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SUNY Potsdam’s president resigns; concerns raised about future

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POTSDAM — Saying the “time is right for new leadership,” SUNY Potsdam President John F. Schwaller announced Tuesday his decision to step down from the college’s top position.

Few details about the surprise announcement were released by the college, and Mr. Schwaller declined to respond to questions about his resignation, effective July 31.

The news has prompted questions about whether officials at SUNY Central, Albany, will try to save money by having one president oversee SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam. Mr. Schwaller’s annual salary is $193,600.

That concept has drawn strong opposition from SUNY Canton officials, but less resistance from SUNY Potsdam.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said she’s concerned the neighboring SUNY colleges will be left without a permanent president. Carli C. Schiffner is serving as SUNY Canton’s interim president and the college has not been authorized to launch a search for a new one.

“I was very surprised to hear the announcement,” Ms. Ritchie said. “I continue to have concerns about both colleges. Now that there’s no permanent leadership at either of the colleges, that’s a real concern for me.”

In a three-page letter to his colleagues, Mr. Schwaller, 64, said leaving the post he’s held since March 2006 will allow the college to progress during a challenging financial time.

“The financial status of SUNY Potsdam is stable, yet fragile,” he wrote. “As a result of the new budget reality caused by the downturn in the state and national economy, the campus will be even more dependent on enrollment, and thus must focus and redouble efforts on recruitment and retention of undergraduate and graduate students.”

During an afternoon press conference, SUNY Potsdam College Council Chairman Roger B. Linden and College Provost Margaret E. Madden said it was premature to discuss whether the college will ask SUNY Central officials to allow the college to launch a search for a new president.

Mr. Linden said he will call a special meeting of the seven-member College Council to discuss the development and it would be “inappropriate” to speculate about possible decisions.

“We will certainly be having discussions about it,” he said. “The next formal step is to advise the chancellor that we have a vacancy.”

Mr. Linden said he had heard “musings” from Mr. Schwaller about possibly resigning from his job, but learned only Monday that the decision had been reached.

He said Mr. Schwaller’s nearly seven years at the college is longer than most presidents serve.

Ms. Madden, who also serves as the college’s vice president of advancement, said she was not expecting Mr. Schwaller’s resignation.

“I was surprised, but in higher education, these transitions happen,” she said.

Ms. Madden credited the president for initiating the “hand-crafted” education concept, developing the college’s arts program and spearheading the new performance arts building.

His departure will not jeopardize the college’s core mission, she said.

“The fundamental quality of the campus has remained the same for decades,” Ms. Madden said. “I don’t think a change in leadership will change that.”

Mr. Schwaller said it’s important for SUNY Potsdam to capitalize on the shared services initiative with neighboring SUNY Canton, which he said already has been a successful model for the entire SUNY System.

The two colleges now share some staff members, including a joint financial officer, a shared military and veterans services coordinator and an interlibrary loan specialist. The campuses are working to consolidate business and information systems in major areas such as registrar and accounts payable.

“We need to change the conversation from one focused on individuals and personalities to one focused on opportunities, a change from arguments about what campuses have done or have been in the past to what the future will look like,” Mr. Schwaller wrote.

Shared services offer a “unique opportunity” to reduce overhead costs through a single administration shared by Potsdam and Canton, Mr. Schwaller said in his letter.

Ms. Schiffner said she’s enjoyed working with Mr. Schwaller over the past several months as the two colleges continue to work together to share services and create efficiencies.

“I applaud President Schwaller’s accomplishments and leadership during his tenure,” Ms. Schiffner said in an email message. “He has been a leader in our efforts to share services and has helped SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton to become, in many ways, a terrific example of the tremendous benefits of cooperation and teamwork.”

SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher commented on the news in a written statement.

“President Schwaller has been a partner in our shared service initiatives and his contributions have helped make the collaboration between Potsdam and Canton a model for the entire SUNY system,” she said. “The Potsdam campus has continued to build on its reputation in the performing arts and has developed new momentum in the sciences during his tenure. I thank President Schwaller for his outstanding service and wish him the best as he continues his academic pursuits. Moving forward, SUNY will work to ensure a smooth transition and continued leadership at Potsdam.”

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