Faces of Leadership

Former Student Association presidents talk about lessons learned

M. Viqar Hussain at busy Student Union, which welcomes 16,000 visitors daily during height of academic season.

M. Viqar Hussain at busy Student Union, which welcomes 16,000 visitors daily during height of academic season. (Photo by Mark Mulville)

By Ann Whitcher-Gentzke

It’s a typical busy stretch for UB senior M. Viqar Hussain, president of the undergraduate Student Association (SA) and a biomedical science major. On Halloween, Hussain is at the Student Union overseeing SA’s Psychic Fair, watching students have fun amid the fortune-telling frolic.

The next day, he’s all business, attending a Faculty Senate meeting, asking UB President John B. Simpson about the extent of UB’s international academic exchanges, then hears an administrative report on programs for nontraditional students. By listening carefully, Hussain explains, he can more effectively represent the interests of these students, too.

Back at SA headquarters in the Student Union, Hussain continues to juggle the calls, campus issues and any looming student crises with his own academic schedule. In addition to his coursework, he’s shadowing an area physician on weekends and also doing research in pharmacology and toxicology on the South Campus.

George Pape, BA ’04 - Assistant chief of staff, New York City Department of Consumer Affairs

’04 - George Pape, BA ’04 - Assistant chief of staff, New York City Department of Consumer Affairs

“At times the job is overwhelming and stressful,” says Hussain, who was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to the U.S. with his family at age 11. “It’s hard to keep a balanced life at home, school and work. Yet despite the hectic schedule, I’m proud to be a positive influence on campus and to make important decisions that help out UB students.”

In embracing his position, Hussain follows a long line of men and women who have led SA since the organization was formed in 1958. Collectively, they have applied lessons in campus leadership to careers and life experiences that continue to tap the skills-set acquired while interacting with the university president, solving student dilemmas or speaking out for human rights.

Their numbers include physicians, judges, and in particular, lawyers. But their ranks also include an environmental activist, college athletics director, business consultant and a university president. Missing now from their ranks, sadly, is the late Joseph Rifkin, JD ’86 & BA ’83, the cigar-smoking SA president in 1981–82. “Joe was probably the most political of the many,” recalls Dennis R. Black, JD ’81, UB’s vice president for student affairs, who has worked with about 38 SA presidents as a staff member or student himself. “He became a cigar-smoking political ‘boss’ in Long Island and a campaign consultant.” Rifkin died in 2004 at age 43, leaving behind a ten-year-old son, Jack.

George Pape, BA ’04 - Assistant chief of staff, New York City Department of Consumer Affairs

’99 - Naniette Coleman, MA ’05 & BA ’02 - Deputy director, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

But whether they are graying or in the prime of youth, Black points to one prevailing quality he has observed among this elite group of alumni: “You need to have a great deal of confidence in yourself to put your name forward for SA office at a school like UB,” he says. “But much of that confidence, I think, is based on their interaction with other students—not with administrators or faculty members. One great thing I have seen, year after year, is the personal confidence and strength SA presidents develop over their term in office. They realize that their student and student government skills are really life skills that can help them get things done, on and off campus, now and into the future.”

Today’s SA president oversees an organization with a $2.5 million annual budget and 90 student employees. “I am the voice of 18,000 students to the university administration, as well as to the community at large,” Hussain says proudly. “I am responsible for making decisions that affect the entire UB student population, and I represent UB students on a state level, too.”

Advocacy and controversial speakers

Interviewed by phone and e-mail, many former SA leaders continue to display the passion they once showed during moments of campus advocacy for the student point of view when hot issues arose.

’96 - Robert Werkmeister Jr., MBA ’99 & BA ’96 - Head of marketing firm, Symbolic Inc., Fairport, New York

’96 - Robert Werkmeister Jr., MBA ’99 & BA ’96 - Head of marketing firm, Symbolic Inc., Fairport, New York

Among them is Richard Erb, BA ’63, of Moise, Montana, who was elected SA president in 1962, the spring of his junior year. Erb vividly recalls a campus speakers series intended to reflect a broad spectrum of political thought and one that included such controversial figures as Herbert Aptheker, a Marxist historian who was active in the U.S. Communist party; and Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the fascist movement in Great Britain.

“A large crowd showed up to protest when Mosley was to arrive at the airport,” Erb recalls. “At the last minute, I had to arrange for our car to meet him at the bottom of his airplane ramp. Later on in the speaker series and just before Aptheker was to speak, a state senator from eastern New York obtained a court injunction preventing his talk.”

