Ex-Cal State East Bay head Norma Rees dies

  • June 22, 2013

By Nanette Asimov
Chronicle Staff Writer

Undaunted in her determination to expand the prominence of one of California State University's more humble campuses, Norma Rees, a pioneering president of Cal State Hayward, did the unthinkable in 2005: She changed its name to Cal State East Bay.

The transformation capped 16 years in which Dr. Rees - the first woman to lead the school of 13,000 students - drew millions of dollars in donations, presided over a major building expansion, and brokered a rare academic partnership with a Moscow business academy after the Cold War that continues today and landed the campus on the international stage.

Dr. Rees, the campus' third president from 1990 to 2006, died of natural causes on June 6 at her Hayward home. She was 83.

"Her influence during her tenure as president was substantive," campus President Leroy Morishita said in a statement to the campus.

In particular, Morishita pointed to some $70 million in campus construction under Dr. Rees. These included three student residences on what had largely been a commuter campus, a new business and technology center, a campus in Concord and a site in downtown Oakland.

Hauling the Hayward campus out of semi-obscurity did not always endear Dr. Rees to some in her own community.

Critics, including students, neighbors and local politicians, questioned the $200,000 cost of changing the campus' name and called the president's action an "outrage" and a "bunch of horse pucky."

But the CSU trustees upheld the switch, which Dr. Rees intended as a way to attract students from throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

She also brought the first engineering and biotechnology programs to the Hayward campus, and added social work and multimedia to the master's program.

Dr. Rees not only brought outside influences to Hayward, she brought Hayward to influence the world.

In 1992, she led a delegation to Moscow, where she helped establish Russia's first American-accredited master's degree program in business administration.

"What we are doing is participating in a really historic time in the world (by) helping people who have, for seven decades, lost the skills that have been honed in other parts of the world," Dr. Rees told The Chronicle in 1993.

Such efforts prompted the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame to include Dr. Rees in its first group of six inductees in 1994, honoring her for moving the school "off the hill and into the community."

But Dr. Rees was no single-minded devotee of university business alone.

"She could explain the etymologies of the most arcane words, discuss Russian literature or the music of the Harlem Renaissance. She could sing an aria. She also had a wicked sense of humor," said Jodi Servatius, a professor emeritus of education who worked closely with Dr. Rees.

Servatius described her former boss as someone "totally approachable (who) put on no airs."

She recalled the day she and her 4-year-old daughter shared an elevator with the new president.

When Dr. Rees asked the little girl what had brought her to campus, she said she was visiting her mommy.

"And what, exactly, does your mommy do?" Dr. Rees asked.

"She talks on the phone, and she makes lists," the child answered.

"Really?" the president replied. "That's exactly what I do, too!"

Before coming to Hayward, Dr. Rees served three years with the Massachusetts Board of Regents of Higher Education, and held higher education posts in Wisconsin and New York.

She earned a bachelor's degree in speech pathology and audiology from Queens College, and a master's in those subjects from Brooklyn College. She took her doctorate in speech at NYU.

Dr. Rees also served as a tenured professor in Cal State East Bay's Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders.

She is survived by two sons, Raymond Rees of Wisconsin, and Evan Rees of Oregon. Her husband, Raymond, died in 2001.

Plans for a memorial are pending.

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