While he has yet to declare his candidacy for the permanent presidential position at Nassau Community College, Dr. Kenneth Saunders is definitely playing the part.
Each day is busy, and fast-paced, and he’s enjoying himself in the role of Acting President.
“There is no such thing as a typical day or week for a president,” he said. “But I love it. The role is challenging and demanding, but it’s everything that I had thought it would be, and everything I had hoped for.”
Saunders really has had an unusual trial run as leader of SUNY’s largest single community college campus. He is in his 14th month since SUNY approved his appointment in January 2013. Some permanent presidents don’t serve that long, including Saunders’ predecessor.
The NCC Board of Trustees in February decided to do put out a Request For Proposals (RFP) to headhunting firms to commence a nationwide search for a new permanent president after a failed search in 2013.
The RFP is a requirement for a presidential search by SUNY guidelines, but that doesn’t mean that Dr. Saunders can’t apply for the job.
By the time a search is completed and a finalist comes on board, Saunders may have two years of service as Acting President under his belt. It may be safe to say he is a frontrunner for the position, though the carefully-spoken Saunders is not yet saying what his plans are.
But he sure is relishing his leadership position. “The buck stops with you when you’re the Acting President,” he said, when asked how this role was different than his previous roles as Executive VP and VP for Academic Services for NCC, the latter title he had held for 12 years.
The 57-year-old Saunders has spent his whole career in higher education, and has successfully maneuvered the minefield that comes with being a president at a public college, especially in an at-times contentious county like Nassau.
First, there was the messiness of former President Donald Astrab’s resignation in the summer of 2012. Having had only been approved by SUNY in February 2010, Dr. Astrab actually accomplished less in the top role than Saunders has.
Astrab’s lack of consensus building led to two no-confidence votes by the faculty. At first, the NCC Board of Trustees was behind Astrab, but the cacophony from the unions became overwhelming and Astrab was shown the exit. Dr. Saunders was named “Officer in Charge” until SUNY could officially approve him. He also became NCC’s first African-American leader.
And Saunders seems to have learned a good deal from Astrab’s controversial tenure. In many ways, his leadership style is quite the opposite – Saunders spends much of his time meeting with the various governing groups on campus, listening to their concerns, and making decisions in a very fair and even-keeled manner.
And NCC has a lot of groups, each with different, and sometimes conflicting, demands. Along with the Board of Trustees, there are unions for full-time faculty, adjunct faculty and staff, a presidential cabinet with VPs and other non-union administration and many student groups. “I like the energy of all of the interactions, but, ultimately, the impact I can have on our young along with our returning older students gives me the most satisfaction,” he said.
Saunders describes his approach as “unconditional positive regard.” He goes into each meeting, large and small, with no personal or political agenda. He listens first, and then offers his ideas.
“I don’t look for adversity,” he said. “I like to conduct meetings where people feel free to come forward and feel valued. The conversations must go both ways.”
The approach has worked, largely. When Saunders was first appointed at an NCC Board of Trustees meeting, the faculty in attendance cheered loudly. Soon after, Hurricane Sandy hit and NCC became the largest Red Cross refuge site in the county. Saunders took to YouTube with Dr. Kimberley Reiser, Chair of the Academic Senate, in a show of unity and calm during that unprecedentedly trying time for the college.
When many of NCC’s adjuncts went on strike – which made national news – Saunders calmly told students to still go to class. A judge ruled that the adjuncts could not strike, and they went back to work without as many headlines. As so many classes are now taught by adjuncts, that situation could have ended much worse. Most adjuncts did not participate in the strike, and only 10 percent of classes were affected.
Last summer, after the NCC Board of Trustees conducted their first presidential search and did not include Saunders in the group of three finalists (Newsday editorialized that one finalist had little academic credentials, but was a politically connected judge in the county), Saunders found a big ally in SUNY Central Administration in Albany.
Ultimately, a president anywhere in the SUNY system must have approval from the Chancellor, Dr. Nancy Zimpher, and the SUNY Board of Trustees. SUNY came down hard on the NCC Board for a fatally flawed search and demanded a redo, allowing Saunders to stay in his current role as Acting President and allowing him the chance to apply again. Saunders himself said to Newsday at that time that the NCC Board’s search process was “unfair,” but did not say much else publicly. He certainly is not a bridge-burner.
Meanwhile, the NCC Board of Trustees saw its secretary resign and another member accused of making racially and sexually insensitive comments, in an email, by a faculty member and the student group ALANA (African, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American).
Earlier this year, Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos reported that NCC was still owed at least $14M in revenue, dating from 2006 to 2012, from past students who did not pay. Obviously, this billing fiasco happened before Saunders’ time as Acting President, but he quickly reported that $4M of the revenue had already been collected. In a letter to Newsday, he reinforced the excellent education coming from the NCC faculty, noting the “qualitative implications of NCC’s lower faculty-student ratio.”
Whether or not he will someday be permanent president, Saunders still has been long-term planning.
First, he sees that the college could extend its fundraising reach, being in one of the country’s wealthiest counties. As far as government relations, he has ramped up meetings with local and state elected officials, who help decide NCC’s local and state aid. He also is involved in helping negotiate with the full-time and adjunct faculty unions for their long-term contracts, and is in regular contact with the unions and the NCC Board of Trustees.
He believes that NCC should be more proactive in its use of technology in education. As well, he sees older, returning students, including veterans, as a growing niche for the college. “Adult students can come to NCC to develop new skill sets or improve on existing skills,” he said.
A resident of Freeport, Saunders holds an Ed.D. in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s of education from Howard and a bachelor’s in psychology and German from Bowling Green. He also attended Harvard’s Institute of Education Management.
In his spare time, he enjoys music, especially jazz, and cooking for the various guests a president tends to have visit his home.
He said that the best is yet to come for NCC. “There are many challenges ahead, in transitioning the college with a great 50-year history and one that has been open to all students to meet the needs of today’s students, many of whom are entering with deficiencies in English, writing and math, and getting them to the level required to succeed in college. … This is a major challenge because it is a shift in the types of students we have had over time. We can help these students through new uses of technology and new educational modalities.
“That may mean that we need to find new resources for faculty, so that they can integrate technology into the classrooms.”
He also believes that the word has to get out to students who typically skip community college and go straight to four-year colleges.
“Traditional students get caught up in the image of, say, NYU vs. NCC – and NYU is a wonderful institution – but why not start at NCC? They will end up with half the level of indebtedness by taking their first two years at NCC, and still end up with a degree that says NYU after they transfer and graduate from there,” he said.
An academic credit at NCC costs $171, while a credit at NYU costs $1,251.
“Coming to Nassau Community College is one of the most economically sound decisions they can make, and they can see a return on their investment soon after their graduation,” Saunders said. “The price of an NCC education is the best bang for the buck for students.”
The NCC Board of Trustees is expected to commence their presidential search in full this spring and summer, perhaps using two nationwide search firms. SUNY is expected to closely monitor the process.