If we consult a symbolism dictionary, the entry for “crossroads” tells us it’s a meeting place of two realms. It’s a place between. In academic parlance, it’s a liminal spot. It connotes—depending on your reading of the stars—either an unsettling or exhilarating state of indeterminacy. The crossroads suggests, then, a crisis of definition and direction: Who are we? Where are we going? (One longs at moments like this for an existential GPS). One response to questions likes these is written into the lore of the crossroads: you eliminate the pain of indecision and secure the glitter of short-term victory by making a bargain with the devil. In 2016, Nassau Community College, finds itself wounded and limping to a crossroads. And we ask: Who are we? And where are we going?
Now, an obvious objection to this argument, that NCC is at a crossroads, is that we were already there, and that a previous Faustian bargain has doomed us. There is evidence to support this reasoning. With the departure of Dr. Sean Fanelli in January of 2010, NCC lost a president whose respect for faculty, respect for the college’s renowned system of shared governance, and widely recognized competence secured for NCC a national reputation for academic excellence and institutional governance. But with Dr. Fanelli’s exit, NCC began a perilous decline, and it’s fair to assert that January 2010 was indeed the date we reached a crossroads in our institutional history. Let’s look back. Dr. Fanelli’s replacement was Donald Astrab. His tenure, marked by mass firings and attacks on faculty governance, ended with overwhelming votes of no confidence and a lucrative separation agreement. (Lesson: don’t a hire a leader from a “right-to-work” state). Life after Astrab: a bungling Board of Trustees conducted three national searches for a permanent president. All three failed. The third and final attempt, notorious for the Board’s secret submission of the winning candidate’s name to SUNY, ended when the Board’s choice recused himself from consideration for the post. Meanwhile the College has lost about 25% of its full-time faculty since 2010, a devastating loss of talent and experience. During the same period enrollment has collapsed by about 17%. Administrative incompetence has surged. NCC’s Performance Improvement Plan (mandated for all colleges by SUNY as part of its neoliberal “SUNY Excels” program) was pulled from the SUNY website after glaring problems were discovered by faculty. And perhaps the strongest measure of administrative failure was found in the exit report filed by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) after its site visit in February: NCC was not compliant with seven of fourteen Standards of accreditation (Standards 2,3,4,5,6,7, and 14), including leadership and governance, administration, and integrity. On June 23, 2016 MSCHE placed NCC on probation “due to insufficient evidence that the institution is currently in compliance” with any of the aforementioned failed Standards. So in six short years NCC our once storied College has been led by a bungling Board and an even more blundering administration down a road to near ruin. It is quite a stunning accomplishment.
The road to near ruin has brought NCC to a crossroads. One promising signpost, indicating the College’s future might be brighter, was the appointment Dr. W. Hubert Keen as College president. Dr. Keen, a scientist, academic and mostly recently, president of SUNY Farmingdale, brings to NCC a wealth of experience as a researcher, professor, SUNY administrator, and of course true governing expertise. We look forward to productive collaboration with our new president as we work together at this critical crossroads. Already, with just seven weeks of President Keen’s leadership, life on campus seems calmer, and the dread of early summer seems to be lifting. A steady, competent hand to guide us out of the perils of probation is precisely what NCC needed. We have that hand, and we should be immensely grateful for President Keen’s leadership.
It’s early days, yes, and we have accreditation yet to be fully and finally re-secured. That will happen. NCC is simply too important to the citizens of Nassau County and New York for it not to, and we have the will and, finally, the leadership to make it happen. But Middle States is only one of our battles. The other battle has to do with our mission and how that mission is funded. When Governor Cuomo re-defined the mission of community colleges as “training schools” in his 2015 State of the State address, he was foolishly repudiating more than a half-century-old liberal arts tradition, he was putting the needs of businesses before the dreams of students, he was furthering the evolution of a two-tiered class system in higher education (one for the rich, one for the rest of us), and he was ignoring a fact clear to anyone who cares about the creation of a critical-minded, dynamic citizenry working in a complex modern economy: that a liberal arts education is the best kind of workforce education there is. Funding that mission—the liberal arts mission we as yet retain, though it’s at risk—is a continuing battle and a public shame. Faced with frozen funding, we’ve turned to students to cover budget gaps. The extra burden of funding is placed on those who can least afford it: our students, whose future earning are “taxed” (they are the public, too), while income continues to stream unabated and in increasingly large percentages to the top income brackets. Educational inequality and the broader social inequalities increase every year. Our legislators and the public they represent need to wake up to the dream-killing crisis of public education funding.
As part of its Let Us Learn/Let Them Learn campaign, the NCC/AAUP is hosting a college-wide symposium on October 20 that will bring together students, staff, faculty, and public officials, including recently elected 4th district Congresswoman Kathleen Rice to address precisely the issues just raised: making a first-class liberal arts education affordable at NCC and other public colleges. At the symposium we will ask: Who are we and Where are we going? Perhaps this forum will answer some of these questions.
Tim Strode, PhD, NCC/AAUP Executive Committee