taker. She is adventurous in trying new things and trusting the people she works with, the faculty and administration, to take the initiative and try something. She wanted to encourage the use of technology across the district, and she got behind the program of creating a Center for Teaching Excellence at the college. And that's risky, because it required funding, and there is no guarantee. It's still in progress..."
Milton Dobkin, a retired Humboldt State University vice president and current president of the CR Board of Trustees, agrees on the risk-taking, but he qualifies that. "The risks that she's willing to take are not capricious. They're usually thought out in terms of the potential benefits that might result."
Dobkin notes too that the board "certainly supports" her building-bridges program, which has, for instance, resulted in her own membership on the boards of KEET-TV, the Humboldt Area Foundation, Redwood Community Action Agency and the Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce.
"She does not diminish her attention to the college or the district in the process," Dobkin observes.
"One of the things I shake my head at," he adds, "and wonder how she's able to do it, she makes very frequent visits to the two most remote operations in the district, one on the Mendocino Coast (at Fort Bragg) and the one in Crescent City. Those are very difficult drives, and there's no way to get there except by driving, and yet she does that once or twice a month. She feels it's essential that those operations be regarded as important functions of the district."
It remains for an earthy journalist of my acquaintance to add finis to the Crabill encomiums: "She has lit a fire under everybody's butt -- but in a nice way."
By this time, along with David Harris, I have come to the conclusion that the woman does everything but walk on water.
Milt Dobkin laughs at the suggestion, and says, "Well, I've never seen her attempt that. She is a kayaker; doesn't need to walk, she rides."
One thing borne in on me going around the campus is that just about everybody is on a first-name basis with the president -- or a first nickname basis, rather.
"She doesn't stand on ceremony," Dobkin notes. "I think one of her favorite lines is whenever somebody calls her Dr. Crabill, she turns around to see if her father's back there." (Her father, now retired, was a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh for more than 20 years and at Albany Medical College before that.)
"It's just my style," she says when we meet in her office just before the year-end holidays. "I prefer informal levels of interaction, particularly with faculty and staff. I keep my door open. People know if my door's shut, I'm either on an incredible deadline or I'm talking about something that's confidential."
(Indeed, David Harris says, "I don't know of anybody who doesn't feel they can just walk into her office to talk about something, if they really felt compelled to.")
So, I wonder, how did she come by that nickname?
"I've had it since I was 9," she says. "It's a combination of things, really. It relates both to Casey Stengel and to Dr. Ben Casey. So it goes way back."
On the day I meet her, Casey Crabill is dressed in a gray pants suit, with a colorful red blouse. She is an imposing figure of a woman, with beringed fingers and dangling earrings. She sits behind a desk, which is relatively uncluttered, although there are two high stacks of paper at one end that look like a lot of homework. On one wall I note a watercolor that looks like a Viola McBride effort. It is, she says, and I am moved to relate a comment the inimitable Ferndale artist made to me one day some years back, when we were talking ages, and I was then around 60. Quick as a whip, she snapped at me: `You're just a kid!'"
And I throw out that line when Casey Crabill, a native of Albany, NY, tells me she was born June 16, 1956. She laughs and says, "I'll take that. Thank you."
Originally a teacher of English in Albany, she went on to become an acting or interim president at two colleges in Connecticut before becoming one of three finalists for the presidency at College of the Redwoods.
"All three women performed very well," CR board President Dobkin relates, "but the board was just convinced that Casey would be the best choice."
Dobkin goes on to say: "We were fortunate that Connecticut, where she came from, has a very misguided policy that if a person accepts a position as an interim president, that disqualified the person from being a candidate for regular appointment." That cleared the way for Crabill's appointment here.
She'd been thinking "for quite a while" about coming west.
"In Connecticut," she notes, "there were 12 community colleges, and in California there are 108. And this area is compelling: it's beautiful. It's very easy, I think, to picture moving to some place idyllic like this. Particularly when the college I was working at is on the I-95 corridor, which is basically one big city, from Washington, D.C., to Boston."
