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Bigwigs In Hiding While Pulling SUNY Strings

Students and faculty sat apart from the cabinet and administration during Wednesday’s announcement regarding the State University of New York at Fredonia’s future path. P-J photo

Polite applause greeted State University of New York at Fredonia President Stephen Kolison as he made his way to the stage of the Rosch Recital Hall on Wednesday afternoon. No introduction was needed. Everyone in attendance was awaiting his words.

About 250 staff, faculty, students and community members filled the seats. Thirty minutes before the special event began, the lines had been drawn. Cabinet and administration members were seated on one side with students and faculty representing the United University Professionals members on the other.

For north county residents who have been paying attention to the last decade, there have been struggles aplenty when it comes to the fiscal status of one of the largest employers in the region. Long before Kolison came to town, the campus has been battling deficits greater than $10 million that threatened its stability as enrollment that was once as high as 5,416 students in 2009 has plummeted to 3,236 students for this semester.

Fredonia is far from alone. One of its SUNY partners in Potsdam, which like the local campus has a highly respected music program, also is going through difficult times. In mid-September, the Adirondack-region location announced it would address its $9 million structural deficit by considering the elimination of 14 programs.

Potsdam’s message during these turbulent times for higher education is strikingly similar to what is being said here. It is almost as if Albany is using a template in deciding what goes – and what stays – for the system’s locations that are nearing life support.

“SUNY Potsdam is a special place, a college that respects and honors our history, but is unwavering in its commitment to ensuring future generations of Potsdam students enjoy the same growth and fulfillment,” President Dr. Suzanne Smith said when announcing the downsizing in the early fall. “While we may face challenges now, I chose to be a part of this legacy to help nurture SUNY Potsdam’s traditions, champion its values, and propel it to new heights, ensuring that our beacon of excellence never dims.”

In opening Wednesday’s remarks, Kolison set the same tone highlighting Fredonia’s storied history that is nearing two centuries. He talked about the important graduates and their contributions to the region – and throughout the nation.

Last March, SUNY Chancellor John King Jr. got an up-close view as a campus visitor to witness the programs and talk with the students about their Fredonia experience. Some of the highlights included stops at the Science Center, the newly remodeled Houghton Hall and ending at Mason Hall to see the longtime jewel of the university: its music department.

During his brief interaction with the media that day, King remained upbeat and discounted any discussion of impending reductions or consolidations at any SUNY campus. “We are committed to the 64 communities where we have campuses, but the programs, the offerings across those campuses have to continue to evolve, to respond to regional economic needs and student interest,” he said. “You see that here at Fredonia as they try to create programs … that match where we have a lot of demand in our economy.”

On an otherwise somber day, those needs were one of the few highlights in the presentation. In looking to where voids in the area workforce can be filled, Kolison noted new programs for clinical mental health counseling, data analytics, nursing, educational leadership and a master’s for business administration.

Those bright spots were quickly tempered with the potential elimination of 13 degree programs that were announced. Those majors include childhood education from birth to grade 2, mathematics for grades five to nine, visual arts in ceramics, photography, sculpture and art history, French and its adolescence education program, Spanish and its adolescence education program, philosophy, sociology and industrial management. These represent 15% of all majors at the campus but have a combined enrollment of just 74 students, or 2.2% of the undergraduate population, Kolison said.

Angry and sarcastic remarks began to flow from the section that included faculty and students. Cabinet and College Council members stared straight ahead at Kolison knowing the marching orders.

At one point, Kolison was open to a bit of dialogue when he requested input on the plan that has been termed the True Blue Transformation. An audience member asked if the questions will be public and if they will be shown to those who visit the website and have the proper permissions. Kolison said “yes” to both queries.

As he closed his remarks, a plea was made to allow questions. Stepping away from the podium, the divide became evident again. Applause from the administration’s side with jeers voiced on the other.

Five hours away in the state capital, Fredonia was just a number. SUNY hierarchy stayed away and allowed the individuals they appointed to take the heat in announcing unpleasant, but fiscally necessary, decisions.

High-ranking politicians and those connected to a sometimes diabolical system have a knack for showing up to take the credit during the good times. In the midst of a crisis and turmoil, they stay away.

It was one more divide that was not as obvious to the crowd or campus on an emotional Wednesday afternoon.

John D’Agostino is the editor of The Post-Journal, OBSERVER and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.

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