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Canton group takes SUNY concerns to Albany

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CANTON — SUNY Canton should be allowed to begin a search for its next president, a group of town officials said Tuesday in Albany.

The Save Our SUNY Canton task force, made up of Town Supervisor David T. Button, Councilman James T. Smith and Economic Development Director Linda M. McQuinn, lobbied the SUNY board of trustees during a public comment period at its December meeting.

“This campus serves as one of the major economic drivers in Canton,” Ms. McQuinn said. “We place a very high value on the economic impact that this campus generates in the community and we are concerned ... that we will once again be faced with a very critical situation if the SUNY Canton campus is forced to share a president.”

Last year, SUNY Central pushed a plan for then-SUNY Canton President Joseph L. Kennedy to resign, making SUNY Potsdam President John F. Schwaller president of both campuses. After campus and community groups protested the move and legislation was introduced to require each SUNY campus to retain a unique president, Mr. Kennedy remained in his post until August, when he stepped down to become an adviser to SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher.

“You responded very positively to our concerns by allowing President Joseph Kennedy to continue in his position until the end of the 2011-2012 school year,” Mr. Button said.

He argued that SUNY Canton had met its side of an informal bargain that established benchmarks for administrative savings from the campus, which was to be honored by letting the school proceed with the search for a new president.

“We very clearly got the message that the school’s autonomy was tied to meeting a benchmark of increasing aid to academic programs by five percent and working with sister institutions to find as many ways as possible to share services,” he said. “Anecdotally, it appears to those of us who have been watching the school that it has blown well past the benchmark.”

A July joint report submitted by SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam stated the campuses had met or exceeded those benchmarks, Mr. Button said.

“In summation, SUNY Canton and its host community have done everything expected of them in improving the academic experience. It is now time for SUNY Central to allow the process for the selection of a new president to move forward,” he said. “I hope that you will give the school and the Canton community a date positive when that process can begin.”

Mr. Smith said the SUNY campuses were too different to share a president.

“Both Potsdam and Canton are fortunate to have their own state educational institutions, but they are so fundamentally different that it doesn’t make sense to try to force a union between them,” he said in a written statement. “Both schools — in their own unique ways — provide their students with an exceptional education, but that’s where the similarities end.”

Ms. McQuinn expressed concern that SUNY Canton might suffer without unique leadership, threatening the town’s fastest-growing engine for economic growth.

“We came to realize that without this campus ... we could quite quickly see an increase in the current poverty level, which would vastly change the climate in which we live and conduct business,” she said. “We cannot afford to see this poverty level increase significantly, nor can we afford to lose any more small businesses if the possibility of a diminished campus becomes a reality and jobs are on the line.”

Ms. McQuinn said Tuesday that the board of trustees was receptive to their ideas.

“I also had the sense that while they knew the topic was for discussion on the agenda, I don’t think the trustees had finalized a decision,” she said.

Ms. McQuinn said she believed any move by SUNY Central to force the campuses to share a president would prompt the reintroduction of the legislation.

At this point, the board has not made up its mind about whether SUNY Canton will share a president with nearby SUNY Potsdam, but Ms. McQuinn said she believes the chancellor’s office is promoting the idea after Mr. Schwaller announced he would step down last week.

“The effort on the part of the chancellor is indeed to move this very quickly to have one president for both campuses now that you have both President Kennedy gone and the resignation of President Schwaller,” she said.

Mr. Schwaller’s resignation will leave both SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton without permanent leadership next year.

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