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Dr. Casey Crabill talks about her tenure at OCC and what's next

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SUNY OCC
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Doctor Casey Crabill is retiring from her position as President of Onondaga Community College at the end of the month. She served in the role for 9 years. WAER’s Scott Willis sat down with Crabill to talk about her time at OCC and what’s next for her.

SCOTT WILLIS: You guided the college through the pandemic. What was your biggest concern during the months when classes couldn't be held in person?

CASEY CRABILL: So when we first closed for the pandemic, I would say my primary concern was the awareness that our students were under resourced for what the world was asking them to do. We had a large number of students who either didn't have technology or connectivity in their home, or they were in living situations that had a lot of other people, and there is no quiet or they were sharing technology with brothers and sisters or children. So that was a primary concern.

We also had a number of students in our residence halls. When students were told they had to go home, they let us know that this was home. So some real basic needs that we had to help students deal with in the beginnings because it changed so quickly from everything's normal to nothing is normal.

I think those needs initially were the biggest concern. And then of course, you are asking hundreds of faculty members to turn on a dime. Many of them had a lot of experience with online education, but some had had very little. So how do you immediately, and in the most non-straightforward way, get the kind of training to them that they would need. Our faculty, I think, were nothing short of amazing having about a week to turn everything they did into something different, to make sure that students had access to what they needed.

SW: Outside of the pandemic, um, you noticed other issues that were limiting students full access. Tell us about how box of books came about.

CC: So a group of faculty were talking about curricular issues and looking for it really started with a concern about getting the students from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester. Fourteen weeks doesn't seem like a long period of time, but if you're trying to hold together a family, keep a job and take classes, it can be really high stress. And so we were talking about retaining students throughout the semester, and one of the faculty members said, I wish they could just show up on the first day of class with the books they need, rather than waiting for a paycheck or a financial aid reimbursement or something that would help them acquire those books.

And I brought that, that just struck me, well, this can't be that hard. Why, why doesn't this happen? And so I brought it back to the leadership team of the college, and I said, I think that we just need to find a way for students to start the semester with a box full of books.
That's really where it came from. And that faculty member, I don't know that she meant to start that, but certainly she she's the catalyst for that whole idea. And when we brought it to our bookstore partners, they didn't really blink. They said, yeah, that probably is doable. And for us, the, the driver was that it needed to be affordable and predictable.

You would see students going to buy their books and come out with no books because they went in expecting that maybe a book would be $50 or $60, not $400 or $500. And so we wanted predictability and we wanted sort of equity across curricula. It's in their best interest as well to figure out how to stay affordable to folks. But the idea really was for students to start the semester on the right foot as a way to help them make it to the end of the semester.

SW: What else did you notice during your nine years that was just holding students back or preventing them from fully taking advantage of what the college had to offer?

CC: We saw a lot of challenge, um, early on in accessing financial aid. Everyone knows financial aid is, and I put this [financial aid] in air quotes, but the degree to which it's available and applicable will depend greatly from student to student. And so it was very confusing for families to try to figure out how do we get this and what can it be used for and how do we make up the difference? So we really spent the first couple years kind of restructuring the, what we called "the front door," the way people came into the college.

Because we know that when students raise their hand and say, "yep, I'm gonna go to college." There's a little voice inside, most of them saying, "But you're not gonna make it." And we don't wanna reinforce that message in any way. So if our front door isn't open, welcoming, helpful, clear, providing accurate information and good direction, we're creating barriers that we don't intend. So spend a lot of time on restructuring that front door. What's the message that students get when they walk in the door? Is it "Well, you can try." or "We're so glad you're here and let's go."?

SW: The role of the role of community colleges, as you know, has been to meet the ever changing needs of industry by being flexible and creating new degree in certificate programs, how do you feel OCC has met that challenge and maybe what can it do better?

CC: We've been really busy with that, particularly over the last three years. We've got, I think, 14 new programs, because if you look at the employment landscape in Central New York, when I look at it, and I've only watched it for nine years, it is radically different today than it was in 2013. The industries that are here where the jobs are, what's possible for workers in terms of high tech and advanced manufacturing. I mean, those things are exploding here. So we've had to be really busy to make sure that our students have access to the opportunities that are growing and changing.

We would like to be a little bit more nimble, but we are state institution. And so there are roles and regulations. We are accredited. And so we need to meet certain standards, but I do think there's space for us in the non-credit arena to perhaps be additionally helpful to employers. I think there are employers in the region who have great employees, and they're looking at those employees and they're thinking, how can I upscale these folks, because they're great people. They're the right people, but I wanna bring on this new technology or this new product line.

And I think that's something that we haven't done as much of. And it's probably something that we could be more helpful with. But in terms of our degrees and certificates, that growth and the change has really been tremendous over the last couple years. All credit to the faculty for really connecting into what's happening in their industry locally and making sure that we've got the right tools and the right gadgets and the right curriculum and the right internships and the right advisory councils and all of that.

SW: Enrollment at OCC and community colleges in general is down. What can we attribute to that and how can it be turned around?

CC: So enrollment in higher education in New York state is down. There are very few four years that have met their enrollment targets despite what the press line might be. That's because, at least in upstate New York, if you look at the size of high school graduating classes over the last 10 years, they're declining and they continue to decline. There are just fewer kids coming out of high school.

By definition, the traditional college going population, at least in upstate New York, for institutions that draw their student body primarily from that location, they're all down. Community colleges and otherwise across the country, we saw a fairly precipitous decline in community college enrollment through the pandemic. And I think that really speaks to the precarious economic realities for community college students. So in the pandemic, the opportunities to work really opened up particularly in the unskilled areas of employment.

I know a number of our students decided to earn before they learn, and I expect them back at some point. But I think that for us, for community colleges and OCC in particular, the larger point is traditional age college students aren't and shouldn't be our only market. We know from our research that Central New York doesn't have the credentialing level among adults 24 and up that will meet the future employment needs of people that are already here as businesses. We know that there are a lot of adults out there who need to return to school. And I think for community colleges turning their attention to how do we engage those adults who either need a first credential or a new credential is part of the immediate future.

SW: So what's next for you? You mentioned you wanted to do more, do you know what that is yet?

CC: I'm very fortunate that I still have my mom, and she will turn 91 in September. So we have some travel plans. She wants to do an Alaska adventure for her 91st birthday. So we're gonna do that, and that'll be really fun.

I have put off a more serious study of wine for a long time, and I'm very, very interested in terroir and all things related to the fruit of the grape. So, I plan next spring to be in Italy for an extended period of time taking a first level sommelier training course because I think it will be tons of fun. I do not want to seek employment in that field. I just want to learn and understand more and enjoy.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at srwillis@syr.edu.