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New Clinton Community College president talks about his plans and vision for the school

Dr. John Kowal is the 9th president of Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, NY
Pat Bradley
Dr. John Kowal is the 9th president of Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, NY

On March 8th, the SUNY Board of Trustees formally appointed Dr. John Kowal president of Clinton Community College. He replaces Ray DiPasquale, who left to lead a community college near Boston. Kowal has been serving as the college’s administrator in charge since August 2021 and was previously its vice president for academic affairs. Kowal tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley he wants the position because he knows he can make a difference.

I know I can make a difference for our students here at Clinton Community College and I know I can make a difference for the community. And the reason I say that is we have a tremendous spirit of collaboration at the college. We have fantastic faculty, staff, administrators. We have a great administrative team. So I know that we can make a difference together. And I have had for a very long time a real aspiration for leadership specifically at a community college. Because I know that community colleges play such an important role in higher education across this country and especially in New York state. So it's really those reasons why I was interested in pursuing the position. I also had a absolutely wonderful leader, Ray DiPasquale. When he hired me as vice president, he engage me with local leaders, educational leaders, business leaders, so I got a real taste for what the opportunities would be in leadership if that opportunity ever came my way. And thankfully, it did.

You are not new to Clinton Community College. You have been there for some time.

Yes, yes. I was hired in 2018, starting in fall of 2018 semester as Vice President for Academic Affairs. So I was in that position during Ray DiPasquale’s term as President. I served in that role and so I became very familiar with the programs and with all our educational endeavors at Clinton Community College, and like I just said he, the president also provided me opportunities for outreach, working with local leaders. So I developed a good understanding of the key administrative responsibilities, leadership responsibilities and then I had the opportunity starting this past August to be the Administrator-in-Charge at Clinton Community College. So I got first-hand experience with the role of the president. So I felt very, very well prepared and ready to take on the position if it was offered to me. And thankfully it was.

So Dr. Kowal, does your vision for the college divert in any way from the direction that Clinton Community was taking or are you pretty much planning to keep it moving with the programs that it was going forward with?

Okay, thank you. One important responsibility that President DiPasquale gave me was to lead the effort to develop a new strategic plan for the college. I was chair of the Strategic Planning Committee. We had an excellent process, highly engaged inclusive process of developing a strategic plan. We had it developed and approved by our board of trustees and that plan established our strategic goals for ‘20 to ‘25. And that's the framework within which I'm setting my vision for the college. It's within the framework of that strategic plan. So there is continuity with how the college has been, you know, working over the past years. It's really, and that was an important element too in my pursuit of the opportunity to be president is the need to be, to have that continuity within that strategic plan.

Now, there are some areas, new areas that we are exploring. So it's a matter of having that clear vision established through our strategic plan, but with the knowledge that the environment changes, the needs change. So we need to be adaptive to those changes. So adaptive in order to be able to meet those challenges. So we are making some new initiatives. But again it's within the framework of that strategic plan.

Now one goal of the strategic plan is to address enrollment, recruitment and retention. We want to make sure we can increase our enrollment over the coming years. And one part of that is to look at how we deliver our programs, how we can have a little more flexibility in those programs. So we've added some flexibility kind-of thanks to the pandemic. We had to deliver some of the coursework remotely, so we're developing having some more flexibility in how we deliver our programs and courses. Some courses are offered as flex courses where a student can come in person or do it online. So they have that that choice. We're also this fall semester starting a new model where some of our technology courses will be offered as hybrid courses with some of the content, the lecture content, delivered online with instructor engagement in the online setting. And then having the labs done on three weekends through the semester. So it'll be a Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Three times during the semester. So it's really aggregating it into those concentrated times which we anticipate will be appealing to folks who are working full time. And it's a model that SUNY Empire State has used very successfully. So we're basing it on their experience and applying it to see how we can bring more students into these programs. And it's through engagement with our local industry partners, where we're hearing that we need to be more flexible in how we deliver that type of coursework. So that's an adjustment. That's a change. But it's, again, it's that flexibility within the framework of our strategic plan.

