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With Quinn’s retirement, ECC will need another diligent leader

One of Western New York’s best-known public officials announced Monday that he’s calling it a day. Next June, following the 2016-17 school year, Jack F. Quinn Jr. will retire as president of Erie Community College.

The decision was influenced by personal issues, said Quinn, whose contract expires in March. He will be 66 when retirement day arrives and he has two young grandchildren. His son, former Assemblyman Jack Quinn III, lives in Chicago. His mother is 86.

Quinn has been in the public eye for decades. He was a middle school English teacher in Orchard Park for 10 years and both a Town Board member and supervisor in Hamburg until 1993, when he was elected as a Republican member of Congress. He served there – honorably and with solid district support – until the end of 2004.

While personal issues made this a good time for Quinn to retire, it’s also fair to say that his departure comes at a time of great strain for the college, where enrollment is declining and budget deficits are mounting. As the ECC board launches a search for a successor, it will need to find a leader with the background and skills to manage a transition that appears to be both difficult and inevitable. If that person is available locally or upstate, that would be to the good, but the searchers should plan to cast a wide net.

Quinn and Board Chairman Dennis Murphy clearly understand the challenges. Just as the internet has upended industries across the economy, it has done so in education. With online learning both available and increasingly popular, fewer buildings and campuses may be necessary to meet the need. At ECC, that could result in significant restructuring, including layoffs.

It’s a watershed period, just as it is in retailing, publishing, music distribution and many other industries. It calls for new thinking and new approaches to meet an established and unchanging need: educating young people to meet their career goals and serving the demands of the local economy.

When Quinn came to the job in 2008, the old economic model was already changing, although the full impact of the internet on all aspects of commerce was not yet clear and, indeed, may still not be.

As Quinn and Murphy made clear in a meeting Monday with The Buffalo News editorial board, this is a problem that radiates far beyond the three campuses of Erie Community College. Across the state, and even the country, education leaders are having to consider whether their current structures are sustainable in an economy that relies less on brick-and-mortar structures than it did just 20 years ago.

That is especially true in New York, whose public university system practically defines the word sprawling. To then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who built SUNY into the far-flung system that it is today, the accomplishment made New York a national leader. Today, though, the system carries costs that could hurt it as it seeks to provide an affordable education, especially as it compares with the opportunities other states can offer.

Clearly, if there is daunting work awaiting ECC’s next president, that person will not be alone in the need to re-engineer an enterprise that was designed for a different, never-returning time. It’s a challenge and it will be the board’s job to recruit a president who relishes it.

In the meantime, the community can prepare a farewell to a public servant of whom it is clearly fond. Quinn has been a diligent leader wherever he has lighted, and while his retirement is still 10 months off, we hope his grandchildren will come to appreciate that their gain is coming at the community’s loss.

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