Nassau Community College faces scrutiny and judgment this week when its independent academic accreditors meet and are expected to determine whether the school’s officials have made enough progress to secure the institution’s future.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is scheduled to take action on Thursday, nearly one year after a review team placed NCC on probation for failing to show compliance with seven of 14 quality benchmarks needed to keep the college in good standing.
NCC is the largest single-campus community college in the State University of New York system. Loss of accreditation would render its 20,000 students ineligible for federal and state financial aid and hamper their employment efforts. The college would not be able to exist without its accreditation, officials have said.
Addressing the accreditation problem has taken top priority at the school, which is funded by county and state tax dollars as well as student tuition. The notice that Middle States had placed the college on warning last March raised such alarm that it defined the course of the college’s yearslong — and sometimes controversial — presidential search. NCC’s Board of Trustees and SUNY found a new president in W. Hubert Keen, a seasoned administrator, to remedy the accreditation woes and chart the college’s future.
“We will reach full compliance by the end of the fall semester 2018,” Keen said in an interview last week, noting that Middle States gives institutions up to two years to correct areas of noncompliance. “It has been a very large-scale effort involving everyone on campus. . . . However, what I need to point out — and this is very important: Yes, in the short term we must comply and remove the probationary status, but we are setting the stage for the long-term future of the college. And that means that we need to build in solid administrative structures that will serve the college well as it goes into the future — beyond the restoration of all of the standards.”
Keen, 72, had been president of Farmingdale State College since 2007, and in June 2015 had announced that he planned to step down from that post at the end of the 2015-16 academic year. His selection to lead NCC came less than two months after Middle States put the school on probation.
He was endorsed by SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and the SUNY Board of Trustees, which holds final approval over any president installed at any one of the system’s 64 campuses. With a salary of $225,000, Keen began on Aug. 1 and is NCC’s first permanent president since Donald Astrab, who left in 2012 after two votes of no confidence from the college’s Academic Senate.
Among Keen’s first moves was to sign a separation agreement with Kenneth Saunders, a longtime NCC administrator who had been acting president of the school and a two-time finalist in its presidential searches.
Next, he supported more procedural and ethics training for the NCC Board of Trustees, a 10-member governing board with five voting members appointed by the county and four by the state, plus one student trustee.
In addition, Keen created working committees with representation from all areas of the campus — faculty, administration and staff, he said. A new strategic plan for the school also is in the works, Keen said.
“Leadership really does matter. SUNY worked really hard to make sure the campus was able to secure a good president,” said Johanna Duncan-Poitier, SUNY’s senior vice chancellor for community colleges and the education pipeline.
Duncan-Poitier has attended NCC board meetings and has offered the advice and expertise available from SUNY to reverse the Middle States probation. She was present in November when officials from Middle States came to the school for a site visit and said she speaks with Keen weekly to offer support.
“The situation at Nassau was really unprecedented. This was unusual because of the number of standards that were not met. But I must say — even though there’s a lot to be done — that they are addressing all of these responsibly and with great rigor,” said Duncan-Poitier, who noted NCC is “a very big campus and one that is very important to SUNY.”
Several faculty leaders, who declined to be quoted because of a new NCC policy on speaking with the media, said they believe Keen has helped bring together the various stakeholders within the college.
Board Chairman Jorge Gardyn said trustees are united in the effort to support Keen and to make the changes necessary to support the mandates provided by Middle States.
“The addition of Dr. Keen to the administration at Nassau Community College has been a smooth transition and provided the evolutionary changes to bring together all of the groups on campus — the full-time faculty, adjunct faculty and staff — with a united vision for the college’s future,” Gardyn said.
Reviewers from Middle States, after a three-day visit last March, said NCC needed to hire a permanent president, prevent political intrusion, raise student enrollment and graduation rates and rebuild trust among its constituents.
For years, the college has struggled with allegations of political patronage, a lack of transparency and a vocal faculty leadership that has historically sparred with the administration on the educational and budgetary priorities of the institution.
One major deficiency that Middle States’ reviewers found was under the standard labeled “Integrity.” Failing to comply with that standard could mean the college may be called upon to “show cause” as to why it should not immediately lose its accreditation, according to the Middle States report adopted June 23.
That report pointed to political influences at the college and potential conflicts of interest in regard to the hiring of Kate Murray, the former Town of Hempstead supervisor who began work there Jan. 1, 2016, in a media and governmental relations job. Trustees voted in December 2015 to hire Murray at an annual salary of $151,000.
Keen said a team from Middle States, during the November site visit, assured college officials that additional training for trustees and new policies and bylaws have assured the accrediting agency’s officials that progress on that standard was being made.
Murray currently is employed by the college.