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Two new college presidents share their plans for St. Lawrence County SUNYs


POTSDAM - Two college presidents started work in St. Lawrence County this month. They face similar challenges, but there are plenty of differences between them.

Joseph C. Hoffman, SUNY Canton’s acting president, wore a “Canton Roos” polo to work Monday, while Dennis L. Hefner, SUNY Potsdam’s acting president, wore a suit and tie.

Mr. Hefner was president of SUNY Fredonia for 16 years, while this is Mr. Hoffman’s first presidential position.

Mr. Hoffman takes the helm of a technical college that emphasizes career training, while Mr. Hefner will lead a liberal arts college with a focus on teaching and general education.

Both say they have felt welcomed by the north country, and that they hope to improve their colleges during their stay. They have spent their first weeks on the job getting to know their constituents and preparing for late August, when students will return for a new semester.

As interim president, Mr. Hefner has no intention of staying in his position for long. Before taking on the role, he was semi-retired, living in North Carolina and ready for a break after leading SUNY Fredonia, a liberal arts college with many similarities to SUNY Potsdam.

He expects to remain in Potsdam anywhere from a year to 18 months, depending on how long the search for a permanent president takes.

The search has not yet begun.

“I am willing to serve until a new person is hired,” he said. “If it was 12 months it would make my wife a whole lot happier.”

Seeking a good fit

In contrast, Mr. Hoffman, a Long Island native, is eligible to pursue the full presidential position at SUNY Canton. He said he doesn’t know whether he will apply, but that he appreciates the chance to do so.

“I think it’s too early for me to say, because it’s very important that we be a good fit,” he said.

Although the future isn’t set in stone, Mr. Hoffman said he has plenty of plans for SUNY Canton. He said it is important to begin moving forward, after months of uncertainty over who would be president or even whether the position would be filled at all.

“I think we needed to do some healing after the last couple of years,” he said.

Mr. Hoffman spent 36 years at SUNY Maritime College, working in various positions, including provost.

The culture at SUNY Maritime is different than Canton, he said. For example, the latter doesn’t have a 565-foot training ship to teach would-be sailors. However, the two colleges have similar missions and Mr. Hoffman plans to apply the lessons he learned over his career to SUNY Canton.

“We graduate students who are immediately employed in their field. They graduate on Friday and they can start work on Monday. That’s our niche and it’s a good place to be,” he said.

Mr. Hoffman said he wanted to develop a campus where faculty would be listened to by administration, and have real influence over school policy.

“I’ve never had an idea come back from the faculty that wasn’t better than the one I started with,” he said.

He also wants to boost recruitment efforts to create a larger pool of students from which to choose, allowing the college to be more selective. Eventually he may want to focus on growing the campus, he said, but first a strong enrollment management plan needs to be put in place to decide how to best go about it.

“There’s a perfect size for this school,” Mr. Hoffman said. “We just don’t know what it is yet.”

An enrollment initiative

Meanwhile at SUNY Potsdam, Mr. Hefner also plans to focus on enrollment in the coming year, but for different reasons. High school graduation rates are dropping across the state, and Mr. Hefner said he does not want to see the number of SUNY Potsdam students slip in the face of a dwindling pool of potential applicants.

“I truly see enrollment as being a campus-wide initiative,” he said.

Mr. Hefner spent part of his first weeks at SUNY Potsdam surveying faculty and staff to see their priorities, and received a flood of ideas in response.

“I think that’s a good indicator of the commitment that faculty and staff have,” he said.

Along with enrollment worries, faculty and staff said they were concerned with the fear of further budget cuts from the state.

“There have been some rough times for public higher education in the state of New York,” Mr. Hefner said.

As an economist and long-serving college president, Mr. Hefner has had plenty of experience making a budget work.

“I love reading spreadsheets. I love putting together budgets,” he said.

Although the campus will continue its fundraising efforts, the important part is making the most of the money that’s already there, he said.

“Our goal has to be that we keep an eye on the services that we provide,” he said.

Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Hefner have already met to discuss the shared future of the two St. Lawrence County campuses.

The leadership of the colleges will be distinct, but the two campuses will continue to look into cutting costs through shared services.

“Taxpayers always want public institutions to save money,” Mr. Hefner said,

On July 1, the colleges will announce a memorandum of understanding, an agreement between the two colleges outlining what areas should be considered for shared services, and how to move forward. Any decisions will be made jointly between the two campuses.

“Shared services gets a bad rap. I think shared services can be a good thing,” Mr. Hoffman said.

Shared services have been a point of contention at the colleges because of fears that they would lead to a loss of autonomy and individual identity. The upcoming announcement is meant to alleviate those concerns.

“This will put the nail in that once and for all,” Mr. Hefner said.

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