The development was significant, Erb recalls, because UB had recently merged with SUNY. “I was under a lot of pressure to lead a major campus protest against the action, but I decided not to follow that course. I had been informed by the university administration that they planned to take the high road and fight the injunction in the courts. I did not think a campus protest would have a positive impact and felt that it might undercut already weak public support for the university administration. At stake for this new public university were the principles of free speech and open inquiry. After several years of court litigation, the university prevailed and Aptheker spoke on campus.”

’92 - Richard J. Cole, EdM ’94 & BA ’92 - Director of Athletics, Dowling College, Long Island

’92 - Richard J. Cole, EdM ’94 & BA ’92 (center) - Director of Athletics, Dowling College, Long Island

When he did finally speak, it was Robert Fine, JD ’68 & BA ’65, SA president in 1964–65 and now president of Hurwitz & Fine in Buffalo, who sat with him on the dais. “There was a death threat directed against Aptheker—this was all very controversial,” Fine says. “And I’m sitting on the platform next to him. … It was quite an experience.”

Leslie G. Foschio, JD ’65 & BA ’62, now U.S. Magistrate Judge in Buffalo, recalls another controversial speaking invitation and how he chose to handle it as SA president. “A newly created student speakers committee had invited public figures to speak on campus on current affairs topics,” he explains. For the academic year 1961–1962, the committee selected Jimmy Hoffa, the controversial leader of the Teamsters Union who disappeared in 1975.

“I was summoned by UB President Clifford Furnas to meet with him about the administration’s strong opposition to the Hoffa invitation,” Foschio recalls. “I distinctly remember sitting alone in the president’s stately office in Hayes Hall with President Furnas who explained why, primarily because of Mr. Hoffa’s perceived unsavory reputation, the university expected that the students would withdraw the invitation, and how I respectfully but firmly assured President Furnas that while I personally had no special interest in Mr. Hoffa, the student speakers committee would not do so, and that, as president of the Student Senate [one of SA’s coordinating bodies], I was committed to supporting the committee.” Hoffa later cancelled his UB appearance.

’91 - Kelly P. Sahner, EdM ’93 & BA ’91 (left) - Senior account executive, BerkelyCare, Jericho, New York

’91 - Kelly P. Sahner, EdM ’93 & BA ’91 (left) - Senior account executive, BerkelyCare, Jericho, New York

Campus causes and initiatives

For many of those interviewed, the SA presidency entailed a collection of specific initiatives they’re now proud to recount. For instance, Timothy Sheehan, JD ’84 & BA ’81, a successful attorney in Westchester County, recalls the spring 1981 referendum on the mandatory student fee, which needed to be renewed at that time. Its subsequent passage permitted SA to collect student fees and operate for the next four years.

“We laid the groundwork for the new contract with the athletics department (our budget funded the intercollegiate sports program), ran the SCATE (Student Course and Teacher Evaluation) program, revived a nearly dead Buffalonian yearbook project, gave coffee and donuts out at the library during finals, protested SUNY tuition hikes in various forums and successfully helped run the Fallfest and Springfest concerts.”

Indeed, the spectrum of the most significant campus issues over the past 30 years runs the gamut from student fees and greater student participation in the Distinguished Speakers Series to the 24-hour undergraduate library, achieved this past September; and a vibrant student union, which today welcomes 16,000 people daily at the height of the academic season.

’89 - Robert Tahara, MD ’93 & BA ’89 - Vascular surgeon, Bradford, Pennsylvania

’89 - Robert Tahara, MD ’93 & BA ’89 - Vascular surgeon, Bradford, Pennsylvania

During his very recent term, George Pape, BA ’04, now assistant chief of staff for the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, was confronted with issues that might have been topical many years earlier. “These included protesting tuition hikes, preparing for and welcoming a new UB president [John B. Simpson], and struggling to gain undergraduate control over events funded with the undergraduate student activity fee—this ultimately led to the formation of SA Entertainment,” says Pape.

Many former SA presidents served in other campus government positions, or displayed obvious leadership qualities, before being tapped to run for the top job. Robert Tahara, MD ’93 & BA ’89, now a vascular surgeon in Bradford, Pennsylvania, was one such individual. “A bunch of friends and I got into the Student Assembly,” Tahara recalls.

Tahara says his involvement in student government “was predicated on my not being satisfied with seeing what was going on. People tended to be extremely polarized. I felt that the answer was not left or right, but in the middle. I was in positions where the polarized people were not happy with my positions, but they respected me. I had a chief of the Young Republicans say I was much too liberal, while some liberal people told me I was a fascist—pretty interesting stuff.”

