The smart-mouth lawyer as college president

The combination is obviously a bad one to begin with.

But I think SUNY New Paltz’s lawyer president Steven Poskanzer goes above and beyond the best of his limited abilities to work that unfortunate combo to the detriment of both the SUNY campus and the New Paltz community and the always delicate relationship between the two.

Peter Healey, the new village trustee and longtime political activist, has a letter in the current edition of the New Paltz Times* (7/23) that describes a special moment at the recent meeting of the heads of four of the five families of local government (village, town, school district, and SUNY New Paltz; Ulster County was the only outfit unrepresented). According to Healey, on taking a question about why he had limited the access of community residents to campus facilities, Poskanzer responded by saying that community residents in a town where a prison was located wouldn’t expect to use the prison facilities. So he didn’t understand why anyone from the New Paltz community should expect to use any campus facilities.

Now, even for a college president, much less a lawyer, that kind of stupid talk is exceptional, and it takes the potential for town/gown animosity to a whole other level.

To begin with, the campus that Poskanzer runs has the atmospherics of a police state already. So by analogizing it to a prison he is unconsciously admitting to the authoritarian impulse that hides behind his puppy bureaucrat mask. I remind my readers of the Poskanzer administration’s more than successful attempt to make the former student leader Justin Holmes an enemy of the state on campus, one time arresting him as he slept in his campus office for the ‘orrible crime of using a sleeping bag that didn’t belong to him, or anyone else. On another occasion Holmes was put through a campus show trial for having told an administrator to “shut up.” He was suspended for a year for that. Not content with going after Holmes on campus, the administrator in question took the case into the town’s criminal justice system and had Holmes charged with a real crime, which resulted in a disgraceful proceeding against the controversial student.

But the larger point here is about the relationship between the community and the college. The college obviously has resources that members of the community would enjoy being able to use, certainly not in ways or at times that would interfere with their use by students, but when and where they can. Just as they have in the past.

SUNY students have certainly been welcomed in the New Paltz community, have the right and the opportunity to vote in local elections, and enjoy the right to use the public and private institutions of the town, from events at village hall to the endless event at P&Gs and the rest of downtown.

Poskanzer’s prison analogy steps on the delicate town/gown relationship like a bug. Watching the video of him saying it, with his “what do you want from me” shrugging scorn of the idea that residents would want to swim in his pool or play ball on his fields is reminiscent of a political boss who thinks his power means that he does as he likes. Now, there’s a situation where the prison analogy might have some application, and often does.

The lawyer side of Poskanzer knows how to rationalize these attitudes and make them sound as though any thinking person would understand them. But unfortunately for Poskanzer local residents remember a more gracious approach from the campus toward them. It was a way of seeking indulgence for the impositions caused by the college. Poskanzer also forgets that a community of sometimes ferocious activism can make him the issue, and it’s a lot easier to fire the manager than it is the whole team.

* Yes, that’s another name for the Stalinpaltz Uncurious-Happytalker.

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