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Exit interview: Q&A with retiring ECC President Jack Quinn

After nine years as president of Erie Community College, Jack F. Quinn Jr. will retire Friday, leaving the institution in the hands of incoming president Dan Hocoy.

Quinn served in Congress from 1993 to 2005 and cast a pivotal vote in the 1988 impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the House of Representatives. Quinn also worked briefly as a Washington D.C. lobbyist prior to his appointment as 10th ECC president in 2008. He announced last August he would step down at the end of his latest four-year contract, which ran through March 31. He agreed to stay on another three months at the request of the college's board of trustees, while it searched for his successor.

The board honored Quinn on Thursday with a resolution that calls for a plaque to be installed in a prominent spot within a new $30 million academic building currently under construction at ECC's North Campus in Amherst. Quinn was instrumental in securing state and county funding for the project, which will be the first new structure built on the North Campus in decades. But the building has been controversial from the start.

Quinn's tenure also coincided with contentious, drawn-out negotiations with college faculty, as well as enrollment declines and significant fiscal challenges, prompting early retirements and other cost-saving efforts.  And in 2016, a scathing state comptroller's audit concluded that ECC trustees had allowed Quinn to make important financial decisions behind closed doors, compromising the transparency of the college’s operations, including giving senior executive staff unauthorized raises and bonuses and hiring contractors without a competitive bidding process.

The News sat down this week with Quinn, 66, to get his perspective on his years at the helm and his assessment of the state of the college. Here's a summary of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Q: What is the more bruising challenge, being part of a presidential impeachment process or negotiating a new contract with a faculty union?

A: Let me just say there are a lot of similarities. I got a whole lot more outside calls on the presidential impeachment, and most of the calls here were inside calls. The problem with the presidential is it was about 50-50, which doesn't help you when you're trying to decide the will of the people. In the faculty contract it's not 50-50. It’s very clear, "We need some more." But there's lots of similarities, as well. It's a good question.

Q: Looking back, what do you consider highlights of your tenure?

A: You lose the forest for the trees, but the $30 million STEM building, the biggest new construction project in the history of the school, and it will be ready to open in January. The amount of work to get that done will be added up in the heavens somewhere. It was on again. It was off again. Then we had a change of administrations, because the $7.5 million was from (former County Executive and current U.S. Rep.) Chris Collins.

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We had to convince the current county executive and his team. The whole debate about whether it should be in the suburbs at all we worked through. The frustrating part is we has nearly all of the money in the bank, or at least accounted for. There were some days we weren't sure it was going to happen. But it's like anything else, if it's worthwhile it's worth waiting for, and we just kept coming back.

I think the union contracts that were settled through 2020 is a big thing. They were out seven or eight years. I got personally involved in those the last six months. I mean at the table. I'm not saying I solved it, but there was a sense of urgency that the board wanted it solved and they wanted me involved.

Q: What were the reasons why the contracts took so long, your version of it, anyway?

A: My side of it, there was very little incentive for the members to negotiate. They had a very positive contract. You know we have the step (pay) increases. They have great health care coverage. Why would you want to sit down when you're probably going to lose something from what you have? So I think there was little incentive, and the other thing I know about negotiations is this: When you get close, you've got to stay at the table. You've got to almost camp out there and work it and work it and work it. It took an enormous amount of my time, but well spent. And one of the reasons it got done, let's remember, is the county executive added money. At the end of the day, he delivered more money, which was key for us.

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Q: Board member Steve Boyd has pointed out an overlooked accomplishment during you time as president is the college's improved standing with its accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. A lot of that was getting the college to back away from a tradition of being, frankly, a place of heavy patronage. How far do you think the college has come in that regard?

A: It's come far enough to get the stamp of approval from Middle States, which is big to me. You don't come off of probation with Middle States easily. It was really hard work. And after we thought we were in the clear, they came back again, a second time, a third time. What they asked for was a sea change of attitude around here, a lot of it about assessment. The teams are smart enough to know you can't just satisfy them on paper without making some real structural changes. Part of it for us was hiring Fabio Escobar in his position, and we said this shall be the Middle States guru at this college.

Q: What about the perception of the community that the college is still a place of patronage?

A: A perception that's that strong of any institution is hard to change. You don't change it overnight. And no president can change it on his own or her own. I can't walk in here and say, "Listen, we're not going to hire anybody anymore." If this was the CEO of a company, he or she would walk in and say, "This is how it's going to be. I'm hiring this person, I'm firing those four and from now on they'll be no cousins and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers who work here. Done. Sorry." That's not where we were. You gotta work at it and hire people on their merits.

Q: Can you provide some of your impressions of incoming president Dan Hocoy.

A: I'm happy to. We've spoken twice. I think he's the perfect guy for the job in the history of ECC right now.

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Q: What in his make up or background suggests that?

A: First of all, he comes with a clean slate so to speak. He comes in here with a great record. He and I talked a little bit about our strategic plan here. Believe it or not he talked about ECC Excels. Somebody is reading it. Imagine that. He had some questions about that. He had some questions about operations. Good questions. My first impressions are he's asking the right questions. He wants to be up and ready for September, when school starts. He'll be here most of July and August. What I've read about him is he's got some ideas for enrollment. I was thrilled to see him zeroed in on that, because we're so money dependent on enrollment here. So, yeah, I'm optimistic, I really am. I think he's going to be the perfect guy to carry out the ECC Excels.

Q: Of course, he's coming from a private system, a little bit different from the public world.

A: A little bit? Well, I'm glad they appointed him at SUNY because he had a chance to see how SUNY works when he was down there for two days. I don't know that he'll ask my opinion but I happen to think some fresh ideas, some new ideas are going to be positive around here.

Q: At a recent  County Legislature committee meeting in which you presented ECC's latest budget for consideration, Legislator Patrick Burke raised the issue of whether, as enrollment continues to slide, it might be time to reconsider the college's three-campus model. What is your reaction?

A: While it's emotional and it's got a lot of history behind it, I think if you're going to do justice to the students and the taxpayers it's worth taking a look at. I didn't say it's worth taking a look at merging with NCCC, like somebody said. We have bigger fish to fry right now. Three campuses? Two campuses? One campus? We've always said here our geography is our strength. But it seems to me it's worth the time, the effort and the money to refresh it, to go back and take a look at it in an analytical way, not an emotional way.

Q: Are there some strings left untied that you wish you had been able to get to?

A: Yes. Dorms. I shouldn't say dorms. Student housing. Without a doubt. There were proposals historically when I got here....Talked with some private developers and it just couldn't seem to catch. And I think we need 'em.  I'm in the cafeteria at North Campus. This was three or four years ago. John Goddard, our teacher for ophthalmic, is talking with a table full of students and he calls me over.  Here's a teacher, Mr. Jones. Where you from? Rochester. I said to Goddard, "How many of these kids will go here?"  The teacher says to me, "Mr. Quinn, if you only had dorms, I'd have three busloads of kids out here."

Q: To what degree did the state Comptroller's audit influence your decision to retire?

A: No impact. I point to the fact that if it did, I'd be gone. I finished my contract. I stayed extra. So no, the short answer is no effect on me.

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