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CCAC leader's grades sinking

| Wednesday, June 7, 2006

In his three years as president of Community College of Allegheny County, Stewart Sutin has put out more fires than a California firefighter in the dead of summer.

Now the heat is getting closer to the beleaguered president.

"There has to be the right president, right administration, the right programs to offer for the college to be successful," CCAC board member Jim Flynn said Tuesday. "There are areas where we have to get better.

"I'm not going to identify one individual or one group."

Sutin has withstood complaints from faculty and the County Council about the school's declining enrollment, his $20,600 bonus last year, improvements to Byers Hall and moving expenses for senior administrators. The faculty union has withdrawn in disgust from his group of advisers called the President's Council and filed a grievance against the college, claiming Sutin violated its contract by making cuts in staff without consulting the group.

But Friday he endured the latest threat to his presidency. The school's Board of Trustees did an about-face, approving a special audit and adopting the state Open Records Law to restore the public's confidence in the institution. The move came just 11 days after college officials under Sutin's direction had withheld release of its budgets, causing a public outcry.

Sutin, however, maintains he's still the man to turn the college around.

"The short end of the story is it's not shaken my confidence," he said. "It's made me tougher, stronger and more determined."

Sutin, 61, the son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn. His father crossed the Atlantic from Russia at age 14 in the steerage section of a ship. His mother Lillian came from Poland. She became a schoolteacher, his father a pharmacist.

As a boy, Sutin played stickball and basketball. He shoveled snow off the basketball courts at dawn to shoot hoops before the big kids arrived. While his friends were Dodgers fans, he rooted for the New York Giants because he admired Willie Mays.

Sutin specialized in college in Latin American studies but saw few opportunities in academia. He accepted an offer from Chemical Bank.

"It was a ticket to get some know-how and establish a career that would keep me linked to Latin America," he said.

Sutin worked as a banker around the world, eventually coming to Pittsburgh with Mellon Bank. While here, he became a mentor to underprivileged youth, became familiar with CCAC and applied for the job as its president.

"This isn't like any other area of higher education," he said. "It's a way of giving back to the community by way of positioning the college to the community."

Upon his arrival, Sutin faced stagnant state and county funding, which makes up most of the college's $92.5 million annual budget. It expects to end its 2005-06 fiscal year June 30 with a budget shortfall of $300,000, forcing the school to tap its reserves.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is the college's declining enrollment -- from 19,143 students in the fall of 2004 to 18,436 last fall. The 3.7 percent decrease was the biggest drop for any college or university in the region.

The president responded by cutting 42 positions at a savings of $1.35 million in the first year and $1.85 million a year in subsequent years.

"Members of the Allegheny campus community have now dubbed this the Alka Seltzer administration," said John Dziak, president of Local 2067 of the American Federation of Teachers. "It dissolves right in front of your eyes, goes fizz and goes flat. The longer it's in action, the less there is of it."

Dziak said the college needs to focus more on increasing enrollment. Sutin agrees that is the ultimate solution to the school's financial problems and says the college is trying to do a better job of keeping the students it has and attracting others.

The renovation of the former Siemens property in North Fayette into the West Hills Center is another key to improving enrollment.

Costs for the project have soared from $7 million to $10 million because of transportation-related requirements by North Fayette officials. As a result, the college has been forced to transfer $6 million from a fund for building a science building on the Allegheny Campus to the West Hills Center.

CCAC pulled 13 employees from the center last week after North Fayette officials asked it to first get an occupancy permit.

The administration bungled the West Hill project, Dziak argues.

"They didn't plan well, and they got stuck," he said.

Sutin said he cannot anticipate North Fayette's transportation concerns until college officials meet with the township supervisors. Shifting the money from the science building was necessary to avoid borrowing money for the West Hills Center, he said.

The college suffered another black eye last year when its accrediting agency gave it a warning for failing to meet two of its 14 standards. The school was cited for shortcomings in the way it assesses itself and student learning. CCAC hopes to learn later this month whether it successfully addressed those concerns.

Sutin staved off some criticism by announcing last month that he would not accept a bonus this year as a cost-cutting measure. There is no indication, however, whether he would have received one. The board has yet to complete a performance evaluation.

"He's accomplishing a lot," said CCAC board chairman Paul Whitehead. "I don't want to get too far out on this because the trustees haven't been polled on his evaluation."

The most public outrage over Sutin's administration has been over his refusal to promptly release the college's budgets.

Sutin acknowledged his error and said he is adjusting to the change from the cloistered world of high finance to the open world of public higher education.

"These are not the kind of things we had to do in industry -- that full 360-degree transparency," he said.

His biggest challenge, he said, is finding enough time to be with his students. He also has had to adjust to the slow pace of decision-making at the college with its need to involve various groups.

"It's a much more labored process in higher education than private industry," he said.

The foundation of Sutin's support already appears to have cracked. Flynn, who is county manager, pointedly has failed to echo his past support of Sutin, and County Council President Rich Fitzgerald said Sutin would get a "mixed review."

"He's going through a rough transition right now," Fitzgerald said. "He's trying to manage it as best he can."

The council's government reform committee will meet with Sutin in the next few weeks.

Sutin, meanwhile, maintains he can get the college back on track.

"We don't have any alternative," he said. "We have to deliver the goods."

Additional Information:

Details

Stewart Sutin

Occupation: President of Community College of Allegheny County.

Salary: $214,048.

Residence: Fox Chapel.

Family: Wife, Rowna; sons, Matthew, 32, and Reuben, 24.

Background: Previously was senior vice president and head of the international department of Mellon Bank. He also worked at the Bank of Boston and Chemical Bank.

Education: Bachelor's degree in history from Penn State University; master's degree from Georgetown University; doctorate in Latin American history from the University of Texas.

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