When an educator or an administrator spends decades at the same school, people around that person invariably speak of what he or she has done to shape the school’s culture. In the case of Stuart Steiner, president of Genesee Community College, that influence is tangible.
Steiner helped pick the school colors, blue and gold. He helped pick the school’s mascot, the cougar. Nearly every aspect of the college bears the mark of the second president it has ever had.
Steiner joined the college at its inception in 1967 as dean of students and has served in its top post since 1975. During nearly 35 years as president, Steiner, 72, has helped the college expand from a Batavia storefront to a growing campus with six satellite locations and innovative academic programs such as a travel and tourism degree.
He also has pushed education into settings where it had not been before, piloting a program that allowed inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility to complete degrees by taking courses at the prison.
Steiner has been a constant advocate of community colleges. He keeps his framed degree from Baltimore Junior College on his office wall beside master’s degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, a law degree from the University of Baltimore and a Columbia doctorate.
Steiner has been involved in nearly every aspect of the community college. He has served, at one point or another, as chief student service officer and finance officer and has taught classes on higher education and the community college at Rochester Institute of Technology and SUNY Buffalo. A few times a week he treks down to the student lounge to play pingpong with students.
"He knows what’s going on here from just about every perspective," says Larene Hoelcle, vice president of human resources and planning, who has worked with Steiner since 1979. "That’s what makes him such an effective leader and supervisor."
When the opportunity arose for Steiner to leave his post at Hartford Community College in Maryland and serve as a consultant for the newly forming GCC, he viewed it as akin to getting in on the ground floor of a new business.
He was in his second year of academia after six years working in social services and juvenile courts in Baltimore when the president of his college was selected to lead GCC. Steiner was first asked to serve as a consultant in developing the core of academic programs, but before long moved to Batavia full time and became dean of students.
Though today it has an enrollment of almost 7,200 and an operating budget of $32.6 million, the college’s first home was modest.
"We were in a building that had been a store, and then they designed a temporary facility which is now the county building on Main Street (in Batavia)," Steiner says. "But it was the kind of thing that was exciting, that most people don’t ever get to appreciate."
Programs were basic at first, centered on providing what students wanted and what the college could afford to do. Courses included the liberal arts core students would need to transfer to a four-year school, mixed with remediation offerings for students who had fallen behind in high school.
As GCC grew, courses evolved. Steiner helped establish a group that spent summers looking at new programs other community colleges were offering across the country.
With two neighboring giants in Monroe Community College and Erie Community College, GCC would need to offer something that set it apart, Steiner says.
"Because we’re isolated, we’re always looking for programs that are unique and would attract people," Steiner says.
What the committee found was a need for a travel and tourism program, which became the first of its kind in the state, though now the program is a staple of many community colleges. GCC also started one of the first model-making programs in the country; it remains one of just a handful today, teaching students how to make replicas of development projects or buildings.
It was Steiner’s ability to foresee academic trends and the changing needs of students that made GCC a trailblazer in these programs, says Melvin Wentland, who has served on the college’s board of trustees since 1991.
"He is probably the single most responsible person for the evolution of the college the way it is," Wentland says. "He’s a total visionary, ahead of the curve on programs like satellite campuses and housing at the college, which was rare when we first started it."
In 1971, Steiner saw an opportunity to expand the college’s offerings to a setting that traditionally had been off limits. For years he had tried to start a program for inmate education at Attica Correctional Facility, though officials there were not interested. But after 39 people died in riots that year, including 10 guards and other employees, the prison’s administrators welcomed the program as part of more sweeping changes.
The program GCC developed was the first in the state, possibly even the first in any maximum-security prison to offer full degrees, Steiner says. Though the program ended in the mid-1990s when the state and federal government withdrew financial aid for prisoners, Steiner says the initiative typified the kind of work GCC has done.
"It worked out so well because we had a young faculty who believed in what they did," Steiner says. "They couldn’t just walk through the prison doors and start teaching, either. They had to spend a lot of time going through security checks, being patted down. I have a great deal of admiration for the faculty who did that."
The prison program was so popular that one inmate even petitioned to stay two months past his scheduled release date so he could finish his courses. Steiner says the dedication of the college’s professors and the personalized program that made it a success are still two of GCC’s major drawing points.
Steiner has taken an active role in hiring and tries to find professors with the same dedication as those who had to walk through layers of security to teach in a prison full of violent criminals. The result is a cohesive group of teachers, free of the gamesmanship that sometimes prevails at other colleges, he says.
"Any college that has faculty do 100 percent of what their contract says and nothing more won’t be excellent," Steiner says. "People here are always going a step or two beyond to help students."
Respect also is a cornerstone of the college’s philosophy-and a feeling that emanates from Steiner’s office. GCC has a formal policy on respect approved by its board. Students have picked up on the idea as well, starting their own respect campaign to recognize fellow students for showing respect on campus.
"He treats all people with consideration and respect and expects us all to do the same," Hoelcle says. "That sets a nice tone for the whole college."
