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Double Duty

August 19, 2011

University presidents often describe their positions as all-consuming, exhausting jobs. But for Candace Vancko, Bjong Wolf Yeigh, and John F. Schwaller, three presidents in the State University of New York System, running one campus just wasn't enough

Plans announced this month call for the three leaders to simultaneously run two of the system’s smaller campuses each. Vancko, currently the president at SUNY Delhi, will take on additional responsibilities at SUNY Cobleskill. Yeigh, at SUNY Institute of Technology, will take on responsibilities at Morrisville State College. And Schwaller, president of SUNY Potsdam, will add responsibilities at SUNY Canton.

The Morrisville State presidency had been vacant for a several months, so Yeigh's appointment did not require any administrative shifting. Presidents at Cobleskill and Canton resigned in recent days, before the formal announcements were made that Vancko and Schwaller would be taking over their positions.

The move is part of a larger push by the system's central office to spur regional collaboration among institutions. Ideally, administrators say, the two-campus presidents will be able to find ways to consolidate administrative functions in areas such as purchasing, information technology, and human resources, thereby saving taxpayer dollars. Despite the shared leaders, administrators say they hope to maintain each campus's distinct identity, academic programs, and support base.

Merging administrative services such as technology or human resources has been a tactic floated by several systems to help cope with decreased revenues and increased administrative costs. Several systems have proposed merging entire institutions or shutting down campuses. But wedding the senior administrations of two universities while letting each campus retain its separate identity in the way that SUNY is proposing is a relatively new tactic.

Observers say the consolidation efforts could be baby steps toward eliminating campuses from what is often considered a system that is too large (64 campuses total) for the state’s population, though system administrators said this is not the case. What seems more likely, observers said, is that the consolidations could signal a new era of increased centralization for the system, which has a history of relatively weak central control.

“For years the system has been very decentralized, and there has not been a great deal of collaboration among the campuses,” said Jason Lane, a professor of educational administration and policy studies at SUNY Albany. “This seems like an initiative by the central administration to find ways in which we can have more collaboration.”

SUNY, like many public university systems, has seen its state support significantly decreased over the past few years as New York has grappled with funding shortfalls. Lawmakers have slashed the system’s funding by about a third since 2008, and administrators said recent plans to increase tuition do not go far enough in making up for the losses.

"We've had to think creatively about how we deal with financial losses," said SUNY's chancellor, Nancy Zimpher. "Can we shift revenue from the administrative side to the instructional side of the house?"

Previous efforts to trim the system's budget have met with resistance. When administrators announced they were going to cut several language programs at SUNY Albany, faculty members and students, as well as the American Association of University Professors, said that administrative costs should be cut before academic programs were touched. Administrators said that's exactly what they're doing here.

David K. Lavallee, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost for the SUNY system, said the plan is modeled partially on how individual campuses have decided to structure their administration when they expand. “When campuses grow and add their own branch campuses, this is the model,” Lavallee said. “They don’t set up a whole separate parallel administration." Lavallee said that when administrators looked at the budgets of three separate SUNY campuses that combined had the same student population as Suffolk County Community College -- which has about 25,000 students spread out among three main campuses -- they found that the singular community college operated with lower total administrative overhead as a result of its central administration. He envisions those kinds of savings for the partnered institutions.

"Consolidating administrative costs by sharing presidents' offices strikes me as a good way to save money," said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. "Savings in this area free up scarce resources to go into basic instruction or student services. It’s also been my experience that sharing administrative costs can lead to better attention to other opportunities for consolidated services, like purchasing, or legal services, or information collection and institutional research."

The six institutions targeted for the administrative consolidation were selected because of their size and proximity to one another. Four of the six have about 3,000 students, while Potsdam has slightly more than 4,000 and Cobleskill about 2,500. “There is a threshold at 3,000 to 5,000 students,” Zimpher said. “Less than 3,000 or 5,000 students, with a full repertoire of administrative staff and services, you just can’t afford it.” Each institution is within 50 miles of the college it will be paired with.

Zimpher and Lavallee both said closing campuses is not on their agenda. They said that to close campuses would be to fail to recognize the role the campuses play as economic engines in their regions. "We know that campuses in various communities are absolutely vital to the economy of that community,” Zimpher said.

Several other four-year colleges in the state have fewer than 5,000 students, including Purchase College, the College at Old Westerbury, SUNY Geneseo, and Alfred State College. Still, administrators said they don’t expect the model of having one president run two campuses to extend much beyond the six colleges. But they said there is probably potential for greater administrative collaboration outside the president’s office at a regional level, such as two institutions sharing a technology or purchasing office. The system has set up a group of regional partnerships between four-year institutions and nearby community colleges to identify where collaboration might be beneficial.

Administrators from the system and from the six campuses said they plan to meet with faculty, students, alumni and other administrators over the next year to determine exactly how to structure the arrangement. Campus administrators expect some changes to the structure once they actually assume the dual role. System officials said they have faith that the three leaders will be able to handle running both their campuses.

The presidents said they will probably take different approaches based on their campuses. Yeigh said he saw his role as a facilitator of dialogues between the two campuses, finding ways to save money and promote academic programs. Vancko predicted that she would be spending significant time working on administrative issues at the Cobleskill campus she is inheriting, which she said has suffered from inconsistent leadership, having had six presidents during the last 12 years. Vancko said she plans to split her time between the campuses, living in both towns.

The announcement spurred some backlash among the college councils at Potsdam and Canton, which were the first two institutions identified for the administrative merger. The college councils serve a mostly advisory function in the SUNY system, as the statewide board and chancellor are vested with authority to make final decisions on most administrative matters. In the past, councils have butted heads with the central administration over presidential selections.

At an informational meeting last week where Potsdam and Canton council members were notified of the proposed consolidation, Ronald M. O’Neill, SUNY Canton council chairman, said the boards should have been consulted before the decision was made. “There was little consultation with anyone on our campus, particularly the college council,” he said. “We never received any information. It’s totally mind-boggling to me.”

In a statement, Phillip H. Smith, president of the United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 SUNY campuses, said the union had some concerns about the administrative consolidation plans. "While we are in favor of initiatives that expand academic resources and student access to SUNY in an efficient manner, any time we hear the word consolidation we are concerned that such consolidation might instead adversely affect students," Smith said. Administrators have pledged to keep the union involved in talks.

 

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