In a brilliantly executed move, officials of the State University of New York have accomplished what trustees of Nassau Community College have consistently failed to do — provide leadership.
W. Hubert Keen, the highly regarded president of Farmingdale State College who expanded enrollment by rebuilding the campus and upgrading academic standards during his nine-year tenure, is perfectly suited to take over the struggling two-year community college. Keen’s determined but amiable style, academic credentials and familiarity with the local players make him the right person to end the turmoil, largely the making of NCC’s own board of trustees. The board, alternatively clueless or self-interested in its governance, and the imperious faculty have failed the college’s 22,000 students, and the taxpayers of Nassau County and New York State, which provide the school’s funding.
The NCC board has fumbled three presidential searches since 2012, leaving the institution adrift in a poisonous atmosphere. A critical evaluation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in April failed the campus on seven of 14 quality benchmarks, finding the campus atmosphere “hostile and uncivil,” the hiring practices lacking in “integrity,” and no clear guidelines for administrators to achieve their mission and goals.
The report cited the selection of Kate Murray, the former Hempstead Town supervisor, for a $151,000-a-year job as head of media and government relations, as an unwarranted intrusion of politics into the running of the school. A videotape of the board’s surprise motion in January to hire her, and its pitiful attempt to justify her selection, were key pieces of evidence for the devastating Middle States evaluation.
Unless NCC reverses course, its accreditation is in jeopardy. Any warning or probationary status by Middle States would hurt federal financial aid programs and undercut credibility. Enrollment and graduation rates at the school are declining, and there is already a perception among high school students that a degree from NCC is losing value.
Keen, an educator for four decades, starts on Aug. 1 with a record of success and a reputation for personal integrity. He understands the needs of the students; more than 26 percent of transferees to Farmingdale come from NCC. It helps that SUNY’s board of trustees has his back, and that he has an open-ended contract with a big financial penalty if he is dismissed.
Keen says he will fill the open position for an academic vice president and will work with current administrators who share his goals. Keen’s first challenge is to change governance processes so the Academic Senate and unionized faculty acknowledge that NCC’s president and top administrators run the school. The old power plays won’t work anymore; Middle States will not accept it. Another clear sign to Middle States will be for the political leaders who control the trustees to stop making the school a patronage dumping ground.
NCC now has a leader who understands how to engage its community and correct its problems. Time is running out to stop the downward spiral. — The editorial board