By SAM SCOTT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Robert Agrella, the fourth president in the history of Santa Rosa Junior College, is now its first president emeritus.
The honorary title - a vaunted suffix for retired academics - was bestowed Tuesday, the final day of Agrella's nearly 22-year tenure.
“It's just a higher level of recognition,” said Terry Lindley, head of the SRJC board of trustees at the end of the board meeting. “We'll refer to Robert as president emeritus going forward.”
Agrella will be back on campus today to help his successor Frank Chong on his first day on the job, but he indicated he won't linger.
“I think when a president leaves office, he needs to leave office gracefully and stay out of the way of the new president,” Agrella said.
He plans on catching up with his reading, trying to best his wife's golf game, and finding more time for refurbishing old cars like the TR-6 he recently overhauled.
His departure ends the second-longest presidency in school history, one marked by major growth in enrollment and facilities, including a bond-fueled building expansion that transformed the historic campus in Santa Rosa and created a modern alternative in Petaluma.
He also initiated new curricula, including dental hygiene, the only such program in Northern California.
More recently he has steered the college during the state financial crisis, which has eroded funding and forced cuts to classes and personnel.
“He worked really, very hard at building consensus on campus and bringing everyone to the table to understand exactly what was going on,” said Kerry Campbell-Price, a dean, who has worked with Agrella during his entire time at SRJC. “That's not an easy feat.”
Agrella got a standing applause at the end of Tuesday's meeting, a sign of how endeared he became to many faculty and staff.
But it was not always so. By his own admission, he was a more arrogant figure in the years after arriving from Cabrillo College in Aptos where he was also president.
The nadir may have come in the late 1990s when a campus-wide scandal imperiled Agrella's future.
Problems began with several anonymous letters that circulated accusing Agrella of unethical personal conduct and criticizing his administration for its role in personnel disputes.
The issue turned explosive after faculty members learned that hired investigators had gone through personnel files of 10 employees and examined handwriting samples in a bid to identify the author.
Outraged, the school's Academic Senate approved a resolution of censure and no confidence in both Agrella and the board in March 1997.
But by the end of the year, much of the anger had abated and Agrella has righted himself. The episode forced him to take stock of himself, teaching him to relax, develop a thicker skin and to face problems head on, he said.
“I think if you really want to change you can,” he said during an interview Tuesday.
In the years since, Agrella gained a reputation as a strong but more humble leader: “A big cheese when needed, a colleague when appropriate,” as math instructor Terry Shell, president of the Academic Senate, said at Tuesday's meeting.
"The bottom line was he was always pretty compassionate dealing with the faculty, the students and the staff," said Warren Ruud, another math instructor, who leads the school's faculty union.
Technically, Agrella will be using accrued vacation through May when he officially retires.