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Karen R. Hitchcock, 1943-2019

The University’s 16th president built strategic partnerships to aid the University

From left, clockwise, Karen R. Hitchcock celebrates the opening of the new Arts & Sciences (formerly Administration) Building in September 2002; the new president speaks with students in 1996; she takes part in a press event in 1996 after the New York Giants choose UAlbany as their summer home, with Giant co-owner Bob Tisch at left, and Gov. Pataki and Giant Head Coach Dan Reeves at right.

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 16, 2019) — Karen R. Hitchcock, UAlbany’s 16th president, its first female chief executive and one of the most influential leaders in the University’s history, passed away on Wednesday at age 76 after a long illness.

The changes brought by Hitchcock’s one year as interim president (1995) and eight years in the permanent position (1996-2004) are visible in the many new and renovated buildings she brought about on the Uptown and East campuses — each representing an initiative she believed would advance the institution as a multi-dimensional research university that manifestly served its students, faculty, staff and region.

Among these structures are the Science Library — which in 1999 became the first academic building opened on the Uptown Campus since its beginnings in 1965 — the Life Sciences Research Building (2004), Empire Commons (2002), the Boor Sculpture Studio (2002), the Cancer Research Center (begun 2003, opened 2005), the Arts & Sciences Building (2002) and University Hall (begun 2003, opened 2006).

“Karen Hitchock was an inspiration and joy to work for,” said William Hedberg, who served her for 13 years as assistant and then associate vice president for Academic Affairs. “She accomplished a lot, and it was thrilling to be a part of it.”

As much as the edifices for which she was largely responsible, Hitchcock was known for a personal style that translated into results. Famously, she brought together state leaders, most pivotally Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and the University Foundation which led to the Foundation’s acquisition of the property that is now the Health Sciences Campus. State support created office, classroom and research space for the School of Public Health, Cancer Research Center, and Center for Functional Genomics (1999), plus acreage to house private biotech firms such as Regeneron and Albany Molecular Research and more than a dozen start-up biomed companies.

Karen Hitchcock on the Fall 1996 cover of UAlbany Magazine

The cover of the Fall 1996 UAlbany magazine, featuring the inauguration of Karen R. Hitchcock as the University's 16th president. (Photo by Gary Gold '70) 

She also helped bring New York Gov. George Pataki and New York Giant co-owner Robert Tisch together to establish UAlbany as the summer home of the football team from 1996 to 2012. She was founding co-chair of the Business-Higher Education Roundtable, an alliance of 14 academic institutions and businesses that worked to support the region’s economic growth and quality of life. She was a strong voice on the boards of numerous civic and educational organizations, continuing to attend some meetings just weeks before her death.

"Dr. Hitchcock was a trailblazer throughout her career in higher education, and the University at Albany and the Capital Region are stronger and more vibrant thanks to her significant professional and philanthropic contributions to so many of our most cherished community organizations," University President Havidán Rodríguez wrote to the campus community on the day of her passing.

Words that Hitchock was never shy about using were “synergy,” “synergism” and even “synergistically.” “If the University’s strengths can be linked to that of the state and region, the synergy can be incredible,” she told the Daily Gazette in 2002. Early on in her presidency, she noted, “No sector of society can go it alone anymore. We must be right in the center of what’s going on in society and helping to lead those efforts. That takes partnerships, coalitions.”

She was just as commanding and beguiling in bringing together folks on campus, such as when she would enlist choral leader David Janower and pianist-professor Findlay Cockrell to lead winter holiday singalongs, complete with accompanying piano and University Chamber Singers. (Janower turned the tables one year by getting her to purchase new uniforms for the singers.) She freely admitted she loved big parties and big celebrations.

“She was bright, engaged, intellectual and warmly human,” said Hedberg. “She had a great personal touch. My children remember her interest and attentions on them. She was all about excellence in her expectations for performance, for herself and others.

“She was a perfectionist, especially in writing. She was a scientist but passionate about music — especially oratorio — and the literary arts, all areas we enjoyed in conversations during her UAlbany service and after.”

A Mineola native, Hitchcock received her B.S. in biology from St. Lawrence University and her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. As a Tufts University researcher, she published extensively in her field of cell and developmental biology, receiving numerous grants and leading various academic organizations.

Before coming to UAlbany as provost and vice president for academic affairs, she was vice chancellor for research, dean of the Graduate College and professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She was drawn to come to UAlbany in 1991, she said, by its interdisciplinary excellence and the diversity of its students.

“Dr. Hitchock believed deeply in UAlbany,” said Hedberg. “She was enthusiastic about the University’s students, faculty and our future. She had a great sense of humor, and a wonderful, hearty laugh. I am sure my colleagues who also served her would join me in saying that she elevated us all.”

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Dr. Hitchcock's funeral service is at 11 a.m. today at Christ Community Reformed Church, 1010 Route 146, Clifton Park. Donations in her memory are being accepted at the Karen Hitchcock New Frontiers Fund for IFW and at Albany ProMusica.

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