One can't help wondering if, as the first woman president in CR's 34-year history, Crabill has encountered any misogyny since taking the job.
"No," she replies. "You know, it's funny. When I first came here people said, `Well, what's it like being the first woman president?' I said I don't know what that means yet, because I have been president of two other places. So the role is familiar. I find this a very open community. The college particularly mirrors that; my board is very engaged, and I haven't had a moment where I felt like a woman being president."
What, I ask, is the biggest problem in running this campus?
Turns out there are two.
"One of the challenges that are endemic to the school," she says, "is that we are now in a period where the original faculty and the faculty that were hired shortly thereafter are retiring. We're having to hire upwards of 10 new faculty each year.
"That's got its pluses because we have the opportunity to re-energize the place. [But there is] also the challenge of losing institutional memories and really the heart of the curriculum.
"So one of the challenges is to make sure that new folks are integrated very quickly, that folks who are thinking about retiring have the opportunity to put all of their stuff in perspective for the new folks. A community college is so rooted in the community that the new people have not only the structure of the school to learn but in many cases the layout of the community. They have to learn who are the employers in this area. In the case of the transfer programs [for instance, to a four-year state university, such as HSU], they have to learn who are the receiving institutions and what are their standards.
"So that transition is a real challenge. It's a challenge to draw professionals to this region. ... It's a challenge to help people see the area for the wonderfully complex area that it is."
Crabill switches to Problem No. 2.
"The other challenge," she says, "is obviously a fiscal challenge. We'll never -- and I don't know that any college will -- have enough money to do all of the things we know we could. We have a tremendous amount of technology here. The money to keep that technology is a huge challenge. The money to hire enough support people to keep the technology running is a co-equal challenge."
There are new buildings coming on line this summer and next fall. But of course every new building means the costs that come with it, the faculty to staff it, the heating, et cetera, et cetera. "Boy," Casey exclaims, "I'll tell you the energy challenge this year was something!"
I mention that Vice President Bobbitt, who teaches two classes (chemistry and math) along with his administrative duties, thinks that Casey, too, would like to take on teaching a class.
She laughs, and says, "I would. I don't know when I'll fit it in, but I'd love to get my hands on an English class. I miss the classroom. I miss the immediacy of interacting with students."
On the subject of CR students, she says: "They're very diverse as a group. Our average age here is about 27. Many of them are here for transfer preparation; that's about 40 percent. We also have a lot of students in career programs; that's about 25 percent."
She adds: "I will say that the student body has a high level of need -- financial need. A large proportion of our students receive financial aid. And that was a surprise, coming from the East Coast, because it's much cheaper to go to school here. We are $11 a unit. For comparison purposes, Connecticut was $69 a unit. I didn't anticipate that the same level of financial struggle would be present with so much reduced cost. Here, in many cases, a book costs more than the course. Yet students struggle, so their perseverance is against pretty significant odds."
Certainly one of Casey's pet projects is building bridges to the community.
"I'm a strong believer that community colleges play a service role to the community " she says, "and the basis for planning needs to take into account what the needs are of the larger community. So when I first got here, one of the challenges I faced was that the college was in need of developing a strategic plan. I asked my senior team to work with me on a community involvement project. So we held listening sessions, 15 of them, throughout the district.
"The listening sessions generated a tremendous amount of data, and one of the things we learned was that we hadn't done a very good job of communicating what was available [at the college]. At a lot of the sessions, people were saying things like, `You need to develop an automotive training program.'"
She pauses, grins, and says: "We have one!"
"The listening sessions were a good jump start," she goes on. "I asked all my administrative team to serve on boards and to work through the agencies and organizations in the community that mean something to them.
"I'm not going to choose for them. But it's not acceptable for the managers that work with me to work here and go home and think they've done it all. The higher up you are in the administration, the more I believe you need to be out there, knowing your community."
She added that she would be "professionally disappointed in someone who couldn't find a way to do that."
