Garbled governance hampers peace at college

A student walks through the campus of Nassau

A student walks through the campus of Nassau Community College on April 28, 2011. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Kenneth Saunders, Nassau Community College's new officer in charge, sent out a message of conciliation to the campus community Monday.

It was a plea for peace after an all-out war among the college faculty, board and newly resigned-under-pressure president Donald Astrab.

Astrab's sin, it seems, was to follow the college trustees' demands to cut costs without adequately consulting faculty. The board, however, had reasonable dictates given that NCC's revenue trifecta -- Nassau County, New York State and tuition-paying students -- can't afford to significantly fund increased college costs.

"Together, we can succeed," Saunders ended his message. "Together, we must succeed. Together, we will succeed."

Maybe. But given NCC's passion for combat and a complex governing structure -- which allows no single person or body to be in charge -- the desired result could be difficult, if not impossible.

"I do see a period of peace," said Charles J. Loiacono, the colorful president of NCC's Adjunct Faculty Association. "Everybody will make nice to everybody else, all the way up through the selection process for a new president."

But then, Loiacono and other members of the campus community agree, the fighting could continue.

"Anybody interested in this job needs to know they're jumping into a shark tank," Loiacono said. "And if there's a thought about, say, raising tuition," he said, "I'm going to be one of the sharks."

What could change things?

A president, board of trustees, faculty and union leadership strong enough to work together.

They won't have much choice. They will have to steer the college through times that are getting tougher under NCC's shared governing process. At its worst -- and for more than two years, NCC has seen it at its worse -- that means protecting turf.

Take cutting costs, for example. Astrab, who was hired in late 2009 and formally assumed the helm a year later, decided to trim expenses by not renewing contracts for almost 40 temporary faculty members. To the administration, it seemed a reasonable move; to faculty, it was an early declaration of war. Things got so bad that at one point the administration made it more difficult to send internal computer messages to the entire campus.

Astrab backed down after an outcry from faculty and students. He also reversed other decisions after, among other reasons, faculty and union leadership complained they had not been consulted.

Monday, during the same meeting where trustees considered Astrab's resignation agreement, the board also received a 19-page report from a New York State Public Employment Relations Board fact-finder considering the impasse between NCC and adjunct faculty.

Much of the report deals with the economic reality that NCC students can't afford significant tuition increases. And that NCC shouldn't expect much help from cash-strapped New York State or Nassau County either.

"The well-documented and well-publicized ongoing deteriorating financial condition of the government of the county . . . dominates, overshadows and transcends the present negotiations," wrote fact-finder Robert Douglas. He recommended "a sustained joint effort" to identify savings and productivity improvements.

For NCC, that means facing the reality that to be effective, shared governing likely will also mean shared pain.