Q&A with UB President Tripathi

The Spectrum sits down with Tripathi to discuss student concerns

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The Spectrum sat down for a monthly lunch with UB President Satish Tripathi in Tripathi’s office to discuss his career, campus security, freedom of speech and student concerns.

Q: You started working in academia in 1978 and began working at UB in 2004, what do you regard as your biggest accomplishment at UB?

A: This is something I feel others should tell me what I’ve done. It’s not for me to rate myself and what’s my biggest accomplishment. I would say there are multiple things on campus we have done, and I have the honor and pleasure to be here during those times whether when I was a provost from 2004-2011 or from 2011 until now as president. You know a lot of that actually is academic excellence. That’s the kind of thing we’ve been trying to do and it’s not just my job as myself. As we look at it as where we are, I would say that our movement in admission as a research university, … our movement in ranking in the past five years, that all shows academic excellence. But it’s not just academic excellence just for the name, but also how does it impact the students and whether it comes in terms of graduation, ... the kind of students you attract here, the kind of competition you bring in and all of that really is part of academic excellence. And then of course, you have to think about the environment, by that I mean the infrastructure that exists. The infrastructure is really the new medical school, engineering school, the renovation of Hayes Hall, 1Capen or 1Diefendorf, … I see that as a totality of things that we are trying to move and move forward and so to answer your question, that’s someone’s [right] to decide what my achievement is.

Q: In your time at UB, have you seen a change in the type of students here?

A: What I’ve seen really –– and these are more observational –– more and more students are getting national at-large [recognition] through the Truman Fellowship, the National Science Foundation Fellowship or other fellowships and getting recognized. The numbers have increased exponentially in those areas. It shows that our students are ambitious and competing nationally, so I’ve seen more of those things happening which is a good change. If you look at the student body as a whole, every year we are improving the quality of students coming in as well.

Q: In terms of higher education, what do you think are the biggest challenges UB faces today?

A: If you look at our students today, we have about 36-37 percent of our students are[Pell grant recipients]. … If you look at other research institutions, there are very few that are higher than us. That means we are really educating a lot of the first-generation, a lot of people who are not as financially [well-off]. So the major issue is really how do we make the same kind of education, same kind of experience available to them as we have for the rest of the students who have resources, so one of the challenges for us really is how do we supplement those experiences for them with resources from outside. We don’t have resources available to us through the tuition and the resources really to do those things, and that’s really where philanthropy comes in. And for me, it’s how we can get resources so any student who wants to study abroad can do it, any student who wants to participate in a club that engineering stuff and so on, they can do it. Other support services we can provide to students, we can provide in scholarship, so they actually study here. The biggest challenges are really how we can provide students who don’t have the same means as other students and that’s a large number of students here.

Q: In terms of international students, last year we reported a story that premised international students don’t feel as integrated at UB as they hoped. What do you think UB’s responsibility is and should be to international students?

A: You know, we have done a lot and actually nationally people consider us as a model for people to come to, so the Office of International Education actually works very hard to make sure we integrate students. As you know, when they come in, there’s a full six or seven days of orientation for them. And throughout the year, the events that they do to make sure that there’s a mixing of students and so on, keep advising them that. There are some really good models on the campus. Engineering has done a great job in terms of what they do, business has done a good job, so we really want to replicate those models all throughout campus. It’s an issue on all kinds on campus in terms of integration. If you talk to people elsewhere at other international education offices, they would say that they follow the Buffalo model. There’s continuously a push on that.

Q: Do you see in light of the Trump presidency and his measures, as having an effect on international admissions here?

A: So nationally if you look at it, including ourself, applications are down. The undergraduate applications are not down, the graduate applications are not down, it’s more of the masters applications that are going down. I just read that a large percentage of Master’s students are from China and India. You have close to three million people living there, almost half of the population where the students come from. The Indian student applications were down 20-something percent last year, so definitely there has been a slowness. I think it’s more uncertainty. It’s not certain whether they can work or not, so if you think about it, this is the place where you can get the best education in the world, so where else would you go? If there’s certainty on being able work for a few years after you finish it, immigration issues, if they have more certainty there, there’s no reason to go away. But right now we are down by 200 to 300 [international students] I guess –– that’s the number I hear and I think similar numbers for next year. My opinion is that as we get a better understanding on the immigration issues, we would not see any downturn.

Q: Many students are concerned about safety on campus after the Parkland shooting. What are UB’s security measures and are you concerned about this?

A: Genuinely so, that should always be a concern. If you look at it really, New York state has pretty tough laws right in terms of guns and so on. There’s no way to predict someone’s behavior and we on the campus have a fairly robust team and we have done tabletop exercises. We have active shooter exercises on campus. We really prepare ourselves, I mean that’s all you can do really, prepare ourselves. And there was one real one about 8-9 years ago in Lockwood Library. Someone said someone had a gun, which wasn’t the case, but UB had those things tested and s on. We definitely are concerned about these things. Society should be concerned about what’s going on. And we always make sure that our police are actively watching and we are prepared for any events and that’s all one can hope for. You can see the whole issue is divided on what the solutions are, but there’s no one solution here.