(I was reminded of that tough-as-nails characterization of the CR president I'd gleaned from that earlier talk with my student source.)
Could she cite an example of this extracurricular work? She offered that of Vice President Bobbitt, who is "active in the Old Town Rotary Club and is active in his church."
She added, "Actually, I'm very pleased with the response I've had from the team."
Does anyone on the team object?
She laughs and says, "They haven't told me."
Casey (this first-name basis is catching) of course has heard some of the campus scuttlebutt about the problems of her predecessor, Cedric Sampson, toward the end of his 10-year term. As one source puts it, "There was a lot of tension in the college, anxiety and turmoil, tension between the faculty and administration."
Casey, however, has a happier reason to remember Sampson.
"Cedric left the district in very good, financial shape," she notes, "and that's not always easy. I'm grateful for that. It's much easier to come in to a ship that isn't sinking."
There are rumors, I've heard, that HSU would be delighted to have Casey Crabill as its next president. (HSU President Alistair McCrone is retiring in June.) She is quick to dismiss the idea.
"I'm a community college person," she says. "It inspires me."
Board President Dobkin told me: "I don't know that that's even in the realm of possibility. Not that she wouldn't make an excellent president of HSU, but I know something about the process of selection of presidents, and given the kinds of board of trustees and chancellor of the California State University, I think the chances would be slim or none. ... You know, I was vice president of academic affairs over there for 14 years. I'm very familiar with the CSU system. And the method of finding people and choosing them..." He pauses every so slightly... "boggles the mind."
Anyhow, for now, Casey Crabill has a full plate in keeping up with the agenda at College of the Redwoods.
Dobkin observes: "People think of the College of the Redwoods as the Eureka campus, but they don't understand that the district is perhaps the largest geographically in the state. It runs from the Mendocino border to the south, over to the coast at Fort Bragg, up north to Crescent City, and east to Willow Creek and Trinity County. So there are about five different counties involved in the Redwoods Community College District. It's also the largest board in the state of any community college district -- expanded from seven to nine board members, and most other boards tend to be five members."
Crabill makes a point of going once a month to Crescent City, with its campus of 1,000, and once a month to Fort Bragg, with 1,200.
"I need to be connected with them as I am here," she states.
"And I'm on a first-name basis with every full-time employee in the district. I don't know how I could do otherwise."
Almost apologetically, she adds, "I don't know all the part-timers, but I'm working on it."
A new concept in distance learning
The San Francisco Presidio hardly falls into the bailiwick of the College of the Redwoods, but rehabilitating those historic buildings is just the latest pursuit of CR's risk-taking president, Casey Crabill.
It may seem "a high-profile, risky endeavor," as one CR prof calls it, but in the eyes of Crabill it's "an exciting risk."
"I'm so taken with that program," she told the Journal. "Bill Hole developed the historic preservation program (at CR), so when this opportunity came up, I said, `Why are they calling on us?' Well, we're the only accredited historic preservation program west of the Mississippi. I was stunned to learn that. The National Park Service was very interested. I said, `Well, you know it's almost 300 miles away and in another college's district.'"
Hole, who started teaching at CR in 1991, calls the project "a new concept in distance learning." He notes that the first approach came from Cherilyn Widell, historic preservation compliance officer with the Presidio Trust, who knew Hole through the CR preservation program. Hole gave Crabill "an overview" of what the project involved, "and without hesitation she said, `Let's do it!'"
About 110 employees of the Presidio Trust are now students working with CR teachers. "We're teaching them hands-on techniques, and theory of historic preservation, rules and laws." The Presidio was always a military base, from the time the Spaniards ran it in 1776, and the buildings were soldiers' quarters. Now, they are being turned into housing to be leased out.
Hole speaks of historic preservation as "a love, a passion." He said, "It's global, something we pursue to help future generations. That's really all it's about. We're stewards."
As Casey Crabill observes: "I think he's in heaven with the Presidio project. It was hard to get him down off the clouds after they approached us."
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