Today’s campus leaders can find reassurance and support at the Leadership Development Center, an initiative of UB’s Office of Student Affairs. “Leadership begins with you” is the slogan for the center located at 235 Student Union, which offers all UB students the opportunity to realize their leadership potential on a busy campus. To read more about the center and also read additional comments by former SA presidents, go to www.buffalo.edu/UBT/25-2/SApresidents.

’82 - Joseph Rifkin, JD ’86 & BA ’83 (Deceased) - Campaign consultant, Long Island, NY

’82 - Joseph Rifkin, JD ’86 & BA ’83 (Deceased) - Campaign consultant, Long Island, NY

“Two of the big issues back in the late 1970s were SUNY investment divestiture from an apartheid South Africa and the decline in public funding for state-supported higher education,” recalls Karl Schwartz, BA ’80, of Philadelphia, SA president in 1978–79, now a public defender for indigent defendants charged with capital crimes. “I remember in particular one demonstration we organized on the Main Street campus around the higher education issue, when New York Gov. Hugh Carey and U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan were there to attend the groundbreaking for the NFTA Metro Station. We got quite a turnout. It was a classic scene, bullhorns, placards, chanting students, the whole bit.

“In retrospect, our timing could have been a little better. At the time, Gov. Carey, who was roundly heckled, was involved in an election campaign against an opponent who we felt would have been even worse for SUNY. Carey won the election, but I’m not so sure he appreciated our efforts.”

Michele Smith, BA ’76, SA president in 1975–76, now finds herself running for alderman in the City of Chicago following a distinguished career in law and public service. It is the first time she has sought public office since her SA presidency. During Smith’s campus administration, the big issues revolved around student services and teaching quality. “We actually had a platform—we wanted to maintain a four-course course load,” Smith says of the movement to preserve the policy of four credits for three classroom, or contact hours, first established in 1969 and lasting to 1977. “And we wanted a student course evaluation process, which didn’t really exist,” she says. “We also wanted to provide better information for student orientations. I was elected to office on that platform and am proud that my administration actually implemented the first student course evaluation process.”

’81 - Timothy Sheehan, JD ’84 & BA ’81 (right) - Law firm partner and trial lawyer, Westchester County

’81 - Timothy Sheehan, JD ’84 & BA ’81 (right) - Law firm partner and trial lawyer, Westchester County

Platforms and political parties

Often, a winning SA platform draws on previous experiences in related campus leadership positions. “Our ticket name was ‘Future’ and we were the only full slate of candidates that year,” recalls Kelly P. Sahner, EdM ’93 & BA ’91, who was elected SA president in the spring of 1990 and is now senior account executive for BerkelyCare in Jericho, New York. Once elected, Sahner’s administration faced many campus issues, in particular the bus fare controversy that stirred the campus. The administration had decided to implement a $1 bus fee for each time a student would get aboard and travel between Ellicott, the two campuses and even Bethune (the old art building on Main Street). “The issue was that neither the SA administration nor any of the students were consulted about the impact of implementing the fee,” Sahner says.

“In response, we organized a ‘Fight the Fees’ march and handed out flyers with Dr. [Steven] Sample’s number on it for students to call him and protest. The march between the Main Street and Amherst campuses drew thousands of students; it was the most interest the students had shown about a campus issue since the turbulent ’70s. Students were walking between the campuses and boycotting the buses. Our collective action resulted in a negotiation with the administration that resulted in the beginning of the student activity fee.”

’79 - Karl Schwartz, BA ’80 (middle) - Public defender for indigent individuals charged with capital crimes

’79 - Karl Schwartz, BA ’80 (middle) - Public defender for indigent individuals charged with capital crimes

Also taking part in the bus fee protest and the march from Main Street was Richard Cole, EdM ’94 & BA ’92, Sahner’s SA vice president and SA president the following year. He is now the athletic director at Dowling College on Long Island. “Decisions were made that were impacting students, i.e., the consumer, yet there was no participation among students,” Cole says. “I believe then and now if a community is made of multiple parts and decisions are made that will impact these multiple parts, the participation and inclusiveness of people must be included in that process.”

Later in the 1990s, Naniette Coleman, MA ’05 & BA ’02, sought to have her SA administration build bridges with the administration and also with members of the community. “We committed a few hundred thousand dollars to the Distinguished Speakers Series, so all students could go for free,” says Coleman, now deputy director, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “We also worked with New York State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt to pass a bill in the legislature so that students would not have to pay sales tax on their textbooks.”

