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Building on GCC’s impact

James Sunser became Genesee Community College’s president in 2011. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)


James Sunser had a hard act to follow when he took on the roles of president and CEO of Genesee Community College.

He succeeded Stuart Steiner, who had led the college for more than three decades and was at the time of his departure one of the nation’s longest running college presidents. Steiner had served at GCC since the day it opened in 1976, starting as its dean of students.

This year, Sunser, 56, marks his fifth year at GCC, which is embarking on its 50th year. The college is adding two buildings to its campus and celebrating a new study that shows its economic impact on the region has increased 30 percent in the last three years to a total topping $200 million annually.

Sunser is proud to say Steiner remains a great professional ally and a respected friend. Many are now looking ahead to the future of GCC under the direction of its fourth president.

GCC has 315 full-time and 391 part-time employees and operates on a $40 million annual budget. It has more than 6,500 students enrolled.

Sunser was the first in his family to graduate from college. He earned his first degree, an associate of science in computer studies from Onondaga Community College, in 1984. He feels a special affinity for many of the students at GCC because he understands the struggles they face.

“I was a first-generation college student, and many of our students are too. I know what it takes for them to succeed, and I know what it takes for the people I work with every day to play a role in their success,” Sunser says. “It’s my job to do everything I can to put the people at GCC in a place where they can make that type of impact, and that is very fulfilling.”

He sees the role of a community college as vital in driving the economic engine of the region.  A recent independent study by Economic Modeling Specialists International of GCC’s economic impact on the four counties near it—Genesee, Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming—shows 75 percent of the college’s 24,000 living alumni remain in the GLOW region.

The difference the college makes in students’ earning power is significant, a study of the 2013-14 academic year shows. GLOW region workers with an associate degree earn an average of $9,800 more per year than those with only a high school diploma.

It is a challenge for Sunser that some people don’t view college as a solid value.

“The current thinking about the ‘value’ of an education … has been so heavily influenced by questions about affordability, student debt, career prospects of young graduates and the public perception of higher education. These are legitimate issues, and leaders in education have to take them seriously and work very hard to earn trust and be good stewards of public support. But we also need to champion the importance of formal education and lifelong learning in every aspect of our lives,” he says.

“I take very seriously my responsibility to position our college in our community in a way that will best serve everyone seeking an education.”

Sunser was delighted to see the national attention the Rochester area gained when Vice President Joseph Biden mentioned Monroe Community College during the April announcement of President Barack Obama’s plan to expand the two-year tuition-free college initiative. But he does not necessarily feel the plan is right for New York.

“We’re in a unique place. New York has a robust (tuition assistance program) and, partnered with the federal PELL grant, students can go to a community college with little to no cost at all when it is based on economic need,” Sunser says. “We need to extend more options to the middle class. Investments need to be made to make sure community college is available for everybody, all across the financial needs spectrum.”

Investing in GCC

Major investments in the Batavia campus make it an exciting time for students and the community near GCC. Construction began in April on two buildings that are part of a $24.7 million multiyear facilities master plan approved by the college’s board of trustees in 2012. It is being funded by the state, Genesee County and the GCC Foundation.

One building is a two-story, 18,478-square-foot Student Success Center that is designed to bring admissions, financial aid, academic advisement, job and career counseling and other student services into one location. It is projected to cost $6.1 million.

The other facility is the Event Center. It is to be used for campus and community functions. Measuring 56,614 square feet, the building is designed to be the largest open public space in the GLOW area. As a venue for college and community athletic events as well as trade shows, it is expected to draw as many as 500,000 visitors to the campus each year. The cost of construction is projected to be $13.8 million.

Both additions are slated to open in summer 2017.

The college has seven campus centers across the GLOW region and offers 60 associate degree and certificate programs in classroom and online formats.

It reached a record high enrollment of 7,365 in 2010, which has declined in recent years, Sunser says. The decline has not been as sharp as at other colleges across the state.

“We had the largest high school graduating class ever five years ago, compiled with a high unemployment rate and then a lot of stimulus money allocated for retraining,” Sunser says. “Those three things led to unprecedented enrollment, but we knew it would level off from that surge.”

Today enrollment stands at 6,521. Some 64 percent of the students come from the GLOW region, with 33 percent coming from across New York, including 2 percent from downstate. One percent come from other states and 2 percent are international students.

“We’ve worked consciously to attract our international students. It creates a much richer experience for all our students,” he says.

The most popular programs tend to be in allied health, which covers a broad range of health professionals, excluding doctors and nurses.

