POTSDAM — Five positions in SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Theatre and Dance are being eyed for the chopping block as the college faces a $5 million budget deficit.
Jay W. Pecora, the department chair, said the positions are being recommended for their contracts not being renewed by 2024.
“Some of them, if their contracts are not renewed they will not be back in the fall. I believe it’s three who could be here until spring of ’24,” he said. “Those five people are not hiding what’s happening to them.”
Mr. Pecora said he’s not able to say which members are up for nonrenewal. He did say his position is not among the five in jeopardy. The Times reached out to all of the department faculty on Tuesday. With the exception of Mr. Pecora, those requests for comment were either declined or not returned.
SUNY Potsdam President Suzanne R. Smith will have to approve the nonrenewals over the summer before they’re made official, Mr. Pecora added.
“The way the college works is the contracts for faculty are usually one year beyond the reappointment procedure, so you know with some time whether you are going to have a job or not,” he said.
He said four of the faculty are tenure track, so their contracts have to be honored. However, “cuts are coming.”
“We’re very concerned that the administration has not shared with the community their plan. Hundreds of our alumni, our students, are asking for what’s coming, but we continue to be told they can’t talk publicly about probable closures yet,” Mr. Pecora said. “The most recent time we couldn’t be told was a few weeks ago.”
SUNY Potsdam officials declined to comment on what’s going on behind the scenes.
“We can’t discuss individual personnel decisions. The renewal process is still in progress and it is inaccurate to say that contracts are not being renewed at this point, as final decisions have not yet been made. We review all hiring decisions based on our financial framework, including enrollment data,” said interim SUNY Potsdam Provost Alan L. Hersker. “We know that there is a lot of speculation, but we are still working with SUNY System Administration to finalize our financial stability plan. It’s important to know that no announcements have been made about these or any other programs at this point. Nothing is final, and we cannot share any details of work in progress.”
“SUNY Potsdam has a long history of providing a high quality education to students, and we look forward to continuing that tradition well into our third century,” Ms. Smith said in a statement. “With the passage of the New York State budget and more clear information on state support for the coming year, our leadership will continue to analyze data and work on proposals to close our budget gap through expense reductions and increased revenue. When we have more information, we will share it with both the campus and the community.”
Mr. Pecora says the proposed cuts are demoralizing.
“The faculty and staff are very sad. Everyone has known budget cuts are coming, but I think people in general are sad,” Mr. Pecora said. “We’re going to continue to educate our students and we’re all going to be here in the fall, hopefully, and we’ll keep going.”
SUNY Potsdam in 2013 opened a $55 million performing arts center that was designed to host the department’s productions, and also opera productions. Mr. Pecora said there was no increase in the department’s funding to go along with the center opening, and key back-of-house positions are vacant.
“It’s greatly hampered our technical abilities and our production value,” he said. “One of the problems that happened immediately is there was no increase in funding to go with the new building. So we were still producing shows for tiny, very small budgets. Then in the last few years, we’ve lost both shops’ managers, set and costume. Both of those managers left haven’t been replaced. We’ve been without both for about two years now.”
In response to being asked what the future could bring for events hosted at the performing arts center, Mr. Hersker said, “the Performing Arts Center is a beautiful facility which is used by a variety of groups, and that will continue well into the future.”
The COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a theater and dance enrollment drop, which hasn’t picked back up.
“Our numbers have been in decline, just like the entire college, in the last 10 years. This is not a secret … COVID hit our department worse. Very few people are interested in studying theater and dance online,” Mr. Pecora said. “With declining enrollment, colleges make adjustments all the time and that is true, but we haven’t been given a chance to recover from COVID.”
Enrollment in the theater and dance program has been on a steady decline since 2018, according to figures provided by Mr. Hersker. There were 134 students enrolled in the fall of 2018, 122 in fall 2019, 98 in fall 2020, 74 in fall 2021 and 60 in fall 2022. There are 52 students enrolled for the spring 2023 semester.
Mr. Pecora said this summer’s Creative Arts Camp is still happening. It will be July 24 to Aug. 5 in the performing arts center. It will include creative arts for kids (kindergarten to grade 3), drama (grades 4 to 7 or grades 8 to 12), creative writing (grades 4 to 8) and dance (grades 4 to 8). Go to potsdam.edu/cac to register online.
However, if the five positions are cut, Mr. Pecora said the department would struggle to do more than teach regular course curriculum. That could include the end of the creative arts camp, the A.A. Kingston Middle School drama club and working with NYSARC on campus.
There’s a lot of community outreach the department has been doing for years that’s going to be lost,” Mr. Pecora said. “Dozens of things in the community, I think, will be lost if the department disappears.”
Donald P. Borsh, a retired theater and dance department professor, wrote in an April 23 Facebook post that cuts or a total department closure could have an impact on campus diversity.
“For many years the department has also served as a haven and center of support for many students from the LGBTQ, Black, Latinx and other under-represented communities, providing them with a safe and supportive environment in which to find and express their voices, not only as performers, but as young choreographers, directors, designers, technicians and most importantly, as effective collaborators and members of the larger theatre community,” Mr. Borsh wrote.
One major difference betweeen Clarkson and SUNY Canton is that SUNY Potsdam has a history and a tradition of Theater and Dance. It has the facitlities - new and well-heralded. SUNY Potsdam has produced wide ranging world class performing arts and that distinguishes it in the North Country. St. Lawrence University does it too in a differnet way. We need both as a community. The students need options like SLU and SUNY Potsdam. Get off your duffs SUNY Potsdam administration. With the visit of the new SUNY Chancellor last week losts of publicity was spwed but what are the results......Without a viable and healthy Theater and Dance program the LOKI Festival loses its meaning. So does SUNY Potsdam. We are world class in Potsdam. Let's not lose it.
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