BY KATHY KAHN
Rockland Community College was in chaos when Texas-born Dr. Cliff Wood took over as its president in 2004. An infamous man named Voss had turned the campus into a political war zone. When Voss was fired as president a temporary administrator named Murabito attempted to make himself a permanent fixture earning a good deal of loyalty from some of the college faculty.
So when Wood stepped in to the president’s role after a career in education spanning decades, he need to both calm the waters and deal with the practical issue of preventing the college from losing its accreditation. Wood accomplished this task in relatively short order and over his tenture the college has been ranked one of the top 150 community colleges in the nation, an accolade he is most proud of.
“Winning the Aspen Prize in 2017 was perhaps the most satisfying moment of my service to the college,” said the retiring president.
While his successes in building up the campus and its programs have been many—an LEED-certified Technology Building, the first “green” building in Rockland, the re-opening and expanding of the RCC Haverstraw Extension to include 3D printing, a SMARRT Lab and Business Innovation Mall, and the completion of a new hospitality/culinary/arts satellite in Nyack focusing on New York’s fresh foods and beverages—Wood remains respectfully demure about his accomplishments, focusing on his students more than himself.
Wood is also going to be missed when he steps down from the Mid-Hudson Regional Development Council, where he has partnered with Rockland Business Association President Al Samuels in creating more job courses including the Automotive Technology Center at the college, creating more opportunities for Rockland students to achieve their career goals.
“Leaving is bittersweet,” said Wood, looking around his office, with many kudos and pictures to remind him of the hurdles he accomplished in making the county’s community college one of America’s finest. “My first assignment working at a community college in Fort Worth, Texas put me in my niche. It was where I wanted to be. It’s great to help high school students achieve their goals and see them move on to a good job or decide to continue their education.”
The Texan also had to adjust to Rockland’s expectation that he would be an involved member of the community. Wood and his wife, Wylene, did not disappoint.
“The first thing we did was have faculty members from each department come to our home to discuss their challenges and concerns and meeting with our employees to get their input. Wylene is a former teacher and has been an active volunteer across the county, from the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance, which is getting a makeover, to president of the African-American Historical Society and VCS—she is a blessing in both my personal and professional life.”
One of the challenges now facing the college—and many other SUNY campuses—is the changing demographics of New York State. In Rockland, public school population will be outnumbered by religious schools by 2020. Wood said RCC needs to both consider how to draw more students from a smaller secular pool and to attract some of the religious community attend the college.
His plan has been to expand the college’s offerings, something he says he has done largely through private fundraising. While he believes RCC will survive and thrive in years to come, some SUNY schools might not make it, Wood admitted.
One project at RCC Wood has been feverishly attempting to advance before his tenure ends is the construction of college dormitories. “We have been trying to work with the Town of Ramapo to get the final permit for a residence hall on campus, but so far, it’s been a dead end. Hopefully incoming RCC President, Dr. Michael Baston, can get that accomplished. He is the beneficiary of one of the finest community colleges in the US, known for being safe, secure and committed to helping students achieve their work and educational goals. He’s a gifted man who will continue to work on the foundation of RCC’s achievements,” said the Vermont-bound educator.
Before he says his last goodbyes, Wood will be at the opening of the Peace Garden and a new outdoor performance space on campus June 29 beginning at 4 p.m. From there, he’ll attend the ribbon cutting on the New Holocaust Museum, then head north to settle down and start visiting his children and grandchildren who are scattered across the country. They all will join Cliff and Wylene Wood when they renew their wedding vows on their 30th anniversary, August 10.
Many of us, whether Rockland residents or just visitors, will miss his smile, his exuberance—and his colorful array of bowties—when he leaves the community. We wish him well.