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LaGuardia CC president has big plans for school

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The person heading up LaGuardia Community College for the rest of this year will be different, but to faculty and students he’s a familiar face.

On Aug. 1, Peter Katopes, vice president for academic affairs at the college, assumed the role of interim president, a post he will hold until Dec. 31. College President Gail Mellow is currently taking a leave of absence to write a book, tentatively titled “A Radical Re-conceptualization of Basic Skills Practice in Community College.”

“It’s a nice opportunity for me,” Katopes said of his new position. “It gives me a chance to see life from one more level up.”

Katopes, 63, has been with the college since 2005, but his career in education and learning goes back farther than that. Katopes now lives in Manhattan but grew up in Astoria.

“I played in Astoria Park and I went to PS 85 and went to JHS 141 and did the things that Astoria kids did back in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said.

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, Katopes went to St. John’s University for his bachelor’s and SUNY Stony Brook for a master’s and a doctorate in English. He served for three years in the U.S. Army, including a one-year tour of combat duty during the Vietnam War, where he earned the rank of first lieutenant, the Bronze Star Medal and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

In his academic career, he has been on the faculty of Adelphi University, where he reached the position of associate dean for the School of Business and University College. Before coming to LaGuardia, he was campus dean and dean of faculty of the Ammerman campus of Suffolk County Community College.

“I’m curious. I like to know things,” Katopes said of his interest in education. “It not only entertains me, but it helps me understand something about the world I inhabit.”

At LaGuardia, Katopes’ job has been to hire and maintain faculty. He said that under his tenure he has hired 150 new faculty members, as well as overseen the construction of new campus laboratories and the renovation of the college’s Little Theater.

He said that despite the tough economic times and making some difficult decisions, LaGuardia has been well-managed financially and maintains a strong faculty.

“For me, it’s the best place I’ve ever been because of the job I have and the people I work with,” Katopes said.

Katopes said that in his new position as interim president his job is not about just holding the institution for Mellow’s return, but also to make sure students are educated, the faculty gets needed resources and the college keeps to the strategic plan. He also has found he need to take a wider view of campus affairs.

“I have to be sure I don’t over-favor academics,” he said.

Katopes said one special thing he wants to focus on is LaGuardia’s Veterans Services Office and make sure students who are veterans know the benefits they are entitled to at the college, how to connect with students and faculty who are veterans and that the school overall is welcoming to vets.

“Colleges were not very friendly to us back a long time ago,” Katopes said. “We don’t want to duplicate that time.”

As for the college’s president, Katopes looks forward to the outcome of Mellow’s sabbatical.

“I think it’s a fascinating and interesting project,” he said. “I am absolutely looking forward to reading whatever she writes about it.”

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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