INTERIM PRESIDENT DISCUSSES APPOINTMENT
Recently minted Interim President, James Stellar, discussed topics ranging from the future of the University at Albany to the challenges ahead for higher education in a one-on-one interview last week.
Prior to former president Robert J. Jones’ departure from UAlbany to become Chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Vice President of the University of Illinois System, Stellar was selected by the SUNY Board of Trustees to temporarily lead UAlbany.
Seven people have run the University at Albany in the last 12 years. Do you foresee this presidency to remain a temporary position or do you plan to stay awhile?
While I love the University at Albany, I have to say that I see this as a temporary position … We’re hoping that the integration of our plans for the University will make the transition [for the next president] smooth, so that it’s not so much of a problem as it has been in the past.
You walked into this role shortly before SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros became suspended from his role next door. With much of the industry that has opened under Kaloyeros before and after SUNY Poly split, are you concerned that these criminal charges and the recent SUNY Poly investigation will hit the regional economy?
I assume under SUNY’s leadership that they will put together a central plan for SUNY Poly because clearly we do not want the region to be hit … It’s too bad that this had happened. The indictments alone and the change in presidency is a hit, but I think we can get through it. I hope we can. I plan to help in any way I can.
In the national election, higher education has been largely absent from the debate stage. As an administrator for over two decades, what do you believe should be addressed regarding higher education in the political arena?
I absolutely believe that lawmakers need to invest more in higher education … It’s also important that the education side uses that money absolutely well; we need to know what we’re doing and apply it effectively.
One of the issues about the college’s plan currently is a very high demand for space on campus, whether it’s residence halls or offices. With 20,000 students expected at the University at Albany by 2020, how does the college plan to face this issue?
I think we have two factors here. First of all, I think we’re going to have to expand our capacity to house students … Second thing, and I learned this lesson when I became dean at Northeastern University, many students actually prefer to live in the neighborhoods, so we don’t want to build 100 percent capacity for our students to live on campus because then we would have to require them to live on campus and many wouldn’t like it … Another thing is that the percent increment isn’t that daunting, although we do have some problems with space and we don’t want to minimize them. So I think there are opportunities with really active, intelligent management to achieve the expansion without degrading anybody’s quality of experience … We have to be bigger and better, not bigger and worse …
And with that said, would new residence halls be available by 2020?
That’s a good question and I’m not sure. Once again, I’ve only been here for two days. But I find that if we could make a plan that might come into 2021, we could either slow down the growth or make some sort of patch to the future. As long as you have a future that is clear, not unreasonable, and not by 2030, I think that we can find ways to get from here to there … We’re awake, alive, moving forward, and feeling good about ourselves. At least that’s what I hope and that’s what we need to move ahead.
One of your key accomplishments so far has been being on the team that launched the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. What do expect will be dynamic between the neighborhood and university as a result of this project?
By having that building there, we’re hoping to put in entrepreneurial space so [entrepreneurs] can come in. We’re hoping that will attract entrepreneurs to the area and that they’ll live right nearby … We hope that by doing things like that and by collaborating with the city to solve various problems, including things as mundane as parking, we hope to revitalize a piece of Albany … I am told that 25 percent of the people in the city of Albany live below the poverty line, so I think as a major university in this city, we have to help [reduce] that. This one very good way to do it … With this idea that between Alumni Quad and the downtown campus, we have this spot that we can really work on as a community.
A lot of what can happen in neighborhood development is that it can attract a wealthier class, but it can also move the poorer class out. It that a difficult balance with this?
Oh yes, because the public university serves all of its citizens, so we really wouldn’t want that to happen … and the way to not do that is to integrate with social services; integrate with the schools and be real partners so it’s a win – win. This is what public engagement is about.