"Community colleges are the last bastions of democracy for both educational access and quality," Dr. Louis M. Ricci, president of Erie Community College (ECC) said. "We must do everything within our means to preserve this precious commodity which is so dependent on public good will, and of course public funding."
The 53-year-old president admits this is a daunting task, but says the challenge is rewarding.
"You have to experience the diversity and cultural richness of the students we serve, the students we help to succeed."
And quite a mix it is. Over 50 percent of the almost 14,000 students are female. Sixteen percent are minority. Twenty-five percent are over 25 years of age. ECC also serves the largest disabled student population in the state.
And it's international numbers are growing as well.
Over 65 percent of these students need remedial help. ECC is well-equipped to handle this through its expert staff and support services, including computerized assisted instruction.
"Unfortunately, college presidents cannot spend much time with students," Ricci explained. "The usual points of contact are through more formal channels like student government organizations, or the student trustee who sits on our board."
"My job is occupied with budgetary issues, especially in this climate of political fiscal revolt."
Ricci, who has served as the College's president for the past 10 years, admits that his frankness and forthrightness are not always popular.
Effectiveness as a president demands persistence, patience and the ability to reach consensus with as many segments of the college community as possible," he said.
"But as comfortable as consensus may be, you need often have to take a strong position which may not always be a crowd pleaser. I think the essence of good leadership is to have an informed, intuitive sense of how to proceed, knowing it can be risky."
How did Ricci come to this position?
Born on Buffalo's West Side, he attended Holy Cross grammar school. After his family moved to North Buffalo, he transferred to St. Joseph's grammar school.
From there he went on to Bishop Timon High School, and then to St. Bonaventure University on a full scholarship. It was at Bonaventure that Ricci began to develop a critical and analytical attitude.
"I began to question everything, which did not always set well among the administration of the college," he said. "But that happens whenever and wherever you question the status quo of anything."
He forewent his scholarship at Bonaventure to study liberal arts at McGill University in Montreal - considered to be one of the best universities in North America.
Since he had initially planned to become a doctor, Ricci studied the prerequisite courses for admission to medical school. In 1963, he was accepted to McGill Medical School, but remained there for only several months.
"I was too impatient with the course work, with all of the memorization, and with the lack of critical thinking which was then usual for the first two years of medical education," he explained. "It just wasn't stimulating enough. I turned to my first true academic love, philosophy."
Ricci returned to Buffalo. In late spring of 1965, he entered the University at Buffalo (UB) to complete studies for his master's degree in philosophy, while serving as a teaching assistant for undergraduate classes. In his spare time, he taught high school equivalency, and did substitute teaching and tutoring.
He continued at UB, obtained his PH.D. in 1970, and won a fellowship to study at Oxford University in England.
He planned to finish his studies at Oxford, return to the U.S., and accept one of several options he had to become a philosophy instructor.
Following the nationwide budget crunch faced by universities in 1970, the options disappeared and Ricci had to re-think his plans.
He spotted a small advertisement in the newspaper for a philosophy and psychology instructor at ECC's North Campus, applied for it and got the job.
Making the adjustment from a university to a college setting was difficult. At that time, community colleges focused heavily on technology and business, with as little emphasis as necessary on liberal arts.
As an assistant professor, Ricci developed ECC's Philosophy Department courses, and was elected coordinator of the Humanities Department on all three campuses.
He later went on to develop and administrate a Labor Study Program for evening students.
In 1980, he became vice president of the College's North Campus.
During his tenure as vice president, Ricci experienced a difficult period when ECC faced delay in the renewal of its accreditation. Within six months, Ricci along with his staff and support from the College's Board, was able to rectify accreditation concerns.
After the president's resignation in 1985, Ricci was named acting president by the College's Board of Trustees. ECC was in a painful state of flux.
Student and staff morale were at an all-time low. Wholesale reorganization was needed. Budgets and contract negotiations needed attention.
At that time, Ricci's colleagues approached him about becoming president of Western New York's second largest higher education institution.
His first reaction was uncertainty. That was 10 years ago.
"I never planned or thought about being president of the College until that time," Ricci said. "But the course of events that occurred, being in a certain place and time, and having such support from my colleagues and students encouraged me."
Ricci passed his first test as president - budget and contract negotiations.
From left to right: President Louis Ricci and former ECC Foundation President Anthony Romano, present the Ebony and Ivory Award to Thomas M. Fricano, director of Region 9 UAW and ECC's 50th Anniversary Honorary Co-Chair
His next step was to rebuild the College, bring people together, create an educational sanctuary for the students, and begin the healing process.
"Whether you're a faculty member or staff, you must demonstrate your respect for each other," he said. "Non-traditional students are experienced and demand greater accountability than when I attended college."
"We need to be continually responsive, and serve students as if they were our customers."
Ricci is just as comfortable joining students at rallies in Albany, as he is strolling the College's halls, or promoting the institution's concerns to area business and political leaders.
His focus in all of this remains the same - providing all students with affordable access to higher education.
"I think the public gets a mixed message from us because our mission is so broad compared to other institutions of higher education," he explained.
"Most of our students come to get a vocational degree of some sort. But an increasing number, about 38 percent, transfer to four-year colleges, and a significant number attend part-time to upgrade their employment skills. We are all things to all people."
What does the future hold?
"There's a lot to be done," Ricci said. "We are restructuring our Technology Division to respond more realistically to the local market."
"We need to seriously explore a closer working relationship with other SUNY units in our region, specifically Buffalo State and UB. A regional approach among us can benefit all of our students, especially with regard to course credit transferability and staff development."
"We need to define our niche in the economic development in this community, especially in skills upgrading training. Our involvement in the Advanced Training Center is a start in the right direction."
"We also need to explore a more comprehensive international program, that would also benefit the community, by acting as a facilitator for international trade contracts."
"I strongly believe that a community college must also characterize itself through its volunteer efforts."
In the past year, ECC has increased its community relations efforts on behalf of such organizations as the United Way, Variety Club, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Forever Elmwood, and many others.
Ricci, who was one of seven college and university presidents invited to participate in a delegation to China last summer, has returned the invitation. He was recently informed that a Chinese delegation is eager to visit ECC.
Dr. Louis Ricci is joined by several students while on his recent visit to China.
"What an opportunity for our College, and especially our students, to participate in this cross-cultural experience," Ricci said. "And the timing is perfect - during our 50th Anniversary Celebration."
While ECC's president eagerly takes on each challenge at every turn, Ricci never forgets his role as "instructor."
But, he will always be a student at heart. That's why he's now studying Chinese.
Photos courtesy of Erie Community College.
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