About 100 rally to protest cuts to SUNY Potsdam programs, staff

Nov. 9—POTSDAM — Union members and supporters rallied Thursday at SUNY Potsdam against program and staffing cuts at the school.

The demonstration happened on campus in front of the Barrington Student Union. The United University Professions union organized the protest. They represent about 500 members at SUNY Potsdam. Representatives of other unions, including NYSUT and Teamsters, showed up as a show of solidarity. A handful of SUNY Potsdam students also showed up, one of whom held up a sign that said "save the arts."

In September, SUNY Potsdam President Suzanne R. Smith announced a series of tough measures in response to financial woes, which include discontinuing 14 degree programs and considering the closure of two campus buildings. Enrollment at SUNY Potsdam has seen a dramatic decrease from 4,098 students in the fall of 2012 to 2,515 students this semester.

This substantial decline has placed immense financial strain on the institution and has contributed to a $9 million deficit. Smith said last year the college took in revenue of $38 million, but spent $47 million.

The programs being cut include bachelor of arts programs in both theater and dance, both of which used the $60 million performing arts center that opened on campus 10 years ago.

The other eight programs slated for cuts are art history (bachelor of arts), chemistry (bachelor of science), French (bachelor of arts), music performance (master of music), philosophy (bachelor of arts), physics (bachelor of arts) and Spanish (bachelor of arts). The school will keep the biochemistry (bachelor of science), chemistry (bachelor of arts) and the public health bachelor and master of science.

The arts management bachelor's program will be deactivated. That means, according to Interim Provost Alan L. Hersker, "this program will enter into a three-year period in which it cannot accept new students, but will remain as a registered program. During this time, it is expected that a proposal could be developed to either revise the program or recommend its discontinuance."

The speakers were not critical of SUNY Potsdam administrations past or present.

Gouverneur village mayor Ronald P. McDougall spoke and praised the college, saying, "I don't think there's a family in the north country that hasn't been touched by SUNY Potsdam."

Rather, they blame actions taken by the SUNY trustees in Albany and the widening wealth gap between the richest Americans and the poorest, at the expense of the middle class.

UUP chapter president Kevin D. Smith said the wealth gap between rich and poor "is as big as it was in the Gilded Age with the robber barons, or as some would all them, 'captains of industry.'"

"How can potential students pay for college when they can barely pay the rent?" Kowal said during his speech. "It's not that people don't want to go to college. There is no enrollment cliff."

Jennifer K. Mitchell, a SUNY Potsdam English and communication professor who is a UUP member, called Kowal's take on the financial crisis "a more complete narrative" than those who would claim "the college is overspending."

"We're not here because we sought to fight SUNY just for kicks," Mitchell said.

UUP president Frederick E. Kowal blamed the SUNY financial crisis as "manufactured" and blamed actions taken while former governor Andrew M. Cuomo was in office from 2011 to 2021.

"He might be gone, but his fingerprints are all over this manufactured crisis," Kowal said to the crowd. "All our members are united here in the fight here at Potsdam at its critical stage, and this is the battleground, right here at Potsdam."

Smith, who was out of the area on Thursday, sent out a statement where she said she supports "the spirit of this demonstration" but doesn't agree with all of their claims.

"Advocating for the importance of public higher education is something we can all stand behind. While I may not necessarily agree with all of the sentiments expressed today, the spirit of this demonstration, and the desire of faculty and staff to have their concerns heard and understood does not go unappreciated or unnoticed. As we continue to implement our financial stability plan, we will continue to provide information on the next steps in a transparent manner," according to Smith.