The Next Level

President Robert J. Jones is committed to moving the University at Albany “as quickly as possible to the next level of excellence.”

By Paul Grondahl, M.A. ’84

On Feb. 23, UAlbany President Robert J. Jones stood in a classroom in the former Albany High School building, setting forth a bold plan to transform the century-old former public-school building into a home for the University’s new College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS). Jones and a wide range of local elected officials, CEOs and neighborhood advocates had gathered in support of the University’s $20 million budget request for the first phase of renovations to the building.

The planned restoration, which will cost a total of $60 million, is the centerpiece of the UAlbany vision for the largest and most strategic academic expansion in five decades. In addition to providing the first and only public option for engineering in the region, baked into the new college’s design is a focus on public engagement: The facility will include a 1,000-seat auditorium and space for collaborations with local schools and community organizations; and a “maker space” where local entrepreneurs can meet with faculty, graduate students, and post-docs to develop ideas for new products and start-up ventures. Jones fondly calls it “a game-changer.

President Jones speaks at news conference about CEAS At a February news conference, University President Robert J. Jones discussed plans for UAlbany’s new College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS).

While the $20 million capital request did not make it into the enacted state budget, Jones is not deterred. “We built a very solid foundation of support for the project, and we’ll continue to seek funding from multiple public and private sources.” Construction on the 127,000-square foot building, which the University purchased for $2 million in 2013 from the Albany school district, will proceed in phases. Meanwhile, the University is moving forward on other fronts of the new college, including the establishment of a new computer engineering degree program, which is awaiting approval from the State Education Department. The college will consolidate and expand several degree programs already offered by the former College of Computing and Information (CCI). Additional programs expected to be added to the new college in coming years include electrical engineering, environmental engineering, and biomedical engineering.

“Without an engineering program, there has been a whole cohort of students we could not recruit. Creating this new college is part of moving the University to the next level of excellence,” Jones said. “We need to make sure our offerings are more in line with the employment needs of the state, and that we have the high-demand degree programs today’s students want. It will also fundamentally raise our academic profile. Locating the college in the center of Albany reflects our commitment to public engagement, and being an outward-facing institution that recruits more women, more low-income individuals and more people of color into STEM fields. We simply can’t afford to leave a large segment of our population behind.”

Community leaders from the Capital Region gathered to express their support for CEAS Community, business, education, and government leaders from the Capital Region gathered to express their support for the University at Albany’s plan to transform a century-old former public-school building into the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS).

Jones is leading a UAlbany that is the most diverse in the school’s history, to an extent that was unimaginable in 1909, when the set of buildings on Western Avenue known as the downtown campus was completed, or in 1914, when the institution officially became the New York State College for Teachers. In 2016, nearly 43 percent of UAlbany undergraduates are students of color. Almost 40 percent are first-generation college students, and about 30 percent are eligible for need-based Pell Grants. UAlbany’s vibrant multiplicity is a marvelous asset that Jones wants both to celebrate and to serve.

“We’re the most diverse campus in the SUNY system, and that’s a tremendous resource that we will continue to build upon,” he said. “UAlbany reflects the changing demographics of America, and we want to become a model for a multicultural university that provides an excellent education.” Excellence is the key, Jones says, to reaching his ambitious goal of 20,000 students by 2020, a sizable increase from the current enrollment of 17,300. “It’s a stretch goal, but it’s reachable,” said Jones, noting that the number of applications and the Fall 2015 freshman class were the largest ever.

“We project the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences will have 1,600 students in four years. And we’re putting many pieces in place to expand enrollment. As we speak, Provost Jim Stellar is in China working with a Chinese university on a partnership that is expected to bring in 100 students each year for a decade.”

Class of 2019 poses for a photo on the football field last fall

Since taking over the president’s job on Jan. 2, 2013, Jones has been moving strategically, putting together the pieces to raise the institution’s academic profile and build upon its nationally ranked programs in criminal justice, social welfare, and business. “We want to move as quickly as possible to the next level of excellence. It was very clear from the beginning that this University was poised to move up, but it was one of the best-kept secrets in higher education. Part of what we need to do is tell our story more effectively,” he said. He has made no secret of his goal to elevate UAlbany’s national rankings as a public research university.

In an interview in his third-floor University Hall office, a conversation about accomplishments and future projects was bookended by Jones’ lively anecdotes of dining with Stevie Wonder, Prince Albert II and Princess Stephanie, and Tony Bennett during the World Music Awards in Monaco (“I still get goosebumps thinking of it”); The Sounds of Blackness – the Minnesota-based R&B group he performed with for three decades; of working on inspirational projects with Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa (“the only person allowed to call me Bob”); and of growing up as a Dawson, Ga., sharecropper’s son near the farm where Otis Redding was born (“I only knew his uncles”). “I use my own personal story to underscore that no matter what your situation is growing up, it should not define what you can become,” Jones said. “I remind young people that with hard work, determination, and commitment they can create their own destiny.”

