Five months into his tenure as president of SUNY-Erie Community College, David Balkin already is making his mark on the struggling school.
He has made two rounds of layoffs totaling 150 positions to “right-size” the college’s staff after years of declining enrollment.
SUNY Erie Community College’s Board of Trustees on Friday approved a second round of layoffs this year, this one affecting up to 60 members of the college’s faculty and administrative unions.
He discontinued several low-performing programs at ECC’s South Campus and is working to “reduce the footprint” of a three-campus college with duplicate programs at each.
And he has been outspokenly transparent about wasteful spending by previous administrations that will take years to recover.
Inevitably, he has ruffled a few feathers in the process.
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“You can’t remove almost 200 people without some challenges,” he says. “But we have a tremendous opportunity to focus on what we do best.”
With perhaps the most difficult work behind him, Balkin is turning to an “exciting” next goal – making ECC a model for the future of community college.
He wants to shift ECC's focus away from general studies spread across three campuses and streamline programs to reflect industry demands – including offering short-term certificate programs for new careers that don't require traditional college degrees.
He wants to focus on programs that provide a pathway to jobs for students by building ties with local employers that are struggling to find workers with in-demand skills.
He wants to step up the college's marketing efforts to attract students in the face of similar programs from competing state schools, like Genesee Community College and Niagara County Community College.
In short, he wants the college to act like “a service industry,” where the customer comes first – and the customers are students and employers.
That's a big change for ECC. To get there will take "a mind shift, a culture shift, but one that will be revolutionary for our region," Balkin said.
Not everyone is thrilled so far. Leaders of the faculty and administrator unions whose members experienced a little over one-third of the layoffs have said Balkin has not invited them to the table yet.
While the labor and clerical unions worked with Balkin to find other county jobs for most of the 90 people affected in their ranks, the Faculty Federation of ECC and the Administrators Association of ECC were put off by a retirement incentive aimed at getting high-paid senior staff to retire to prevent more layoffs. Ultimately, 60 of their positions were cut, mostly part-time and none of them faculty.
Balkin said Provost Adiam Tsegai "has her finger on the pulse of every faculty member" and will work with ECC staff to involve them in future planning.
Balkin and his staff and board have given themselves a year to create a new strategic plan for ECC that will focus on "student-centric" core values that would make it the school of choice for students interested in pursuing careers in high-demand, high-wage fields that are critical to the local economy.
The previous plan, which covered 2016-2021, expired last year and contained random and unrealistic goals – such as reaching a 62% graduation rate for first- and full-time students – that went unmet without a plan for how to accomplish them, said Kathy Callesto, Balkin's new associate vice president of institutional research assessment, accreditation and planning.
To help create and implement a new plan, Balkin is building a new senior team. ECC's senior staff was down to one person – Provost Tsegai – when he started Feb. 2. Now he's filling his cabinet with people who embrace the "students first" focus, including previously neglected roles emphasizing marketing and workforce development.
Balkin promoted Callesto, an architecture professor, to interim associate vice president after observing her abilities for data-driven analysis and planning, he said.
Part of Callesto's work for a new strategic plan will be holding presentations on opening day of classes this fall and spring 2023 to get input from students on what they consider to be core goals, she said. Faculty will also be asked to work together in asking how they and their programs can best serve students rather than being given vague goals that they would strive for as individuals, but not as a team, she said.
Besides Callesto, the board of trustees approved several other members of Balkin's senior team.
Mike Barone, owner of Str84ward Communications and a veteran of college marketing for SUNY-Fredonia State College, will serve as vice president for marketing and communications, an interim, part-time role to elevate ECC's presence while searching for a full-time VP of marketing.
During this year’s budget hearings, several Erie County legislators criticized ECC for its invisibility on their TVs and smart phones and questioned why the competition is doing a better job of marketing.
“I see all these ads for Niagara County Community College and Genesee Community College,” Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, asked in a recent meeting. “Where is ECC?”
Expect to see “SUNY Erie” ads showing up on TV, social media and billboards in the near future, Balkin said.
Balkin also promoted ECC psychology professor Erickson Neilans to vice president for enrollment management, which will include supporting pathways from high school to ECC, having students enter college with a two-year plan in place that includes predictable class schedules, and working to bring students together as one big class, a key component in retention.
The trustees also approved making Callesto's interim position permanent and added the role of interim vice president for workforce development to Chris Musialowski’s position as director of the Erie Community College Foundation, the non-profit that supports ECC with fund-raising, community events and student scholarships.
Balkin said ECC has workforce development staff, but no senior leader to oversee their efforts.
"Our workforce development efforts have dwindled in the last few years, and we need to establish a more significant presence in this critical space," he said.
ECC has been working on expanding a couple of successful workforce development programs .
Its automotive technology partnerships with two regional auto dealerships – West Herr Auto and Northtown Auto Group – includes paid co-op experience in those dealers' service departments and guaranteed jobs on completion of the two-year program.
ECC's associate degree program in mechatronics at Northand Workforce Training Center is a model for technical training that serves WNY's need for skilled workers, Provost Adiam Tsegai said.
Mechatronics combines training in mechanical systems, computer, electrical and control systems, technical skills that are the heartbeat of advanced manufacturing. Alumni of the program have been hired into $60,000-a-year jobs at age 19 or 20, said ECC board chair Danise Wilson.
"Employers can't get enough of these students, and we are seeing that many are continuing their education while working," Tsegai said.
ECC trustees approved a program to create a pipeline into the program by allowing Buffalo high school seniors who need additional credits to graduate to take two online introductory mechatronics classes while still in high school, then matriculate into the associate's degree program held at Northland.
Balkin's efforts to reconfigure ECC' will include more such programs that reach out to high school students, provide the tools they need to pursue a well-paying career and feed the needs of the regional workforce – whether those programs are held on an ECC campus or not.
He has called ECC's three-campus model "unsustainable," but he says it will take a couple years to determine ECC's future footprint.
Either way, ECC's offerings and all three campuses may look very different down the road, and Balkin stresses that the new role of colleges is not to be a convenient location close to home but a valuable learning experience that will lead to a high-paying job.
"I'd love to see an ECC campus next to every McDonald's but that's just not realistic," he said.
In his previous trouble-shooting role at Ivy Tech College in South Bend, Ind., Balkin said some students traveled 30 minutes to two hours to attend classes because they knew it would pay off down with a well-paying career down the road.
"When we talk about the importance of SUNY-Erie remaining relevant and providing value, it's not just to our students, it's also to the community," he said. "Our community is made up of all our business partners, all the companies that are looking hire people or provide an opportunity for their employees to upskill."
"It's almost like a client-centered approach, and what I think we lost track of is that we have two primary clients, our students and the people who hire them."