Q: Students who are parents rallied on campus in May and submitted a “Plan for Action” to administration where they talked about the lack of support and discrimination they feel they face on campus and are asking for more support from the university. What are your thoughts on this?

A: So we definitely don’t support anybody discriminating anyone … Just because someone has a child, or doesn’t have a child shouldn’t make a difference. We have a whole office for that and it’s well advertised and it’s all confidential. If someone is feeling that, I want to them to really go, so we can take care of that. It’s not really our policy to administrate on that. With respect to that students getting support, there are multiple ways we are talking about, the money support .. This is where students get money packages in terms of what their needs are. Apart from that we don’t have a separate set of money we can give to people. On the issue of facilities, that we can definitely look at. If someone needs a private place, our facilities are working on that. It should be close to where someone is and we should be able to provide that … There are places that would take care of that.

We asked students to submit questions for us to ask:

Q: When students submitted questions for you, they asked how your family is doing. You have two sons, how are they doing and where are they at?

A: They are doing very well. They are both in Seattle and they both work for Amazon. One was actually a professor in marketing at Emory and he left and he joined Amazon two years ago … They live about three to four miles from each other. One is 41 and one is 39. One graduated in ‘98 from Stanford and one graduated in 2001 from Berkeley. They did work and then went to graduate school. They both went to Kellog, one for Ph.D. and one for MBA … I have one grandson and one granddaughter and they are both in Seattle.

Q: Do you ever give advice to your sons about their careers?

A: No, they don’t listen to me. They might have questions once in a while … I’m a fourth generation teacher in the family, so my older son did go into academia, but he decided that he would rather do research for Amazon.

Q: What advice do you have for students in terms of careers?

A: If they have a chance to do summer jobs, experiential learning is very important. I think if they really have some experience either through an internship or just working somewhere or working with a non-profit, some kind of experience. This is what we’re pushing in the new curriculum for every student to have that experience. If they have something like that, I think that is very helpful and the chances of getting a job are much higher. Study hard and do whatever major you want to do, but make sure that you have some experiential learning.

Q: What kind of music do you listen to in your free time?

A: You know, I mostly listen to Indian music and classical music whether it’s sitar or some old Indian songs. ... Ravi Shankar is the major artist in terms of classical music, so a lot of his combinations. I don’t get as much time to listen to music.

Q: What do you do when you’re not working?

A: I do read some books sometimes, sometimes technical, sometimes non-technical, so right now there are a couple of books that I’m looking at. One actually is a book on statistics for health sciences. I used to study statistics to see how it has changed. And if you remember, a speaker who came here who used to be the chief information officer of the country and she talked about security of data and she has a book on that issue, I’m looking at that. That’s a very important topic about big data and how to secure it and so on. A lot of times, just watching TV will help me to wound down and catching up on sleep. Actually the other book I’m reading that I like very much is a really, really good book about free speech on campus. Right now, that’s my favorite book I’m reading.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about free speech and what you’ve learned from the book you’re reading?

A: So basically if you think about free speech, one of the arguments there are as long as you don’t have -- you have to allow people to say what they want to say -- if you think about really, we had an incident here a couple years ago: “Black Only, White Only” and a lot of people were saying that we should fire the professor and so on. The book argues the opposite and that’s what we did. We brought more educational programs among other things. If we did not allow contrary views, we would not make any progress and it sort of goes back to the civil rights day … Especially in a public university, you have to allow whatever speech there is. Free speech is very important.

Q: In what ways do you think we can enhance free speech on campus?

A: I think we have a good sort of system in place already. We have speakers from different points of views coming here already and I think it’s important to do that. I think we have a pretty good system at UB already.

Q: What is something most students don’t know about you?

A: It’s hard to say. They can Google and find anything about me, I don’t have any secrets and they might not know my childhood but that’s not important to them. I grew up in a very small village [in India] not much facilities, so we didn’t have power or running water in those times. We had good teachers ... I lived there for 13 years … My father [who was a principal] and I opened a school for girls there [that’s named after my grandmother]. My brother who’s a professor and physician visits there and makes sure that things are going well and I go there too once in a while, every year or so. When we were growing up, there was nothing there actually for girls. My sister had to go and live about 15-20 miles away and study there.

Q: Lastly, we’re quickly approaching UB 2020 and students would like to know what it means to you?

A: So actually, UB 2020, to me is really a vision, not a date. So really, if you think about 2020, there are three or four aspects we’ve been doing. One is to make sure that we have academic excellence, get the best faculty and have them work together. This work began 10-11 years ago. Second one was to provide our students with the best education. One of my goals as provost was to provide every student with some aspect of education similar to the Honors College. So we started the Academies, we changed the curriculum. The education part of it is the twenty-first century continuing to improve that. And we continue to do that. There’s a lot to do. The third aspect is infrastructure ... and the fourth is being relevant to the local economy because you can’t be the top university if the city is not doing well... So for a lot of people UB 2020 looks like a date, and it’s going to stop there, but for me, 2020 is a guided principle. It’s a vision and we really are continuing to improve on those four aspects.

The Spectrum will meet with Tripathi next on April 12. Students can submit questions they have for Tripathi to eic@ubspectrum.com

Hannah Stein is the editor in chief and can be reached at hannah.stein@ubspectrum.com and @HannahJStein.