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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

SUNY intervenes in NCC president search

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has introduced Open SUNY,

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has introduced Open SUNY, the state university systems online degree program, during a speech Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. Credit: AP, 2013

Hours before the public portion of the Nassau Community College trustees meeting Tuesday night, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher asked the board's chairman to suspend the search for NCC's new president.

It was a request, not an order, because Nassau is a community college governed by a board.

But Zimpher, to her credit, also used her hammer: Unless chairman Geoffrey Prime completed and forwarded to her a thorough investigation of allegations arising from the selection process, she would not forward any candidates over to SUNY's board.

The selection process has been dogged by controversy almost from its start several months ago -- with allegations of a sexist and racist email, a hostile interview for the current acting president, and exclusion of the committee's student representative.

The tumult continued at a college board of trustees meeting Tuesday night, marked by cheers, jeers and shouting. At more than one point, Prime had to ask speakers to address their heated comments toward him rather than to individuals in the audience.

"Obviously, this process has gotten out of hand," Prime said in an interview Wednesday.

Prime never disclosed Zimpher's intervention to the almost 300 people who crowded into Tuesday night's meeting.

If he had, many of the board's critics demanding an inquiry might have calmed down.

On Wednesday, Prime said he made no announcement because, "We were trying to be respectful to the candidates, we wanted to do the investigation as expeditiously as possible."

The public portion of Tuesday's meeting kicked off with student trustee Faruque Amin's vigorous defense of the stalled selection procedure.

He was met with jeers.

As the night went on:

One professor likened to "a lynching" the search committee's refusal to include acting president Kenneth Saunders among three finalists announced this week.

Another professor compared criticism of several board members to "McCarthyism."

On Wednesday, Prime said he was beginning work on how the board would handle its investigation.

Among the issues SUNY has asked him to address:

An email that Anthony Cornachio, a trustee and the presidential search committee chairman, sent committee members that included references to the race and gender of college employees. In an interview on Tuesday, Cornachio repeated that he did not mean to offend anyone with the email. But the issue in such cases is how the message was perceived.

Complaints from the committee's student representative that the committee scheduled interviews during her class time. Student government president Logan Kenney wanted to keep her 4.0 average by maintaining an A in calculus. The committee, she said, never told her she could have another student take her place at the interviews.

Saunders' assertions that selection committee members were hostile to him during his interview. Cornachio said Saunders "crashed and burned in that interview. He stumbled over questions . . . on simple things he should have known, like fundraising."

David Doyle, a SUNY spokesman, did not rule out the prospect that there could be other issues as well.

Some faculty, students and administrators, in interviews and during Tuesday's meeting, said they were concerned about the inclusion of State Supreme Court Justice Anthony Marano, who has no college administrative experience, as a finalist.

All of this, and more, is ripe for review, thanks to Zimpher's intercession.

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