Change is afoot at Erie Community College, where William J. Mariani has been interim president for almost three months.
Saying he is opting for nothing less than a complete "paradigm shift" at the three-campus college, the personable and energetic administrator already has begun to attack problems, real and perceived, at ECC.
He has taken measures to boost morale at the college, and to open the lines of communication -- both externally and internally. He also has initiated changes in student policy and in the way ECC "does business."
"I have been criticized for saying that education is a business -- but that's the way I see it," said Mariani, whose work experience, both academic and nonacademic, has been in business, particularly marketing, sales and management.
"I am a systems guy, a conceptual thinker," he said. "I understand that what happens at a college is a process, and that, like any business, ECC produces a product -- an educated, trained student, often one that transfers."
Mariani, 48, took over as interim head of the college on Dec. 27, the day after Louis M. Ricci left the presidency he had held for 12 years.
The fact that Mariani's ties to the college go back almost 20 years, to the days when he was an adjunct faculty member in the business department, held him in good stead:
A full-time ECC employee since 1983 -- and the executive dean of work force development and community services since 1989 -- he knew the college and its people intimately.
But he didn't know the areas that are, in the main, the president's responsibility -- so he came to the interim post without preconceived notions.
Perhaps more importantly, at such a politicized school as ECC, he came unfettered by campus politics -- a man who doesn't owe favors and doesn't play games.
"There were a variety of issues that I was positioned to deal with -- first and foremost, how to provide quality service for students at affordable cost while faced with severe budget concerns," he said.
"I knew we had to change the external perception that we are not operating efficiently and effectively. I knew there was a concern over morale. I knew we have very capable leadership at ECC hindered by a lack of resources, or by individual agendas taking priority.
"I have got to stop this. Individual agendas will stop at the president's office."
Mariani said he is quickly learning that "the president's role is becoming more and more one of building linkages to the community than managing internal affairs." Still, he has moved swiftly to attend to internal affairs:
Macyo Wilbon, the president of the Student Government Association on ECC's City Campus, was removed from office and suspended from campus for the spring semester after a code of conduct hearing initiated by the vice president for student affairs and the dean of students on the City Campus determined he had violated the code.
Major personnel changes are under way. Already, Bruno Pistrin, vice president for student affairs, has been named to the newly created position of dean of retention services. Daniel Penfold, dean of student development and a respected student services administrator at the college for 26 years, is serving as interim vice president for student affairs.
Significant changes in policy also are being made "in the way student governments operate and how student clubs are funded," Mariani said.
Those and other changes come in the wake of an investigation by ECC trustee Thomas H. Burton showing that the dean of students on the City Campus signed off on $7,000 of student activities fees for dinners at the Bijou Grille and Niagara Falls' Skylon Tower, tickets to a show at Shea's and an overnight trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio.
"Every club will now submit a budget in writing," Mariani said.
"Every organization will have the same, set procedure. Funds will be approved, if everything is in order, upfront. The deans will be taken out of potentially controversial situations."
Mariani meets every week with his central administration. Every two weeks, he meets with county officials, ECC trustees, student leadership and others "to discuss what is crucial to the institution, and to get a clearer understanding of operations by all parties."
Mariani thinks that ECC, which already has a number of partnerships with business and industry, should consider more.
"Instead of ECC being adopted by a business, why not have ECC adopt a business?" he asked.
Mariani also is looking at a "stronger linkage" between ECC and its local sister SUNY institutions -- the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College. "We must look at becoming a 'prep school' for students not successful in being accepted at their facilities," he said.
Mariani is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in administration and supervision.
As interim president of ECC, he is deemed temporary, but notes that SUNY guidelines do not prohibit -- but only recommend -- that the interim president not be a candidate for the permanent position.
"As it stands now, I am not a candidate," he emphasized. "I do not want to compromise the search process (for a permanent president), and I have not really given a lot of thought to the question of the presidency."