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Students sit on a lawn outside academic buildings at Nassau Community College.

Twenty-one academic departments will soon become six at Nassau Community College.

Nassau Community College

Nassau Community College is overhauling its academic structure. The Long Island institution plans to consolidate 21 academic departments into six departments this coming fall.

The college’s leaders say the move is necessary for the long-term financial health of the institution. But faculty union officials believe it will weaken academic quality.

The Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers, which has 414 full-time faculty members, recently voted no confidence in the chief administrative officer, Board of Trustees and senior leadership, calling the department mergers “arbitrary and capricious.” (Sixty-five percent of the faculty voted and it passed with 87 percent of the vote, according to union leaders.)

Jerry Kornbluth, vice president for community and governmental relations at Nassau Community College, said the college is consolidating departments to save costs given a $14 million deficit predicted for the 2024–25 fiscal year.

He believes Nassau is facing the same headwinds as many other colleges across the country, including a decreasing numbers of high school graduates. The college is hurting for tuition dollars now that the student body decreased from roughly 25,000 a decade ago to about 13,000 today, he said.

The college gets 20 percent of its funding from the state and 27 percent from the county, but the rest of “the burden really falls on either students or the ability to raise money,” Kornbluth said.

“We’re being very proactive,” he said. “… the first step is to develop a model that’s an efficiency model, to get everything under control.” He added that when there are too many departments “there’s a lot of waste going on,” including “a lot of duplication of services.” Each of the new combined departments will have a shared chair, an assistant chair and a chair’s liaison.

Faren Siminoff, president of the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers, worries the new departments will be anything but efficient. She doesn’t believe the chairs will have enough support to preside over such large departments effectively.

“If you under-resource departments and chairs, and you overload people with work, that does not create efficiencies,” she said. “It creates chaos and inefficiencies, which is what’s going to happen because nobody can oversee all of this.”

Siminoff also believes some of the groupings don’t make academic sense. For example, under the new plan, fields such as Afro-American studies, communications, philosophy and world languages and cultures will be merged into the art department, in addition to music and theatre and dance.

“It’s just these huge mega departments with catch-as-catch-can academic fields all rolled into one,” she said. “It’s going to create chaos and confusion.”

Kornbluth, who formerly taught math at the college for several decades, said this plan has been under discussion for a couple years because the deans solicited feedback from all of the department heads and the departments’ promotion and budget committees on which departments should be merged.

Not everyone is happy with the final results, he said, but “it was shared governance.” He characterized the faculty union as loud and historically powerful but he believes their opinion doesn’t represent the majority of faculty.

He said teaching assistants will be cross-trained to work across disciplines and that it also will be easier for faculty members to teach in different fields because more disciplines will be managed under the same department. He also believes having more classes under the same department will make it easier for student to schedule their classes.

“The departments will have more feet on the ground, so to speak, and more support, because they’ll be working together,” he said.

‘Destruction’ or ‘Business’?

College officials started the consolidation process in 2022 with the merging of reading and basic studies and the language immersion departments into the English department. In fall 2023, the engineering and physical science departments were folded into the math and computer science department and the biology department was placed under the chemistry department.

Siminoff said the language immersion program, which was more advanced than the ESL program, no longer has any classes specifically associated with it, which she sees as a loss given that a third of families in Nassau County speak a language other than English at home. She sees the department mergers as a “prelude” to future department and program cuts, which would only worsen enrollment losses as students go elsewhere for their desired programs.

“This is really the destruction of this college,” she said. “They finished phase one. They’re going to move on to phase two.”

Kornbluth doesn’t deny that the college may add or end programs in the future based on student demand. He said administrators are planning to add several vocational programs to the college’s academic offerings, for example, because students are “looking for quick access to the world of work.”

“We’re a business,” he said. “We’re in the business of education. And if we don’t think along those lines, we’re going to fail.”

Meanwhile, nine nontenured, full-time employees recently received notices that their contracts may not be renewed “based on a multifaceted restructuring framework that is intended to improve the efficiency of college operations and better serve the students of the College,” according to a notice obtained by Inside Higher Ed.

Kornbluth said that means they’ve been given warning they won’t be retained if the college experiences financial challenges. Otherwise, college officials have promised no layoffs will result from the department consolidations.

“There’s a false narrative here that we’re firing people,” he said. “We’re not firing people.”

Nassau isn’t the only college in the sprawling 64-campus State University of New York system making big changes to stave off enrollment and financial troubles.

Clinton Community College, for example, plans to move its operations to SUNY Plattsburgh’s campus by the 2025–26 academic year because of downward enrollment trends and financial challenges. Last year, SUNY Potsdam officials announced plans to review and discontinue a slew of programs in the future because of a structural $9 million deficit and a 43 percent loss in enrollment since 2010. SUNY Fredonia plans to cut 13 programs with low enrollments no later than June, including art history, philosophy, French and industrial management.

Enrollment in the SUNY system overall increased 1.1 percent from fall 2022 to fall 2023, the first growth in a decade, according to a January report from the system.

Lane Filler, chief communications officer for the SUNY system, said enrollments rose and then fell after the Great Recession, when well-paying jobs were scarce and students headed back to college. Then the pandemic exacerbated declines. Meanwhile, certain regions of New York, such as the North Country and Western New York, are experiencing particularly steep declines in traditional college-aged populations. Other areas close to New York City with a “hot economy,” such as Long Island, are competing with decent-paying jobs students can get fresh out of high school. The system is working to attract adult learners and others by building out microcredentials and programs in high-demand and emerging fields from nursing to artificial intelligence (AI), he said.

He believes bold changes are necessary to get struggling campuses back on track.

“As you see how the world is changing, as you see how professions are changing, as you see how our industry is changing … when I see a campus making strong, thoughtful, big changes, that to me is not a sign of distress. That is a sign of future health,” he said.

A decade from now, “it will be the campuses that did not do things like this that have either disappeared or [are] in trouble. It will be the campuses that took a serious look and said, ‘What do we need to be to survive and thrive?’ that will still be around and be doing well,” he added.

Mardell A. Wilson, the provost at Creighton University, a private university in Nebraska, said department consolidations are challenging, but can have major payoffs for an institution. She oversaw a merger of three departments while serving as dean of the college of health sciences at Saint Louis University and has written about best practices for doing so. She said the move achieved necessary cost savings at SLU and encouraged faculty members to engage with each other across disciplines, which led to some curriculum redesigns.

During the process, she found emphasizing the positives, such as new shared resources or interdisciplinary learning, helped gain buy-in across departments, as did making sure there was “plenty of space and time for conversations” along the way.

Nonetheless, “we knew there would be sort of the same stages as grieving,” she said. “You’re getting rid of something. People are going to be upset about it for a while.” They need “space for that” and an acknowledgment that “we understand, but we’re committed to your programs and to being stronger.”

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