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Editorial: Put students first at Nassau Community

Nassau Community College President Donald Astrab meets with

Nassau Community College President Donald Astrab meets with students in the school's cafeteria. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein, 2010

Here we go again: another sudden lurch for Nassau Community College. The embattled president, Donald Astrab, is resigning at the end of August. This comes after a turbulent period of a little more than a year, including two votes of no confidence in Astrab. Now, as the search for a new president is about to get going, it's time for the State University of New York to look closely at what's happening on this campus and make sure it's not hurting the students. Remember them? They're supposed to be what the school is all about.

The faculty would argue that Astrab has already hurt the students, for example, by reducing the number of course sections available, which makes it tougher for them to complete their studies in the time that they had planned. Yet when Astrab came to Nassau in 2009, he faced declining state assistance and rising costs, which forced him to act. He felt that the faculty was not nearly cooperative enough in tackling the fiscal challenges. Its members felt he didn't consult them adequately, as their tradition of shared governance demanded, and that he went too far in labeling them whiny.

That's just the Reader's Digest version of many months of slings and arrows. The two no-confidence votes last year -- by the Academic Senate, then by the full-time faculty -- were the lowlights, but there was non-Astrab turbulence at this huge institution, too. Like this: Just a month after the second no-confidence vote, the then-chairman of the college's board of trustees, Michael Freeman, resigned after he was indicted on bribery-kickback charges related to affordable housing in New York.

Now Astrab and the board have reached a separation agreement, as a result of what the agreement called "philosophical differences and different visions." For the future of the school and the well-being of the students, it's important to understand that the board's differences with Astrab appear to have more to do with his style than with his ultimate goal: fiscal responsibility.

The next president is going to have to deal with the same dreary cycle of rising costs and flat or declining revenues. Faculty members say they fully understand that. But we hope they won't rely on the victory of the moment, Astrab's departure, and feel they can have their way in resisting cost-saving moves by his successor. These are tough times, and the faculty won't always get what it wants. Nor will the president. And that delicate dance will be more complicated next year, because the contract for the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers, representing full-time faculty, expires next Aug. 31.

For now, the official in charge is Kenneth Saunders, who has been serving as executive vice president under Astrab. It's unclear whether he'll become a candidate for the permanent job. It's also unclear whether all the operatic doings on campus will scare off potential applicants, or whether -- as the faculty believes -- the school's reputation for academic excellence will make this a highly attractive job.

SUNY should take no chances. It should send a powerful representative to the search committee, to keep an eye on that process. Just as important, it should send a team to review the campus to make sure it provides what students need, at a cost taxpayers can afford.

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