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Nassau Community College off probation, regains full accreditation

Middle States Commission cites “impressive progress” toward a “seismic shift in the culture at NCC” in its report on the Garden City school, home to 20,000 students.

Nassau Community College President W. Hubert Keen speaks

Nassau Community College President W. Hubert Keen speaks during a school Senate meeting, which featured a discussion on the return of accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Nov. 21, 2017. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Nassau Community College has been removed from probation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and has again secured full accreditation — a key, independent affirmation of recent improvements touted by leaders at the 20,000-student institution in Garden City.

The commission, a nongovernmental accreditor for public and private colleges and universities, said the school now complies with all 14 quality benchmarks, and its next evaluation is not due until the 2024-25 academic year.

The commission’s report, adopted at its Nov. 16 meeting and made available to campus community Tuesday, noted NCC made “impressive progress” toward a “seismic shift in the culture at NCC.”

In particular, the commission lauded the fact that staff, faculty, administration and trustees — who for years have been engaged in a toxic battle over the college’s leadership, political influence and financial planning — have largely united to clear the hurdles jeopardizing the school’s reputation.

“This changed culture involves transparency, inclusiveness and a real sense of ownership over the improvements made,” evaluators wrote. “When questioned about the sustainability of this culture, we repeatedly heard a sense of pride in the authenticity of their transformation and the resolve to continue. We congratulate Nassau Community College on this accomplishment.”

NCC plays an important role in the education of Long Islanders. The largest single-campus community college in the state’s public system, it was founded in 1959 on a 225-acre site in the heart of the county. Its $200 million budget is funded by Nassau County, New York State and, increasingly, student tuition. The associate degree-granting institution is among the more prolific feeders of students to both public and private four-year colleges in the region.

In higher education, academic accreditation is an important, peer-reviewed measurement — losing it would have rendered NCC students ineligible for most forms of federal and state financial aid. About 45 percent of NCC students rely on financial aid. Nearly one-third of the student body goes on to four-year colleges, officials said.

Many have said the school’s reputation suffered from its public challenges, even as the rising cost of higher education and the Great Recession pulled more students into community colleges.

“Accreditation is about justifying that you offer excellent programs and that your operation is solid,” said NCC President W. Hubert Keen. “That’s just sort of a test or a compliance activity. Whereas our real job is building the institution and the academic programs internally.”

Keen was named president of NCC in May of 2016, after the State University of New York stepped in to more closely monitor the school’s presidential search. Keen had stepped down from his post months earlier as the longtime president of Farmingdale State College.

His task was to get NCC back on track. The school arguably hit its lowest point in March 2016 when Middle States representatives told NCC officials the school had failed seven of the 14 standards. NCC was then officially placed on probation that June.

The school remained accredited while it was on probation.

Since 2010, factions at the school had been locked in bitter public battles: faculty no-confidence votes leading to the departure of a president who stayed for just 30 months and the repeated inability to find a replacement; a five-day strike by its adjunct professors union; and outcry over the hiring of politically connected personnel.

The 31-page Middle States monitoring report from 2016 called the campus climate “hostile and uncivil.” The recommendations at that time were to hire a permanent president, prevent political intrusion, raise student enrollment and graduation rates and rebuild trust among its constituents.

“It was a wake-up call,” said Frank Frisenda, an engineering and physics professor and the president of the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers, the union representing the full-time faculty. “At first, it was blame. Then denial . . . the campus was dysfunctional for a long time but Dr. Keen opened our eyes and included us.”

Frisenda and the faculty leadership had been raising the alarms for years. They have voiced their concerns over losing influence in the governance structure of the school, their fear of losing liberal-arts programs in favor of vocational training, poor financial planning and campus investment, and political influence on the board of trustees, mostly from Nassau County lawmakers.

Among the most notable was their outcry over the 2015 hiring of former Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray for a $151,000-a-year job in media and government relations. Murray is still employed at the school and the controversy has quieted. But leaders at the school have put together a new policy that aims to prevent political hiring.

Frisenda said many of the same people who had been divided in previous years were invited by Keen to participate in the process of fixing the Middle States problem and laying the groundwork for the school’s future.

“Dr. Keen reached into the faculty ranks and allowed us to do our part,” said Frisenda, who also helped secure a new contract for the full-time faculty.

Anissa Moore, a communications professor who is president of the college’s Academic Senate, agreed. Although all stakeholders were not in agreement at all times, a looming deadline of June 2018 for loss of accreditation helped to finally bring faculty and administration together in good faith.

“We were all sitting in a room — looking at the bylaws — and coming to complete agreement that we were going to have to revise this together. And we did that. As a result, we really shifted Middle States’ expectation in terms of leadership and governance,” Moore said.

The senate, formerly comprising mostly full-time faculty, now draws its membership from more corners of the campus, including students, staff and some administrators.

“We are now evolving into an environment where collegial governance exists here at NCC,” Moore said.

Some longtime professors, however, have expressed dismay for what they believe is receding influence in the governance of the school and the ability to appeal to the board of trustees if they are unhappy about college policy.

Several full-time professors represented by the NCCFT who have expressed this point declined to be interviewed by Newsday, citing a new campus policy that mandates faculty and staff ask for permission to conduct news interviews.

Frisenda said those members of the faculty are in the minority and all are encouraged to participate to help sustain the level of collegiality on campus.

“You can’t just stand outside the castle and throw stones at it,” he said.

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