Coleman also championed an initiative that would address the financial needs of UB students facing a personal crisis or predicament. Along the way, and with the help of University Development, she was able to raise several thousand dollars for what became know as the Random Acts of Kindness Fund. The fund was later endowed during the SA administration of Chris Oliver, BS ’03, today a third-year UB law student.

’76 - Michele Smith, BA ’76 - Lawyer and candidate for Chicago alderman in February 27, 2007 election

’76 - Michele Smith, BA ’76 - Lawyer and candidate for Chicago alderman in February 27, 2007 election

For his part, former SA president Jonathan Dandes, BS ’74, now president of Rich Baseball Operations in Buffalo and a former UB Alumni Association president, notes the revisiting of campus issues he has witnessed as a member of the UB Council. “I found it remarkable that in my last meeting 30 years ago as president of SA, and my first meeting of the UB Council in 1994, we were discussing the same issue—the arming of campus security, which was later resolved. I find it amazingly coincidental that many of the issues I see now—issues that the current Student Association is either concerned with or prioritizing—are the same ones we dealt with 30 years ago.”

Formative experiences and teamwork

Energetic teamwork is an indelible memory for Debbie Benson, BA ’74, who served in 1972–73 as the first female SA president. She and her C.U.R.E. party (“Coalition for United Reform Effort”) “swept the election on a platform that talked about reforming the organization of the Student Association and academics at the university.” Now acting executive director, New York State Council on Children and Families, Benson can readily discern the link between then and now. “I think my time in student government taught me a great deal about working with diverse groups of people.”

’75 - Frank Jackalone - Senior regional representative, National Sierra Club, based in St. Petersburg, Florida

’75 - Frank Jackalone - Senior regional representative, National Sierra Club, based in St. Petersburg, Florida

For Cordell Schachter, BA ’83, associate commissioner of project management for New York City’s department of technology and telecommunications, the SA presidency involved confronting issues that once again seem familiar when viewed across the expanse of UB history. “The student union in Squire Hall (previously Norton Union) had closed the year before,” Schachter recalls. “Our big issues included proposing alternate plans for a student union using an expedited schedule and nontraditional funding, helping design the Student Activity Center, raising funds for renovating Capen Hall lobby to serve as interim union space, and even proposing the use of the Undergraduate Library as a student union. Of course, we also fought state cuts to the SUNY budget, including staging a mock SUNY funeral complete with a coffin that received local TV coverage.

“My best memories include working with a great bunch of fellow students interested in improving UB and having fun doing it,” Schachter continues. “I also look back with pride on our collaborative and sometimes combative relationship with the university administration. We served during Steven Sample’s first year as president and developed a productive relationship with his officers and staff. Our experience in previous student government positions provided us with relationships with university officials that we used to improve campus conditions.”

’72 - Ian DeWaal, JD ’75 & BA ’72 - Senior counsel, U.S. Department of Justice

’72 - Ian DeWaal, JD ’75 & BA ’72 - Senior counsel, U.S. Department of Justice

Robert Werkmeister, MBA ’99 & BA ’96, says he dealt with a range of issues as SA leader in 1995–96, including “battling” with the Spectrum, social issues such as abortion and homophobia and that perennial—student apathy. “With 26,000 students [at all levels] it was always a topic,” says Werkmeister, who now heads a Rochester area marketing firm. “But we really tried to tackle it more in conjunction with the move to Division I Athletics. This was our positive topic—let’s create more areas for students to get involved.”

Perks and personalities

Of course, heading a large campus organization has always had a few perks, including the opportunity to meet famous or intriguing figures. Mark Huddleston, BA ’72, now president of Ohio Wesleyan University, recalls meeting Ralph Nader, who was the SA-sponsored speaker in 1970 on the occasion of the first Earth Day. “It was quite a coup for us at the time,” he says.

Robert Fine recalls two campus visitors in particular. “The 1964 campaign for U.S. Senate from New York featured Kenneth Keating, who was being opposed by Robert F. Kennedy. We hosted both of them on different days. I had the opportunity to accompany and interview them. That was very exciting.”

’71 - Mark Huddleston, BA ’72 (right) - President, Ohio Wesleyan University

’71 - Mark Huddleston, BA ’72 (right) - President, Ohio Wesleyan University

“In October 1968, the university was bursting with pride over the groundbreaking for its new campus in Amherst,” recalls George Heymann, BA ’71, who was SA president in 1969–1970 and is now a Municipal Housing Court Judge in Brooklyn. “I had the privilege of participating in that special event with then UB President Martin M. Meyerson and the late Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. To this day, I still have the commemorative shovel that I used at the ceremony.”

