New University at Buffalo President Satish K. Tripathi and the presidential search committee that selected him need to do a better job of communicating with the university's various constituencies, including the Western New York community, and move away from the image of being insular operators.
UB 2020, the gigantic $5 billion plan calling for 7 million square feet of new construction and an additional 10,000 students, may be the biggest project Western New York has ever asked of Albany. But the importance of the plan and its details have never been given the wide and continuing exposure needed to be thoroughly embraced. The old idea that whatever the university wants will be good for Western New York is no longer enough. We need specifics.
The reality is that Albany is not going to give UB a blank check. UB 2020 has failed to pass because Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Education Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick oppose it. Their complaint was that it violated the basic principle of providing low-cost education to New Yorkers through the SUNY system. If the university ever tried to reach an accommodation with these two, we never heard about it.
Fortunately, Tripathi is questioning UB 2020 as well. He says he supports the plan, but believes it must be reassessed under today's financial limitations. If UB 2020 is going to survive, he needs to provide the specifics of his vision for the plan and detail how those specifics will not only be best for the university, but also best for Buffalo.
The first issue that has to be addressed is what is best for the university. Is it adding more faculty and students, building new buildings? An emphasis on size with no attention to quality? What about other criteria that are the hallmarks of a great university, such as increased research dollars and discoveries, a faculty of recognized distinction, attracting students with substantially higher SAT scores? Where do these issues of excellence fit into UB 2020? Tripathi is obligated to identify and articulate his goals.
Concerning the issue of transparency, the selection process of choosing a president did not sit well with a good number of UB students and faculty.
In January, search committee chairman Jeremy M. Jacobs told UB faculty and staff by e-mail that a national and international pool of 69 applicants had been pared down to a short list of a half-dozen or so.
Public universities commonly introduce a few of the presidential finalists during the end stages of a search, but the selection process at UB was much more confidential. No individuals were ever identified, no guidelines for the selection were published. The committee never even said whether there was another serious candidate. The choice of Tripathi was dropped out of the blue six months after the search began. Is it any wonder that some students and faculty were unhappy?
Tripathi was recruited to the university seven years ago to be the chief academic officer in charge of instruction and research. Now, however, he will be out front, the voice of the university doing the many jobs that have nothing directly to do with instruction and research.
Tripathi has been considered a private and reserved man, unlike Steven B. Sample and William Greiner, two of his predecessors who had outgoing personalities and many friends in the community. It will be interesting to see if Tripathi decides to bend his personality to the outgoing image of most university presidents, or whether his quieter style becomes effective in achieving his goals.
Top executives know that excellent communication is needed for smooth operations, and that lack of communication causes problems. The university administration needs to decide if it can bear the increased scrutiny that transparency will bring, and whether it is willing to put forth the effort required to communicate with the university family and the community at large.
UB leaders really have no choice. People who feel that information is being withheld from them become suspicious of their leaders. It's an untenable position, particularly for an institution of higher learning.
Universities can be extraordinary resources for a community. Their economic impact is always substantial. However, the degree to which a university can enhance a community, to a great measure depends upon the attitude of its officers and faculty. Some universities are essentially concerned about their core mission and see no reason to establish a town-and-gown relationship.
Tripathi told News reporter Jay Rey " 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."
He will be more than part of it; he will lead it. We eagerly wait to hear about his goals, and wish him the very best in accomplishing them.