Cal State's Rees Put Hayward Campus on Map

  • April 24, 2006

Shortly after taking over the presidency of what then was Cal State Hayward, Norma Rees experienced a turning-point moment.

"I was visiting a shop in downtown Hayward and chatting with a young woman who worked there," she said of a 1990 conversation. "She asked me where I worked and I said, 'Up at the university.' Then she replied, 'What university?'"

That's when Rees realized her school had an identity problem. Though highly visible perched atop a steep hillside overlooking the city, many people - even some Hayward residents - didn't know the school existed or were only vaguely aware of what it had to offer.

Sixteen years later, as she prepares to step down from the top job at the campus above the Hayward hills, Rees feels she has done her best to put her university on the map. She was instrumental in giving it a new name, having led a controversial, but successful campaign last year to persuade trustees of The California State University system to rename it Cal State East Bay.

To anyone who knows the soft-spoken, but tough college president, her record of accomplishment comes as no surprise.

"It became a major priority for me to get out into the community," said Rees, one of only four female CSU campus presidents who is also a professor in the university's department of communicative sciences and disorders. "I also got our faculty and senior management involved. Our outreach extended throughout the entire region."

Rees practiced what she preached during her presidency, having served on the boards of directors of the Hayward and Oakland chambers of commerce, the Bay Area World Trade Center, the Economic Development Alliance for Business, the California Film Commission and the Leadership California Advisory Council, among other groups.

Rees' desire to reach out to Hayward and beyond to dozens of East Bay communities became an all-out push to build the university's regional profile.

Rees presided over the construction of $70 million in buildings and improvements to existing facilities at the flagship Hayward campus - the first new campus structures since 1971. Rees also expanded the university's 1,700-student Concord satellite campus, opened a professional development center and small business development center in downtown Oakland, and established programs in Union City, Richmond, San Pablo and San Ramon.

Her influence spread well beyond the East Bay. She spearheaded the the university's first international executive MBA program 14 years ago in Moscow. Similar programs now operate in Austria, Hong Kong and Singapore. The school's worldwide stature has attracted students from 144 nations, giving it the highest percentage of international students at any of the 23 CSU campuses.

"I think there have been quite a lot of dramatic changes," Rees said.

Rees had never set foot on the Hayward campus until she was considered for the presidency. From 1987 to 1990, she was a high-ranking administrator with the Massachusetts Board of Regents of Higher Education. Previously, she held top managerial positions in the higher education systems of Wisconsin and New York City.

"I was good friends with a (Cal State Hayward) faculty member so I knew this was a highly regarded university," Rees said.

"It felt good right from the start," she said. "I felt right at home."

Besides the ambitious capital improvement projects and expansion into new geographical areas, Rees has shepherded expansion of academic offerings, too.

Her firsts include helping develop the university's inaugural courses of study in engineering and biotechnology, as well as Master's degree programs in social work and team-based multimedia, and online educational programs that serve students anywhere in the world with Internet access.

Rees became known as a student advocate, encouraging them to get involved in various campus committees and hosting student leaders at her home.

"Norma Rees is an outstanding leader who has taken Cal State East Bay to great heights," Don Sawyer, president of the university's Academic Senate, said in a statement. "She not only made an enormous difference in the progress of this university, but in the lives of all of those associated with it."

But top jobs always carry their burdens. Last year, Rees had her share of detractors among faculty members, some of whom opposed the name change. She readily admits she also heard complaints from city leaders and students, especially those from Hayward who felt "dissed."

But she said to promote greater private and business community fundraising - which hit an all-time high of $10.5 million last year - and a regional identity for the university, the change was necessary.

"I got a lot of feedback over the years that the Hayward name was a drawback for some people," she said, adding that many outsiders have an unfavorable, if not particularly accurate, view of the city. "Look, Hayward is my home, and I love it here. Since the name change, we have gone from 22nd out of 23 campuses in fund-raising to eighth."

From her ninth-floor Warren Hall office overlooking the campus and the Bay, Rees keeps tabs on the beehive of construction activity she helped unleash: the $23 million, 67,000-square-foot Business and Technology Center; a $10 million, 28,840-square-foot addition to the University Union; three new dormitory structures at Pioneer Heights that will add 400 rooms to attract larger numbers of students to live on campus.

Within four years, a new administrative and student services building will replace Warren Hall, the high-rise campus landmark sitting astride the Hayward Fault that would have cost $18 million to safeguard against earthquakes.

Hard to leave all that? Maybe, but Rees, who will spend at least a year doing special projects for CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed, is ready to give it a try.

"I decided to announce my resignation at the beginning of the year, so I could complete some of my projects," she said. "I'm not retiring, at least not for another year or so. But, as president, the time has come. Sometime you just know the time is right."


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