When the college first went about building its campus at the edge of Batavia, there was a conscious decision to limit the number of expansive lecture halls that typify larger institutions, to keep the focus on students. There are only two large halls, and the remainder of classrooms seat 24 to 32 students.
"That was an important decision from the beginning," Steiner says. "Even if we wanted to be greedy as we’re growing enrollment and put 40 students in a classroom, we couldn’t do it. And that’s not by shortcoming but by plan."
Steiner says he always has aimed to make college an experience that goes beyond academics. In the mid-1980s the college took six acres of its property and declared it excess so it could be sold to a developer who built housing. With the housing in place, GCC extended its outreach to an international pool of students looking for inexpensive American education.
Because GCC is a rural college with only tenuous connections to the larger Buffalo and Rochester, increasing the diversity of the student population has been a priority for Steiner. GCC has 100 international students from 30 countries.
"Some of the students who come from the rural areas have not seen or met people from other backgrounds," Steiner says. "It adds to the educational experience of all students to have that diversity, and without the housing we couldn’t have done that."
Growing the college
Steiner says he cannot recall a time in his 35 years when the college was not growing. Its physical space, programs and enrollment all have gotten larger over the years.
The college is having one of its best enrollment years: An 8 percent increase helped push total enrollment to 7,200, largest in school history. The college has new turf fields for soccer and lacrosse and renovated baseball and softball fields as well.
Across the street from the main campus, the nearly completed Batavia Medical and Technical Park will house the GCC nursing program, which has grown by 70 percent in the last year. The park is owned by the Genesee County Economic Development Center, built to house companies in emerging health care fields such as biotechnology and telemedicine.
GCC is also building an art gallery in connection with its theater-which is named for Steiner-and is opening a campus center in Lima, Livingston County. It has another Livingston center in Dansville, plus Orleans County centers in Albion and Medina and Wyoming County centers in Warsaw and Arcade.
Despite cuts in state funding that all state institutions have shared equally, Steiner says things are looking up. The recession forced many people back to school to learn new trades or acquire skills, he says. Now 60 percent of all undergraduate students in the state attend community colleges.
"This year everyone is talking about the big increases in enrollment for SUNY (four-year) colleges, but those are nothing compared to the 10 percent increases community colleges are seeing," Steiner says.
President Barack Obama’s pledge to inject $12 billion into the nation’s community colleges also has given an immeasurable boost, Steiner says. The plan would increase the number of graduates by 5 million over the next 11 years, and Steiner says the attention the announcement has brought to these schools already is paying off.
"Even if we didn’t get a penny of that, what he’s done to raise the profile for community colleges, we couldn’t buy that for $50 million," Steiner says.
Support at home
Steiner has had opportunities to leave GCC during his 35 years, he says, but he never saw the merit in jumping from place to place for a slightly bigger paycheck.
"I saw a lot of people who would be offered $10,000 or $20,000 more for a job and they would jump," Steiner says. "My idea is, if you’re at a place you like, your family likes and you have a good board of trustees behind you, there might be other reasons you leave, but not money."
Steiner says he loves his home in Batavia, where he has been involved in community boards, stays active by playing tennis and coached a girls’ Little League team for four years.
The support of the board has been one of his biggest strengths throughout his tenure, Steiner says. Trustees stood behind his plans to grow the college and further his own professional development, even when it meant leaving Batavia to do so.
In 1985 he took leave to serve as SUNY deputy to the chancellor for community colleges, filling the vacant post on an interim basis. In 1997 he spent a year as interim president of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City with the board’s blessing.
"It was great of them to let me go," Steiner says. "They saw it as a chance for professional development that would be helpful for me and therefore helpful for the college too."
The board has recognized Steiner in more direct ways. In 1997 it quietly nominated him for the Northeast Chief Executive Officer Award of the Association of Community College Trustees, calling him into a few meetings to gather information without telling him why. Steiner won the award.
Without the support of the board, Steiner says, he might have gotten restless in his role and eventually looked for other opportunities, but what he had was just too good to leave. He also says he has not thought much about retiring.
"I’m at a stage in my life where each year I could make that assessment, but we always have something exciting going on here," Steiner says. "We never have long periods where things stop and I’m just working in maintenance mode."
Position: President, Genesee Community College
Education: A.A. in liberal arts, Baltimore Junior College (now Baltimore City Community College), 1959; B.S. in business and economics, University of Maryland, 1961; graduate certificate in social work, Florida State University, 1962; MSW, University of Pennsylvania, 1963; J.D., University of Baltimore, 1967; M.A., Columbia University, Teachers College, 1973; Ed.D., Columbia University, Teachers College, 1987
Family: Widowed; daughters Lisa, Susan and Robyn; son David; four grandchildren
Activities: Reading, coin collecting, tennis
Quote (on the possibility of retirement): "I’m at a stage in my life where each year I could make that assessment, but we always have something exciting going on here. We never have long periods where things stop and I’m just working in maintenance mode."
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