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Lucky 13
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  Lucky 13

How his tenure as the 13th president brought good fortune to a grateful campus

Story by Blair Boone, Ph.D. ’84

Cover photo by Frank Miller

  Photographed after attending the 50-year reunion in June, President and Mrs. Greiner celebrate the moment at the North Campus entrance off Maple Road.

  Photo by Rhea Anna

"He bleeds UB blue." According to Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English and FOB, or "friend of Bill," that’s a cliché. But in the case of UB President William R. "Bill" Greiner, the cliché happens to be true.

How else to explain a gifted attorney who chose teaching over the lucrative opportunities of private practice? Or the equally gifted teacher of both law and undergraduate students who devoted much of his UB career to the tough—and sometimes thankless—duties of a university administrator, rising through an impressive range of administrative posts before eventually serving into his 13th year as the 13th president of SUNY’s flagship university?

Most important, how else to understand a man who, following a distinguished career marked by an impressive array of achievements, at a stage in his professional and personal life when the joys of gourmet cooking and grandchildren beckon, looks forward eagerly to a return to the classroom, where he can enjoy the daily give-and-take of helping students prepare for their own lives and careers?

That’s Bill Greiner. Teacher and attorney. The university’s first provost and its 13th president. Colleague, mentor and friend to students, faculty and staff. And most especially, tireless advocate for the values of higher education and UB’s unique role in bringing those intellectual, economic and moral values to the local and global communities.

If this comprehensive vision of the university and its mission is the hallmark of Greiner’s presidency, his success in realizing that vision can be seen in the selected achievements accompanying this article—and in the praise his leadership has earned.

Jeremy Jacobs, chair of the UB Council and the Presidential Search Committee seeking Greiner’s replacement for UB’s top job, calls him "a visionary leader" with "an unwavering dedication to the people of the university and the region."

  President Bill Greiner happily sports the insignia of his beloved University at Buffalo while attending a Bulls game—a much favored activity throughout his presidency.

High praise. But if successful pursuit of his vision is a hallmark of his presidency, those who know Bill Greiner say modesty is a hallmark of his personality. For example, his discovery of an obscure 70-year-old state law permitting alumni organizations to build dormitories using private, not state, funding is widely credited with sparking the student housing boom that has transformed the North Campus. But characteristically, he refuses to take much credit.

"That was a total accident," he says, smiling. "I won’t lay claim to great legal research. I was writing something on tuition issues and had the section of the law regarding tuition here. I happened to notice a headnote that said ‘Dormitories and Alumni Associations.’ When I read that section, I almost fell over.

"That was one of those lucky breaks," he adds. "But when you’re the 13th president, you’ve got to be lucky."

Of course, it took more than luck to turn that discovery into hundreds of new housing units for graduate and undergraduate students. His luck was augmented by considerable political skill and formidable powers of persuasion, important tools for the president of a large public university in a time of shrinking state funding. He was an effective advocate for UB both with SUNY officials and with political leaders in Albany, helping UB and other SUNY institutions gain more freedom to manage their financial and academic affairs, again to benefit local campuses and communities.

Former Senior Vice President Robert J. "Bob" Wagner, who still serves as senior counselor to the president, worked closely with Greiner and previous UB presidents in dealing with SUNY. He cites Greiner’s role in the UB-led initiative that allowed all SUNY campuses to retain the tuition collected at each campus, providing greater flexibility to meet both current and future needs. "Bill takes his stewardship responsibilities extremely seriously. The agenda was never flexibility for its own sake," says Wagner. "The agenda was ‘How are we going to move UB forward? And what are the tools we need?’

"The results of that effort were worth the investment," says Wagner. "And I think a great deal of that credit should go to Bill Greiner."

New York Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, who worked with Greiner on a variety of issues affecting state funding for UB, says he is "very passionate about the university and the community," adding, "he was always pushing the envelope to make sure UB could become all it could be."

Citing his "spirited leadership," State Senator Mary Lou Rath, who with Tokasz cosponsored legislation facilitating construction of student housing on the North Campus, says that "not only has the university benefited, but all of Western New York has been enhanced by his efforts."

The idea that a public research university plays a special role in the community not only informed Greiner’s presidency but has been a constant throughout his career. When he and his wife, Carol, moved to Buffalo in 1967, "we fell in love with the community," he says. And despite many opportunities to move over the years, they chose to stay at UB, in no small part because of their commitment to the community.

"Look, this is a terrific community, and I think UB is a tremendously important part of it," enthuses Greiner. "My hope was that by staying and working with all the good people I’ve been lucky to work with over the years that we could make a difference, that we could make a better place. And this was a good place to begin with."

Among the many community initiatives during Greiner’s presidency was establishing the UB Office of Public Service and Urban Affairs in 1993, and creation of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, headed by former State Senator John B. Sheffer II. According to Sheffer, Bill Greiner leaves "many important legacies at UB.

"One of the most important is his commitment to the public role of the university in the local community and region," says Sheffer. "He’s affected both the perception of what UB does for the community and, more importantly, the reality.

"He’s not only a good person to work with and learn from, but he’s also a good friend to have fun with. He doesn’t take himself too seriously," Sheffer says, adding, "I think what you see is what you get. You can rely on his word and his personal integrity. There’s no difference between Bill Greiner the president and Bill Greiner the person."

