Spectrum's Q&A with UB President Satish Tripathi
Tripathi discusses Dennis Black scandal, auxiliary enterprises, student leadership, graduate stipends
Q: Can you describe your specific role at the university? What does a typical work day look like for you?
A: There’s no typical day in the life that I can walk you through. The president has a team of people he works with for a lot of different issues on the campus, whether it’s what’s going on in the academic side of the house, the business side. But the main job for the president really is that everything’s going right and that there are enough resources to do it...And then of course, anything that goes wrong is my job.
Q: How often do you meet with students?
A: Different settings, different times, whether it’s a football game or it could be an award ceremony. I just gave a talk a couple weeks ago [at a student scholar ceremony]. I spent an hour or so talking about the university and so on. Last year for example I had six or seven dinners with the students on the North and South Campus. This year again I will have some of those. I also go to the Student Union to get my lunch sometimes when I have time to get out for lunch. I try to meet with student leadership as well. We had a meeting the other day here. So there are multiple places where I meet with students and it could be almost a daily basis. It could be I’m walking and I meet a couple students there.
Q: Last semester we published a story “Isolated: International students not integrated” that talked about the divide between international and domestic students on campus and it had a pretty significant effect on students and UB had a lot of feedback from it. Do you think that the integration between international and domestic students is an important issue to address and do you plan on allocating more funds toward that as the international population continues to grow at UB?
A: The divide shouldn’t exist between international or domestic students. And we have allocated money to the international program to bring the students closer. It’s hard when you come from another country, initially there is some level of hesitation, how do you provide the scenarios so the students feel comforted? It’s not that there’s some kind of barrier there, it’s just how do you encourage [international] students to talk to domestic students and create friendships? I always talk about it at the orientation for international students, being an international student one time, I understand that...There’s quite a bit of funding already in the international office. If you look, the funding’s increased quite a bit in the last few years. Just funding doesn’t do things. You can put more money but if people aren’t actually coming together, that won’t solve the problem. So you need to have special problems where the funding might help but you may not need any funding. So example, this whole Thanksgiving program, it’s not funding, it’s the funding might not help.
Q: The campus is still in shock from the Dennis Black situation. Many students feel he was the most friendly and accessible face. Arguably, he was the first person many students met when starting their journey at UB. What was your relationship like with Dennis Black? Did you have a personal relationship with him?
A: It was shocking to me, it was sad. It’s sad not only for him but for the whole university community here. My relationship to him was, you know, not a friendship relationship but we were pretty close. Once every few weeks we met, I was at different functions with him and so it was, it was reasonably close relationship as I have with my vice presidents. Definitely as you know we have a new person now, Scott Weber, and he’s as active, if not more, with the students. And I think to the students, definitely it was a shock as well as many of you knew Dennis Black quite well. It is really sad and it’s something that I never expected. I still feel sort of betrayed, not just for me but for the entire campus.
Q: Who was in charge of overseeing Black? Who oversees you in your position as president?
A: Sure, it was my job, I’m the president, vice president is underneath me. I have multiple people who oversee my position. The Chancellor, the Board of Trustees, I have a council here. So I have people who oversee me.
Q: How did something like this happen?
A: This is more complicated than just “overseeing.” If you think about it, the FSA is kind of an outside organization, not directly reported to me. The activities that were kind of illegal happened outside of the campus, and it’s only because I said, ‘I’m not getting something,’ and that really led to the investigation. As soon as I became hired, the first person I hired was Laura Hubbard. She got the person to do the audits, the internal audits that weren’t in great shape before. So me, not getting the information I was supposed to get, that’s when we looked into it further, and it turns out it was outside. But you know you could have the best policies and the best system in place, and there will always be people trying to do something. You can’t monitor two people for every person that you hire. So the point is if you find something what do you do and make sure that doesn’t happen again. We’re hoping the actions that we’ve taken will really make it bullet-proof.
Q: When did you discover that Black was not submitting travel vouchers?
A: I discovered he was not submitting travel vouchers sometime around January or February of 2016. When we found out about the Dennis Black stuff, we followed full protocol from the the SUNY auditors and then we talked to the [Inspector General]. It’s the [Inspector General] office that then took over and they actually found out what else was going on.
Q: How will UB spend the over $300,000 in restitution money Black is paying back to the university?
A: That was money owed to the university. It will be used for all kinds of purposes, including whether we need to do some renovations to facilities or whether we need to hire some students, it will be used for university purposes as it was meant to be. Once the restitution money comes back to the university, there’s a process for allocation that’s run by the Provost and the Vice President for Finance and Administration, they actually have a whole budget allocation process. Every unit on the campus prepared their budget and it is based on the money available and the priorities that are defined. And they are looking at every area on the campus.
