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Faced with a persistent decline in enrollment and a budget deficit that topped $1 million last year, SUNY Buffalo State must rethink its academic offerings, regrow its student body and refocus its goals as an academic institution if it is to compete in today’s changing landscape of higher education.

This is according to interim President Howard Cohen, who laid out six specific priorities for the current school year during a campus address Tuesday afternoon in Rockwell Hall.

“As we begin the 2013-14 academic year, and as we prepare for the next president, we are well positioned to advance the college,” Cohen told the several hundred members of the Buffalo State community, including faculty, staff and students, in attendance.

The “top six” priorities Cohen unveiled address a broad range of issues – from campus development to online coursework.

They come at a time when the value of a college education is being debated at the national level, as highlighted by the plan to curb college costs that President Obama announced in his speech at the University at Buffalo last month.

And they are set against a backdrop of declining enrollment and sizable deficits at Buffalo State, which saw its fall enrollment drop each year from 2009 to 2012, for a net loss of 500 registered students, according to numbers provided by the college.

Meanwhile, the college has run a deficit in its core operating budget for at least the past three years. In the 2012-13 academic year, Buffalo State reported a $1.3 million deficit out of a total budget of $87.9 million.

Of the college’s six priorities in addressing those challenges, some are concrete.

Cohen spoke of a need to develop the southwest corner of campus, which he called the school’s “second front door.” Potential developments could include student housing, additional parking and an alumni and visitor center.

Buffalo State also will look to cash in on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s recently announced Start-Up NY initiative, which offers new or expanding businesses and their employees the chance to pay no taxes for 10 years if they partner with eligible colleges and universities throughout the state to create jobs on campus.

Establishing itself as a “tax-free community” will enable Buffalo State to expand its role as a vehicle for regional economic growth, said Cohen, adding that the college is “actively seeking” its first project to host.

A third priority will be to unify and streamline the school’s budgeting practices across its departments.

The other issues raised Tuesday – numbers one to three on Cohen’s list of priorities – are more sweeping in nature. They involve taking a hard look at Buffalo State’s niche in the college marketplace to identify which academic offerings its students benefit from most – and which might need to be cut.

Cohen said the college must “consider rebalancing” its various academic programs to reflect its strengths. Departments that meet a clear student demand, boast faculty expertise and benefit the community by placing students in productive jobs post-graduation should be expanded, he said, possibly at the expense of others.

Expanded online courses and increased international student recruitment may also be in the offing, Cohen said.

Remarking on his philosophy for identifying the college’s strengths, after the address, Cohen said he is a proponent of the “80-20 rule” – that 80 percent of an institution’s progress is generated by 20 percent of its activity.

Buffalo State, Cohen said, needs to home in on its crucial 20 percent, whatever that may be.

The hope is that, by playing to its strengths, Buffalo State can “stem the decline and recapture the revenue that we lost along with our student enrollment,” Cohen said.

College leadership will also develop a new five-year strategic plan, encompassing the college’s mission, vision and values, to replace the current plan set to expire this year. Cohen said the new plan should be in place by May 2014.

The address was Cohen’s first since stepping into the role of interim president following the resignation of Aaron M. Podolefsky in July. Podolefsky, who was battling prostate cancer at the time, died one month later.

Cohen said a campus memorial for the former president will be held later this semester.

Financial problems at SUNY Buffalo State

Declining enrollment and budget deficits create challenge

Total enrollment (undergraduate and graduate)

Fall 2007: 10,993

Fall 2008: 11,234

Fall 2009: 11,714

Fall 2010: 11,695

Fall 2011: 11,659

Fall 2012: 11,214

Core operating budget

2010-11: $85.9 million ($771,000 deficit)

2011-12: $86.3 million ($183,000 deficit)

2012-13: $87.9 million ($1.3 million deficit)

Source: SUNY Buffalo State

email: hglick@buffnews.com