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SUNY Canton President Joe Kennedy at commencement ths year.
SUNY Canton President Joe Kennedy at commencement ths year.

Kennedy sees challenges ahead for Canton-Potsdam shared presidency

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The State University of New York surprised the Canton-Potsdam communities last month with the news that it will put one president in charge of SUNY Canton and Potsdam colleges as part of a new initiative to share services. The plan is for SUNY Canton president Joe Kennedy to resign at the end of the academic year, with Potsdam President Jon Schwaller presumably holding the new office.

Canton leaders were dismayed that Kennedy, who's led an 18 year resurgence of the former Ag and tech school, was forced out. At a stormy meeting in early August, college council members at both schools challenged the decision, and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher's authority to merge the presidencies.

There's been push-back from local and state politicians. A week ago the SUNY Canton chapter of the United University Professions organized a public protest that drew some 200 people in support of Kennedy.

Martha Foley sat down with Kennedy recently to talk about the new plan. He said it's hard to see how the shared presidency will work. And he said the news took him by surprise, too.

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Martha Foley
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Kennedy: I don’t really know exactly what happened to be honest with you, but I believe that for the last several months, perhaps last six months, the system has been planning to merge campuses around the state. I know you’ve that we’re not the only two campuses being merged. Cobleskill and Delhigh and Morrisville and SUNY IT too, and I’ve actually been led to believe there are others too in the pipeline that haven’t come along yet. But this was worked out over the last three or four months and then with the president of Cobleskill leaving, with the president of Morrisville having already left, they were left with two presidents only at Canton and Potsdam. And, for whatever reason, I was selected as the one to be asked to step down. Originally very quickly, but after some discussion, I will be here this coming year.

NCPR: You didn’t know this was coming any more than, say, I did?

Kennedy: I learned on July the 9th and that was the first time I had any idea.

NCPR: There were rumors, of course, locally that  you were targeted or you were asked to resign because you didn’t want to go along with consolidation of the campuses or the local phrase was you were doing too good a job of being an entrepreneur over here in Canton.

Kennedy: I actually wish that were true [chuckles]. I think we are doing too good a job, maybe, because I’m pretty sure there aren’t many colleges in SUNY that are doing as much with the money the state gives us as we are. But I don’t think that had much to do with it. I think this was a larger effort. I actually think it is as much a political statement as it is an economic statement. And, certainly with the governor asking school districts to merge, looking at ways to save, it makes sense that SUNY would need a symbolic step as well, and this could be that. And I do know that as Fritz and I shared emails last year that you may have seen copies of, there really are not that many savings between the two colleges. It’s going to be marginal. So it’s hard to imagine that it is actually going to realize the savings that I guess are hoped for.

NCPR: What numbers do you think the state was working with when they started formulating this plan, they started looking at their map of SUNY campuses?

Kennedy: Well I’m sure you know that some things are intuitively obvious and wrong. And I don’t think they were looking at data. I think they were looking at the fact that small colleges have presidents and large colleges have presidents, therefore it must cost more to a college for the small college to have presidents. I think if you look at the entire management scene that might or might not be correct. But I haven’t seen any numbers at all and if they have data they haven’t shared it.

NCPR: So is this a done deal? Because there are local rumblings that there’ll be some pushback against the SUNY administration about this consolidation and about the loss of you here in Canton.

Kennedy: From my perspective, I have to treat it as such. But nothing is ever done until it’s done. I think that the community will weigh in on this, I think that probably our elected officials will weigh in on this, and hopefully at some point the process will reach a conclusion. From my personal perspective, whatever conclusion we’re going to reach, I want us we reach it soon. It’s difficult to live in a situation without really a known trajectory.

NCPR: Canton and Potsdam are very different schools. Historically their traditions are different, their programs are different. What will be lost here at this school which has its roots in being an ag and tech school if there’s no president here?

Kennedy: We continue to make the assumption that the president initially will be from Potsdam but at some point there will be a new president. And the fact of the matter is that that person may be a technology person. And it could be that the loss is on the other campus, not this campus, so we really don’t know. But these two campuses are so culturally different that it’s going to be difficult. I mean I cannot personally imagine trying to be president of both of these colleges. When you go to Potsdam, you have to sing opera; you come over here, you gotta sing Garth Brooks. I don’t know how you do that. I think it’ll be a real challenge for whoever’s trying to do it.

NCPR: Thinking ahead, past this year, do you see Canton College coming out of this change, however it works out over the next few years, stronger?

Kennedy: I would hope for them to come out at the other end as strong as we are now. It’s hard to imagine that the college will continue to push forward without someone here full-time, with a clear vision, with a willingness to keep pushing people, to have the college move forward. I am fearful for the future but as I’ve said before that’s probably just the fear of the unknown, not necessarily a fear I can attach something to. But I’m hopeful that they can sustain what we have. This still gets back to the fact that things may go very well. It’s just that from my perspective it’s hard to see it. I actually will do everything I can to make it go well even when I’m not the president. Because this has been my professional life’s work and I’m going to do everything I can to help it be successful.

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