Well with the strategic plan and talking about the vision for the college, obviously that's a collaborative effort, do you have anything that you would like to see move forward,  that now that you're leading the college you can actually maybe put forth that you couldn't before?

Sure. The challenge of having been administrator-in-charge is really the key role of a person in that position is to kind of keep the ship going not make any kind of significant radical changes. And that's the nature of the type of position. Now that I have the opportunity as president, I can engage in some new initiatives. This one that I just described, modifying the way we deliver is a key one. I think we need to look at that even more extensively; how we deliver our education in a way to meet the needs of our students who have a variety of constraints, challenges, etc. The other part that we've been relying on over the past years because of our budget challenges has been, we had a retirement incentive that worked very well. It created some real stability in our budget. But it also created a lot of vacancies, open positions. And at this point we're starting to look at identifying those key positions that are vacant that we will need to fill. It's basically a proactive approach. We have, like I said, positions that we are currently filling that need to be filled. We had put a hold on a number of them over the past years and that's where there's an adjustment being made. I feel now I have the opportunity to take some steps in collaboration with the cabinet and also with the broader community at the college to really move us forward within again, within strategic planning priorities.

One other area that I know is something that we really need to look at very carefully is how we can create more clear pathways for students from high school into our programs at Clinton. And we have an endeavor underway now. I've had three faculty colleagues who are working very well with one of our local schools, Plattsburgh High School, to develop a model for pathways from what's called our college advancement program, where students can take college course while they're in high school, but make it a structured pathway where students can take those courses in a very, very well planned manner. And then they have one year full time study left to pursue at Clinton to get an Associate's degree. And then they can continue on for a bachelor's at SUNY Plattsburgh with whom we have a good dual admission enrollment or other SUNY campuses as well because of the transfer pathway. So it's a more structured approach for students and the early kind of the early sense I'm getting is I'm, I'm feeling very good about this. We've had very, very good conversations with our friends at Plattsburgh High School. So that's an endeavor.

The other area that we will need to look at and this is one that will be a challenge because it involves different elements of the campuses, how we're structured as a college in terms of our academic programs. We've had a significant decrease in the number of full time faculty because of retirements, lower enrolled courses, lower enrolled programs. How do we create the best mix possible within a structure that then is perhaps more well informed in terms of how we can move forward in delivering programs. So that's a conversation that we’ll have across the campus. And that's one that's been kind of waiting in the wings through this pandemic. And getting through the pandemic now we have the opportunity to really look at those possible structural arrangements that might work to the advantage of the students and to our programs.

Dr. Kowal, I believe the college did a veteran's resource initiative. Can you explain that?

Yes. We were approached about one year ago by several folks from the South Burlington Veterans Center seeing whether the college could provide space to the Veterans Center for our veterans from Clinton and surrounding counties to be able to get their services here at the college rather than traveling all the way to South Burlington for their services. And the moment we had the initial conversation I felt that this was something that we really needed to explore very thoroughly. Because personally I felt there was a real burden on many of our veterans to have to make that travel regularly. A burden timewise and financially in many cases. So we formalized it with an agreement with the South Burlington Veterans Center and the Veterans Administration that we would provide a space for one day a week for the counselors to come in and veterans to come and be able to get their services right here on campus rather than making the extra travel. And we had an absolutely wonderful ceremony formally establishing the partnership, establishing a space on campus for veterans to come to and it was also a time at which there was a pinning ceremony for Vietnam veterans. And it was a really moving ceremony and we're just absolutely thrilled to be part of this partnership. And it's our way again, we are a community college, we're providing service to our community, and the veterans are an important part of that community. I know more than that it's our way of expressing our gratitude to our veterans for their service to our country.

And they don't have to be students to...

No, exactly. It can be any veteran that needs the services.

And I’ve got to ask if your office overlooks the lake?

It sure does. It's the most beautiful view one can imagine. It's a special place. It really is a special place.

John Kowal holds a PhD in educational administration from the University at Albany. He earned a master’s in plant and soil sciences from the University of Massachusetts and a BA in biology from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts.