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SUNY Presidents try to clear the air at shared services forum

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CANTON — SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam will remain unique institutions with their own programs, faculties and campuses — but shared administrations.

Amid a snowstorm of uncertainty, the presidents of both universities tried to clear the air Thursday at the first joint forum on shared services.

“This vision is of two unique campuses which are brought together,” said John F. Schwaller, SUNY Potsdam president. “This is a process, not a destination.”

Interim SUNY Canton President Carli S. Schiffner said that process is complicated by the schools’ divergent missions.

“There’s a very positive history of having folks working together,” she said. “The elephant in the room is that sometimes the history hasn’t been positive at all.”

Before a SUNY Board of Trustees resolution called on the campuses to merge their administrations in 2011, the schools’ attempts to share services and staff resulted in a lot of talks, a few failed attempts, but no lasting successes.

Now, presidents can outline progress hiring shared staff, including a joint chief financial officer, a joint military and veterans benefits coordinator, an interlibrary loan specialist, an environmental health and safety director, a shared police chief and a shared human resources director. The schools are planning to jointly hire an executive director of budgets and a sustainability officer.

“We have active conversations going between offices on both campuses,” Mr. Schwaller said. “These are very technical, but they have been very productive.”

Throughout the presentation, it was clear that some of the uncertainty experienced by the public was shared by both presidents.

“We do not know what the future of the executive leadership of our campuses will be, only the Board of Trustees and the chancellor know that,” Mr. Schwaller said. “We don’t know the length of time for the shared services conversation. President Schiffner and I are employed by the Board of Trustees; they tell us what we have to do.”

In an open question and answer session, students, faculty and staff peppered the presidents with concerns about administrative reorganization.

“We’re not being asked for our input,” said Tony Beane, a SUNY Canton veterinary science professor. “The only way for us to be heard is to write a letter to the editor.”

Though shared services are a response to a SUNY Central mandate, faculty and staff will have input into the future of shared services, said Ms. Schiffner.

“What is missing in a lot of these conversations is the perception that you don’t have a voice,” she said. “You do have a voice.”

In November, SUNY Canton shuffled its administration, changing which campus vice president some offices answered to. Mr. Schwaller said SUNY Potsdam could undergo a similar shuffle as soon as March.

“One of the challenges is that our administrative structures do not align,” he said. “We need to think about how we can align our administrations on each campus so they compliment each other.”

The presidents acknowledged their work to merge services will be a long-term process.

“In the brief experience we have, we have found as one set of conversations unfold, it raises another set of questions, it’s like ripples in a pond,” Mr. Schwaller said.

No matter where and when the endpoint of that process occurs, both schools will remain distinct, said Mr. Schwaller.

“There is no vision, plan or endgame that would see either campus become a branch of another campus,” he said. “To change this would require massive efforts.”

Both leaders though their campuses would reap benefits from shared services beyond saving on administrative costs.

“I think there’s an opportunity here,” Mr. Schwaller said. “We should be able to acquire special events which each campus alone couldn’t.”

Those benefits would be enjoyed by students at both schools, he said.

“In many offices which provide student services, if we collaborate we are no longer one-deep, we have back-ups.”

The schools are currently the possibility of merging their admissions, career services, financial aid, institutional effectiveness. Shared academic programs through the proposed SUNY Institute of Arts, Sciences and Technology are also being discussed, said Ms. Schiffner.

“Academic discussion does not take place outside of the steering committee for the institute,” she said. “The institute is not a degree-granting entity, that will reside in the houses of both colleges.”

The presidents pledged to continue informing their communities about shared services through additional forums and the publication of an e-newsletter on each campus’s website.

The next shared service forum will take place Tuesday on SUNY Potsdam’s campus at 4 p.m. in Kellas Hall room 106.

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