His personal touch is evident to people at all levels of the university community. Today Beverly Sanford, M.A. ’93, is director of communications for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey. But in 1990, when Bill Greiner became president, she was a young speechwriter in the president’s office.

"One of the first things I worked on for Bill was his inaugural speech," says Sanford. "This is a guy who is very articulate and precise—he’s an attorney by training. He needed a writer like a submarine needs a screen door."

Nonetheless, Greiner enlisted Sanford to help refine his speech through nearly a dozen drafts. "He’d hand me a draft and say, ‘What do you think of this?’" Sanford relates. Very late in the evening after his inauguration, Sanford was at home, exhausted from the day’s events and the weeks of preparations, when the phone rang. "It was Bill," she says. "He said, ‘I’m just calling to say I think the speech turned out very well. Thank you, colleague.’

"And to me, all of 25 years old, that one phone call meant the world to me. I owe my career to Bill Greiner."

Francis Letro, J.D. ’79, had a similar experience years earlier when he applied to the law school and Greiner was coordinator of the admissions committee. "I think he was responsible for me getting in," admits Letro. Even when Letro took time off from school, Greiner stayed in touch, encouraging and mentoring him. "In the beginning, I wasn’t the greatest of students. He helped me design a curriculum and gave me a little tough love along the way," Letro says.

Letro didn’t learn until years later that Greiner had also helped him land his first job as an attorney. The ongoing personal attention paid off both for Letro, who’s now a renowned trial lawyer and head of his own Buffalo law firm, and for the law school. In 2002, Letro gave the law school a $1 million gift in support of its programs and facilities, including a new state-of-the-art courtroom in O’Brian Hall. Subsequently named the Francis M. Letro Courtroom in his honor, the facility brings actual court cases to the law school, allowing students to see top lawyers and judges in action.

Of Greiner, Letro says simply, "I can’t say enough about him. He’s shaped a lot of lives."

Greiner’s personal touch, his ability to make people feel good about UB, has also helped shape the university’s future in another important area: fund-raising. In an era of diminishing state support for higher education, raising the money needed to achieve academic excellence is crucial to the university’s future success.

Recalling the late 1960s and early 1970s, when New York State invested significant resources in building UB into an academic powerhouse, Greiner says, "That was an investment that jump-started us on the course to where we are today. But we also have to do a lot more on our own. The reality is that the support for an institution like this is going to come from many sources."

  Philip B. Wels (right), former UB Council chair, presents the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal—UB’s highest honor—to President William R. Greiner at the May 11 commencement ceremony. Looking on is SUNY Chancellor Robert L. King.

To develop those varied sources, during Greiner’s term the university began an extraordinarily ambitious fund-raising campaign, The Campaign for UB: Generation to Generation, which has raised $281.8 million, surpassing its $250 million goal by nearly $32 million.

"This campaign was as much about building culture, engagement with our alumni and volunteers, and philanthropy throughout the academic community," says Vice President for University Advancement Jennifer McDonough, who joined UB in 2001. "I think the president established this program as an important value for everyone at UB."

Of the challenges of funding UB’s drive for excellence, Greiner says with his characteristic blend of idealism and pragmatism, "Our goals are lofty and should be. Our aspirations are lofty and should be. But I think we’re much more realistic about how we’ll get there."

Looking forward, not back, is another Greiner trait. And one of the things he’s most looking forward to is returning to the classroom. Willie Evans, Ed.B. ’60, a retired Buffalo Public Schools teacher and administrator, former member of the UB Alumni Association board of directors and member of the current Presidential Search Committee, calls Greiner "a dyed-in-the-wool teacher" with a profound interest in students.

Recruited to teach in UB’s law school from the University of Washington, where he’d already established a reputation as an outstanding teacher and scholar, Greiner was excited by the opportunity to teach innovative new classes—"I became the ‘law and —’ guy," he jokes, referring to the interdisciplinary teaching model he’d helped pioneer at Washington—and by the idea that "we were going to build a university that was going to be as good as any university in the country."

Greiner believes his teaching background was good preparation for his administrative career. "There is a lot of teaching in administration," says Greiner. "Teaching is helping people to see things they might otherwise not see, or to look at things differently. If you’re a law teacher, you do a lot of exhortation. You do a lot of questioning and poking and prodding. It turns out in administration you do a lot of the same things."

Greiner also is looking forward to rejoining his faculty colleagues as, once more, just a faculty member. "He has that great devotion to being a colleague," says Diane Christian. "I think that’s one of his greatest achievements." A sign of that collegiality was his preference throughout his presidency for being called, when a title was called for, simply "Professor Greiner."

On being president of a major public university, Greiner says, "I don’t know that you’ll find a job that’s more interesting. If you like the art of persuasion, which is a lot of what lawyers do, there’s an awful lot of persuasion that has to go on. You can’t give orders. It doesn’t work. Not in this kind of an organization. You have to be able to persuade people.

"Also my love of poetry has been helpful," he adds, laughing. "Good liberal arts education followed by a little graduate training and a law degree. Not a bad preparation for this job."

And even though he started his career at UB during a time of extraordinary excitement and promise, when the transformation of UB from a distinguished private institution into a top-ranking public research university had just begun, he rejects the notion that those were glory days. "We haven’t even had our heyday yet," he says firmly.

"It was a miraculous time," he reflects. "It was really extraordinary. But that’s not the best thing that ever happened to this university.

"The best is yet to come."

Blair Boone, Ph.D. ’84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.

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