Fall 2015 State of the University Address by President Jones

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Full Speech on Video (55 minutes)

Introduced by Cynthia Fox, Chair University Senate

Thank you Cynthia, and thank you for your leadership and partnership as Chair of the University Senate. I also want to thank all of the Senators for your hard work on behalf of the faculty and staff.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank all of the faculty, staff, and students for the support you’ve shown me during my nearly three years as the 19th president of the University at Albany.

Today, I’m also pleased to introduce a very special guest: President Katsumi Nakai from Fukushima University in Japan. UAlbany and Fukushima University have a very beneficial student exchange and we’re talking about new possibilities going forward.  So, welcome to President Nakai – it is an honor to have you with us today.

Colleagues, partners and friends of the University at Albany, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2015 State of the University Address.

My goal today is to review the progress that we’ve made in moving UAlbany to the next level of excellence and to provide a context for the challenges and the amazing opportunities that lie ahead. We’ve gathered at a very exciting time in UAlbany’s history—great things are happening across this university.

For example, a team of atmospheric and social scientists, led by Everette Joseph in partnership with the National Taiwanese University and Howard University, recently received a $4.5 million NSF grant to advance research in early warning systems for detection of major storms.

Internationally renowned linguistics scholar, Istvan Kecskes from our School of Education, was one of only 10 faculty members across the SUNY system this year to be named a SUNY Distinguished Professor. Congratulations Istvan on this very prestigious honor.

The White House also recently named UAlbany as an “Engine of Opportunity” that helps low-income students move into the middle class. We’re proud of that designation because it shows we are serving our highly diverse student body. This year 42 percent of our freshman class are students of color, and nearly as many will be the first in their families to earn a four-year degree.

So this is all very good news and signs that we are moving in the right direction. We’re making significant progress and I can assure you, people are taking notice.

I’ve been gratified to hear this from students, staff, faculty and even regional and national leaders. To quote one of our corporate leaders, “This is a university on the move.”

We’re creating innovative academic programs and expanding our research profile, as well as developing new ways to attract and retain students and the best and brightest faculty.

And everyone comments on how beautiful the campus looks.

What I’ve just described is an outstanding institution aiming high to meet its tremendous potential as a leading public research university. Yet we know we have a great deal of work before us which requires a new level of collaboration, co-operation and innovation.

We must seize this opportunity to fulfill our mission of academic and research excellence, increase our impact as a driver of economic vitality and rev up our engine of opportunity to lift all segments of our society.

Today is a report on the progress we’ve made toward that vision.  But more than that, it is an invitation to increase our focus as a community and accelerate our progress together.

The Path Ahead of Us

The reality is, to reach our aspirational goal, we must grow significantly in several ways.
First and foremost, we simply must increase our enrollments at all levels. We cannot continue down the path of declining enrollment while our peers are growing.

We’ve deployed a diverse set of strategies to increase our numbers and we’re seeing progress on this front. This year, we had the largest applicant pool and the largest freshman class in our history. This is very encouraging, but we still have work to do at all levels.

So we cannot get comfortable. We need to act with a sense of urgency.

Our target is to enroll 20,000 students by the year 2020. How will we get to 20,000 students?

First, we must continue to advance the largest academic expansion in 50 years with an emphasis on high-growth areas like health sciences, cybersecurity, engineering, and advanced data analytics. As part of this expansion, we must re-commit to the social sciences, arts, and the humanities to ensure that these fields are tightly woven into our academic fabric.

As society’s challenges become increasingly complex, we must prepare students who can integrate knowledge of science, art, literature, and history.  Students who have strong writing and leadership skills. These are the graduates who will be the most sought after and that will have the biggest impact on the world.

Second, we must dramatically enhance the undergraduate experience to attract and retain our students and prepare them to lead lives of purpose and influence in a global society. We all know to achieve all of the above, we must recruit, retain and advance the best and the brightest faculty in every discipline.

Finally, we need to grow our resource base and our endowment to fully meet the needs of the University’s future.

I want to explore each of these areas with you and then talk about the steps we must take to reach our goals.

Growing the Academic Enterprise

First, we must build out our academic enterprise in response to what students and the economy are demanding. We have several major initiatives already in progress that achieve this goal.

College of Engineering and Applied Sciences

First, we are very excited that we have stood up the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Kim Boyer has joined us as interim dean and chair of the Computer Engineering Department. Folks, this is a game changer for us. This college is truly a massive opportunity for UAlbany, for our students, for our faculty and for the region.

Just to give you a sense of how much demand there is in this area, for the first time this fall we offered an Introduction to Engineering Design course.  It filled immediately.  So we opened a second section.  That filled immediately with students left wanting to enroll! 

