The Interview Issue: James Crawford, president, Felician University

Contributing to society, from Navy leadership to higher ed excellence

Imagine being fortunate enough to have a job that was so great, so fulfilling and so impactful that you couldn’t wait to get to it each and every day.

Retired Adm. James Crawford knows that feeling.

In fact, during his 33-year career in the Navy — one in which he was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the 43rd judge advocate general (leading more than 2,400 judge advocates) and one in which he served as the legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Crawford took the idea one step further.

“I went to bed early,” he said.

It had nothing to do with being tired, Crawford explained.

“It’s a tremendous blessing to be able to serve your country and wear the colors of your country,” he said. “I was privileged to be able to do so. And it was such a privilege that I rushed to bed at night — not because I needed sleep, but because I wanted to get up in the morning, because, once I put that uniform on, the day was great.

“It didn’t matter what came after that: hard, easy, impossible to accomplish. None of that mattered. I was doing it in this uniform, for us. That was a blessing.”

Crawford’s tale of patriotism and commitment is inspiring. It also is the basis of the answer to the first question he gets as president of Felician University: How did you come to the job?

How did a career military man with a legal background, someone born and raised in the South, someone with no connection to the Northeast or higher education, become the president of a small Catholic university in Rutherford?

For Crawford, the answer is easy: It’s a job worth going to bed early for.

It’s also one that matched the message of his greatest teacher: his father.

“My dad said to me, ‘You always want to contribute to something larger than yourself. You want to have a vibrant and wonderful life — but you will get even greater value out of life if you can be in a position to help others have that same vibrant and wonderful life. It’ll mean more to you than what you are doing,” Crawford said his dad preached.

It proved to be true in the military.

“One of the things that’s incumbent upon a senior officer is to groom and develop the talent that they have been privileged to lead — and help those folks reach their potential,” he said. “I wanted to find something that would help me continue to serve, because that’s what teaching is all about, serving.

“So, I thought, there’s no place better than higher education. Teaching is so valuable at any level, but, when you are at that higher education level, you’re touching folks on that terminal end point. They’re about to enter into the workforce, enter into their communities and begin to bring value, make contribution, provide leadership, contribute as a citizen of the country. That’s what brought me to higher ed.”

Felician, with an enrollment of approximately 2,000, brought him back to his own formative college days at Belmont Abbey College, a small, private Catholic liberal arts university founded by Benedictine monks in Belmont, North Carolina.

“I attended a university just like Felician,” he said. “I look back at all the things that I’ve been blessed to be involved in and do, and I see how those college years have been so instrumental to me. I can still hear the lessons taught to me in my ears.

“Catholic higher education, particularly small universities, has a history of bringing value to this country. I experienced it. And I wanted to have the opportunity to give to other young women and men what was given to me.”

Crawford served under six presidents, was lead counsel for the principal military advisers to Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. He took over as president of Felician University in the summer of 2021.

ROI-NJ thought it would be a great time to check in on his progress and selected him to be a part of our annual Interview Issue. Here’s a look at more of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Talk about how Felician can prepare its students?

James Crawford: What we’re here to do is more than just graduate a student with a degree. We obviously need to do that. But, as far as I’m concerned, I’m entering into a contract with you when I enroll you in this institution. It’s not just moving you through to graduation and developing your particular substantive skill-sets that you want to develop, it’s developing your human formation.

Not only are we here to help you become that best biologist you can be, but we’re here to help you into the fullness of being human, flourishing your body-mind experience. If we’re only helping you become a great mathematician, we’ve only done part of the job, because we want you to go out into the world and use your skill as a mathematician with the values that we have spoken about and engaged in with you over the course of your time here.

Transformation, compassion, justice and peace, solidarity with those in need — those very fundamental values that we that we cherish — are taught here. So, when you go into your communities, you’re taking more than a skill-set, you’re taking an understanding of your obligation to make a difference, not just for yourself, but for those around you.

ROI: We can see your military career coming out. Talk more about teamwork — and placing the greater good of the whole above yourself.

JC: When I was in the Navy, I would always ask junior officers four questions:

  • Why are you here?
  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • How are you going to do it?
  • What do you want to see when you’re done — whether it be 20 years or one mission?

I would say to them, ‘When you look back, if all you see are a bunch of accolades, you haven’t completed the mission.’ What you want to see when you look back is your footprints being filled in by all those people that you have affected over the course of your time.

That’s what we’re here to do: To help people create those footprints that will help others coming behind them make us all better than we even think we can be.

ROI: That’s powerful imagery. It speaks to character and integrity, something everyone wants. But wanting it — and instilling it — are two different things. How will you be able to teach it?

JC: I have to go back in my past to answer that. It’s about modeling. I wasn’t born a Catholic, but, by the grace of God, because my family wasn’t able to afford it, I was able to go to Catholic school.

So, on the weekends, I was in a Methodist church with these incredible African American women and men who modeled for me what it was like to have dignity, to give respect and to conduct yourself as a citizen.

Then, on Monday to Friday, I went to Catholic school. Now, this was the ’60s, when there were messages all around saying there’s a ceiling as to how far you can go — and there are things you shouldn’t even consider. The nuns wanted no part of that. They said, ‘Not only you can, but you will.’

