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Campus Update

(April 19, 2007)

Officer in Charge and Provost Susan Herbst
Spring Faculty Address

Welcome, everyone, to the spring faculty meeting. Mike Landin says that spring arrives tomorrow for sure, and we are grateful.

Thanks to so many of you who attended our vigil in honor of Virginia Tech on Tuesday. This is a tragedy of epic proportion, and it will greatly affect how we develop our safely and security systems here, across divisions. More soon on that.

Today I have remarks in three parts, addressing, first, where we are – culturally, fiscally, politically and in terms of leadership. Then let me speak about our accomplishments this year, and finally our central challenges as I see them, in broad terms.

After this, we'll hear from our Environmental Sustainability Task Force, as we promised last year at this time. Then let's mingle and have some conversation, as long as we are all together, our last chance before Commencement.


Let me start today by giving proper thanks -- first to the faculty. You are the stability of this institution, no matter who leaves, and no matter who fails you miserably. Administrators set the boundaries but we just don't do the content. We don't do the research, and we don't do the real teaching and mentoring of students.

If you do the content well, as faculty, the University will be great regardless of our triumphs or failings as administrators, and I am grateful for this. It's one honest truth about higher ed. Put another way:  The life and driving force of this university is not in University Hall, and it never will be. It's in the labs, the classroom, faculty offices, and in your heads. This intellectual work never stops, and never grinds to a halt, as long as we have a faculty who know why they are here, and you certainly do.

Thanks to our University staff. Faculty aren't going to get paid, have your meetings scheduled, have your grant managed, see your students happy, or have a productive life here without your department assistants, secretaries, lab assistants, bookstore managers, career services professionals, advisors, police officers, psychologists, residential life professionals, IT experts, library staff, and all the non-tenure line faculty people who make this institution work. Someone is plowing your snow, and clearing the path, in all ways, to give us the luxury of being scholars. I hope you see this daily and take the time to be thankful for it.

I have to single a few people out. Obviously I can't do anything without the people in the fused president and provost's offices, vice presidents, deans and other leaders paid to be leaders.  But let me focus on the volunteer leaders, in particular Diane Dewar, Reed Hoyt and Steve Messner. All three, along with the Senate Exec and other bodies, have supported us with all their might this year, not to mention listening to me rattle on, explaining the history of the University, and trying to navigate its future. I am enormously grateful. 

And, while many of these folks are not here today, let me thank our external leadership. The University Council, the University at Albany Foundation, George Philip, George Hearst and other volunteers, are vital to this University. These terrific people are the victims of too many meetings, harried phone calls, and critical conversations, in addition to their day jobs! They help us keep everything on track, and advocate for this university in so many ways. Our most dedicated boards and alumni are constant and cheerful sources of support, and I couldn't be more grateful.


Let's talk about where we are at on the important dimensions – cultural, economic, political, leadership.

Culture: I said nearly two years ago in my fall faculty address that the University has a collective self-esteem problem. We are objectively an excellent research university, but we focus on what we are not, more often than what we are, and what we do well. 

I think we are moving past this, although it is a long road. I see pockets of tremendous pride, and even arrogance, which is fine if you are really good! I see ambition of international breadth.  We have a tremendous number of scholars here who have, for a very long time, studied other nations, spent time around the world, and have extensive international scholarly networks.  You have taken students abroad, hosted colleagues from the world on our campus, and have brought ideas from around the globe to Albany.

But despite excellence and ambition, we sure do get down on ourselves a lot here, and I'm still not sure I understand it. In any case, as I said earlier, the only way to reach excellence is to think you can reach it. There is no fancy mission statement for us, no niche, no unique "vision thing" for the University at Albany. Our mission and our vision is academic excellence and achievement, just like at UCLA or Michigan. A comprehensive research university strives for excellence, and that's all it does.  We have a lot of it here, and I hope that you can see it, and appreciate it, regardless of all the work we still have to do.

