Longtime professors at Nassau Community College were wondering last fall: Would an outsider from Florida be able to run one of New York State's largest community colleges?
As soon as he became president in November, Donald Astrab started answering his doubters.
He surprised professors by accepting invites to meetings of low-profile faculty committees. He dropped into the cafeteria and sat with students. He asked community leaders for their vision of Nassau's future.
Professor Phyllis Kurland, who has worked at Nassau for 41 years and heads the student activities office, questioned how Astrab, a chemist by training, would deal with nonscience areas such as the counseling center. Then she saw him at a student government dinner-dance during his first week. He attended meetings of the student activities and affirmative action committees, and spoke forcefully about the need for student support even in a time of budget crises.
"He emphasizes the whole student - in the classroom and outside of the classroom," Kurland said approvingly.
Astrab replaced popular president Sean Fanelli, who retired after a 27-year term - unusually long for college presidents.
Astrab had no time for a leisurely start. One day before he became the fifth president of the 23,000-student college, Nassau faced tough questions from an accreditation group that had concerns about the school's documentation on its policies and procedures - an increasingly common event as accreditation becomes more stringent across the country. Astrab quickly began preparing faculty members, and was satisfied with the school's presentation when it met last month with the evaluators.
While many on campus credit Fanelli for his personal skills, some say the school needed to embrace technology more. At Astrab's prodding, Nassau is developing online courses to increase flexibility for students with jobs and families, and he insists those courses be as challenging and engaging as the best classes on campus.
"Every class should have a companion online site with lecture notes and practice quizzes," Astrab said. "And then we should have blended offerings, with half the course online and half face-to-face with the instructor."
He has championed courses that teach architects, engineers and contractors how to build energy-efficient buildings and retrofit inefficient ones, a field he's confident will produce many jobs in coming years.
"He wants to create new ideas, to bring us into the 21st century," said Janet Dillon, 36, the student representative on the board of trustees.
Trustee Brian Muellers, who considered applying for the president's job, said he's been impressed by Astrab. "The school gets a significant benefit from somebody fresh, with outside experience, someone who knows how other community colleges operate."
Astrab admits he faces a daunting challenge: to "maintain excellence and take it a step higher when the resources are limited."
Nassau, whose budget is $204 million, faces a possible $5.4-million cut in state funding next year, part of a projected $14.1-million deficit, as enrollment continues to climb. Astrab has formed a task force to help decide what could be scaled back or eliminated.
Some people familiar with the college say Astrab will face his true test if the county and state make millions in cuts. Many instructors don't teach on Fridays, and Astrab will be under pressure to demand they take on more classes and spend longer hours on campus; the adjunct faculty contract ends in September.
Astrab lives in a temporary apartment in Bethpage. His wife and two daughters are still in Florida. He emphasizes he's not as much of an outsider as some think. He grew up in Westchester, attended SUNY Oswego, and said he's been an Islanders fan for years.
"You can take him out of New York," said Dillon, "but you can't take New York out of him."
Nassau Community College
President: Donald Astrab, 52
When started: Nov. 20
Previous position: Vice president of academic affairs, Brevard Community College, Florida
Campuses: 1 (Garden City)
Enrollment: 23,000 (No. 2 among state community colleges)
Tuition (full-time): $3,622
Certificates/degrees: More than 70
Budget: $204 million
Proposed state cut for 2010-11: $5.4 million