WHEN Northern Neck native Sissy Crowther took the president’s job at Rappahannock Community College 15 years ago, times were tough.
The institution with campuses in Warsaw in Richmond County and Glenns in Gloucester was ranked near the bottom of the state’s community colleges in measures of student success and at the very bottom of the 23 colleges in the system in pay for staff and faculty.
Beyond that, a manslaughter plea submitted years before by a longtime RCC president in the death of his mentally ill wife still hung like a dark cloud over the school that serves the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula regions.
“We needed to come back together as a culture, as an organization committed to its employees and students,” said Crowther, who still lives on her family’s Bruington Farm in Northumberland County near Reedville. “The institution needed a lot of love and work, and we began working to organize and do that together.”
First off came the challenge of recruiting, not always easy when the teaching jobs are in the midst of a rural area. They handled that by taking their time and waiting until the right applicants could be found.
Next came a weeding out of courses that had outlived their usefulness or no longer served community or industry needs.
And slowly, over time, came a nurse training program and well-respected programs for emergency medical technicians, engineers, welders, truck drivers and culinary workers, the latter with four different levels of expertise in baking.
Academic and technical courses were added, as well, all with an eye to help students improve their lot in life. The community college that has a full-time space at King George High School also works closely with Governor’s School students in the region.
Improved pay for staff and teachers moved RCC from the bottom to the middle of the salary pack. The RCC foundation has grown from $1 million to almost $13 million. And a guaranteed transfer agreement for transferring RCC students to four-year state schools was used as a model for the entire Virginia Community College System.
Crowther was in a reflective mood about her tenure when we talked recently. She’s leaving a job she’s loved for the past decade and a half, going out just before RCC hits its 50th anniversary in January.
She said that while she strove to provide the leadership and resources RCC needed, the staff and faculty are the ones who truly deserve the credit for improvement there.
“I’ve worked in many colleges, and many other places and industries, and have never seen a culture like this,” she said. “You hate to leave, but I feel like I’m going out at a good time and on a high note, with a capable person coming in to keep the institution moving forward.”
Crowther, whose last day was last week, is being succeeded by Shannon L. Kennedy. The incoming president worked most recently at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, N.C., where she served as director of public relations and grants development, associate dean, dean and as an executive vice president.
Another accomplishment during Crowther’s tenure was a complete renovation of all the learning spaces at both campuses, something managed with the $11 million that had originally been budgeted solely for upgrading doors and windows.
“We were lucky that the $11 million came during the recession when construction companies were desperate for work,” she said, noting that the main instructional buildings on both campuses were gutted and redesigned, narrow corridors replaced with wide and sweeping spaces.
Success spawned success as new programs were created, such as a welding lab in Montross. Classes were added for specialties such as nurse assistants and certifications made available in academic classes.
Crowther, who worked at several colleges as well in the banking business before coming to RCC, thinks one other thing helped prepare her to run the community college.
“I think it helped having grown up on a farm, knowing about equipment and the cost of things,” she said. “It helps to give a sense of what people need to do in life. My background wasn’t all academic and theoretical, with my time in banking providing some insights you don’t get strictly from academic pursuits.”
Crowther said she’ll be busy in the next chapter of her life, helping with a fundraising campaign to mark the school’s 50th anniversary. She’s also involved in the running of her family’s business, Lillian Lumber, as well as boards that operate everything from her alma mater, St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock, to local segments of the Bon Secours Health System.
She plans to travel, and is excited to have more time to commit to one of her real passions, racing Cape Dory Typhoons at the Rappahannock River Yacht Club.