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February 26, 2005

Questions at SUNY Albany on Why Ex-President Left


Karen R. Hitchcock, SUNY Albany's Ex-Pres.

More than a year after she abruptly left her job as president of the State University of New York at Albany, Dr. Karen R. Hitchcock was Topic A on her former campus yesterday after revelations that she had faced a state ethics inquiry into her actions while she led the university.

The inquiry, into whether she offered to steer a contract to a developer, was halted when she resigned in January 2004, because state law effectively gives state employees immunity from ethics charges when they leave the state payroll. But yesterday, the school was abuzz with talk about Dr. Hitchcock and her tenure at SUNY Albany in light of the revelations about the inquiry, with some people speculating that it may have played a role in her unexpected departure months before she had originally planned to leave the post.

"I would like to know why she up and left," Greg Baker, a sophomore from Queens, said as he exited the education department and headed for his car. "She just kind of disappeared. It kind of hangs around, like, 'Why would someone in that kind of job all of a sudden give it up?' "

The inquiry by the State Ethics Commission centered on allegations that she offered to steer a contract to a developer, who would endow a university professorship that she could then fill, according to state officials familiar with the ethics review. 

When she left the presidency, Dr. Hitchcock had moved up her departure date, citing family concerns. Yesterday, she released a statement saying the inquiry was not a factor in her departure. She also denied wrongdoing during her time at SUNY Albany.

"There is no substance whatsoever to the complaints that I used my position as president of the University at Albany to advance my personal interests," she said in a statement posted on the Web site of her new employer, Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, where she is principal. "The New York State Ethics Commission advised me of these complaints at the end of April 2004, fully six months after I had announced my intention to resign as president at the end of June 2004." She said her resignation was not accelerated. She said she gave the commission "a candid and complete reply" to the accusations.

In her statement, Dr. Hitchcock also said she would continue her efforts to answer "these false and anonymous accusations" to the full extent of state law.

Still, her departure puzzled many faculty members, some of whom now say they believe that their questions about her departure were not satisfactorily answered at the time. "Karen Hitchcock left the presidency under extremely unusual circumstances and in a very unusual way," said Michael Jerison, a professor in the economics department who knew Dr. Hitchcock professionally. "And there was never any clear explanation given to the faculty as to why."

Others said they were long suspicious about Dr. Hitchcock's citing personal reasons when she left.

"I think most people thought that was a cover for something," said Jon Mandle, the philosophy department chairman, during a break between afternoon classes. Last year, he said, people speculated that she might have had a conflict with the SUNY trustees. "This now suggests there is another possible explanation," he said.

At Queen's University, officials said they were standing by Ms. Hitchcock, and added that she had alerted the university to the inquiry. Charles Baillie, chancellor of Queen's University, and John Rae, chairman of the board, issued a statement on behalf of the university stating that when Dr. Hitchcock was a candidate for the post of principal, which is equivalent to a university president, she told the search committee about the accusation and gave it a detailed response.

At that point, the statement said, the search committee "rechecked the references, went to new sources and got additional advice from knowledgeable people."

"As a result of this due diligence the committee reconfirmed its unanimous recommendation for her selection to the full board of trustees," the statement continued.

Some at SUNY Albany wondered if the situation would reflect poorly on the college. Already, students are unhappy that tuition has been increasing as the numbers of full-time faculty members has declined. But Eileen Carey, who was on a tour of the school with her daughter, Liz, a high school junior from Westchester County, said the college would endure and the questions would not deter them. "It's like Italy," she said. "Governments come and go, but there's a large bureaucracy underneath that keeps things going."

As he walked through the campus center yesterday, Kermit L. Hall, the new university president, who has been in Dr. Hitchcock's former post for about two weeks, said he was struggling to explain things.

"I've been in meetings all morning," he said. "People have been posing the questions: 'What's going on? What's behind all this? What does it mean?' "

Adam Thorpe, an official in the Student Association, the student government, said the loophole that forced a halt to ethics inquiries of employees who leave state service raised curious questions about why the loophole was never closed.

Dr. Hitchcock's lawyer, Michael Whiteman, said the loophole in the law that short-circuits ethics inquiries is also detrimental to those wrongly accused, since it deprives people of a forum to present their side and to have the charges fully discussed.

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