Story by Arthur Page
Photo by Eric Frick
UB’s new provost is used to thinking big, from developing computer software systems to building one of the fastest-growing schools of engineering in the country. Now he’s applying his know-how to UB during a critical—and transforming—period of strategic planning for the future
In his early research as a computer scientist, Satish K. Tripathi studied complex computer systems, attempting to understand how they worked with the goal of improving their performance.
“Complex systems were being built with complex architectures and new networking systems,” Tripathi recalls. “My work focused on answering questions like ‘How well do we understand these systems and how can we improve them?’”
Fast forward 30 years, and the No. 1 task on Tripathi’s agenda as chief academic officer of a major public university with 13 schools, 103 academic departments and more than 300 degree programs is not far removed from that of the young scientist with a freshly minted Ph.D. who took on the challenges of comprehending massive mainframe computers.
Six months into his role as the University at Buffalo’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, he is leading—with UB’s president, John B. Simpson—an assessment of UB’s institutional and academic strengths, a discovery process that will lead to the development of an academic plan and campus master strategy for the university with the ultimate goal of achieving and sustaining academic excellence.
The goal, Tripathi explains, is to take “a very fine university”—the largest and most comprehensive in the State University of New York system—and identify, then invest in, areas of substantial academic strength to create an institution recognized nationally as an “excellent public research university.”
The blueprint that will provide UB’s road map for that transformation over the next 15 years—the strategic planning effort called “UB 2020”—will emerge from pivotal work done by an academic planning committee chaired by Tripathi and a sister academic support planning committee that is identifying processes, systems and funding that most efficiently and effectively support UB’s academic plan.
Academic institutions have been an integral part of Tripathi’s life since he entered school at age four, in the small village of Patna in the district of Faizabad in northern India, where residences had neither electricity nor running water.
“I was born into a family where education was primary,” he explains. “My great-grandfather had a school for adults to learn Sanskrit and the Vedas, Hindu sacred writings.” Tripathi’s grandfather was a teacher, as was his father. “From the very beginning,” he notes, “it was expected that I would be going to school and learning, that I would do well.”
The second oldest in a family of seven, Tripathi recalls that “a lot of influence came from my mother, who was very good in mathematics. She had a sixth-grade education, but she could teach me mathematics up to the ninth or 10th grade.”
At age 13, Tripathi’s quest for education took him to a government-run “intermediate college” about 50 miles from home where he lived in a boarding house, while completing the 11th and 12th grade, graduating two years early at age 15. “I was a good student,” Tripathi says matter-of-factly. “I was expected to be a good student.”
His education continued at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in physics, mathematics and statistics in 1968 and a master of science degree in statistics two years later. With both, he graduated “first rank” as the top student among more than 1,000 in his degree program.
In 1970, he married his wife, Kamlesh; their match was the result of a traditional arrangement between their families. The Tripathis have two sons: Manish, 28, a graduate of Stanford University, who is working on a Ph.D. in marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and plans to be a professor; and Aashish, 25, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, who works in business development for eBay.
A major turning point in Tripathi’s life occurred when he applied to the doctoral program of the Indian Statistical Institute, which was starting a program in computer science; the professors conducting the admissions interview suggested he consider the computer science option. “I thought, ‘Why not?’” he recalls. “I had heard of computers, but had never used them.”
While he left the institute after one year, his interest in computers continued to be nurtured during his employment as a technical officer at the Electronics Corporation of India, where he developed computer system software. After gaining a year’s experience, Tripathi turned his focus on obtaining a doctoral degree at a North American university.
Admitted to the graduate program in statistics at Berkeley, he found the financial package lacking and enrolled, instead, at the University of Alberta in Canada, from which he received a master of science degree in statistics in 1974. He earned his third master’s degree, in computer science, from the University of Toronto (UT) in 1976, and a doctorate in computer science from UT in 1979. “Toronto had the No. 1 computer science department in Canada,” Tripathi says. “I had a great time there as a student living in the city.”
With his sights set on becoming a professor, Tripathi was offered positions by Duke University and the University of Maryland, College Park. “I chose Maryland,” he says, “because it had a better computer science department than Duke and Maryland’s department was ranked one of the best in the United States.”
He reached his goal at age 37 when he was named the then youngest full professor—as well as chair—of Maryland’s department of computer science.
As an administrator, he recalls, “I found out that I could really relate to people. I could talk to and work cooperatively with faculty, other administrators and students. It was a very large department, with more than 45 faculty members, 260 graduate students and 1,300 undergraduates. It had a very distinguished senior faculty and I got full cooperation from almost everybody.”
