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Norman R. Smith named Dowling College's new interim president

Dr. Norman Smith, former president of Wagner College

Dr. Norman Smith, former president of Wagner College on Staten Island, has been named interim president of Dowling College. Credit: Handout

Financially strapped Dowling College has found a new leader in Norman R. Smith, who is credited with bringing Wagner College on Staten Island back from the brink of closure in the late 1980s.

Smith, 67, said Wednesday that he has been named interim president, describing himself as a "troubleshooter" hired to reverse the course of the college, which relies heavily on tuition for operating expenses and has had successive years of declining enrollment along with poor credit.

He said he arrived Wednesday at the 3,000-student college's main campus in Oakdale.

Smith is employed by the Registry for College and University Presidents, a higher education executive search and consulting firm based in Massachusetts. He said he was recommended to Dowling officials for his experience in rescuing colleges and will be paid by the consulting firm for his work, which began this week. He declined to say how much he is being paid.

Dowling board chairman Michael Puorro, in an interview, said trustees were in discussion with the firm over the last month and decided that hiring Smith was the best option.

"The board wanted experienced leadership immediately, rather than the prolonged process of searching for a permanent president," he said.

Longtime Dowling administrator and former provost Elana Zolfo has been interim president since October, shortly after Jeremy Brown abruptly left the post -- well before his 2014 contract expiration date and less than a month after Newsday's reports about the college's financial meltdown.

Zolfo did not return calls Wednesday. Earlier this month, she was named one of three finalists in a controversial search for the next president of Nassau Community College in Garden City.

"There's no specific role that Elana will fill that has been decided," Puorro said. "We hope she will continue to play a prominent role in Dowling's future."

Smith said Dowling faces challenges similar to those of Wagner more than 20 years ago. "This is a 24/7 assignment. I'll be here as long as needed, and it seems like it could be a while," he said. "We're on the road to put this place in a position to be the highly regarded private college I believe it has the potential to be."

Smith spent more than 14 years as president of Wagner before leaving in 2002. When he arrived at the 105-acre campus on Staten Island, the college's enrollment was dropping and the school was so financially troubled that it was unable to make payroll for the summer, he said.

Puorro announced Smith's appointment in a undated letter to the campus community, urging that Smith be welcomed as he gets acquainted with faculty and staff this week. "Dr. Smith arrives at Dowling this coming Wednesday . . . and he will be introducing himself to everyone within the next few days. The board hopes and trusts that everyone will welcome this exciting new development for Dowling College," he wrote in the letter.

Since fall 2009, total enrollment at Dowling has declined 32 percent, a Moody's Investor Service report in March said.

Puorro declined to give the college's projected enrollment for 2013-14 or more details about its finances, saying only he is "pleased with the progress" the college has been making.

Smith left Wagner to become president of Richmond The American University in London, where he served five years. After that, he was appointed founding chancellor of The Alamein University, a newly chartered institution under construction on the Egyptian Mediterranean near Alexandria.

With Laura Figueroa

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