King’s Reign Tackles Struggles At SUNY

Editor's Corner

John B. King Jr.

Firestorms have embroiled John B. King Jr. in every leadership role he has accepted over the last decade. During his controversial stint as New York state Education Commissioner from 2011 to 2014, King royally rocked the boat of numerous public schools with reform strategies that included teacher evaluations, charter schools and Common Core.

While serving as Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama, he also made some waves right from the start. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., due to his track record in Albany, opposed his appointment that ultimately passed by a 49-40 vote.

As State University of New York chancellor, his latest major endeavor could be filled with plenty of pain. King is being called on to right the ship of some sinking institutions. One of those taking on water is the campus at Fredonia.

In 2018, campus leadership tiptoed around potential reductions that included staffing and programs. Around Thanksgiving of that year, former President Virginia Horvath sent an email to staff noting the potential for 20 undergraduate and degree programs to be eliminated or reduced. Immediate blowback to the proposal came from 26 retired and faculty at that time who signed a letter critical of the cuts.

Those grumblings were enough to call off the dogs. But finances at SUNY Fredonia, with more than 4,400 students during that fall semester, have never recovered. Deficits have been reported as high as $17 million within the last year as enrollment this semester plummeted to 2,994 undergraduate and graduate students.

Enrollment at the State University of New York at Fredonia is now under 3,000 students. OBSERVER photo

When current President Dr. Stephen Kolison announced the reduction of 13 majors in December as part of what is being termed the “True Blue Transformation,” battle lines were drawn. In one section sat university cabinet and College Council members who applauded the presentation. Staff and students were on the opposite side offering sneers and jeers.

Fredonia is not alone in this higher-education crisis. Buffalo State is under a hiring freeze as it copes with a shortfall topping $16 million while SUNY Potsdam worries about added reductions in the coming months. In March, the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh reported the worst may not yet be over at the Adirondack campus.

“There are more cuts to faculty, tenure faculty and tenure track faculty. They’ve been announced. They’re coming in April and they’re coming in August,” David C.K. Curry, Potsdam philosophy professor, told the Town Board. “The cuts so far yield less than half the savings needed to address the college’s $9 million deficit.

From King’s point of view, which was discussed during his visit to SUNY Fredonia on Monday, continuing along the same path of decreased enrollment and growing expenses will have devastating consequences. Only days before SUNY Fredonia’s reduction plans weeks before Christmas, the College of St. Rose in Albany — a private institution — announced it was ceasing operations.

“(It had) years of declining enrollment, vastly overstated enrollment projections, not making hard financial choices,” King said during a gathering with media on Monday in Fenton Hall. “In the end, the College of St. Rose is closing. That’s very sad for the College of St. Rose community (and) very sad for the city of Albany.”

St. Rose was the third domino to fall in a less than eight-month period. Other private schools, such as Medaille College in Buffalo announced its closing last May while in Central New York, Cazenovia College shut its doors in August.

King’s most recent comments came only one day after a new budget deal was struck. Though there was positive news in regard to SUNY funding for the coming year, with $396 million in new state operating support and $1.13 billion in funding for capital projects, there’s no additional relief for the struggling institutions.

That’s where the chancellor is ready to stand his ground. In his third year at the helm, King wants the bleeding to stop — and he wants each campus to take on the responsibility for its current and future fiscal realities. Some of that, he noted this week, has to come with the assistance of New York state lawmakers.

“If we didn’t get additional state support, we were going to end up with a $1 billion systemwide deficit over a 10-year period,” King said. “We need regular increases in state support and the state stepped up to do that.”

SUNY Fredonia’s reduction plans are still in the early stages. He noted that with enrollment falling about 40%, revenues at the local institution cannot keep up with the growing expenses. That formula, however, puts any campus at risk.

“We’ve got to change in order to be sustainable for the long term,” King said of Kolison’s plan. “At SUNY, we are very committed to the future of SUNY Fredonia. We want SUNY Fredonia to be successful for the next 200 years so in order to make sure that happens the campus has to make some smart financial decisions.”

John D’Agostino is 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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