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The Editorial Board: Proposal to move ECC library should be evaluated on its own merits

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Buffalo and Erie County Public Library exterior (copy) (copy)

A proposal to move the library of ECC's City Campus into the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library should be considered separately from the apparently related suspension of college President David Balkin. 

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It’s unclear how the suspension of David Balkin is related to discussions he had about moving the library of Erie Community College’s city campus into available space in the nearby public library, though that seems to be the case. But whatever related issues those discussions may have provoked, the much is true: The conversation is absolutely worthwhile.

Not everyone thinks so, of course, and fair enough. But what appears to have been a knee-jerk response by faculty and students is puzzling, even given the insular nature of the academic world.

Balkin has been president of SUNY Erie Community College for less than a year, and he has quickly confronted urgent matters that threaten the institution’s ability to meet its mandate. His responses, including job cuts, are sometimes painful, though few with an understanding of the college’s challenges would doubt their necessity.

Indeed, a recent draft report by education consultant RPK Group, laid bare a number of problems, including a bloated administrative structure and an unwillingness to drop programs that drew little student interest. Those issues and others, including declining enrollments, have strangled revenues.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz put it this way in June as he submitted the college’s proposed 2023 budget to county legislators: “After the 2022-2023 fiscal year, the college will be left with no options and be forced to make increasingly significant cuts to operations, programs and staff,” he wrote in a message to legislators. “The actions taken during the next two academic years will dictate whether SUNY Erie is a strong, vibrant part of our community or not.”

It is within that context Balkin was exploring moving the City Campus into the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Under the proposal, the college library would “co-locate” within the Central Library, filling space on the second floor of the main branch of the library system.

“The possibility of moving the library at SUNY Erie’s City Campus into the Central Library would have included its staff as well,” said John Spears, director of the public library. “The library would maintain an identity as the SUNY Erie library within the Central Library.”

The problem – part of it, anyway – is that many students and faculty objected. They wanted to keep their own library, and not have to walk the three blocks to the Central Library. Like many of us, they don’t want things to change. But that’s the thing about life – especially life under financial stress: Things do change. They have to.

There’s a lot that remains uncertain about this plan, beginning with the reason for it. Will it save the ECC money or resources that can be used to improve the experience of the college’s of students? Will it benefit the county taxpayers whose educational dollars have been poorly managed by the college? What would be the real-world implications of a library three blocks from the city campus. (You could walk a good distance to reach the library on some large college campuses.)

It’s obviously important to know whether – and, if so, how – a particular conversation about this issue led ECC trustees to suspend Balkin while an independent investigation proceeds. What we know is that he has been an asset to a college that was in desperate need of direction.

He has moved in a thoughtful way to eliminate poorly attended programs while forging connections with businesses that are desperate for trained employees. Among them is Erie County Medical Center. His focus has been to provide students with an education that will lead to well paying jobs. That’s a different, more practical approach than one whose main goal has been to maintain the poorly managed, three-campus college as is. That ship has sailed.

That’s why the issues behind Balkin’s suspension need to be considered separately from an out-of-the-box response to the financial threat continuing to hang over ECC. This creative proposal would be worthy of continued consideration regardless of who occupied the president’s office. Whatever link exists between this proposal and Balkin’s suspension, the idea must be evaluated on its own terms, without baggage of a mysterious personnel matter.

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