We are a diverse campus, but there is no question that we've tremendous work to do in making this university a place of tolerance, openness, and – at the risk of being melodramatic  – love and understanding. We have talked a lot about race and discrimination this year, and we have had some incredibly moving speakers come through to help us with this most important of tasks --  Joycelyn Elders and Raymond Burse, among others.

But we've a long way to go in achieving the diversity we want – in terms of numbers of women, African-American, Asian- American, Latino, gay, bi-sexual and other minority students, faculty, and staff. We've a long way to go with regard to a culture of understanding and celebration as well. I thank the UCDAA, the Diversity Taskforce and the Taskforce on Sexual Assault for having the hard discussions about how we treat each other here on this campus. We've had conversations, we argue, we make plans, and this will continue for decades to come, I hope.

I can't ask you to feel the importance of diversity and tolerance in your hearts; no one can make you do this. I have to say that I am unimpressed by presidents, provosts, or deans who make grand speeches on diversity and tolerance. I can't tell you how many impassioned discourses I've heard on the subject, and they all sound the same, quite honestly. I don't know who feels it in their hearts and who doesn't, it's unknowable, and a matter of epistemology or psychology that I am simply not in a position to judge. 

I am impressed, however, by the formation of centers, of research groups devoted to race discrimination and poverty, by affirmative action being taken seriously, by committees formed to explore exploitation and race, by the hiring people of color in large numbers to teach, and by diversifying this student body. I am enormously grateful to campus leaders, like Carson Carr, who have put in the time, the energy, the creativity and the everyday sweat it really takes -- over many years -- to create a diverse campus.

This is not flashy; it's nuts and bolts work. We're doing it, and I ask you to do a lot more of it, for the good of this campus and this nation. Keep talking, talk is good. But talk is easy, and so I ask that you act in your own effective and concrete ways, in your own schools and departments, to produce the world we want to live in. Do it, measure it, and tell the world about it when you truly have meaningful progress to show. That is what we want.

Moving on from culture, let me talk like a provost and talk about money. We do, not unlike many public research universities across the nation, have chronic problems of being under-funded for decades. Those challenges don't disappear overnight. 

I'll be honest with you as I always am, and maybe it's easy because I didn't create these particular problems at least:  We built beautiful new buildings without attending to the podium or our Downtown Campus, we built schools and colleges without adequate operating budgets, and we accepted a very generous gift of the East Campus parcel without developing the business plan that might help it to thrive. 

We have made strong progress on all of these fronts this year, but it is the most un-sexy of administrative triumphs, as you might imagine. Repairing what we messed up – and I blame no one in particular at all – is not quite what I like to celebrate in public. But I assure you that we work hard on getting colleges and schools where they should be, if gradually. We manage our properties better, and we set up appropriate infrastructure to prevent the accumulation of debt.  And new things we build, we fund. 

We have a major project to beautify our plaza at Collins Circle, to start this summer, and I hope it signals a new beginning of taking care of the tremendous architecture we have here.  Beyond that, the plaza project is a metaphor for taking care of ourselves and communicating great pride in the University.

Despite the chronic issues, our budget is in good shape this year, thanks to careful management by our division of Business and Finance. We have no freezes on faculty or staff hiring; we start new programs, if carefully. We are able to fund vital projects like the Honors College, Go Green, our campus book, bringing great speakers to campus, securing a higher ed marketing firm, replacing disgusting carpet in the School of Criminal Justice (easy!), recruiting many faculty and staff, and building an office for sexual assault prevention. We move forward, we spend money that we actually have, and we spend it well. 

I wish daily I had more resources, and quite honestly, the real glory in being a dean, provost or president is to give out money. Our day-to-day life is a matter of tradeoffs of apples and oranges. How do you weigh hiring a faculty member against a hire in facilities? The School of Public Health versus the College of Computing and Information?  The dorms or the library? Impossible to make these choices, but we do it anyhow because there is no other way. We try to be fair, and most of all, we invest where we think there is real ambition, high standards, and a commitment to excellence. That is our guide and must always be.