He stepped down as chair in 1995. The following March, when he gave an invited lecture at the University of California, Riverside, Tripathi learned that the deanship of its Bourns College of Engineering was open. He liked what he saw, and applied for and secured the position.
When he began at Bourns College in February 1997, the six-year-old engineering college had 22 faculty members, 500 students and a single building. Under his leadership, it flourished, becoming one of the fastest-growing schools of engineering in the country. When he left in June 2004 to come to UB, it had 75 faculty members, 2,000 students and a second building, with two additional buildings—one of them already funded—on the drawing board.
As part of his drive to make Bourns a top-25 engineering college, Tripathi developed a five-year strategic plan and recruited professors from top-ranked engineering departments. Under his leadership, the undergraduate engineering in-class and out-of-class educational experience was enhanced, a strategic communications plan was implemented, and a development and alumni affairs office was created. In the community, he worked closely with Riverside’s civic leaders to attract and retain high-tech companies.
Tripathi experienced great success as dean and William R. Johnson Jr. Family Distinguished Professor of Engineering, and had been renewed as dean for an additional five years, with a promise of more resources to continue development. However, Tripathi’s vision for his future changed when he assumed provostal duties as acting executive vice chancellor for four months in 2002.
“I really enjoyed the exposure to the entire campus,” he admits. “Being a dean, I was exposed to engineering and some science, but a very selective part of the campus. But as provost, I had a view of the entire campus—the humanities, the arts, the social sciences, the natural sciences—and, more importantly—I was able to engage and contribute to the academic life of the entire campus.” He also was involved in the promotion and tenure process involving faculty members across the institution and enjoyed becoming familiar with colleagues in other disciplines.
Although happy in his job at Riverside, Tripathi was very receptive when he received a telephone call from a consultant working with UB in its search for a new provost.
“I had some history in the sense that when I was at Toronto, I knew UB’s computer science department was ranked very high, so I had an impression of a very good university. And it is an AAU (Association of American Universities) university, which means it’s a major player in terms of research.
“When I looked around on the Internet, I found it had very good faculty, I saw the growth that had occurred at UB in the past few years. So it had a really good foundation, as well as a new leader and ambition to go to the next level. Those were the critical factors that I took into consideration.”
The fact that Simpson was at UB’s helm also influenced him. The two had worked together when UB’s president was executive vice chancellor and provost of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Tripathi was UC Riverside’s acting executive vice chancellor; he had very favorable impressions of UB’s president.
UB’s chief academic officer since July 1, 2004, Tripathi says the best thing about UB is “the comprehensiveness” of the university. “It’s all here, whatever you want to do, it’s here. We might want to focus on some specific areas, but we don’t want to change the comprehensiveness.”
But there are areas that need improving, he says.
“For a campus this size, a campus of this comprehensive nature, we need to have a lot more research funding. We need to have a lot more of our faculty recognized as National Academy members. I think we have the quality of faculty, we need to promote them and recognize them, as well as hire more distinguished faculty who are nationally and internationally recognized.” Also on his list to be addressed, he adds, are UB’s undergraduate retention and graduation rates and the need for additional classroom and laboratory space. “This is not a completed campus,” he notes.
For the time being, Tripathi is preoccupied with strategic planning, academic excellence and transforming UB into one of the finest public research universities in the nation.
“If you think about any research university, the way you transform it is through the faculty. There is no other way to do it,” he says.
“The quality of the institution is really dependent on the quality of the faculty. The faculty attract the finest students, they conduct the best research and they create the environment for learning. My job as UB’s chief academic officer will be to look at our strategic plan and determine where we want to invest, so ultimately the quality of our faculty research and the quality of our students’ educational experience will be enhanced.
“My primary job will be to look at investing in current and new faculty. It is important that institutionally, we facilitate the success of our faculty. By contributing to the success of our faculty, we will achieve our institutional goal: academic excellence.”
One strategy will be to invest in—and hold on to—outstanding junior faculty members—many of whom have passed through UB’s doors in recent years on their way to outstanding careers at more prestigious institutions. This will become more important as UB continues to experience the retirement of outstanding senior faculty members who have been the backbone of the university’s academic program.
UB’s new chief academic officer makes constant references to working closely with the deans of UB’s College of Arts and Sciences and 12 professional schools. “The academic deans play a very critical role,” Tripathi stresses. “Having served as a dean, I understand that. They are really the ones who understand their schools and college; they are closer to the faculty. They play a critical role in defining the mission for their school or college. Working with the deans, along with our community members and alumni—many of whom have distinguished themselves in their respective fields—I hope I can provide the campus with the guidance and leadership that will be required to take UB to the top national tier of public research universities.”
Arthur Page is assistant vice president for news services and periodicals at UB.