When COVID-19 hit Buffalo, UB President Satish Tripathi saw an opportunity to listen to music, read non-fiction books and catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Tripathi, who recently completed his 10th year as the first international-born president in UB’s history, has been busy navigating the pandemic and addressing social justice issues.
The Spectrum sat down with Tripathi for about 30 minutes on Monday to discuss UB’s fall 2021 COVID-19 protocols, its commitment to diversifying its faculty and the UB Foundation’s plans to divest from companies that derive revenues from fossil fuels.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
Tripathi on coping with COVID-19
“It has been [a] testing time for everyone, really, to cope with this. I have been coming to the office every day, I do social distancing. I have my mask on. And I get tested every week, of course, but I have been coming to the office every weekday and sometime on the weekends, as well. And for me, really just thinking about the health and safety of our students, that’s really my heartbeat now. If you go a year back, maybe 14 months ago, they [students] had to switch to online and that was a major task for the campus. And then, of course, as the guidelines keep changing, as we get more information about COVID-19 and all that, you have to change that as well.
“For me, I love to listen to music sometimes. I try to get as much sleep as I can — when I get time to do that. Right now I’m reading ‘The Code Breaker,’ this new book that, really, has been fascinating talking about the the life and research journeys of the scientists who created a lot of stuff in CRISPR (a family of DNA sequences), that we have really been using for our [COVID-19] vaccine, if you think about it.
“But really, for me, it has been, during this time, thinking about the campus and working with our leadership to make sure that we take care of the students and staff safety and still provide education — a good education. It’s not the same as in person, but at least we’re trying to provide them [students] as close to that [an in-person experience] as possible. People are learning and graduating.”
Tripathi on campus COVID-19 policies in the fall
“SUNY is looking into that, the governor’s plan is that if you’re vaccinated, inside and outside, you can be without a mask, but you have to be careful, still, in indoor settings and [some] people are not vaccinated.
“So I would say that we’ll follow the CDC guidelines and the U.S. guidelines, which gives rise to how SUNY is going to tell us what to do. And [we] definitely will follow all that [SUNY’s recommendations]. My hope is that, at least on campus outside, once people are vaccinated, they don’t have to have any kind of mask here. But again, it might be too early for me to say what exactly is going to be. SUNY is working on it.
“As we understand more about the virus and COVID-19, more and more relaxations will be coming, hopefully. So we will definitely follow the [CDC, U.S. and SUNY] guidelines as it comes to the next stage [of reopenings]. We are looking forward to it. I know it's interesting. The surveys show that our faculty and staff are getting close to 80% vaccination, or they are starting to get that. So that's really good news.”
Tripathi on vaccine hesitancy and the return to campus
“We are providing communication to people to show the benefits [of getting vaccinated] and what we know from science and how safe it [the COVID-19 vaccine] is. And, of course, it’s safe for the students as well. I mean, because this particular disease is still pretty fatal… and also people have to go through a lot of pain. So, showing that you would be able to do a lot more activities [if you are vaccinated]. We plan to do that.
“This [getting vaccinated] is really for their [students’] safety and the safety of others. That’s the point we want to make, plus, pending the full approval of at least one vaccine by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], the governor has said that all in-person students will be required to be vaccinated starting the fall of 2021. The only caveat there is that one of the vaccines has to be [approved]. Right now, they are [approved for] emergency use, but it’s the biggest clinical trial that has ever happened. Hundreds of millions of people have participated. And the results look good. So if it’s approved by FDA, then of course it would be required for anybody in-person here.”
Tripathi on COVID-19 testing in the fall semester
“Definitely not at the level of testing we’re doing now, but that guidance has to come from SUNY. If you’re vaccinated, then maybe you are tested once a month, once in two months or something, but not every week. But if you’re not vaccinated, then testing will probably continue.”
Tripathi on the lack of mental health days during the spring 2021 semester
“We really know how hard this year and particularly this semester has been on our students. Our students had so many challenges in pursuing their degree requirements while navigating the pandemic. And we had to start the semester a little bit later. And, unfortunately, we could not embed a spring break or wellness day into our academic year.
“But we heard from our students, we really empathize with the tremendous strain that you are experiencing. We understand that. And this is why, program by program, our faculty made adjustments to the syllabi to help alleviate the stress for our students, and give a much needed break.
“I know, personally, that this year caused our students so much stress. I’m proud of our students for persevering. And I recognize that you did so under incredibly trying circumstances. Provost [A. Scott Weber] and I walk around the campus every day with our masks on. And we meet the students and talk to them. Everyone is really under pressure, doing their studies. But just [after] starting a little late, there was no time [to insert reading days] so we asked the faculty members to really think about it and give accommodation for what students are going through.”
