Dr. Donald Astrab resigned as president of Nassau Community College this summer following a faculty uprising that saw two votes of no-confidence in his leadership and monthly protests at meetings of the college’s Board of Trustees. Astrab had repeatedly antagonized the faculty with his autocratic leadership style.
“It was apparent he had no experience of shared governance and no desire to learn about it,” said Kimberley Reiser, chair of the Academic Senate.
Astrab took over in November 2009 amid high expectations after serving as vice president of academic affairs and chief learning officer at Brevard Community College in Florida. However, Nassau CC faculty quickly became concerned about the course he was charting. Located in Garden City, Long Island, Nassau CC has 24,000 students, making it the largest community college campus in the SUNY system.
Actions that alarmed the Nassau CC faculty included:
* the mass firing of 39 full-time faculty members;
* a refusal to fill full-time faculty lines left open by retirements and an increased reliance on lower-paid, less secure part-timers;
increases in class size;
* reductions in students services including student advisement;
* the elimination of many programs and course offerings, including course sections that were fully enrolled;
* taking away the campus e-mail addresses of emeritus professors;
* repeatedly vetoing decisions by the school’s Academic Senate, which is comprised of faculty, students and administrators;
* supporting pay raises of as much as 30% for senior Nassau CC administrators.
Astrab’s leadership style is perhaps a more extreme version of one that has become increasingly common in academia, in an era of widespread budget cuts to public higher education and stepped-up attacks on shared governance and faculty autonomy. To Nassau CC faculty, Astrab’s actions were intolerable, leading them to mount a year-long campaign to have him replaced.
Astrab’s dismissal of 39 full-time faculty at the end of the Spring 2011 semester galvanized faculty opposition to Astrab, said Reiser, who noted that there had already been “grave concern” about the president’s leadership.
Nassau CC has had a promotional system in which temporary full-time faculty who teach four consecutive semesters can then be moved onto a probationary line starting with their fifth semester at the school. The move to the probationary line is contingent on the faculty member receiving positive evaluations and approval by their department. Once on this probationary line at Nassau CC, a faculty member is on track to be considered for tenure after completing five years of teaching. This system is not spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement, says union head Debra DeSanto, president of the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers (NCCFT), but it is a long-standing past practice that goes back decades.
“People moved here and left other jobs to be here and now the rules of the game have changed,” said DeSanto who noted that the union has appealed the college’s action to the New York State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).
Astrab justified the 39 firings as a necessary cost-saving measure. But when the NCCFT said it was willing to make $4 to $5 million dollars in financial concessions in exchange for the reinstatement of the 39 dismissed faculty members and guarantees of faculty job security, Astrab spurned their offer.
“It spelled out that money really wasn’t the issue,” said DeSanto, who saw the number of full-time faculty at Nassau CC decline by 12%, from 758 to 668, during Astrab’s tenure.
Faced with Astrab’s intransigence, Nassau CC’s faculty mobilized to have him ousted. The first step came when a caucus of all 30 department chairs on campus approved a resolution calling on the Academic Senate to pass a resolution of no-confidence in Astrab.
“When 30 chairs come together and say this is a serious problem, the faculty responded to that,” said Lynn Mazzola, chair of the Accounting and Business Administration Department and leader of the chairs’ caucus.
Nassau CC’s Academic Senate has a little over 100 members, with 70% chosen by faculty, 20% by students and 10% by the administration. The resolution of no-confidence passed overwhelmingly with only the administration’s representatives voting against it. Astrab subsequently vetoed the Academic Senate’s vote of no-confidence, a move that did not improve his relations with Nassau CC faculty.
“The President was basically vetoing our opinion of him,” Reiser said.
A second vote of no-confidence came in September 2011 from the faculty as a whole: 500 took part in a mass meeting that approved a no-confidence motion with 89% support.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES
As faculty opinion consolidated in opposition to Astrab, faculty governance and union leaders turned their focus to the monthly meetings of the Board of Trustees. Each SUNY community college has its own autonomous Board of Trustees, whose members are chosen in equal number by the governor and the local county.
Like many Nassau CC faculty, Reiser and DeSanto have ties to the school that go back for decades. The two women stayed in close communication with their colleagues throughout the developing conflict, using off-campus e-mail addresses and department-level liaisons who spread the word about how to get involved.
“When Kimberly and I started going to the board meetings, it was just the two of us,” DeSanto told Clarion. “Then there were 30, then 50, then hundreds.”
The Nassau CC’s Board of Trustees, dominated by politically connected businessmen and lawyers with minimal experience in higher education, initially expressed strong support for Astrab. But as both the protests and the controversies mounted, trustees’ support for Astrab began to waver. The final straw, Reiser said, was Astrab’s arbitrary decision to slash reassigned time for officers of the Academic Senate. Astrab apparently decided that the way to solve his problems with faculty was to hobble the work of their representatives – but the board did not agree. At its monthly meeting in June 2012, the Board reversed Astrab’s reassigned time policy. “That was like a vote of no-confidence,” said Reiser.
On July 30, 2012, the Board announced Astrab’s resignation, with the outgoing president to receive a $337,000 severance package. Nassau CC Executive Vice President Kenneth Saunders was named acting lead officer, and a search for a new president is underway.
“Because governance and the union joined hands, we made this happen,” Reiser said. “You can’t get a more powerful combination than that.”