Hefner’s leadership lifts campus spirits

OBSERVER Photo State University of New York at Fredonia Interim President Dr. Dennis Hefner greets Fredonia schools Superintendent Jeffrey Sortisio at a recent Rotary meeting.

Upon making his return to the State University of New York at Fredonia in the summer, Interim President Dr. Dennis Hefner was tasked with assisting the institution in three key areas: building enrollment, helping with the budget and identifying a new president. It was not long before another priority was quickly added to his list.

At the first cabinet meeting he attended with the vice presidents in July, Hefner learned the campus needed to be reaccredited, something that is supposed to take place every eight years. “That’s a fourth (item) that I’ve been working on,” he told the Dunkirk-Fredonia Rotary Club late last month, joking that he would not go into the extensive details regarding the process.

Hefner’s wit and, more importantly, his leadership could not have come at a better time for the university and our community. Since taking the reins, he has been focused on repairing relationships on campus while working to right the ship when it comes to the finances.

Though New York state’s lack of increased aid to all SUNY locations in the last decade is well documented and certainly a factor, tough decisions were lacking in recent years that led to a deficit that surpassed $10 million. For all the positive strides and connections former university President Virginia Horvath made while working with local organizations and non-profits, she often shied away from taking unpopular positions with staff and faculty.

That is an impossible way to lead.

As Hefner nears the five-month mark of his second stint at the university’s helm — his first lasted 16 years — there appears to be an upbeat spirit as the students, staff and faculty prepare for the one-week break for Thanksgiving that begins this weekend. Some of this sentiment comes from a comfort element of those who were working there his first time around. His enthusiasm, energy and optimism are some other factors.

There is little doubt Hefner is enjoying what he is doing, but he has not been secretive about the fact his greatest priority is finding a successor. Besides having a committee of 20 members that includes College Council members, faculty and alumni, a firm has been hired to assist in the national search for the next leader.

“I’m hoping we can get the name of the finalist … in early spring,” Hefner said, noting it is a confidential process and names of prospective candidates will not be released. “That is the intent at this time and it is a pretty big process.”

As for dealing with dwindling enrollment numbers, Hefner recently announced a plan that aims to recruit new students from the west, not the east. Areas being targeted include Erie, Pa., Pittsburgh and Cleveland-Akron. Those students, he said, will be eligible for a “good neighbor” scholarship that’s similar to those that have been offered for years by the Keystone State.

“Pennsylvania has been a good neighbor stealing New York students from us,” he said. “Well, we’re going to be a good neighbor right back.”

Of course, the interim president’s greatest claim to fame here revolves around numerous building projects. His vision, from 1997 to 2012, changed the landscape at the university through the construction of top-notch new facilities, including the natatorium, as well as state-of-the-art structures. Unsurprisingly, he has set his sights on some other projects by securing $50 million from the SUNY Construction Fund over the next six years.

Those dollars will help in full renovations at main classroom buildings that include Fenton and Thompson Halls as well as the completion of the second floor of Houghton Hall, which has been under construction in recent years.

“It’s good for campus, good for our overall budget,” Hefner said, noting those construction funds bring equipment money that benefits the academics. “There’s going to be a lot of construction continuing on campus for the next six years. That’s my gift to the new president.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.


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