For the past 11 years, Satish Tripathi has served as president of the largest public university in New York State. That’s four years longer than his predecessor, John Simpson.
But the former computer science professor says he has no plans to step down, and hopes to continue in his role for as long as he’s “effective.”
“As long as I’m effective, and I still feel effective,” Tripathi said when asked about how long he plans on staying in his current role. “We have [a] top-25 [national ranking] goal for the university,; we have been making progress there. We were [No.] 69 seven-to-eight years ago, and now we are somewhere in the 30s, so as long as the university is continuously improving, we’re providing better education, we have some recognition, we are solving societal problems. As long as the Board of Trustees wants me to help.”
The Spectrum sat down with Tripathi for a half-hour on May 3 to discuss his interactions with students, the university’s plans to address mental health concerns and the recently rebranded UB Top 25 Ambition initiative:
The Spectrum: From your vantage point, what are the three biggest issues facing UB right now?
President Tripathi: “Definitely one of the major issues for the past two years has been COVID-19. Although we have done fairly well, we managed it, the students have adapted, but it’s not the same as being in the classroom. We’re doing that now, people have come back. But COVID-19 is still hiding there and right now, things are good, people are finishing the semester. We’re going to have commencement in person, we’ve already had some of those done. But that’s still an issue that’s going to take a long time.
“Think about the two years you lost in college. The kids that are coming to college now from high school, they had these two years of education and social interaction that wasn’t normal. That’s one of the major issues that will be with us for a while as we go along.
“The past few years, we have been looking at the composition of our faculty and staff: Do we have racial equity in terms of who we hire? There has been a Presidential Commission on Race. They came up with recommendations, and for the last year, there have been conversations on the campus — not that we have stopped working on it — about how to implement it. This year, we have recruited quite a few underrepresented minorities on the faculty line. That number has quite a bit increased, from what I’ve seen. The other recommendations are getting to be implemented. But even in the last year, we have increased our Black population by about 12%. But there is still a big gap to go. When they get here, how successful are the students? Do we retain the faculty? This is a major task that we have. It’s not a one-year task, it’s a continuous task that we’ve been working on.
“The third aspect is to provide the students an environment — that includes, do we have resources for students who need financial support and other support? That’s where the campaign comes into the picture, where we are raising funds for retaining faculty, providing scholarships to the students and providing an environment with the buildings, as well. It’s really about the well-being and taking care of the students. These two years have been really, really tough for everybody — for faculty, as well.”
TS: You mentioned the well-being of students. Something students often talk to us about is mental health. From your vantage point, what is the state of mental health on this campus?
PT: “There’s a lot of stress. What I find talking to students, they are stressed for different things: what’s going on around the world, what’s happening with respect to COVID-19, all those things coming together. What we have done is hire more counselors in the last few years. Usually we allow about 10 counseling sessions per student. On average, they use about five to six of those. This week, the Times Higher Education came out with their sustainable campuses rankings, we’re No. 3 with health-related issues [“good health and well-being”] on campus. We can do a lot more. But we really need to work on this a lot more.”
TS: What does working on this “a lot more” entail?
PT: “Understanding what the issues are with the students. The stress, of course, comes and goes. Right now, people are stressed with [finals]. What are the salient issues we can continuously work on? That’s where the counselors come in. For example, they changed their system for how you make reservations, which actually improved a lot, because there were a lot of no-shows. Refining the system and addressing the issues.”
TS: How much direct contact do you have with students surrounding mental health?
PT: “I meet with a lot of different groups of students, and Provost [A. Scott Weber] and I walk around the campus every day, and we stop by in One World Café, the Spine or outside — every day when we walk, we talk to at least some students to find out how they are doing. That’s the contact I have directly. We have events with students. Every day, you can find us talking to students on the Spine.”
TS: Are there any formal settings you have for speaking to your “every day” students?
PT: “When I went to basketball games, I talked to them. We don’t have a gathering of the students.”
TS: Some students still express that they aren’t familiar with you. Is this something that affects or concerns you?
PT: “No, I know a lot of students know me, they stop me. Your sample size is different than mine. I don’t know who you’re talking to, because really, when they stop me when I’m walking — and they’re just arbitrary students. Not everyone will know me, and they don’t need to. But they stop me and say, ‘Hi President, how are you?’ So really, I don’t know how you’re getting the sample, but I think you should do a better job when you write about me — they [students] should read your articles.”