“Agribusiness—food technology—is a growing field too,” Sunser said, noting a student from Brazil came to GCC this year for the program. “Agriculture is much more technical now and involves much more than food processing and supply chain management. It’s an area we are developing.”

Community college ties
Sunser grew up with his parents and two sisters in what he describes as a blue collar, working class neighborhood in Syracuse. His father, Carl Sunser, worked for Acme Markets Inc. in the warehouse and his mother, Mary Ellen, was a stay-at-home mom.

After graduating from Onondaga Community College, Sunser transferred to Syracuse University to work on his bachelor’s degree. He attended part time because his father was laid off. While working on his degree he took a post as director of cash operations at the university.

It was at Syracuse that Sunser met the man who is a key member of his leadership team at GCC, William Emm, executive vice president for planning and institutional effectiveness.

“I always admired how hard he worked, putting in a nine-hour day and then working on his studies to earn his degree,” Emm recalls.

Emm was the manager of student accounts at Syracuse University at the time. Over the years, the two remained friends. When the position opened at GCC, Emm welcomed the opportunity to work with Sunser.

“We both have 35 years of experience in higher education and it has served us well in planning the two capital projects,” Emm says.

He notes Sunser is always well-informed. On many occasions Emm presents reports and Sunser poses a question or two that calls for a follow-up.

“I pride myself on days when I don’t have to go back and get more information,” Emm says with a laugh. “It doesn’t happen very often. That’s how in-depth Jim likes to get.”

Sunser graduated from Syracuse University in 1989 with a bachelor of science degree in management and communications. He took a position as bursar at Onondaga Community College and remained at OCC until 2011, moving up to vice president of finance and then vice president of continual and extended learning.

He also continued his studies, commuting first to SUNY College at Brockport, where he earned his master of science degree in 1999, and then to the University of Rochester, where he earned his doctor of education in 2010.

While at OCC, Sunser worked closely for nearly 12 years with Debbie Sydow, who was then its president.

“I referred to Jim as my chief innovation officer because he was always my go-to person to find creative solutions,” says Sydow, who is president of Richard Bland College of William & Mary in Virginia. “Enrollment was a major challenge for us. Student housing was one of the elements in our strategic enrollment plan and Jim looked at the issue holistically. He made decisions based on analytics. Over a five- or six-year period our enrollment increased 65 percent, partly based on his implementation of the housing.”

For all the ways Sunser was dedicated to his work at OCC, Sydow recalls fondly how he never took himself too seriously, and he was well-liked by staff and students alike.

“There was a time, April Fool’s Day I think, that the staff pulled a prank and moved his car,” Sydow says. “They laughed watching him out the window as he looked but couldn’t find it. Jim was laughing the next day when he told me about it. He has a wonderful sense of humility which is a great quality in a leader.”

Other activities
Sunser can often be found shooting hoops with students at the GCC basketball court during his work day. Standing at nearly six foot two inches, he can hold his own against most of his younger counterparts, onlookers say.

“The students show me mercy,” Sunser says.

When he takes time away from campus, it is to take part in civic causes. Sunser, who lives in Pembroke, Genesee County, serves on the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, the Stop DWI Task Force of Genesee County, and is vice president of the Western New York Consortium of Colleges.

He also teaches and lectures at institutions in the Finger Lakes region.

Sunser is proud to lead a community college and looks forward to more ways he can make an impact in his community as the leader of GCC.

“Community colleges have long been known as the ‘arm’ of higher education that can react quicker and provide programs and services that support local needs while maintaining high standards. I think that can still be true, but it can be very challenging,” Sunser says.

“Innovation and entrepreneurship are by their nature somewhat risky. I don’t advocate we are reckless, but I do recognize that without some informed risk we can’t move forward and serve our mission. I believe as leaders of the modern community college we are responsible for striking the appropriate balance and fostering an environment where faculty and staff are supported and students are well-served.”

James Sunser
Position: President and CEO, Genesee Community College
Age: 56
Family: Wife, Roseann; sons Ryan, 29, Sean, 26, and Casey, 23
Home: Pembroke, Genesee County
Education: A.S., Onondaga Community College 1984; B.S., Syracuse University, 1989; M.S., SUNY College at Brockport, 1999; Ed.D., the University of Rochester, 2010
Activities: Golfing, basketball
Quote: “I am living proof of the impact an education and especially the impact educators can have on someone’s life. My life has been changed and improved because people took the time to invest and care about me, which is something I strive to do for others.”

6/17/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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