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NCCC's new president: SUNY's "Mr. Fix It" takes on the ultimate challenge

Murabito brings new attitude to troubled college
Posted at 6:23 PM, Dec 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-22 18:24:06-05

An investigation by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team earlier this year revealed scandals related to possible bid-rigging of multi-million dollar contracts and the mishandling of sexual assaults on campus.

In April, President James P. Klyczek -- the longest-serving president in NCCC history -- resigned after it was revealed he made disparaging remarks about a sexual assault victim. William J. Murabito was named interim president in September. This is his first television interview.

As controversy raged this year in Niagara County, Bill Murabito was living a comfortable life in picturesque Saratoga Springs -- recently retired from the State University of New York system after more than 50 years on the job, where he gained a reputation as Albany's "Mr. Fix-It" by serving as interim president at four different community colleges.
 
CHARLIE SPECHT/REPORTER: “Did you ever think you'd end up here?”
 
WILLIAM MURABITO/INTERIM PRESIDENT: “No, I was happy...I was retired and I was enjoying myself.”
 
But state administrators called the turnaround specialist earlier this year with the ultimate challenge -- turning around Niagara County Community College, which was engulfed in not one, but two major scandals that cost the old president his job.
 
SPECHT: “What happened here? Why do you think things went off the rails here so quickly that they needed to bring in a new president?”
 
MURABITO: “I don't want to criticize the president because he did a lot of good things and moved the campus in many ways but but he had been here a long time and I think when you're at someplace a long time, often times you have to make difficult decisions. So there was a lot of pent-up feelings here and I think it caught up with the president.”
 
SPECHT: “What is the morale around here?”
 
MURABITO: “When I came it was pretty negative. There was a lot of mistrust, they didn't feel part of the campus. They felt like they were marginalized.”
 
But faculty and taxpayers say that is starting to change under Murabito.
 
“I think that all of us are impressed,” said English professor Elizabeth Sachs. “Step by step, good things are happening.”

“I think he seems to be a compassionate person who puts the community college first,” Sanborn taxpayer Rosemary Warren said of Murabito. “I would hire him in a heartbeat.”
 
But Murabito makes it clear he does not want to be at NCCC long-term.
 
“No, no...I'm here to set it up for the next person,” he said. 
 
Part of that is a continued housecleaning. Besides Klyczek, other notable departures are Fran Giles, the security director who was criticized for his response to the alleged sexual assaults on campus, and Luba Chliwniak, who served as officer-in-charge of NCCC after klyczek's abrupt resignation but who was unpopular with many members of the faculty.
 
But some holdovers from the Klyczek era remain, like Mike Dombrowski, Bill Schickling and Julia Pitman -- three of Klyczek's vice presidents who were named in the scandals.
 
SPECHT: “Do those people have a future here?”
 
MURABITO: “Well, it all depends on the person. You come in with the idea that you can trust these people and work with these people. But at some point, there may be a divide, a separating of our ways. They may go either by choice or be asked to leave.”
 
Murabito has introduced an action plan covering all operations of the college. He seems to have  perfected the subtle art of telling board members why they are doing things the wrong way, but in a way that makes them want to fix those problems without becoming defensive.
 
His approach is one of radical transparency.

“When you're not transparent, people feel that you're holding back and you're holding something back that might be harmful to them,” Murabito said. 
 
But don't mistake Murabito's soft-spoken, grandfatherly demeanor for weakness. He knows just when to use his power as he did at Rockland Community College in 2003.
 
The college was in the midst of a tumultuous time that gained national headlines when SUNY appointed Murabito as president but the sitting president refused to leave, which created an awkward power battle with dueling presidents.
 
MURABITO: “So I took over. I locked the other president out. We had the sheriff's department change all the locks so you couldn't get into the office, and I cut off his payments. So I established myself as president but the board never recognized me as the president.”

SPECHT: “You locked him out?”
 
MURABITO: “Yeah. (Laughs.)”
 
SPECHT: “Something had to be done?”

MURABITO: “Something had to be done so I took the initiative.”

Murabito uses that example to make the point that everything at NCCC is -- as he puts it -- "solvable" -- and that learning from its painful and very public missteps can actually strengthen the college for the future.
 
MURABITO: “Who would work in an organization that says, 'No, we don't want change. We don't want to get better.' They want to get better. Now we have to develop a pathway for them to do that.”
 
Murabito said NCCC should have a permanent president in place by the end of next year. 

Click here to watch the full 37-minute interview with Murabito.