UAlbany Announces $1 Million Gift to New York State Writers Institute to Launch 40th Anniversary Season

Representatives from UAlbany and the New York State Writers Institute stand in front of the Recital Hall ahead of the NYSWI's 40th Anniversary Celebration.
Chet and Karen Opalka (middle) have established the Opalka Endowed Directorship of the New York State Writers Institute. (Photo by Brian Busher)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 19, 2023) – President Havidán Rodríguez announced Thursday night a $1 million gift from area philanthropists Chet and Karen Opalka to establish The Opalka Endowed Directorship of the New York State Writers Institute (NYSWI) at the University at Albany. The endowment will provide perpetual support for the Writers Institute's leadership and its creative programming, while ensuring the organization's future as one of the preeminent literary presenting organizations in the United States.

"We are making history tonight with the largest gift in the program's 40-year history," Rodríguez said at an event celebrating the Writers Institute's 40th anniversary. "The Opalkas' transformative gift assures the continued excellence of the Writers Institute for the next 40 years and beyond — and we are immensely grateful for Karen and Chet’s generosity, leadership, and friendship."

Paul Grondahl, director of the Writers Institute since 2017, will be the first recipient of the directorship.  

“It is my honor and a great privilege to hold the title of The Opalka Endowed Directorship,” Grondahl said. “Chet and Karen Opalka inspire me with their philanthropy, their sustained commitment to arts organizations across the Capital Region, and especially the Writers Institute over the years. With this gift, we can continue to bring the greatest writers from around the world and the most diverse voices in contemporary literature to UAlbany, and to share their work with Capital Region audiences. I am proud to call Chet and Karen my friends.”

Fardin Sanai, UAlbany's vice president for advancement, noted the importance of the endowed directorship: "We have been blessed to have at the helm of the New York State Writers Institute a world-class leader in Paul Grondahl. Endowed positions, like this one, attract the best and the brightest minds to the University at Albany. We are grateful to the Opalkas for their amazing support."

“Karen and I are excited to announce The Opalka Endowed Directorship of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany,” Chet Opalka said. “This gift represents our ongoing support of the tremendous work of director Paul Grondahl and his team in bringing the greatest writers from around the world to UAlbany to enrich the cultural life of the Capital Region.”

The New York State Writers Institute 40th Anniversary Season

Director Paul Grondahl welcomes guests to the NYSWI's 40th Anniversary Celebration.
Paul Grondahl welcomes guests to the New York State Writers Institute's 40th Anniversary Celebration. (Photo by Brian Busher)

Since its founding in 1983, the New York State Writers Institute has brought more than 2,500 writers, including 13 Nobel laureates and more than 100 Pulitzer and National Book Award winners, to the University at Albany.  

In its 40th anniversary season, the NYS Writers Institute features a slate of more than 30 literary, film and cultural events, including visits by four Pulitzer Prize winners — Stephen Adly Guirgis '90, Gilbert King, Paul Muldoon and Jennifer Egan. Also scheduled to appear are environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, and filmmaker Julie Dash.

Events will include craft talks, readings and conversations with writers and poets on topics ranging from love, loss and aging to poetry, politics, history, culture, podcasts and true crime.

The 3rd Annual Albany Film Festival, another major highlight of the season, will take place Saturday, April 1, at the University. A series of films connected to the festival will be screened ahead of time in February and March.

In the fall, the Writers Institute will hold its signature event: the Albany Book Festival featuring world-renowned writers, local authors and exhibitors and a variety of workshops.

"We are deeply grateful for the ongoing support of the University at Albany and our many donors,” Grondahl said. “Their generosity ensures that we can continue to offer our acclaimed programming free and open to the public. Together, we will continue to expand our wonderful community where readers and writers meet.”         

All events take place on UAlbany's Uptown and Downtown campuses and are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.

The Opalka Family’s Philanthropy

Chet and Karen Opalka have become leading philanthropists, particularly for the arts and cultural institutions across the Capital Region, who are driven by a deep desire to add to the quality of life, cultivate open-minded collaborations, and create value in the region and beyond.

Chet Opalka, a chemist, entrepreneur and co-founder of Albany Molecular Research, has been named as inventor or co-inventor in nearly 30 patents and co-authored several scientific publications relating to his accomplishments in the field of pharmaceutical chemistry. He is an angel investor supporting local companies and serves on the Board of Trustees for Russell Sage College and the Community Foundation of the Greater Capital Region. Karen Opalka, a former elementary school teacher, currently serves on the boards of WMHT Public Media, The Howard & Bush Foundation and the Averill Park Education Foundation. She has previously served on the boards of directors for the Arts Center of the Capital Region and Capital Repertory Theatre.  

Together, they established The Opalka Gallery at Russell Sage College; co-founded and now serve on the board of The Global Child, an organization that serves children, families, and communities who have been marginalized and neglected in Cambodia; established the Kiwi Foundation to support education and the arts worldwide. The Opalkas’ prior support of NYSWI includes a $75,000 gift to underwrite an immersive, large-scale public art display on UAlbany's Uptown Campus to kick off the inaugural Albany Film Festival. 

Chet received his BS in chemistry from Niagara University and Karen received her graduate degree in elementary education from Russell Sage College. The Opalkas have two children, two grandchildren, and reside in Averill Park.