Interim president says he's not at NCCC 'to sit behind a desk' - The Buffalo News

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Interim president says he's not at NCCC 'to sit behind a desk'

When William J. Murabito shows up to lead a community college, something usually has already gone wrong.

But he knows the first steps to take.

"You go in and try to take the temperature down, and get people to start working together," said Murabito, who was named interim president of Niagara County Community College in September.

NCCC is the fifth two-year college Murabito has led as interim president, and in every instance, he was asked to clean up a mess.

At NCCC, James P. Klyczek resigned as president on April 26, after a leaked recording revealed he derided a woman who reported being sexually assaulted on campus in the summer of 2016. After Klyczek's departure, the college's vice president for academic affairs filled in for nearly six months, and then the college's Board of Trustees chose Murabito as interim president from a short list of candidates approved by State University of New York officials.

William J. Murabito, interim president of Niagara County Community College, in his office on the Sanborn campus Oct. 19, 2017. (Thomas J. Prohaska/Buffalo News)

Murabito said he intends to be an active leader until the community college and SUNY select a permanent president. Campus safety, chargebacks, faculty relations and whether NCCC should explore merging with Erie Community College are among the issues he faces.

"I wouldn't accept a position where I'm just going to come in and sit behind a desk," Murabito told The Buffalo News. "I'll be setting a work agenda, things I can work on while I'm here. The main goal is to put things in place to make the campus a good option for the best possible presidential candidates."

Merger talk

Earlier this year, former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra suggested ECC and NCCC merge. Niagara County leaders showed no interest, and Murabito said his experience has shown that's difficult to accomplish.

He was interim president at Morrisville State College near Syracuse when it made an effort to combine its administration with SUNY IT, now SUNY Polytechnic Institute, in Utica.

"It wasn't working. It was a failure, especially in the eyes of the people at Morrisville, because the president of SUNY IT was the one who was in charge, so they were losing their identity," Murabito said. "When I went in, I had to deal with that problem and I had to bring in a lot of new staff, because the staff had been replaced by the administrators at SUNY IT."

There have been other failed attempts at mergers in the SUNY system, such as linking Canton with Plattsburgh and Delhi with Cobleskill.

"It didn't work well," Murabito said. "I think the attempt to look at each individual (college's) issues, and then try to get the individual campuses work to closely together, is the way to go."

Chargebacks

Murabito said he has no objection to the "chargeback" system, in which a county whose residents attend a community college in a different county must make a payment to that college for each student.

Locally, most of that money goes from Erie County to Niagara, although, because of declining enrollment at NCCC, this year's projected chargeback income of $4.5 million is down 13 percent from last year.

Chargebacks have a direct impact on county property taxes. Erie County keeps track of the hometowns of the students attending other community colleges, and the county has a formula to add chargeback costs to the county tax levy for that municipality. Amherst, which sends most Erie County residents to NCCC, had $1.1 million in chargebacks added to the property tax levy last year.

Niagara County also assesses chargebacks to its towns and cities, and expects to pay about $1.4 million this year, mostly to Erie County.

"The system seems to be working," Murabito said. "If Erie County were not paying chargebacks for those students, they would have to educate those students at Erie Community College. It might cost them more."

Campus safety

Murabito will examine whether NCCC has an adequate response plan to sexual assaults, given the 2016 incidents that led to Klyczek's downfall.

"It's too early to tell. I've only been here a couple days," Murabito said. "As we do our routine review of policy, if changes are warranted, they'll move forward."

Murabito, who served on a SUNY task force that drew up the state's sexual assault reporting rules, said he expects to set up an all-campus safety committee. Instead of the current faculty-only safety committee, students and administrators would be involved.

"Safety is an important issue for everyone, so the campus needs to review that," he said. "When you think of shared governance, it's a good example."

Shared governance

Faculty leaders have gone before the board repeatedly to call for shared governance of the college.

Murabito said he thinks he can work with the faculty.

"Shared governance is quite different than a corporate setting. It's unique to a college setting, but it works," Murabito said. "But people have to do a lot of work to make it work. You have to be open. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work together. It doesn't mean that everyone agrees with each other, but in the end everybody should have a opportunity to opine on whatever the issues are."

Culinary Institute

The veteran administrator, who also has served as a SUNY associate vice chancellor of academic affairs, student affairs and university life, said NCCC strikes him as having "all the component parts" needed for success, including the right programs to meet the needs of students.

The Culinary Institute hasn't met the enrollment figures projected by Klyczek. He projected 1,000 students by this year. This year's enrollment is 321. But Murabito is excited about the program.

"The Culinary Institute is a gem, but enrollment in community college programs across the state and country has been on the decline," Murabito said. "I'd like to market for that program. It's a great facility, a great faculty, good students. It's spectacular. I can't imagine a better program that I've visited in some time."

Funding

The Niagara County Legislature has not increased its contribution to the college for 11 years, freezing it at $8.87 million. The college has raised tuition and used reserve funds to balance its $48.4 million budget.

"I think new, exciting programs and opportunities for the citizens of Niagara County will speak well for asking for money. You can't just ask for an increase. You have to show what difference it's going to make," Murabito said. "If we do ask for money, it's not because we're in a deficit. It's because we have some exciting initiatives."

Murabito's future

Murabito, a Saratoga Springs resident, has rented an apartment in downtown Niagara Falls and intends to live there until a permanent replacement takes over. He said he was appointed for a year or until he is replaced. He will not become the permanent president.

He said he won't be commuting from Saratoga Springs.

"I'm here full time," he said. "Actually, with my wife not here, I'm here more than full time."

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