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Seeing the big picture at UB

Satish K. Tripathi says the big picture for the University at Buffalo won't change with him as president.

He is committed to UB 2020, the university's much-talked-about strategic plan.

He is focused on building up a downtown campus.

And he is determined to get reforms in Albany to help UB generate more economic development and reach its goal of becoming a top public research institution.

But Tripathi -- who could be named UB president as soon as today -- wants to steer the conversation back to the original intent of UB 2020: academic excellence.

Attract the brightest students. Hire the best faculty. Practice cutting-edge research. Do that, and the jobs will come.

"Academic excellence," Tripathi said, "is the core."

Tripathi also wants to be practical about what UB can accomplish during these tough economic times.

In fact, he said he will take a step back and reassess UB's ability to grow by 10,000 students, which has been one of the main aspirations of UB 2020.

"I don't have a different view of 2020, but I want to be more realistic," Tripathi said. "The climate has changed.

"You think about five years ago, we had $80 million more in state aid," said Tripathi, referring to budget cuts since then. "Our goal has not changed, but it has to be aligned with the economic situation."

A special meeting will be held today on UB's North Campus in Amherst, where the State University of New York board of trustees will vote on the appointment of Tripathi, a computer scientist who has served as provost and No. 2 official at UB for the last six years.

Tripathi, 60, spoke with The Buffalo News last week for the first time since SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher nominated him to replace John B. Simpson, who retired as UB president last month.

He said he will take a month or two to crystallize his goals for UB. But he's hopeful that Albany eventually will approve changes that move UB 2020 forward, particularly now that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has expressed interest and called a summit on the plan for next month in the State Capitol.

Tripathi -- a normally private and reserved man -- also talked a little about his personal life, his background and his life-long passion for education.

"Education really was the thing my family emphasized," he said.

Tripathi grew up in the tiny village of Patna in India. The son of a high school principal, Tripathi started his education at age 3 1/2 , when he and the other children walked two miles to the nearest elementary school. At 13, he left home to attend high school 50 miles away. He lived in a hostel.

When he graduated first in his class from Banaras Hindu University, a photo of Tripathi appeared in the newspaper. It caught the attention of a man who thought Tripathi would be a good match for his daughter.

The man contacted Tripathi's family to arrange the marriage, but at age 19, Tripathi wasn't sure he was ready.

"No," his grandmother told him, "you are ready."

He and his wife, Kamlesh, have been married for more than 40 years and have two grown sons, Manish and Aashish.

After leaving India, Tripathi earned advance degrees from the University of Alberta, Canada, and then the University of Toronto. He landed at the University of Maryland, where he taught for 19 years, including semesters abroad in France and Germany.

Tripathi then served for seven years as dean of the Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside. That's where he got to know Robert N. Shelton, now the president of the University of Arizona.

"He impressed me as a fine scholar who knew how to promote quality and make hard decisions," Shelton said.

He will make a good president for UB, Shelton said.

"We need people of his quality, ethics and experience in these very difficult times for public higher education," he said. "You can expect clarity of thought, extensive collaborations, tireless communication and an intrinsic value for scholarship and education."

Tripathi came to UB in 2004 to serve as the chief academic officer in charge of instruction and research. He's proud he was able to recruit more quality faculty to UB and improve the academic profile of its students.

But he didn't think he would one day be UB's 15th president, leading the largest public university in the state.

"Not when I came here," Tripathi said, "but I saw the potential for the university. I saw the kind of opportunity the institution has and said, 'I really want to be part of it and take it to the next level.' "

Tripathi spoke about other issues, including:

*Building up a medical campus downtown: "In order for us to be excellent, we need to be working with our partners downtown," Tripathi said of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor. "That's how we'll have a lot more economic impact."

"It might take some time to get there," Tripathi said, "but the last few years, we have moved in that direction."

*Growing UB's enrollment: "The growth in the student population is something we have to evaluate," he said. "If we grow, I want to make sure we have the resources."

"If I want to get the best students, I need to provide them with the kind of instruction and access to faculty to get them here," he said, "and in the end, I need resources to hire the faculty."

*Moving forward in the face of budget cuts: "It will be difficult," Tripathi said. "We have to think about what happens if these cuts keep coming. We're looking at how we can generate more revenue."

*Transitioning into the presidency: "I definitely feel in certain aspects I can hit the ground running," Tripathi said, "but there's a lot to be learned, too. It's not the provost position."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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