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SUNY backs down on consolidating presidencies

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CANTON — A controversial plan to have one college president oversee both SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam has been scrapped.

The news was announced Tuesday morning by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

She credited the Canton community and its task force for fighting hard to save the president’s job at SUNY Canton.

A groundswell of protest erupted after the consolidation plan was announced in July by SUNY Central, which claimed the move was part of its cost-cutting consolidation plans.

“If it wasn’t for the community and the task force getting behind this, it would have been a done deal,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “I am pleased that SUNY has dropped this idea, which threatened the identity and independence of both the Canton and Potsdam campuses.”

The senator delivered the news during a morning gathering that drew more than 100 SUNY Canton faculty and staff members to the student center as well as a few students.

She said she was notified late Friday afternoon by the office of Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and also discussed the situation that day during phone calls with state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee.

“This move will go far to relieving the uncertainty and anxiety that overshadowed the colleges’ futures,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

SUNY spokesman David M. Henahan said SUNY Central officials backed off their original plan because the protests were creating a distraction to their primary goal of making student success their top priority.

“We heard that it was important to the people of Canton that they retain a president. That was a priority and we listened,” Mr. Henahan said. “SUNY will continue to institute necessary reform that puts our students first. Chancellor Zimpher and the SUNY Board of Trustees decided this was more important than allowing one hurdle to distract from our efforts to channel more funding to our academic courses.”

Canton Town Supervisor David T. Button said a strong mobilization effort to block SUNY Central’s plan, plus the work of Ms. Ritchie and her staff, proved successful.

“It took a lot of different people working a lot of different angles. We could not have done this without them,” he said.

Mr. Button helped establish a local task force to protect SUNY Canton and its jobs. Ms. Ritchie has introduced legislation that would require a college president at each SUNY campus.

Resolutions supporting an on-campus president for SUNY Canton were approved by St. Lawrence County Legislature, several municipalities, local school districts and other groups.

“We have a stack of resolutions two inches thick,” Mr. Button said. “When we presented those to SUNY trustees in New York City last month, I think they were really amazed at how positive people look at SUNY Canton.”

Uproar about consolidating the two presidents’ jobs erupted in early July after SUNY Canton President Joseph L. Kennedy was told by SUNY Central to either resign his job in September or be fired. The move was part of a plan to eliminate the presidents job at SUNY Canton and have SUNY Potsdam President John F. Schwaller oversee both colleges.

Mr. Kennedy, 65, the longest- serving president in the SUNY system, has been credited with making great strides at SUNY Canton, including doubling student enrollment, expanding many programs into four-year degrees and spearheading millions in new construction projects.

Strong opposition, including vocal protests from the college’s advisory board, forced SUNY Central to back down from plans to remove Mr. Kennedy from his president’s job.

Mr. Kennedy then signed a three-year agreement calling for him to retire at the end of the spring 2012 semester. He is supposed to spend the following year working as a special adviser for Ms. Zimpher, followed by a one-year presidential leave study. That agreement is still in place.

Last month, SUNY’S board of trustees gave campuses until July 15 to identify ways to achieve savings by sharing administrative functions and other services. Mr. Schwaller and Mr. Kennedy are supposed to submit a joint report by that date.

The goal is to increase the amount schools spend on student instruction.

Under the plan, the schools must devote at least 52 percent of their budgets to instruction by 2014.

Even though each campus will have its own president, Mr. Henahan said SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam will still be required to consolidate their administrative structures.

Ms. Zimpher will assess the shared services report and make recommendations to the board of trustees.

Mrs. Ritchie said she supports cutting expenses throughout state government, including SUNY, in order to direct more tuition and tax dollars toward students, but doesn’t agree with accomplishing that by consolidating the presidencies at the two colleges.

“Preserving both colleges’ unique identities and independence requires strong, local accountable leadership that only separate presidencies can provide,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

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