Right now the B.S in computer engineering is under review at the State Education Department and when it’s approved, we are expecting to see a tremendous demand for this much-needed public option for engineering in the Capital Region. The College will also be the home of our new Advanced Data Analytics Institute which will help us build out our teaching and research capacity in this critical area.

College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity

We’ve also launched the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity in response to the Governor’s call for academic programs in these very high-need fields. Our goal for this college is to be not only the first, but the best. We’re fortunate that David Rousseau has taken the reins as interim dean.

This college will be a new model of interdisciplinary collaboration drawing on New York’s strengths from other SUNY campuses and private universities and from state agencies.

Health Sciences and Biomedical Research

Another area where there is significant growth potential is in health sciences and biomedical research. We have broad and distinctive assets in these fields.  We have outstanding people and programs and solid partnerships.

Now is the time to build a forward-thinking strategy to maximize our impact in these fields. I’ve appointed Laura Schweitzer to lead the exploration and development of this plan. Laura will be engaging a wide range of stakeholders and I know many of you here today will be part of that conversation.

Albany Law School Affiliation

Last month marked a milestone in another important initiative - when we signed an affiliation agreement with Albany Law School. This is truly an exciting next chapter in a longstanding relationship and this deeper affiliation allows us to be more strategic and intentional.

Our students now have access to new pathways in the legal field and Albany Law students will broaden their legal education with courses across our academic portfolio.
It will also re-vitalize our longstanding 3 plus 3 program to make legal education more accessible and affordable for UAlbany students.

Already this partnership is leveraging new research funding. Just this month, a joint faculty team was awarded a $1.6 million grant for an international health law project through our Global Institute for Health and Human Rights. We anticipate more like this to come as we launch our Collaborative Venture Fund for faculty research projects.

Esteemed Faculty

Notably central to expanding our academic profile is a commitment to elevate our research profile and support our faculty development in teaching, research, and engagement. We have many rising stars across our academic landscape.

  • Faculty members like Justin Pickett of our School of Criminal Justice, who this year was awarded the top honor for young criminology scholars. He studies highly relevant topics, including how racial stereotypes affect public opinion on crime and justice.
  • Akiko Hosler of our School of Public Health has worked on diabetes interventions in the Indo-Guyanese community in Schenectady, an excellent example of the intersection of research and public engagement.
  • Adam Frelin of our Department of Art and Art History is lead artist on a collaborative that was awarded a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies. His public art project Breathing Lights will illuminate hundreds of vacant homes in the Capital District to draw attention to the potential of distressed neighborhoods.

To support these impressive faculty members and so many others across the university, Jim Dias and Jim Stellar will develop new strategies to cultivate research, scholarship, and creative excellence. I am also very happy to announce today that we are launching an Innovation Challenge Grant to support the development of strategic new academic programs.

While faculty growth and development has grown tremendously with 2020 funds,
we must ensure that we are recruiting the best and the brightest full-time and tenure-track faculty. This is the only way we can reach our goals.

Enhancing the Undergraduate Experience

All of this progress with our academic expansion is critical, but we know that a student’s success is determined by experiences both inside and outside of the classroom.

The new tradition of an Opening Convocation is a great example of a key tactic to enhance the student experience. What a wonderful day that was with 2,500 new students in a sea of yellow “Class of 2019” T-shirts, alongside 1,000 beaming family members.

It was great to have so many faculty and staff members participate. I think that sent a strong message to our incoming freshmen about the university they had chosen. This is part of our holistic approach to enhancing the student experience with a very integrated partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs.

Mike Christakis is working closely with Jim Stellar and faculty members on strategies to increase retention and reduce time to degree.

Retention is absolutely critical to our enrollment goals. This is where we can make a big difference in our numbers. That’s why the Provost has set a goal of increasing retention by 10 percent.

Data analytics play a big role in this work which is why we are scaling up evidence-based practices. For example, we’ve created a deeper, more personalized orientation experience.

We also know that the EOP program is highly effective and we’re so appreciative that the Legislature expanded the program this year. We want to expand EOP even more.  We’ve applied for a SUNY grant that will allow us to grow the program by 30 percent and adopted some of EOP’s best practices for our very successful Living-Learning Communities. I’d like to thank Jeanette Altarriba and her team in Undergraduate Education for their leadership on the LLCs as well as the Writing and Critical Inquiry program.

Another new tactic launched this year is that every new student has a “Success Team” – made up of their academic advisor, WCI instructor and residence hall director. This is part of an early warning system with predictive analytics to flag concerns about a student’s academic performance or behavior so Success Team members can intervene and provide support.

Athletics also has a big impact on the student experience. Our Game Day Experience was designed specifically to build community and identity. All of this activity is really part of an overarching strategy to build our experiential learning opportunities for students.

One example is the Blackstone LaunchPad which fosters student entrepreneurship across all majors made possible with a grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. Just last week I was at the New York Blackstone launch at NYU, so we’re officially up and running with this very promising program. 