Politics.  It's not quite what I know from political science, here in New York. A bit of rough and tumble, and being right isn't always what matters, I'm afraid. We do our best to navigate a complex environment. It's fluid, and it's about relationships. 

We have our friends and we have our detractors. In some people's eyes, this institution can simply do nothing right. But I assure you that the bulk of people in this community, from the mighty and powerful to the powerless, care about and protect this university as best they can, in the light of inexplicable and grinding negativity from some corners. 

We've a new governor and he is wonderful. He cares deeply about education and that is clear from this year's budget with regard to K-12 and higher education. It was a terrific year for higher ed, and I do think there is much more to come next year. 

As you know, Governor Spitzer will soon form a commission to look at the fundamental nature and structure of higher education in the state. I predict this commission will take a year to do its job well, and its insights and recommendations will guide the future for New York. Research universities will benefit immensely, I believe, as the governor has made clear his passion for excellence and for the pursuit of the highest quality research and education.

Economic development is the theme we must live by, and we await the supplemental budget in June to find out whether we will be beneficiaries of the $300 million pinpointed for economic development in New York. It is not worrisome that so much discussion of SUNY research centers is tied to economic development, far from it. We are well-positioned to fulfill the governor's wishes, by creating jobs and training the workforce of tomorrow.

For those of you who, like me in my scholarly role, have never done anything to boost the local economy, that's okay and you are safe. Universities – perhaps in their most important role – are the locus of culture and intellectual life in any community.  Examples abound, from our Art Museum to the New York State Writers Institute.  We do it all, and that is seen and appreciated by so many policymakers.

We will have a modest increase in funding this year, thanks to both the governor and legislature. There is $7 million for the SUNY system for faculty hiring and $12 million for hiring senior faculty in the sciences (the Empire Innovations program). We received $6 million in deferred maintenance, $10 million for the East Campus (roads, power, fundamentals for development of a research park), $1.5 million for our Autism Center, and $2 million for NERFI, among other programs. We will not know about further capital project funding until June, most likely. As you know, I have been arguing for capital funds for facilities and equipment including money to renovate the Campus Center, and support a new School of Business building. 

I spoke briefly about culture, economics, and politics. A word about leadership. While I have nothing to do with the presidential search, I assure you that the search is in excellent hands with George Philip and the fine committee he has assembled. Presidential, provost and most dean searches these days demand an executive recruiter, and the committee has hired one. I have no doubt that this process will go well. It may take a while, so have patience. In the meantime, let us make this a productive, lively, and positive campus where any president would be welcomed with warmth and kindness.


There are a huge number of accomplishments this year; it's been a spectacular year of so many people moving this university forward boldly. 

I spoke earlier of the dull, underlying stuff of deferred maintenance, business plans, and bringing in more money through the legislative and political processes. That's the big, grinding machinery, but let me list the fun stuff, tremendous work by the great people we have here, dedicated to this campus. This is not nearly a comprehensive list, but all I have time to mention today. I decided to revive the University "annual report," and we will have that document complete this summer.

On the academic side:

  • Our faculty have won many distinguished awards, among them Fulbright awards, NSF career awards, early career awards in their disciplines, lifetime achievement awards, elections to the top societies in their fields, and even a Grammy nomination and a Guggenheim for acclaimed jazz musician Don Byron, in our Department of Music. These distinctions are across all schools and colleges, and we look forward to listing them out in the annual University report; many are listed on the program you found on your chairs.

Many of our students excel as well. They have won the Goldwater, the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation award, the Hollings scholarship, and other distinctions. Our students do a tremendous amount of public service, outside the classroom, on a scale unusual in my experience. As just one example, they participate with vigor in the new Learning Center at Albany High, providing tutoring to an average of 40 students a day. 

  • In terms of national rankings of schools and programs, we continue to do well, with the already highly-ranked programs keeping those rankings. And the availability of new ranking systems – you'll see more and more of these as we break the NRC/US News hegemony – makes clear the excellence of departments like Educational Administration. Rankings are never perfect, but they are helpful in judging one's place on the national scene. We can only know if we are doing well by being in – and succeeding at – competition on the national higher education landscape.