Q: In light of Black’s crime, how do you plan to regain the UB community’s faith in you?
A: It’s very important to re-build that trust and one of the ways to build trust is to know that we have the checks and balances and show them that they are working and talking to them like I’m talking to you and talking to student leadership and making sure that the trust is built. It’s going to take some time because this happened, and I understand that.
Q: Roughly 150 students and faculty marched in demand of a living stipend Monday afternoon. Graduate assistants provide the instruction and research that the university needs to operate, yet are not paid enough to meet the rising cost of living in Buffalo. What do you plan to do to address this issue?
A: We’ve been addressing this for a while, multiple departments have been working on it. If you look at it nationally compared to other public universities, we are in the middle for how much stipend we provide. We can always provide more, and we want to provide more, and that’s why multiple departments are trying to increase it. There’s not a sort of branch somewhere that you can put the money in and also you’ve got to increase the stipends in order to get the best students, otherwise you won’t get them. It’s really in the best interest of the university to be competitive. And we are competitive, but not really extremely competitive. So you want to really make sure we get the best students so the undergraduate students who interact with them get the best from students. It’s not a full-time job for somebody to say that it’s a living stipend. It’s a stipend. And a stipend is not a job as such. But at the same time, as a graduate student--I have been a TA as a graduate student--but it’s the training that one goes through, training to teach as well. And as the vice provost had said, there is a plan to address the issue. So this is a priority to get the best students and to make sure we get the Ph.D students who come and do well and then they graduate in time and they’re not here for ten years. And then they graduate and they get a job, so we train them to really get a job as well. If in certain fields there aren’t as many jobs available, why are we having so many Ph.D. students as well? We need to look at the whole demand and supply issue, but also the quality issue; we need to get the best students. Actually the reputation of the institution is based on the kind of PhD’s we produce, so it’s important for us.
Q: So, just to clarify, you said being a TA is not technically a job, but graduate students are doing a significant amount of labor for the university. Do you feel they should be compensated accordingly for the amount of labor they contribute?
A: It’s a $38,000 package once you combine everything. So if you just think about it, it’s not labor in the sense that not everybody can do it. As a Ph.D student you are under the supervision of faculty, there’s a lot more to it. And if you look at the total package, it’s pretty decent, but it can always be better, they should get more money. But still, if you think about the labor, that’s really a fairly good size package. There’s tuition, you’ve got the health benefit and everything else combined, that’s $38,000.
Q: Do you support public officials serving on private board such as the UB Foundation that aren’t subject to open government laws?
A: Yes, of course, if it’s beneficial to the university. They are part of a community, the university is not totally isolated. We are OK with having [public officials] there as long as it is really supporting the university, enhancing the university in terms of its reputation. I serve on the [UBF] board because by position I serve on that board; the President serves on that board as an ex-officio member.
Q: Vice President of Finance Laura Hubbard said auxiliary enterprises such as FSA are in a separate corporation because “by virtue of the type of business they do, it doesn’t work well in the state agency business department”-- What does this mean? Why doesn’t the type of business they do work well in the state business department? Isn’t the UB Foundation part of UB?
A: Auxiliary enterprises like FSA exist at many campuses, I don’t know why it was established that way, but it was established by the state. You are dealing with the food services and university shops and so on, you’re hiring a lot of temporary workers and you go through a state process that would be harder to manage actually, but they must have thought about it years ago what the problems were.
Q: How is it possible for an organization such as FSA to manage state and student funds, but still not be required to follow open government laws?
A: [FSA] is not managing state funds. The money is not coming from the state. If you think about it, the money for FSA is the money for food, the service that’s provided. State loan money is separate. You’re spending that money. If you’re getting a loan, that’s your private money—you have to pay for it. And the state doesn’t ask you to go and buy the books right there, you have options here. Other people who don’t get state money are also buying things. That money is your money. Once you get the money from the state as a loan because you’ve got to pay for it. So if you think about it, you could take that money and buy your food somewhere else. You don’t have to be on the meal plan…but if you’re living here, that’s part of the package for the dorms, if you live here, your food is here as well.
Q: Do you think student journalism is important? Why or why not?
A: I think it is important for you to learn things, and many of you will be journalists as you go on, so that’s good, but it’s actually good for the university because you definitely are a group of journalists who are looking after the interests of the students, the society and so on. And you keep reminding us why we’re here, and really these probing questions are important for all of us to be really thinking and double-thinking. You really bring a perspective which is very important, and whether you’re doing investigative journalism, activism or whatever it is. You really have a point of view that’s important.