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SUNY Potsdam, SUNY Canton councils object to sharing president

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POTSDAM — Will the kangaroo and the bear both survive?

That’s the question on the minds of the SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam college councils following an announcement by SUNY Central that the two institutions will share a president after next year.

In an informal meeting Thursday afternoon at the 1844 House restaurant, SUNY Provost David K. Lavallee told the two college councils that the decision was final, but said that the institutions’ individual identities would not be lost.

“It isn’t as though we’re taking away the administrative piece and not giving anything back. It’s a whole new model,” Mr. Lavallee said. “The way to get those cost savings is to have a single chief executive officer, a single president, for campuses that are in the situation of Canton and Potsdam with relatively low enrollments, but you do not close a campus, you do not merge a campus, you do not change a campus’s mission.”

According to SUNY Central, SUNY Canton has seen an approximately $6 million reduction and SUNY Potsdam a reduction of more than $13 million in state funding since the 2007-08 fiscal year. As a result, Mr. Lavallee said, the two schools, both of which have enrollments of fewer than 5,000 students, will have to begin sharing services to shift funds away from administration and toward instruction.

The implementation of shared services will be guided this year by SUNY Canton President Joseph L. Kennedy, who has been asked to resign at the end of the upcoming academic year, and SUNY Potsdam President John F. Schwaller, who is expected to take over the leadership of both schools. The mandate to combine administrations is part of the new SUNY Strategic Campus Alliance Networks, a statewide shared-services plan announced Aug. 5.

During the meeting, Mr. Lavallee said that the decision to share a president was made to facilitate the administration of other shared services, not to save the cost of Mr. Kennedy’s $185,000 annual salary. Despite recent rumors of SUNY Central’s forcing Mr. Kennedy to retire and then allowing him to keep his position until spring 2012, Mr. Lavallee said that administrative mergers would be achieved through attrition, not firings.

“We don’t have to talk about anyone losing their jobs,” he said.

Following Mr. Lavallee’s presentation, members of both college councils spoke out against the decision, protesting that they had not been involved and raising concerns about the colleges maintaining their identities. Ronald M. O’Neill, SUNY Canton council chairman, said that both councils should have been consulted in the decision to do away with a presidential position.

“There was little consultation with anyone on our campus, particularly the college council,” he said. “We never received any information. It’s totally mind-boggling to me.”

As council chairman, Mr. O’Neill said, he intends to start a search committee as soon as possible to find a replacement for Mr. Kennedy after next year.

“We feel that we need a president on our campus without any reservation,” he said. “I think everyone in this room involved with the two colleges fully supports where you come from. We want to consolidate where we can save money ... but we need a resident president on our campus.”

June F. O’Neill, a SUNY Potsdam council member, raised similar concerns Thursday afternoon. When she asked council members who supported having a shared president to raise their hands, not a single member of either council did.

“I’m having a tough time even suspending belief at this point, because frankly the words from SUNY Central do not match the actions,” she said, citing a recent Syracuse Post-Standard article in which SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher said that the 64 state campuses would be given the latitude and autonomy to decide how to best share services.

“I greatly worry about the ability of our campus to function if Fritz (Mr. Schwaller) is pulled in two directions, never mind two different councils, never mind two colleges with vastly different missions and two vastly different programs and clientele,” Mrs. O’Neill said. “This is an awful idea that has been horribly implemented. You have already done, in my humble opinion, irreparable damage to both campuses. ... You can keep the kangaroo and the bear, but at the end of the day you’re going to have one campus with a satellite.”

Area legislators also expressed concerns about the strategy Thursday. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said that SUNY Central must ensure that the colleges keep their separate identities throughout the process of sharing services.

“I strongly support consolidating services and finding efficiencies. I’m not sure that doing away with one of the presidents at one of the colleges is the correct way to do that,” she said. “How would we know that, considering the way this was laid out? Nobody really knows what’s going on.”

Ms. Ritchie said she believed that sharing a president with SUNY Potsdam could be a definite detriment to SUNY Canton.

“I will be watching this very closely. I plan on staying involved,” she said. “If they (SUNY Central officials) don’t agree to be more transparent, then I certainly will be talking to my fellow committee members on the Higher Education Committee to hold some hearings.”

Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, wants a clearer picture of the end result and cost savings.

“I have questions and concerns about the decision and they involve a number of things, such as governance — will both schools retain their councils — and the economies of scale SUNY is projecting,” he said. “In these financially challenging times, it’s important to examine and consider every option, but there should be clear communication with the colleges, their councils and students before enacting any decisions.”

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, was less critical of SUNY Central’s manipulations but said she still hoped the presidential position would not be cut.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to work together and save enough dollars so that doesn’t have to be the ultimate decision,” she said. “But if the campuses and the community come together and decide that it’s viable, I’m not going to stand in their way. This should be an open process and one that looks at all of the options, and this is one of the options.”

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