Katherine S. Conway-Turner has carved out a distinguished career in academia, rubbing shoulders with some of the country’s brightest minds and visionary thinkers.
But SUNY Buffalo State’s newest president isn’t afraid to get down and dirty every so often.
This past rainy, cool Saturday, for example, she ventured into the muck to pull weeds at a community farm on Fillmore Avenue, as part of a service project involving Buffalo State students.
For years, she has traveled to Haiti to improve education in the poor, remote region of Borgne, sometimes crossing rivers and sliding down muddy paths to get to a destination.
“She lives her conviction that everyone’s life matters, child or adult, here or in Haiti,” said Rose-Marie Chierici, executive director of H.O.P.E. for Haiti.
Conway-Turner, 61, was inaugurated Tuesday as the ninth president of Buffalo State in a festive celebration inside the college’s Rockwell Hall featuring bagpipes, choral performances and a drumming ensemble that closed out the ceremony.
In her address to a crowd of about 700 people, the longtime academic emphasized the importance of engaging students in rigorous debate and discussion on campus and in learning experiences outside the boundaries of the classroom.
“We have a strong tradition of community engagement and service within Buffalo, the region and the world,” Conway-Turner said. “However, we understand that engagement is a means not only to provide necessary service to our communities but also to enhance the acquisition of knowledge and deepen the understanding of coursework.”
Conway-Turner weaved the story of Buffalo State and its students with her own story of sitting by railroad tracks as a young girl and watching trains go by as she dreamed of “seemingly unreachable goals.”
She credited her great-great-grandmother, her mother and her many teachers with holding “the ladder that allowed me to reach for the stars.”
A first-generation college student from a small Missouri town, Conway-Turner earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Kansas.
She conducted research on stress and Alzheimer’s disease early in her career as a research psychologist and received her first academic appointment as a lecturer in psychology at California State University, Long Beach in 1982.
Conway-Turner served for 20 years on the faculty of the University of Delaware, where she also was director of the women’s studies program from 1993 to 1996 and later became an associate dean. She also was a dean of liberal arts and social sciences at Georgia Southern University prior to her appointment as provost and vice president of academic affairs at SUNY Geneseo from 2004 to 2009. She left Geneseo for a similar post – second-in-charge – at Hood College, a private institution in Frederick, Md.
In an interview with The Buffalo News, Conway-Turner said she pursued the Hood position to understand how private colleges “navigate in the world,” because to that point in her career she had worked only in public universities.
“We’re all sort of pressed to understand more the importance of private donations,” she said. “For private schools, they live or die on their ability to generate independent gifts.”
But Conway-Turner said her heart always has been in public education. She was drawn to Buffalo State in part by the diversity and “sense of social responsibility” on campus – a theme that she reiterated in her speech.
Conway-Turner told the audience of students, faculty and community members that the professors and staff at Buffalo State “will continue to hold steady the ladder for our students as they reach for the stars.”
Her talk was preceded by welcoming words from a dozen other speakers, including Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, Mayor Byron W. Brown and SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher.
Chierici, a faculty member at SUNY Geneseo, spoke of the times she and Conway-Turner crossed rivers to reach mountain villages in Borgne to work alongside local teachers making sure children were learning.
The Haitian villagers, added Chierici, “send their love, and they ask me to tell you how proud they are of you.”
Conway-Turner is married to Dr. Alvin Turner, a psychologist with a private practice in Delaware. They have three grown daughters.
The festivities began around noon outside Rockwell Hall, where several hundred students and staff lined the walkway wearing Bengal black and orange, throwing confetti and rattling noise makers during the procession of academics.
Kristine Assue, a senior business administration major, said Conway-Turner already has been active and visible on the campus of about 11,000 students.
“She’s definitely made a conscious effort to have a strong presence on campus,” said Assue, of Yorktown Heights in Westchester County. “I think a lot of students have this impression of the administration being up in their offices. But she wants to be in touch with the students.”
Conway-Turner also has taken to Twitter to connect with students – which hasn’t gone unnoticed by campus observers.
“We can tell from your thoughtful tweets and blogs that you are a very enthusiastic leader,” Alumni Association president Richard J. Trigilio said in his welcoming remarks.
“In a very short time, it has become clear that Dr. Conway-Turner not only understands Buffalo State, she celebrates it,” added local developer Paul J. Lamparelli, a 1982 graduate and chairman of the Buffalo State Foundation.