TS: I think talking to students, for students, they will sometimes say that they’re not aware of who UB’s president is.
PT: “If you’re doing a good job, they don’t need to know who the president is. If you think about it, a smooth campus runs if people really are getting their education. Who cares who the president is? But they do know. I can guarantee you not everyone is going to recognize me, but people do recognize me.”
TS: Circling back to mental health, there are still students who are disillusioned with the state of mental health on campus. And not just referring to counseling — that’s a downstream approach, when you’ve exhausted many of your other options. How does the school better reach students before they need counseling?
PT: “There’s a lot more stuff on the campus. There are yoga sessions, other informal sessions that the office organizes. You’re right: once you’ve reached the stage of a counselor, you need real help. But there are other things the campus organizes. But as I said, we need to do a lot more. And we need to understand a lot more. There’s a changing environment.”
TS: Do you have anything on the table to improve that?
PT: “As I told you before, we’re continuously improving. We’re looking at how effective we are. We’re talking to the students and getting feedback. Our counselors and our offices are working in the dorms and will adapt to what is needed.”
TS: You’ve been president for 11 years. How much longer do you plan on staying in this role?
PT: “As long as I’m effective and I still feel effective. We have [a] top-25 goal for the university, we have been making progress there. We were 69 seven-to-eight years ago, and now we are somewhere in the 30s, so as long as the university is continuously improving, we’re providing better education, we have some recognition, we are solving societal problems. As long as the Board of Trustees wants me to help.”
TS: Speaking of the UB Top 25 Ambition initiative, how have the plans changed since UB 2020 morphed into UB Top 25 Ambition?
PT: “The UB 2020 goal was more on the infrastructure, working together on larger programs, things like that. Moving the medical school downtown, closer to the hospitals so students have better research coming out of it. That continues. UB 2020 was a vision, as opposed to a year. I always emphasize that. And we continue to work on those things. What we realized is really that the Top 25 is a vision where we continuously have to improve. Provide better graduation rates, provide a better research environment both for undergraduate and graduate students, provide more resources through the billion dollar campaign (Boldly Buffalo). All of that is really the vision of the UB 2020 plan, and now we’re talking about how we can improve that.”
TS: UB 2020 was heavily focused on infrastructure. How would you say it’s different now, with the UB Top 25?
PT: “On the infrastructure part, we had One Capen, where we got all the services together, the Silverman Library, the Level Up center, the new medical campus downtown, we are moving the Graduate School of Education and the School of Social Work, we are designing a wellness center that is so critical, because right now, if you look at our wellness and health [services], it’s spread out all over the place. All of that is really part of creating an environment so they can get a better education and services.
“That doesn’t really get the university in the top 25. What gets it is the kind of education we provide, the kind of research we do. Just this week, seven of our students were selected for Fulbright. We used to get one or two. National awards for students going to graduate school. Our faculty are getting grants. The infrastructure leads to academic excellence.”
TS: Just following up on the Wellness Center, do you have a timeline on that?
PT: “This is being led by our Vice President for Student Life [Brian Hamluk] plus the Vice President for Finance and Administration [Laura Hubbard]. I think there is a RFI [request for information] out for design. I think it’s due sometime at the end of the month. But it’s a process, anything we build here takes about four to five years. Brian [Hamluk] was at [the University of] Pitt[sburgh], and they just did theirs, so he’s got experience there. And that was one of our primary objectives, to get someone who has been in that. And that’s really critical: you go to any major campus, either they’re designing one or they have one, where students can get all the wellness services and all the machinery to burn their fat.”
TS: Why when you rebranded UB 2020 did you choose Top 25 Ambition and not some other goal?
PT: “For me, [the] top 25 is a journey toward that. It’s not a fixed point. But what it demonstrates is a continuous improvement to what matters to our students and faculty. We already have come to somewhere in the 30s from the high 60s. We have made progress. It provides you a path toward more progress and allows us to measure: are we graduating students on time? Are we competing for major research grants? Those things are really important to provide the education and research we can do.”
TS: The state has provided money to UB for a new education building and additional faculty. Does UB plan to allocate some of its resources toward more humanities-based majors, as well?
