Nassau Community College officials are in the initial stages of a nationwide search for a new leader -- a task they hope to fast-track -- more than three months after the departure of former president Donald Astrab, trustees said.
The college's next president will face a host of unresolved problems, from a faculty seeking to preserve its influence to an uncertain fiscal future, according to school officials, faculty members and student leaders.
The administration and faculty still are recovering from a strained relationship that was tested during Astrab's embattled tenure. The college is at an impasse in contract negotiations with the adjunct faculty union, and is preparing to negotiate with the full-time faculty union. At the same time, NCC's budget is increasingly reliant on student tuition dollars to replace county and state funding.
"Searching for a new president is the obvious priority this year," said Geoffrey Prime, the college's board chairman, who was not on the board when Astrab was named president in 2009. "Ideally, we'd want someone sooner rather than later, but we also want to err on the side of getting it right."
Astrab, who spent 30 months on the job, left amid fierce criticism from the full-time faculty union, which twice issued votes of no confidence in him.
He resigned in July after agreeing with trustees on a compensation package worth more than $337,000 in salary, health insurance and accrued vacation and sick time. Astrab also had received a car and a house, which is now vacant, on the Garden City campus.
There is no official timeline or deadline to find a new president. Trustees said they believe it will take six months to a year to conduct the search.
Three members of the eight-person board of trustees are charged with identifying the stakeholders who will sit on a larger search committee, as required by state regulations, trustees said.
In the meantime, the board on July 30 appointed executive vice president Kenneth Saunders to the position of officer-in-charge. He is the first black leader of the 53-year-old institution.
Saunders, 55, of Freeport, has been with the college for 13 years. Asked recently whether he would apply for the president's job, Saunders said he is "giving it serious consideration."
"I have an opportunity that most college president candidates don't get, and that is the opportunity to assess the job," Saunders said.
The college's board of trustees has 10 seats -- nine people appointed by state and county lawmakers, and one student trustee, elected by the student body. Two appointive seats on the board are vacant.
Anthony Cornachio, Richard Gutierrez and student trustee Faruque Amin are the three members of the board in charge of selecting members of the larger search committee.
The search committee will include campus, political and business community leaders, trustees said, as stipulated in state guidelines. There is no set number of people who can sit on the search committee.
The state has appointed a liaison, Lee Riddell, director of the SUNY Leadership Institute, to guide NCC trustees in the search.
In the process that led to Astrab's selection, the search committee had 18 members, including trustees, representatives of the school's faculty and employee unions, student groups and various local organizations, said Cornachio, a Garden City attorney, who was on the board at the time.
Cornachio said he hopes to "avoid the calamity of the last time."
"We haven't even decided what are the characteristics we're looking for in this next president," he said. "I'm looking for someone who will bring stability and leadership to the college. The institution needs it."
With more than 23,000 students, Nassau Community College's $204 million budget is funded 40.2 percent by tuition and fees, 25.7 percent by Nassau County and 21.3 percent by the state. The difference is made up from other sources of revenue such as investment income, fund balance and a surcharge for out-of-county students.
Tuition is $3,990. After a 6.9 percent increase between 2010-11 and 2011-12, tuition stayed flat under the 2012-13 budget. State aid rose 7 percent in 2013, the first increase since 2008.
Cornachio, who has been a NCC trustee for past four years, has suggested that faculty members help with vetting candidates.
The college's full-time faculty union, with 683 members, hopes the next president will be more inclusive in management and will preserve full-time faculty postilions, said Richard Newman, spokesman for the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers Local 3150.
"You need full-time faculty," Newman said at a recent board meeting. "We're the ones who are here all the time for the students."
Newman said the union expects to have a place on the search committee. In looking at candidates for the president's job, Newman said union leaders "would look at attitudes that directly relate to the union contract."
Health benefits, faculty governance, pay raises, seniority steps, retirement incentives and layoffs are all of concern to the full-time faculty, Newman said.
After 18 months of talking, the NCCFT and college officials in September broke off negotiations, without an agreement, on an extension to their current contract, which is set to expire Aug. 31, 2013.
History department chairman Philip Y. Nicholson, who has been at the college for more than 40 years, said there's a sentiment of "feeling adrift without new leadership on campus."
Class sizes at NCC are growing, transfer agreements with four-year colleges have stalled, and there aren't enough spots for students in classes required to graduate, Nicholson and other faculty members said.
"There's a lack of academic vision or initiative," he said. "There's just a feeling that things are going to fall through the cracks until we get back up on our feet."