BY RYAN HATHAWAY // FEB. 25. 2014 // 

Curry’s search for a new chief academic officer is entering the home stretch, as the field has been narrowed to the final four candidates.

After the departure of former CAO David Potash last May, the college has worked to identify and hire a new academic leader. Potash, who served as CAO from 2008 to 2013, was named president of Wilbur Wright College in July 2013. Sue Pennini, dean of institutional planning, was appointed interim CAO following Potash’s departure.

A search committee comprised of Curry faculty and administrators has interviewed numerous candidates. Four of them advanced to an additional round of interviews, meeting with faculty, administrators, staff and students on campus. They are:

  • Dr. Steve Ralston, dean of the School of Communication and the Arts at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
  • Dr. David Szczerbacki, who most recently served as president of the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y.
  • Dr. Thomas DeFranco, dean of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut
  • Dr. Marisa Kelly, provost and vice president for educational affairs at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.
Steve Ralston
Steve Ralston
David Szczerbacki
David Szczerbacki

The first three candidates have already visited campus this month for their second-round interviews. Kelly is scheduled to visit campus Thursday and Friday, Feb. 27 and 28.

Ralston has served as dean of the School of Communication and the Arts at Marist College since 2008. He earned his Ph.D. in communication from Indiana University in 1986. Prior to Marist, Ralston was the chair of the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University.

Sczerbacki earned his doctoral degree in policy studies from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1984. He served as a chief academic officer and vice president at St. Mary’s before being named president in 2012. He left that job one year later.

DeFranco received his Ph.D. in math from New York University in 1987. He was first employed by the University of Connecticut in 1991, and took over as dean of the Neag School of Education in 2009. DeFranco taught math at both the Neag School and UConn’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and has served as co-director of the Center for Research in Mathematics Education.

Thomas DeFranco
Thomas DeFranco
Marissa Kelly
Marissa Kelly

Kelly earned her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Kansas in 1994. Prior to joining Ithaca, in 2011, she was the dean and the McQuinn distinguished chair of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., beginning in 2006. Kelly worked at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., as a professor of political science and a dean, from 1994 to 2006.

Criminal Justice Professor Becky Paynich, chairwoman of the Curry faculty and a member of the CAO search committee, said she has been deeply impressed by all of the candidates and their passion for education.

“Every candidate we have considered has voiced a strong commitment to the student experience,” said Paynich, adding that she wants a CAO who can “inspire us” and “someone with the overarching vision of how the pieces fit together.”

While the CAO candidates may be committed to the student experience at Curry, few students on campus are even aware that the college is hiring a new leader of its academic programming. Of the 11 students interviewed for this story, only three even knew the college was searching for a new CAO. Criminal Justice major Ellery O’Hara said he was notified in Professor Peter Hainer’s class. Junior biology major Megan Cerreta, along with senior philosophy and psychology major Adriana Pritchard, said they heard about the search via word of mouth and through the college’s email news blasts. Student Government Association President Corey Theodore did not respond to requests for an interview.

When asked about potential academic improvements that could be made to enhance students’ experiences at Curry, there were a few suggestions. Sophomore nursing majors Amy Barry and Lauren Price were among the students clamoring for the library to expand its hours, to later at night and on the weekends.

Professor Bette Manter, of the Philosophy and Religion Department, said whoever is hired will face significant challenges. The position of CAO is simply a high-responsibility job. Ultimately, Manter said, she wants to see the college hire “the candidate who can hit the ground running.”

Manter prioritized passion along with an ability to seamlessly acclimate and integrate into the “Curry culture.” However, she noted, “The person who might make the most sense for us is the one who says, ‘We need to change.’ ” Manter said she hopes the new CAO will recognize and develop the areas where Curry already succeeds academically, while identifying and solidifying weaknesses.

Paynich declined to provide a timeframe for the actual hire, but seemed confident the process was drawing to a close.

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