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Commission: shared presidencies could threaten colleges’ accreditation.


CANTON — An agency monitoring local universities has warned the State University of New York that the move to share presidents between campuses may put schools’ accreditation at risk.

After reviewing the accreditation of the SUNY Institute of Technology, Morrisville State College, SUNY Cobleskill and SUNY Delhi, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education concluded that three of the campuses did not meet its standards for an organized administration.

Last year, the SUNY board of trustees directed Morrisville and SUNY Institute of Technology to share a president, Bjong Wolf Yeigh, and directed SUNY Delhi and SUNY Cobleskill to share Candace Vancko as president. A similar request was made of SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton, but that demand was later rescinded until the retirement of SUNY Canton President Joseph L. Kennedy, whose last day is today.

“The commission has always felt that in order to do the job properly, it needs a chief executive whose sole responsibility is to be the chief executive of that institution,” commission spokesman Richard J. Pokrass said. “In the case of the SUNY campuses, the commission has expressed reservations from the beginning that it probably does not meet the standard to have one person responsible for multiple campuses.”

Accreditation is required for colleges to receive federal funding for student grants and loans, and acts as quality assurance for students seeking education from reputable institutions, Mr. Pokrass said.

The commission issued its warning after it noted that SUNY Delhi was not providing adequate assessment of student learning. Mr. Pokrass said that he thought the loss of accreditation at the schools was unlikely, but that the commission would subject SUNY campuses with a shared president to greater scrutiny, requiring monitoring reports from each one.

“These monitoring reports could be considered a review of the accreditation status of each campus,” he said. “It is guidance for what they need to do. We would look for evidence that this is working. The commission’s main concern has been whether one person can be the president of what are essentially two different schools at the same time.”

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, was alarmed at the commission’s report.

“The report is certainly a concern,” she said. “It shows that going to a shared presidency is not the right thing.”

Mrs. Ritchie said the growth of SUNY Canton in particular during the past two decades shows the importance of a single president for each campus.

“SUNY Canton has come a long way under the leadership” of Mr. Kennedy, she said. “It wouldn’t be possible for a shared presidency to accomplish that much, and I think that splitting one president would cause Canton to go backwards.”

SUNY Central spokesman David D. Doyle said shared presidencies were part of a systemwide effort to shift resources from administrative costs to academics.

“Shared presidencies are under consideration as part of a systemwide strategy to identify opportunities to shift SUNY’s limited resources from administrative overhead to student services,” he said. “This strategy is already proving beneficial.”

The commission’s standards state that each accredited institution should have a chief executive officer “whose primary responsibility is to lead the institution toward the achievement of its goals and with responsibility for administration of the institution.”

Four state senators joined Mrs. Ritchie in expressing concern that the push to share presidencies could hurt local campuses.

In an Aug. 23 letter, Mrs. Ritchie and state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome; James A. Seward, R-Milford; David J. Valesky, D-Oneida, and Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, urged SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher to back off an initiative combining the presidencies of geographically close campuses.

“At a time when we are asking our SUNY institutions to do more with less, it appears that the experiment with shared presidencies is hurting the quality of these colleges and distracting their administrations from their core missions and the effort to streamline and find cost efficiencies,” the letter reads.

Mr. Doyle said the board of trustees is going through reports on shared services from its campuses and won’t make further moves until the review is complete.

“Clearly SUNY would never allow one of its institutions to lose accreditation,” he said. “We are engaged in direct conversations with Middle States to ensure it understands that campuses that are part of our administrative alliances have the strong leadership that is required.”

SUNY Canton is just beginning its self-evaluation period, the first step in the accreditation process.

“Accreditation is a vital part of the credibility of all higher education institutions, and we are eager to again work with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education towards SUNY Canton’s reaccreditation,” SUNY Canton spokesman Gregory E. Kie said.

Earlier this year, SUNY Potsdam received a generally positive accreditation report from the commission.

“SUNY Potsdam received a glowing report from Middle States with our reaccreditation this spring,” spokeswoman Alexandra M. Jacobs said. “The college recently joined with SUNY Canton in submitting a joint report on shared services to the SUNY board of trustees, and continue to await feedback. We appreciate that our representatives are concerned with preserving academic excellence across the SUNY system, and will continue to monitor this important issue.”

A representative of the commission said a move to a shared presidency could prompt a reassessment of both schools’ accreditation status.

“At a time like this when we are asking our colleges to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, each institution desperately needs its own leadership to insure that it continues serving the students who have placed their trust in us and our SUNY system,” the senators’ letter said.

Mrs. Ritchie, who unsuccessfully pushed a bill last year requiring each SUNY institution to have its own president, vowed to continue her fight.

“I will continue working with Senator Valesky and our colleagues to make sure SUNY Central doesn’t do anything more to harm the reputation of the schools in our districts,” she said.

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