Woman at the top

Recalling a more than decade-old interview with Chico State’s incoming president

One of the upsides to being a journalist in a small metro area is that the folks who make news are often in some way familiar to me. I’ve interviewed easily thousands of people over the past 17 years, starting with my earliest reporting in college. I cannot remember everyone, of course, but many times a name or face rings a bell.

That was the case for me a few weeks ago, on deadline Wednesday morning, when the CSU Chancellor’s Office announced who would be Chico State President Paul Zingg’s successor when he retires in a few months. “I know that name,” I said to CN&R staffer Howard Hardee, upon him saying that 1) A woman had been chosen, and 2) Her name is Gayle Hutchinson.

The mystery deepened when he told me she’s the current provost at CSU Channel Islands. I’ve never been to that campus, although it is near my husband’s hometown in Ventura County, and we do visit the area each year. Moments later, when we figured out that Hutchinson had spent the majority of her career at Chico State, things started coming together.

“I’ve interviewed her,” I guessed. That was a safe bet, since I spent more than three years as the full-time higher education beat reporter over at the local daily. I would’ve gone digging through my old stories, but the E-R has a paywall for its archives—and current content—and I wasn’t about to spend money to sate my curiosity.

But the reporter in me thought I should at least take a shot at it. Turns out, all it took was Googling my name and Hutchinson’s together. What turned up was a 13-year-old story in The Orion, Chico State’s student newspaper, about a University Police-taught women’s self-defense class having been canceled. Then it all came back to me. The campus officers who taught the class were upset that a scheduling error had led to low enrollment, and thus the cancellation.

I remember sitting down with Hutchinson—then in her first year as chair of the Physical Education Department (now the Kinesiology Department). I could tell that she wasn’t particularly excited to be interviewed. But to her credit, she was very professional with me—a campus watchdog in my last semester of college. She acknowledged that the screw-up was hers. She said it was not intentional and that the class would resume the next semester and thereafter, so long as campus police were willing to teach it.

To my recollection, that’s the first and last time I spoke with Hutchinson.

Hardee talked to her for this week’s cover story, a Q&A that gives us at least a small window into what she’s like and her initial thoughts on leading the campus. After she gets resettled here, I’ll look forward to meeting her in person and chatting about what it’s like to be the first woman to hold the university’s top position. Being the first woman to sit in the editor’s chair at the CN&R, I certainly have some interesting anecdotes of my own to share.