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May 4, 2006

11 Questions for Casey Crabill

story and photo by HELEN SANDERSON

photo of Casey CrabillCasey Crabill, right, College of the Redwoods' popular president, announced last week that she is leaving to take over as president of Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch, N.J., this summer. During her tenure, CR obtained a $40 million, 30-year bond to update facilities, opened campuses in downtown Eureka, Arcata and Klamath, started early college programs for high-schoolers, opened the Tourism and Hospitality Institute and created a community-based strategic planning process. On Thursday, Crabill talked with the Journal about CR's uniqueness, what it takes to be a leader and why community colleges are a vital part of democracy.


1. Let's start with the obvious: Why are you leaving?

I have been here doing this for seven years and that's almost double the average tenure for a community college president. It tends to be a job people move around from. I think that there are some benefits both to the individual and the institution when people move. I think fresh eyes are good. I think somebody could come in and say, `Oh, why aren't you doing this?' and I wouldn't see it anymore because I'm so close to it. So, from a professional standpoint that kind of change is challenging and energizing.


2. When you came in, what were you able to see with fresh eyes?

I came in and it wasn't so much as "saw" as "felt" that we were fairly isolated from our community, and that's not healthy, in my judgment, for a community college. There is really a very special mission for community colleges to be locally rooted. That's why I'm in it. I like that we impact people who live here. So that disconnect was a big deal to me.


3. How did you reconnect?

We did listening sessions and got out and met people. Like, I met with the sixth graders at Winship [Middle School] a few weeks ago and I said to them, "How do you like your college? It's a community college; you kind of own the place." So it was exciting getting to know the communities and helping them own the place. That resulted in some things like the Hospitality Institute, like the Eureka downtown center, like the compressed calendar that made more opportunities available at different times for people, like the online stuff. We got pretty good direction from our communities.


4. Is it hard to balance the college prep and vocational aspects of the school?

It is the key critical challenge facing community colleges. We're what we call in higher education a comprehensive institution. So we have a very complex mission that says, you have to prepare students to transfer so they can be full-fledged juniors. You're also charged with preparing people with the right jobs for your region so they can make a living and support their families. And you're open-entry, so you have to have enough of the basic skills so that the access is real, so if a student comes in and has challenges with reading or math or English you have the prep classes so there's real access to transfer. You don't just let somebody come in and flop around and fail. That's not access.


5. You've been president of other community colleges in Connecticut. What's unique about College of the Redwoods?

We have some programs that don't exist anywhere else — the fine woodworking program [in Mendocino], the historic preservation program, our manufacturing program. Those are really outstanding, very, very different kinds of programs that aren't replicated any other place. And there's no campus in the country, I think, that's more beautiful than this one.

I think the level of effort the students exert to be part of the college, in terms of working and managing childcare and figuring out their transportation, all in a very difficult economic environment, is different. I think that in general this is a more challenging place to make a living for people who don't have an education, and I see a pretty serious struggle on the part of students to fight really hard to get their education. So when they get it, it's really remarkable.


6. In April you were on a panel with Cherie Arkley and Julie Fulkerson as part of the Cascadia Leadership Conference. What did the three of you have in common as leaders?

The strongest thing we had in common is a real sense that you have to get in touch with your own personal courage. You have to be willing and able to take a risk. I think we were all very focused on being personally OK and taking care of family as a foundation. You've got to be comfortable and happy and positive, because if you don't have that it's hard to find the energy to care about the other stuff.


7. A lot has been made of the fact that you will be the first woman president of Raritan Valley ...

Yes. Again, the first woman president! It's 2006, for God's sakes! [Laughs.]


8. But it is a big deal. You are the first, so that's important.

I'm probably also the first person in my 40s to have that presidency, because typically people are older. But that doesn't draw that much interest. For me it's just that constant reminder that the more things change the less they actually change. I know what it means for me to do this work. Do I do it differently than a guy? I don't know.

It's also hard for me to interpret because I've worked for a number of presidents, but they've all been women. I worked for a chancellor who was a man, but when I was a vice-president and when I was a dean the president of both of those schools was a woman, so my models were always women.


9. What kind of person would you like to see as president of CR? What qualities should the new president have?

For me, if I were giving advice to somebody, I would say that this is a college that functions on relationships, and so it needs to be somebody who is happy to engage with everybody, both internally and externally. You have to enjoy conversation, you have to value other people's opinions, you have to go seek opinions from the people who don't necessarily come to you. I've always valued even showing up at a basketball game or an art show. I'm not doing anything other than being there and respecting the work of the students, but that's really important to the college.


10. Are you excited to move? Or does anyone actually say they're really stoked about moving to New Jersey?

Well, it's 45 minutes from Manhattan, and I do miss some urban culture. But this part of New Jersey does have trees. It's an area that still has quite a bit of farmland and some small towns. I'm excited for a number of reasons. I'm going to be closer to people that I care a lot about. Some of my family is on the East Coast. I have lifelong friendships that have been 3,000 miles away for a long time. It will be nice to be closer to those people.


11. You only applied for positions at community colleges. Why work for community colleges rather than universities? Is there a difference?

Community colleges change the lives of the people who go there. They are the great democratizing force in this country. They are truly engines of social change and social justice.

I learned that at an early age. My mom got her education when I was in high school at a community college. She'd been accepted to college when she graduated from high school and she couldn't afford it. So she got married and had kids, but always had that sense that she wanted to do something — and I think, hey, you raised three kids! But what she meant was she wanted access to a different economic opportunity and a different intellectual opportunity. Universities do that for some people, but I think by and large community colleges are that engine. So I have a longstanding, very deep, political, personal belief in community colleges.

People ask me all the time, why don't you move up to the university? It's not "up" to me. I've been in this realm for most of my career in education, and that's on purpose.


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