PT: “The engineering building has been a request for a long time. The engineering school has grown from about 4,500 students to about 7,000. There’s demand for more space. The state has allocated about $68 million, with fundraising for $34 million to build the building. The funding for the faculty that has been provided from the state — we don’t know what restrictions will be there. We don’t know what our number will be.”
TS: The funding for additional faculty is schoolwide?
PT: “It’s SUNYwide. That includes the two-year colleges as well, 64 campuses.”
TS: We wanted to touch on international student enrollment, something that appears in the UB Annual Operating Budget Report. There’s a bullet stating that three in-state residents equals one international student, tuition-wise. Is the recent dip in international student enrollment concerning?
PT: “You always want to get the best students to come in. As you said, there’s a 3:1 ratio there. I don’t think it’s a major concern. But international students, any one event can shut off that pipe. You can’t predict what’s going to happen internationally. You can’t spend the money knowing it is always going to come, you have to be responsible and manage your resources. But it’s always a concern. It’s a concern because these students want the best education, and the best education is here in the U.S. If the pipe closes somewhere, you’re not really providing the education students deserve and want. That’s the concern. But there are always bumps in terms of resources, and we have to be sensitive to these concerns.”
TS: What does UB do to aid these students who may be prevented from coming to the U.S.?
PT: “In some cases, you can’t. One country closes down completely. There’s a war going on. Those are the events — pandemic, war — that we don’t have control over. What we do is issue them the papers they need, select the students that are admissible here. We help them if it’s a specific problem, but the global problems, we can’t do much.”
TS: In those specific examples — i.e. war — what does UB do for those students who are already here?
PT: “During the pandemic, we had support for the students who couldn’t go home. I spoke to the students on Zoom, I had three sessions with international students over Zoom. They might not know me though.” [Chuckles] “There was special funding for that. In some cases, some of the students went home and could not come back, so we provided the help they needed to take their courses from there. Once they are here, we try to treat them like any other students and give them the help we can.”
TS: The Allen West speech turned into something a lot bigger than anyone expected it to be. What is your approach to an event like this?
PT: “We definitely plan for these things. Sometimes things don’t go as precisely as you planned and unexpected events happen. But we planned for it. We played a video first. If anyone is invited by a recognized group, they should be allowed to speak here. Whatever they say doesn’t matter, we have no control. This is by law, and we are a public institution. What my personal views are, or what your personal views are — it doesn’t matter. Anyone coming to campus should be allowed to speak freely. And at the same time, if anyone is protesting — as long as they allow them to speak — they can protest, as well. But no one should be going after someone. That is not allowed. That’s something the police are still investigating. But the campus will always be open to ideas, no matter where they come from. I think that’s the thing about a public university: we don’t agree with 50% of things, or 20% of things, but we should allow people to come talk about it. People always give the example of the civil rights days, a lot of people didn’t agree with what the civil rights activists were talking about. But you have to allow them to talk to it. [But with Allen West,] we planned for it, there were demonstrations that were peaceful, everything was fine, the video was played. This was the case where everything was fine until the end of the question and answer. But then, we can’t plan for what happened afterwards. But that’s something that shouldn’t have happened.”
TS: Is it a concern that what happened afterwards could happen at future events?
PT: “Of course, but you can’t plan for it. This is something that we plan as much as we can. We learn from this [the West speech]. But we can’t say that nothing will happen because of unpredictability. But definitely, yes, that’s a concern and we’ll try to make sure we continue to improve what we’re doing. We thought we had done everything right. And it did go right until the end, but things happened. Freedom of speech is critical, and there’s no way we’re going to stop anyone speaking if they’re invited by a recognized group.”
TS: Young Americans for Freedom, who sponsored the West speech, had intended on holding an additional event that was canceled due to what they said were security problems. Will the university adjust plans security-wise?
PT: “They always adjust. That’s the job of university security, to make sure this doesn’t happen again. But there’s so much unpredictability. I don’t know what else could happen. There will be more speakers and that’s good. I think we have to get more speakers on the campus.”
Reilly Mullen is the editor-in-chief and can be reached at email@example.com
Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Weiss is The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.
Reilly Mullen is the editor-in-chief at The Spectrum. She is a senior majoring in political science with a journalism certificate. She enjoys Dunkin’ iced lattes and Scrabble. A former web, features, news and managing editor, she is a columnist at heart but has covered everything from UB Football to breaking news.