On the graduate education front, let me announce that Dean Marjorie Pryse has just appointed Professor Hayward Horton as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies. Among his duties are the recruitment and support of minority graduate students and the further development of master's education.

  • Grant activity has been tremendous. In fiscal 2006, awards to UAlbany faculty reached an all-time high of $297 million. These awards were across nanoscale science, social science, atmospheric science and the life sciences, as well as other disciplines. We are far ahead in some areas, and trail in others. In particular, our grant activity in the life sciences is quite low, and needs to increase dramatically, if we are to match our peer institutions there.
  • Increased research has led to a dramatic increase in inventions by our faculty, with invention disclosures up by nearly five times since 2003, and patent applications tripling.

Scholarship is not only about grants and patents, but about publication, artistic creation, and performance. Special thanks to the artists, musicians and actors who make the University a place of beauty and aesthetic rigor. I hope that you had time to see, for example, the wonderful exhibits like "Mr. President," at the Art Museum, our many theatrical performances, or the all day/all night Melville events organized by Mary Valentis with the Albany Academy.

While it is impossible to fund the library to the level I would like, our librarians courageously weather economic constraints and pursue excellence anyway. We hope to maintain our standing among the top 100 academic research libraries in North America. We have a new information commons, terrific new special collections on the death penalty and NYS politics, and we continue to be one of the top-10 lenders of library materials in the state. My favorite statistic:  During the 2006 fall final exam week, the library remained open 24/7 for the first time.  We saw an increase of 30 percent in library usage by our students compared to previous exam periods. 

This has long been a university of international proportions and ambitions, but it is time to develop a logical, comprehensive strategic plan, outlining where we are headed and why, in the area of international education. Vice Provost Bromley has worked hard this year – with so much support from faculty and his excellent staff – to devise a long-term strategy that will dramatically enhance our global position, but do so within the realities of our budget. Ray has a variety of terrific initiatives under way, and I encourage you to join him, should you have interests abroad, either research or teaching.

Academics are what we do, but we have great successes in fundraising, athletics. and in the improvement of our physical environment. Our endowment, while still far too small, saw a 22 percent growth since April 2006, and we have many individual major gifts that have been announced or will be shortly.  We have several six-figure gifts in intensive cultivation, more soon.

Our athletic successes this year have been all over the news – basketball, lacrosse, track and field.  It was a banner year in athletics' fundraising, with dollars raised at an all-time high.

Our campuses look better and better, thanks to terrific work by our designers, physical plant professionals and architects.  I thank Cathy Herman, Errol Millington and others for the signage project, conceived so, so many years ago and finally implemented.  We'll hear about Go Green momentarily, but let me assure you that – whether the huge plaza project about to start this summer or the day-to-day planting of flowers – we are working hard to make this a beautiful place, and a campus that works for residents, commuters and our McKownville neighbors.

Finally, we have massive change for the better in enrollment management, a very busy division. Thanks to Vice Provost Wayne Locust and his team, we have:

  • re-designed the registration experience, with 86 percent of freshmen registering before their first semester;
  • created the MAPS program for every major, a system that shows students how they can graduate in four years if they choose;
  • developed a winter session starting next year, which will enable shorter study abroad programs and other pedagogical experiments;
  • developed a consolidated unit for both student accounts and financial aid, toward a One Stop Student Customer service unit.

For 2007, total applications will exceed 20,000 freshmen for the first time ever, an increase of over 8 percent.  Applications from out-of-state students are up 17 percent, international applications are up 6 percent, and for 2007, applications from students of color are up 11 percent over last year.

As a result of the high number of applications, last year and then again this year, we brought our admit rate down by over 4 percent, thus we become more selective.  A fine research university should attract well-prepared students, hence higher selectivity is expected from us.

Truly astounding progress, thanks to this energetic and strategic division of the University.


