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SUNY chancellor halts Nassau Community College president search

Left, people hold up signs calling for the

Left, people hold up signs calling for the removal of Anthony Cornachio from the Nassau Community College Board of Trustees for controversial emails during a board of trustees meeting. Right, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher speaks during a joint legislative budget hearing on higher education in Albany. (May 7, 2013, Feb. 11, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan, AP

The SUNY chancellor halted Nassau Community College's contentious search for a new president, saying she will not approve any candidate until after an investigation into the fairness of the selection process.

Nancy L. Zimpher, who heads the State University of New York system, directed Geoffrey Prime, chairman of NCC's board of trustees, to "suspend any activities associated with the president search," SUNY spokesman David Doyle said Wednesday.

"The chancellor is demanding integrity, fairness, accountability and a selection based on the merits of the candidates," Doyle said in an email. "She has made it clear that she will not recommend any Nassau candidate until she is satisfied that a proper investigation has been completed."

Zimpher stepped in as campus groups and some individuals demanded the current search be stopped on the grounds it is biased and the process treated the college's acting president, Kenneth Saunders, unfairly in his bid for the job.

Zimpher "has communicated her expectation to the NCC board chair that he is responsible for conducting an investigation," Doyle said.

Prime said Wednesday members of the board, excluding trustees directly involved in the search, will gather all materials related to the president search and interview committee members.

"I'm sensitive to the chancellor's concerns as well as to those of everyone involved," Prime said. He said he did not know how long it would take. "We'd like to have the investigation done sooner rather than later."

Prime said the board plans to communicate details about the investigation to the campus community over the next day or two when they "get a better handle on things."

Zimpher and SUNY trustees must sign off on any final candidate for president at the 23,550-student Garden City institution, the largest single-campus community college in the state.

Professor Robert L. Hodge Jr., an executive board member of ALANA, a group that represents minority faculty and staff, applauded SUNY officials Wednesday for intervening.

"Sounds like it will be investigated and that's all we want," Hodge said.Saunders, 56, who has worked at NCC for 14 years, will remain acting president. He claimed some members of the presidential search committee held a bias against him during his job interview. Saunders was selected in August to lead the school after the departure of former NCC president Donald Astrab, who spent 30 months on the job.

In a story published Tuesday, Saunders told Newsday: "It was the most caustic interview experience I've ever had. They were not questions, but accusatory statements directed at me."

NCC trustee Anthony Cornachio, head of the selection committee who has come under fire, rebutted Saunders' claim. He said Tuesday night that all job candidates were treated equally.

The leaders of the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers, which represents the college's full-time faculty, said in a statement Wednesday that they were "concerned that a search procedure that was conceived and approved by the BOT [board of trustees] and supervised by SUNY is now being questioned."Tuesday night, nearly 300 people gathered at the college for the monthly board of trustees meeting. The board spent about three hours closeted in executive session before the public session began. More than two dozen speakers took to the microphone, the majority demanding that trustees start the search over.

Audience members, which included officials from the NAACP, the college's student government and ALANA -- the African, Latino, Asian and Native American Alliance -- called for Cornachio's resignation.

ALANA earlier had called for Cornachio's resignation as head of the search committee after it was revealed he sent an email to other board members that referred to an African-American member of ALANA as "a thug" and to a female member as "very pretty."

The selection committee had agreed on three finalists: Joyce Ester, 47, of Chicago, president of Kennedy-King College, one of seven entities within the City Colleges of Chicago; State Supreme Court Justice Anthony Marano, 70, of Valley Stream; and Elana Zolfo, 63, of Smithtown, interim president of Dowling College in Oakdale.

The 12 members of the selection committee voted by secret ballot, Cornachio said.

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