They focused on things like picking your feet up and holding your head up when you walk. They talked about looking people in the eye when you speak to them and to speak articulately — to be clear in your words.

It wasn’t so much about what they said, but how they modeled. They did it every day. That’s the best way to teach character.

ROI: Let’s talk about diversity, equity & inclusion. Felician, like the state of New Jersey, has a very diverse population. What can you do with students while they are at Felician that will help them when they move on?

JC: This is a challenging opportunity. Our students hear these words about the importance of diversity and equity and being inclusive. That has to have meaning. It has to be more than a soundbite or an outcry. We saw the tragedy of George Floyd. We saw the outcry. And then we saw some people go back to the way they were living before.

Our students have to understand that these concepts are real, that they are things that we should internalize and live by. What I’ve tried to do here is meet the students where they are, whoever they are, wherever they come from and whatever they bring to the table. We want to embrace the challenges that they face, not run from those challenges, but say, ‘Together, we’re going to figure out how to empower you and how to equip you to overcome these challenges.’

We want them to turn to their fellow students — students who might look different than you, believe differently than you, love differently than you do — and see that they’re facing the same things you’re facing.

I’ve created a President’s Council, asking them to come up with a mission statement for the university that addresses what diversity means to us and how we will embrace it and learn from it.

ROI: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about developing the next generation of citizens. Felician also is developing the workforce for the next generation. Give your elevator speech to the business community: What will they get when they come to Felician and recruit your students?

JC: First of all, I want them to know that Felician aims to provide for them the women and men that they need to operate their businesses — so, I am interested in hearing what they think they need and how we can meet their needs.

I also would say to them that we are producing for them the type of graduate that not only has the expertise, but the character to make a difference in their workplace. A Felician graduate will be able to do these three things:

  • Communicate: They will have the skill-set needed to communicate in today’s world — writing, speaking and digitally;
  • Problem-solve: They are going to be able to solve problems quantitatively and qualitatively;
  • Assimilate: They’re going to be able to work in diverse environments — and they will be able to lead from the front or from the rear.


“Most importantly, they’ll understand the importance of followship,” Crawford said. “They will know how to follow and support the effort from beginning to end and achieve the outcome that’s designed.

“We’re creating individuals that are going to make a difference for them, because they will embrace their task for the good of that organization.”

And they just may go to bed early for a chance to do so.

Five fun questions

What is the most notable job you had in high school?

I worked at a Holiday Inn. I was the everything guy: room service, maintenance, housekeeping, landscaping, putting chlorine in the pool — I was always called on to help. I was just in high school and I wasn’t highly skilled and it didn’t pay a lot, but it was the first job I had where I wasn’t working for my dad, who was a custodian. I started working for him when I was 8 or 9; this is the first job where I had to represent myself and my family. I learned about work ethic, and I learned that by watching others.

I didn’t have to do this for a living, but there were people doing these jobs who had to do it, day in and day out. I have a lot of respect for folks who get up every morning and just get after it because they are responsible human beings being responsible to themselves and their families. It gave me a sense of being thankful for whatever it is you have.

Dr. (Martin Luther) King once said something to the likes of, whatever it is you do, do it to the best of your ability. Don’t be focused on what it is you do, but how you do it. My dad used to say: Don’t respect people for what they do, respect people for who they are.

What skill do you use on your kids that you learned at work — or use at work that you learn from being a parent?

The one technique I use on my kids that I bring here is listening, because listening is empowering. Children don’t have power, and that’s OK when they are younger, but, when they grow to be teenagers, they want to feel a little bit more empowered. They want to have a voice, but, more than that, they want to feel like you respect their voice. This doesn’t mean as parents we do whatever they say, but we need to listen to them, because there is a power differential. The same thing is true here. I’ve really tried to conduct myself in a way here that I seek to try to diminish that power differential, so that people realize that I recognize the university relies more on them, as it does me. They are doing the day-to-day work and down in the trenches. I’m the face that gets to be patted on the back when things go right. The leader always gets them, but it’s my job to give them a pat on the back, because no one is going to do it if I don’t. Listening is another way to give them credit, but it acknowledges that I value what they do and what they think.

What person, dead or alive, real or created, famous or infamous, would you want to have dinner with?

Leonardo da Vinci, because I view him as the father of innovation and experimentation.

If you could be New Jersey business czar for the day, what would you do to help the state?

I would put substantial funding into workforce development through an investment in the education of our population. The populations that are growing in our education system are those who have been traditionally underserved, particularly the Hispanic population. Many of them are first-generation students. These folks, as we look into the future of our workforce, are going to fill the critical needs of local, regional and national companies. We have to, as a nation, use all of our talent, so I would look to see what I could establish to accelerate our ability to create greater outcomes for our students so we will have the talent needed to keep the state competitive.

What’s your favorite food? It can be a meal or a snack — or even a restaurant.

I’m going to answer this, two ways: My first response is, it doesn’t matter what the food is, if I’m having it with my family, it’s my favorite.

The second answer is whatever my mom is cooking. There are certain smells that just take you back. I can remember walking into the house after basketball practice and smelling her cooking, whatever it was. It was back in a time when you thought you had so much to do, but now you realize you really didn’t and should have savored something so simple yet so beautiful.