Tripathi on UB’s drop in global university ranking lists
“There are probably eight or 10 major rankings, and every year there will be some change, [UB will go] up and down [in ranking].
“But what you have to look at in any rankings really is: are we moving in the right direction, in the long term, not yearly fluctuation? What you need to think about is, in five years, where will we be and where are we right now? Then you have to look at, ranking the [different] rankings and sort of combine these rankings and see if we’re moving in the right direction, whether we like the ranking or not. But parents and students look at those rankings, most of them look at the U.S. News and World Report ranking. Whereas these other rankings are more global rankings. And they’re really still learning, some parameters are changing every year.
“So I’m not concerned about one year’s ranking of any kind, and nobody should be concerned. In fact, if you look at the major rankings in the last 10 years, we have gained a lot in the rankings. And that’s why I have been talking about how we should be a top-25 public research university because I think we are moving in that direction, and we’re only a few points behind, although those points are much harder to gain. I don't think we should be worried about one ranking one year.”
Tripathi on UB’s commitment to hiring diverse professors
“As you know, social justice is one of our core missions as a public research university. And the events during the last year and a half have amplified [that mission].
“So last summer, I convened a President’s Advisory Council on ways to explore how we can become more equitable in our programs, activities, traditions, just holistically. And some of the recommendations that came [have been] how do we recruit [and] retain underrepresented minority faculty on the campus. I promote them. Recruit, retain, promote, mentor. So they really stay at the campus. And the second one that came is improving recruiting [and] retention of graduation rates for underrepresented minority students. Three or four years ago, we were one of the top three institutions in the country that had closed the gap in the graduation rates for [between] minorities and the rest of the population here.
“They also came up with the recommendation that [through] the UB Curriculum, through the lens of inclusive pedagogy, we need to really look at whether our curriculum has some of those [recruiting and retaining] elements or not. And then really thinking about the community and how we relate to the community here in Buffalo. Provost Weber has really taken the lead on that and his goal is to double the underrepresented minority faculty. And he's working with the deans.
“Let me stress: the question is not only one of hiring more underrepresented minority faculty. It is really the retention of that faculty. I think we have hired well, but we haven’t been able to retain as well and that’s really one of the major priorities and we’re working on that. And we are also working on the issue of PhD programs, our professional programs, are we getting enough students of color in those programs? The medical school, for example, has done a fantastic job in the last few years. If you want to take the best practices, and think about the rest of the campus.
“Finally, to achieve some of these goals, in February of this year, I purposefully designated a 10-year, $10 million gift to help realize our values of equity, diversity and inclusion. We’re really concentrating on retaining professors with our chairs, with scholarship money. And I’m getting more money; actually, we had $2 million put into a, sort of, challenge grant. And I think we’ll be doing some of that more. So this is really a priority for us. And we are going to be monitoring our success with data to see how we proceed on that. The committee did a fantastic job. The President’s Advisory Council on Race has done a fantastic job, and they will be looking at how we work on it.”
Tripathi on the UB Foundation
“The new foundation has been working on it [divesting from fossil fuels] for a while. And UB, itself, is on a path to neutrality by 2030. And UB recognizes our effort and embraces our values. But it’s a separate foundation and is not part of UB. And so it is very important, though, that we make investment decisions aligned with the UBF’s vision on the ‘fossil free future.’
“So that’s why they [UBF] have committed to further reducing their remaining fossil fuel exposure [investments]. Some of the exposure [investments] take time to get out of, based on the type of investment. And if you follow this, nationwide, it takes a little bit of time, you can’t just immediately get out of certain kinds of investments. And we also want to think about investing in strategies that integrate environmental and social [practices] as people call the ESG [Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance] right consideration that actually is a lot broader and really hard moving in that direction.
“In this kind of process, UBF has undertaken a very rigorous process to carefully consider ESG elements in the investment decisions as well. So it’s really that they have been planning for it for a while and they are at a stage where they have actually gotten out of some [investments] and hopefully in the next five to seven years they will be out of it [completely]. But there are some investments that are long term. And if you take the money out, you are penalized a heavy amount. And since the Foundation really is managing somebody else’s money, people who gave them money for a certain purpose, you have a responsibility to properly invest and then support the student scholarship and faculty, chairships and investment that the donor has intended to make.”
Reilly Mullen is the editor in chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reilly Mullen is the editor-in-chief for The Spectrum. She double majors in English and political science. She enjoys Dunkin' iced lattes, arguing with frat boys and buying cool shoes. A former web, features and news editor, she write columns about her chronic illnesses and taking down the patriarchy.