Clearly, in terms of enhancing the student experience, we’re on the right track.  But to advance, we need to keep innovating and stay focused on our goals of growth and excellence.

Growing our Resources to Fulfill our Vision

To truly reach our vision, we must grow and sustain our financial resources. Financial growth follows three primary pathways:

  • Maximizing public funding,
  • Strategic investment of our resources, and
  • Growing our endowment through philanthropy.

As the allocation of state resources to SUNY has declined, more and more we find ourselves in fierce competition for public funds. This requires a very high level of advocacy and building strong relationships with our legislative delegation, state officials, and community leaders. So more than ever, we have to be targeted in our requests and we have to continually show a return on investment.

That’s why we expanded our Office of Government Relations, led by Sheila Seery, to coordinate our efforts and speak with one voice on our top priorities. This year we’ve built a strong legislative agenda and at the top of the list is the continuation of the SUNY2020 strategy.

We need to make sure this funding continues because it has been a game changer in terms of faculty hires, student scholarships, maintaining predictable tuition and advancing our academic expansion goals.

Another top priority is capital funding to renovate the former Albany High School building on the Downtown Campus which is the future home of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. This facility is going to be an amazing resource that will help us drive economic development in the urban core.

And at the federal level we’re continuing our efforts to position the university to win significant research grants. The Office of Government Relations will continue to partner with our researchers and scholars for greater success in this process.

Important Investments

To strategically align our spending with our priorities, this year we implemented a compact process that identified a total of $8.8 million in new investments for 2016-17.
More than half of this funding is going to support academics.  I want to call to your attention to some of the larger priority projects that were funded.

  • We’re investing nearly $2 million in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences to stand up this critical academic unit. There is an initial investment of $400,000 to begin to address contingent faculty pay and $250,000 for Graduate Student Stipends, which matches the $250,000 already invested with 2020 funds, bringing the total to a half million dollars.
  • We funded undergraduate and graduate scholarships at over $600,000 which fulfills a multi-year commitment of $4.1 million since my arrival here at UAlbany.
  • We also continued the Presidential Innovation Fund for Research and Scholarship at $500,000.

So this is a very targeted approach that will help get new ideas on the table and make the best use of our resources.

The Value of Philanthropy

As we work to shore up our public resources and get disciplined about how we spend them, we must also recognize that state support and tuition alone are not enough to finance our mission and reach our goals. More and more we must develop private donations from alumni, friends, and foundations.

Since I arrived at UAlbany we have raised more than $40 million to advance our mission.  As most of you know, the 2014-15 fiscal year was our best-ever for fundraising: More than $12 million raised! 

A big part of that was a landmark gift from the Massry Family of $5.25 million for our School of Business.

I want to take this opportunity to commend Vice President Fardin Sanai and his staff for their success which was truly amazing. And this year is off to an excellent start as well.

Earlier this month, we announced a $10 million gift from the Bernard and Millie Children’s Foundation which is a transformative investment in our athletics programs. These funds are in good hands with Mark Benson, who will oversee an endowment for scholarships and major facilities work which will also help Athletics become more self-sustaining in the future.

These gifts position us strongly as we approach the launch of a comprehensive development campaign. It is clear, our success in fundraising is tied to the compelling vision we’ve articulated and the actions we’ve taken. The work YOU do each and every day truly has an impact.

When donors see excellence, they are inspired to invest further and this attracts even more success.

A Publicly Engaged University

As I’ve said, a world-class public research university by definition is deeply engaged with the community and the world. Its institutional impact is felt through a wide range of research and service, as well as its role as employer, convener, and partner.

To elevate our core value of public engagement, Darrell Wheeler, our new Dean of the School of Social Welfare, has also taken on the role of Vice Provost for Public Engagement.

Darrell will be spearheading the public engagement team’s transition from the President’s Office to the Provost’s Office, thus creating a central hub on the Downtown Campus.

I am very excited to work closely with Darrell as we execute a broad public engagement agenda across our academic landscape.

Albany Promise

One critical area of engagement is the Albany Promise cradle-to-career partnership, which we host here at UAlbany. I serve as co-convener along with Albany’s Mayor and Superintendent of Schools. This work is all about reaching across sectors to improve educational outcomes and achieve collective impact.

The Albany Promise has led a number of important improvements this year in the Albany City Schools including increased SAT participation, the first-ever kindergarten readiness assessment and professional development for early childhood providers. These interventions are data-driven and tracked to measure results.

The Albany Promise is a key strategy for success.  That’s why it has been included in a larger strategy for the Capital Region Economic Development Council, which I lead as co-chair.


I accepted the co-chairmanship of the Council in 2013 because UAlbany must expand its role as a driver of economic development. The process brings to the table every sector, every key anchor institution and every higher education partner.

