Where are ECC, Buffalo State headed in president searches?

SUNY Erie Community College and Buffalo State University have a lot in common as they start a new semester this fall.

Both said goodbye to their former presidents last academic year amid challenging circumstances. They share the same demographic as the two SUNY schools in Western New York that serve the most local, underrepresented, financially challenged and first-generation students. Both have suffered serious enrollment declines that may never recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

And both hope to name the person who will lead them to stability and success by the end of the year.

Both schools say they are on track to bring candidates for their top job in for interviews around mid-September, and both are keeping the names of potential finalists confidential, at least for now.

Both presidential searches also promise to be somewhat political – Buffalo State’s candidates may even include actual politicians – and will produce some of the first SUNY presidential appointments under SUNY Chancellor John King, the former U.S. Secretary of Education who took over the top SUNY job in January.

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Former ECC president David Balkin, who resigned in December under duress after barely 11 months in office, is among the candidates nominated for the Buffalo State job, he confirmed to The Buffalo News. Other names being bandied about include Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

Adiam Tsegai has been the officer in charge at SUNY Erie Community College since December 2022.

ECC’s search is down to four finalists whose names are being kept confidential “per SUNY policy,” said Jeffrey Stone, chair of ECC’s board of trustees. But the four likely include ECC’s current officer-in-charge, Adiam Tsegai, who was a finalist in its last presidential search and became acting president after Balkin left.

Here’s a look at what we know about where the searches stand.

ECC has four finalists

At ECC’s board of trustees August meeting, Stone reported that the college’s search firm, AGB Search of Washington, D.C., received 51 applications for the president job by the July 20 deadline.

The firm and a 21-member search committee that included five ECC trustees sifted through the résumés, narrowed the field to eight semifinalists and held virtual interviews with them over two days, Stone said.

“We then voted on four finalists whose names are still confidential per SUNY policy, but they will become known and will visit campus for interviews with various groups and the campus community in mid-September,” Stone said.

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The campus community will be able to give feedback to the trustees, who will submit a single name to the SUNY board of trustees to vet, interview and either accept or reject, Stone said. 

Stone didn’t say when the finalists will be announced, but during ECC’s last presidential search in 2021, ECC did not release the names of four finalists until after they had visited campus for interviews and presentations to faculty, staff and students.

That search resulted in the appointment of Balkin, who took over in February 2022 with the goal of leading ECC off what Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz called “a path to financial ruin” by turning a looming $9 million deficit into a $21 million reserve balance for this year.

Balkin, a Western New York native, came in with a business background, having just turned around an Indiana community college that was in similar straits to ECC.

David Balkin ECCDownload Image

Dr. David K. Balkin is the former president of Erie Community College. 

Charged with making tough decisions to get ECC back on track, Balkin used early retirement incentives and layoffs to eliminate some 210 positions – actions that “righted the ship” in the words of one trustee – but also made him the enemy of ECC’s faculty union leadership, a situation that led to his resignation in December.

Since taking over for Balkin as officer-in-charge, Tsegai has enjoyed strong support from the board of trustees. Tsegai was serving as ECC’s chief academic officer and interim provost when she was named a finalist in the 2021 presidential search. After losing the search to Balkin, she was appointed permanent provost by the board of trustees before he arrived. This spring, the board voted to name her “acting president” – not “interim” – a title that indicates she is a candidate for the permanent job.

An ECC alum who joined the college as its dean of engineering in 2018, Tsegai has strong connections to the Faculty Federation of ECC and has worked to involve union leadership in decision-making, including naming a faculty member and former FFECC officer as interim associate vice president for academic affairs. She also seems to have a good relationship with SUNY Chancellor King, who has visited the ECC campus several times in his first year in office.

Buffalo State CollegeDownload Image

An aerial view of Rockwell Hall on the SUNY Buffalo State  campus as night falls.

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Buffalo State: Is Mayor Brown a candidate?

Katherine Conway-TurnerDownload Image

SUNY Buffalo State University President Katherine Conway-Turner will retired at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, capping a 43-year career in higher education, the last eight leading Buffalo State.

Meanwhile, Buffalo State’s former president of nine years, Katherine Conway-Turner, announced last fall she would retire at the end of the academic year in May. Three months after her announcement, state legislators and Buffalo State faculty revealed the university faced at least a $16 million deficit for the coming school year.

John B. King Jr. (copy)Download Image

SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr. speaks during a visit to The Buffalo News.

In March, Buffalo State launched a search website and announced a 19-member presidential search committee that includes Mo Sumundu, assistant director of Empire State Development and a recent appointee to the Buffalo State Council, a 10-member panel that oversees university operations.

After Conway-Turner retired, Buffalo State named Bonita R. Durand as interim president, a title that means she is not a candidate for the permanent job. Durand, a former Buffalo State chief of staff, came out of retirement to take the interim role.

Bonita R. DurandDownload Image

Bonita R. Durand.

The university hired Storbeck Search of Media, Pa., to conduct its search and published a prospectus for its new president. The document says the person “will be dedicated to academic excellence, student success, building a diverse community and culture of opportunity for all, open and shared governance, and financial as well as environmental sustainability.”

It also specifies that “a master’s degree from an accredited institution is required. An earned doctorate or other terminal degree from an accredited institution is strongly preferred.”

Buffalo State has not revealed the names of any candidate, but Balkin said he was nominated to apply and did so. He holds both a master’s degree and a doctorate in engineering from the University of Notre Dame.

Balkin said he would like to help Buffalo State forge closer ties with ECC and that both schools need to pursue opportunities involving the huge workforce changes coming with the spread of artificial intelligence.

“IBM just came out with a study saying that in three years, 40% of all jobs will be affected by AI,” Balkin said. “There are great synergies to be had with ECC and Buffalo State, and both should be helping traditional and nontraditional students to comprehend and apply AI to future career paths.”

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Mayor Byron Brown's State of the City (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)Download Image

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s name was originally floated as a candidate for Buffalo State University in February.

The other two names that keep coming up as potential candidates are Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Rep. Brian Higgins (D-Buffalo). Leaders of Buffalo State’s faculty union, United University Professions, floated the idea of recruiting Brown to apply for the job in February, a trial balloon that was quickly shot down by Buffalo State’s Senate Agenda Committee but has recently regained some traction.

Brown does not hold a graduate degree, but Buffalo State UUP President Fred Floss has said that the search committee could opt to consider his 17 years of experience leading the City of Buffalo as more than a substitute for a master’s degree. Brown is a Buffalo State alum and cheerleader who has taught political science, public administration and finance courses there for more than a decade.

Buffalo State’s prospectus also states, “As an urban-engaged anchor institution, the President must be a public figure who is broadly known within the community and region.”

Brown, 64, dodged the question of whether he would consider throwing his hat in the ring in February, and in July he told The Buffalo News that he intends to finish his four-year term ending in 2025.

“But,” he added, “You never say never. We don’t know what the future might hold,” he said.

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Rumors that Rep. Brian Higgins might be a future president of Buffalo State University have cropped up for years.

As for Higgins, rumors that he might be a future president of Buffalo State have cropped up for years, but have become more persistent of late. Higgins says he plans to run for re-election to an 11th term in Congress next year.

Higgins, 65, holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University and has served in politics most of his life and in Congress since 2005.

Both ECC and Buffalo State face unprecedented challenges as they try to adapt to the changing needs of students and employers. The biggest is declining enrollment paired with a decline in the population of traditional college-age students forecast to take a dive starting in 2025.

Both schools identified that as a key issue in their descriptions of the top job. So whoever is chosen will be expected to bring change.

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