Challenges ahead

By talking about the state of the University, you see the challenges. If I had to list the top four, I'd say they are, not in any order:

  1. First:  Bringing more money into our economy. There are only four ways to do it in higher ed, it's not a mystery:   tuition monies, State appropriations, sponsored projects and fundraising. 

    We lack the fundamental and most powerful tool for financing a university -- control of tuition -- so we lobby and we argue and we can't let down for a moment with regard to help from the governor and legislature.

    The third way you bring money into a university is through sponsored projects, and that is the domain of our Vice President for Research and the faculty. I put the emphasis on faculty:  the VPR's office does not have the scholarly ideas to be funded. You do. Keep up the great work, we'll support you as best we can, given the unusually limited control over finance that we have at this University.

    Given the constraints we face, the future for us is philanthropy, individual and corporate. We are terribly behind, with a tiny endowment, and that must change or we will collapse. We are building up our development infrastructure, to where we should be. This is not the responsibility of the faculty, but our leaders in development and alumni affairs often need help, and I ask that you support them when you can. 

  1. Our second major challenge is the creation of a diverse and respectful culture. We still have far too much alcohol consumption, fighting among students, discrimination, and disrespect. We are not alone in seeing prejudice and hatred, whether based in race, gender, or homophobia. 

    But a university seeks to be better than the rest of the world, so let's do that nuts/bolts work I spoke of earlier.  I'd like to see more real action, and address our problems head on, through establishment of new leadership positions like Dr. Horton's, through our committees, our task forces, and the support of our very progressive and engaged University police force.

    Feel the importance of diversity and tolerance in your heart, if you can. If you can't, please stay out of the way, and think about finding a different place, because our future is as a multi-cultural, peaceful, and positive environment for people of all backgrounds.

  1. Our third challenge is to feel a sense of agency. I've noted that lack of self-esteem in some quarters, but also a display of helplessness at times:  "we can't do this because it's never been allowed,"  "SUNY won't let us do this," "we are just a state school," or "the bureaucracy is too complex or slow, so we can't do it." 

    I hear these lines too often, and when I have the time to question and dig deep, these alleged obstacles  --particularly on the academic side -- typically turn out to be pretty flimsy. 

    There aren't so many important things we can't do academically because of rules and regulations, and I don't think our constraints – besides the specific financial and political ones – are any different than those of other large research universities. We can navigate most of what we need to, by asking for help, by finding the right people, and by not losing our ambition, most of all.

  1. Finally, and I save it to last because it is the most important note to end on, and the reason we are here.  

    I am told often that for years few leaders discussed undergraduate education and its centrality to the University. That is odd, given that every president and provost I've ever known or met talks about this constantly, and with great passion. I myself am happy to talk about the importance of undergraduates any time, any place.  

    But talk is cheap in this realm. Caring about undergraduate education demands the faculty caring and doing the heavy lifting. We'll help you as best we can, and it's the reason we are re-envisioning our teaching center with new leadership, are hiring a transfer advisor, have built the Honors College, established the writing commission, and so much else. Yet as with research, the faculty determine the nature of our curriculum and the quality of instruction. Faculty shape the education of students, true here and everywhere.

    As with the importance of multi-culturalism, I ask that you keep our students front and center always. Without real commitment to them and their learning, the University is a complete and utter failure. It is as simple as that. I ask that you take up the challenge of excellence in curriculum design and the tremendous day-to-day challenge of keeping students engaged.  

    And as you do that, we will continually try to improve the quality of student services, find more money to hire more faculty, renovate housing, make the campus more attractive and comfortable, and establish the teaching center you deserve, so you can support your students. 

    We are seeing great success, but we will do even better for you, by bringing the most accomplished students in the state and nation to your classrooms, so you can teach at the high level you should, given that this is a fine research university and nothing less. This is our commitment to you.

I thank you for listening, and I thank you for a truly wonderful year of self-reflection, hard work, and real accomplishments across all divisions, schools and colleges. 

Let us turn to our Environmental Sustainability Task Force, led today by Professor George Robinson of Biology.  George, many thanks for your hard work and your leadership.



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