This year we had a profound opportunity to explore our region’s strengths and potential through the Governor’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative. The proposal we presented to the Governor’s team last week was truly amazing and we have received very positive feedback.

We’re hoping to be one of the three winning regions that will receive $500 million each. We expect the decision by December. Either way, we produced a winning plan that will be regional blueprint for the next decade.

The strategies are around population health, advanced data analytics, cradle-to-career, research innovation and new intellectual property.

Folks, UAlbany has assets and growth plans in every one of these areas.  So we’ve played a big role in the development of this plan and we’ll play a big role in its implementation.

Our involvement on the Council has strengthened relationships with leaders and organizations across the region. Over time, we’ve helped catalyze a culture shift that is all about thinking and acting as a region.

A powerful example is the NYCAP Research Alliance that we have spearheaded with Albany Med, RPI and the Wadsworth Labs. This brings together our collective strengths and is making this region a global hotspot for health sciences and biomedical research.

This is the kind of culture we’re working toward as a university, where new possibilities become clear and dots are connected to create synergies.

This commitment to collaboration is the hallmark of all of our initiatives: the Albany Law affiliation, the interdisciplinary programs of our new colleges and our emerging vision for health sciences and biomedical research.

Building a New Strategic Plan

I think you would agree reaching our goals will require the input and expertise of everyone in this room and across the UAlbany community.  We’ll need that level of engagement in the coming year as we launch a new strategic planning process.

To move toward a shared vision in a way that is collaborative and evidence-based, I have asked Jim Stellar and my chief of staff, Leanne Wirkkula, to co-lead a new strategic planning cycle.

Enhancing the Humanities

I’d like to just touch on some of the areas of focus that are on the table for discussion.
First, as I said up front, to meet our full potential as a public research university, we must advance a strong core of arts, social sciences, and humanities.

That is why I’m very pleased to announce a new resource that will provide significant opportunities for the humanities: We are creating the Institute for History and Public Engagement. This will be fertile ground for collaboration across disciplines, to attract grants, host colloquia, and develop experiential learning programs.

This project represents the next wave of liberal arts education within a public research university.  I look forward to working with Elga Wulfert and her faculty to support its development.

Embedding Internationalization

Another area that we will explore and develop through strategic planning is how to embed internationalization throughout our work. In this age of globalization, we must prepare students with the skills to navigate new boundaries both culturally and geographically.

We also need to respond with evidence-based approaches to the challenges facing humanity that are both global and interdisciplinary in scope. We will advance research and scholarship through our global partnerships with leading scholars and institutes from around the world.

Our new Dean and Vice Provost for International Education and Global Strategy, Harvey Charles, is leading this initiative.  I look forward to working with him as internationalization becomes a prominent part of our future plans.

Organizational Goals

Some of what we must address is more operational in nature like a comprehensive institutional communications and branding strategy which will be led by Joe Brennan, our new Vice President for Communications and Marketing. 

As an organization, we also need to cultivate more strategic management practices with a focus on enhanced customer service. Moving forward we’re building a culture of continuous improvement and Jim Van Voorst, is leading us in this direction with a focus on reducing cost and increasing efficiency.

Randy Stark has recently joined us as Associate Vice President for Human Resources He’ll be an important voice in the conversation around organizational development.

We’ll also continue to demonstrate our commitment to addressing sexual violence and high-risk student behaviors and remain in the vanguard of universities in our response, prevention, and outreach services.

As we nurture the success of our highly diverse student body, we must also serve our increasingly diverse faculty and staff. Diversity is already a core strength of this university and as we build on that strength, our efforts will pay tremendous dividends in the future. We need to elevate the central role diversity plays in our vision and this core value must be articulated in our strategic plan.

Closing Summary

Clearly, we’ve made significant progress toward our vision of becoming a leading public research university. While there is much hard work ahead, we should all be emboldened by our progress and energized by our momentum.

Folks, I believe we are moving in the right direction and it’s an exciting direction! I am inspired by our opportunities. I am moved by the breadth and depth of our academic landscape, the diversity of our people and the genius of our innovation.

Based on the trajectory that we are on, I believe greatness is well within our reach. To get there we must see ourselves as one university with one common purpose. There are some mountains to climb but I’m confident that as we create an unprecedented academic expansion.

As we deeply enhance the student experience, recruit the best, brightest, and most diverse faculty and grow our resource base to fulfill our vision, we will absolutely reach 20,000 students by 2020. We will meet our potential as a leading public research university with broad and deep impact on our students, on our region and on the world.

I look forward to continuing to work closely with you and with each and every member of this campus community to build the new University at Albany.

Thank you to the University Senate for hosting us today and thank you all very much for being here. I would be happy to entertain some questions.