Jones has developed national stature as a thought leader on the issues of diversity and public engagement in higher education. In February at North Carolina State University, he presented a lecture titled “Institutional Culture Change in Higher Education: Leadership and Inclusive Excellence.” That same month, in an extensive interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jones addressed many of the same themes, focusing on making public-engagement a priority at public research universities. He stressed his commitment to working with the K-12 education system and serving as a co-convener of The Albany Promise, a cradle-to-career community partnership that is hosted at UAlbany. In addition, Jones serves on national boards, including Campus Compact, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Scholars at Risk Network. He is also a member of the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation.

Regionally, a major part of his public-engagement portfolio is his co-chairmanship of the Capital Region Economic Development Council along with James Barba, president and CEO of Albany Medical Center. During the past three years in that post, Jones has overseen the council’s vetting and awarding of tens of millions of dollars in economic development aid to businesses and municipalities across the Capital Region.

“Part of my job as president is being visible and engaged; serving as co-chair of our regional council serves that purpose. I also feel an obligation to boost the economic vitality of the Capital Region,” Jones said. “We are working on a regional strategy that doesn’t pit one city against the other. We’re developing an economic-development blueprint for this region for the next decade and beyond. I find the collaboration exciting.”

Partnerships, collaboration, and expansion are strong themes of transformation in Jones’ presidency. In September the University announced an affiliation agreement with Albany Law School, creating important new academic opportunities for students and novel interdisciplinary research and grant prospects for faculty, and advancing the Capital Region’s role as a leader in higher education and innovation. It expands a 20-year collaboration between UAlbany and the nation’s oldest independent law school – one that already includes a “3+3” program in which a student can receive an undergraduate degree and a law degree in six years (instead of seven), and multiple joint graduate programs. “The affiliation will give UAlbany students across majors access to legal education,” Jones said. “And for Albany Law students, our academic portfolio offers training in highly marketable subspecialties like criminal justice, cybersecurity, and public health. There are some powerful synergies that make both institutions stronger.”

Another initiative that Jones has overseen is the launch of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC). It is the first college of its kind in the nation, developed after Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his 2015 State of the State Address, put out the call asking for the creation of such a school. Because of existing faculty expertise in homeland security and cybersecurity, and a strong foundation of related academic programs, UAlbany was chosen as the home of the new college. “CEHC is truly a groundbreaking development for UAlbany and for the state and nation,” Jones said. “These programs are preparing professionals to protect our state and nation against a new generation of challenges and threats.”

CEHC will eventually be located in the future Emerging Technology and Entrepreneurship Complex, to be situated on 12 acres that UAlbany will acquire on the southwest corner of the Harriman State Office Campus. “This facility will bring together our world-class resources in homeland security and emergency preparedness,” Jones said. “And the proximity to state agencies like the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services will allow us to strengthen our collaboration in these critically important areas.” In addition to CEHC, the 236,000-square-foot building, known as E-TEC, will house the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, and the National Weather Service, among other UAlbany assets. It will also serve as the hub of the New York State Mesonet, a UAlbany-led network of weather monitors designed to better prepare the state for dangerous storms.

As the conversation turned to what will be required to finance the University’s ambitious expansion plans, Jones paused to gaze out his office window and to make a sweeping gesture toward another sign of UAlbany’s transformation: the Massry Center for Business, dedicated Sept. 17, 2015, to honor the philanthropic family’s $5.25 million gift, at the time the largest in the University’s history.

Massry Center for Business and the Tom and Mary Casey Stadium In Fall 2015, the University family celebrated the namings of the Massry Center for Business and the Tom & Mary Casey Stadium.

And just across the Podium rise the purple and gold bleachers of the Tom & Mary Casey Stadium. UAlbany announced last Oct. 8, less than a month after the Massry gift celebration, receipt of its largest gift ever: $10 million to support the football stadium and other facilities, expand scholarships for student-athletes and address additional priorities in athletics. The gift was made by the Bernard & Millie Children’s Foundation, which was established by the son of Bernard and Millie Duker, William Duker ’75 of Westerlo and New York City; his wife, Sharon (Casey) Duker; and their son, William “West” Duker. The stadium was named in honor of Sharon Duker’s parents.

The back-to-back ceremonies of the $15.25 million historic donor gifts, have provided a boost to fundraising efforts. “Those were catalytic, transformative gifts,” Jones said. “They came from remarkable, philanthropic families, and they will make others take notice and follow their lead. In all, we’ve raised slightly more than $40 million in the past three years since I’ve been president, and that represents a new level of success for UAlbany.

“I have gotten some questions about whether I’m trying to do too much too fast, but it’s not in my nature to coast,” said Jones. “I realize we have multiple balls in the air, and I tell people they better learn to juggle. A president can’t do anything alone – I have a tremendous team working alongside me. I want to send a very strong message that while there is a lot of work to be done, UAlbany is on a very strong path to emerge as a leading public research university.”