Connections with leadership

When interviewed, some SA presidents see a clear connection between their student days and life’s journey. “My experiences in Buffalo have been a very critical part of my learning in life,” says Michele Smith. “I learned through both my successes and my failures the importance of a leadership style that is inclusive and compassionate and that acknowledges that everyone is key to the success of a venture, not just the leader. I also learned about making sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

’70 - George Heymann, BA ’71 - Municipal Housing Court Judge, Brooklyn, New York

’70 - George Heymann, BA ’71 - Municipal Housing Court Judge, Brooklyn, New York

“The main lessons that I drew from that experience are the importance of ideas in shaping events and the critical role that collaboration plays in transforming ideas into action,” says Richard Erb, former deputy managing director for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who periodically teaches a management seminar at the University of Montana. “At the IMF, I represented the United States on the IMF Executive Board for three years and then served in the number-two management position for ten years as deputy managing director. Leadership meant working with ideas and hard analysis and achieving objectives in collaboration with others.”

“Campus leadership at UB absolutely played a formative role,” agrees Mark Huddleston of Ohio Wesleyan, who was SA president from 1970–71, the height of the campus unrest period. “I was privileged to be involved at a time when the very nature of universities was under challenge in America in a place that had an extraordinary number of gifted academic leaders—Martin Meyerson, Warren Bennis, Hank Dullea, Bill Greiner, among them,” Huddleston says. “Watching and admiring these people in very difficult circumstances persuaded me at a very early age that I wanted eventually to be a university president.”

Lives redirected

’69 - Rick Schwab, BA ’71 - Editor, Ligonier Echo, Ligonier, Pennsylvania

’69 - Rick Schwab, BA ’71 - Editor, Ligonier Echo, Ligonier, Pennsylvania

Frank Jackalone, SA president in 1974–75, found his life entirely redirected by the campus leadership experience. Today, he is senior regional representative for the National Sierra Club, running field programs in Florida and Puerto Rico. Arriving on campus in 1972 as a champion high school debater, Jackalone at first sought out student government responsibilities as a means to strengthen the campus debate club. By the end of his first semester, however, Jackalone became engrossed by the give-and-take of student government. By the middle of his sophomore year, he was hooked—and was SA president.

Gradually, Jackalone began to focus on the big campus issues of the time—as president, he moved to cut the debate club as not being a priority among students at large. “Ultimately,” he says, “my biggest victory as SA president was preserving the four-course course load,” a measure that would be revisited and debated on campus for several more years. After UB, Jackalone went on to several state and national student leadership positions and later worked for Ralph Nader.

Serving as SA president in 1971–72 “may have influenced my decisions to work in poverty-law and then governmental legal agencies,” says Ian DeWaal, JD ’75 & BA ’72, senior counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington. Though I have never run for political office, I certainly have gravitated to government service.”

’65 - Robert Fine, JD ’68 & BA ’65 - President, Hurwitz & Fine, Buffalo

’65 - Robert Fine, JD ’68 & BA ’65 - President, Hurwitz & Fine, Buffalo

Rick Schwab, BA ’71, served as both SA president and Spectrum editor and now edits the Ligonier Echo in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. “I think I’ve been a leader here in the Ligonier Valley for fair and open government, for keeping a clean environment and for needed municipal improvements,” he says. “I haven’t won all my battles, and I’ve occasionally been wrong, but I’ve kept the editorial water dripping on various stones, and looking back over a quarter of a century, I’ve been able to report on many improvements here in this corner of the world.”

Naniette Coleman is also a graduate student at Harvard University, where she is studying international trade and finance in the Public Administration Program. However, she still finds time to mentor SA leaders who have followed her. “I’ve spoken to every subsequent SA president and I am looking forward to meeting the current president,” Coleman says. “I tell them, ‘When you walk in, have an exit strategy. It’s a means to grow and get to know yourself, and to help the university—it’s not an end in itself.” She adds, “All the lessons I learned in student government have been the basis and the foundation for my future success.”

“Although almost 40 years have transpired since I became a student at UB, it seems like only yesterday that I was campaigning for student office,” observes George Heymann. “But even more important than being a leader among my peers, were the friendships I developed with the men and women who are, to this day, my best friends—and that is what I treasure the most from my days at UB.”

’63 - Richard D. Erb, BA ’63 - Former deputy managing director, International Monetary Fund

’63 - Richard D. Erb, BA ’63 - Former deputy managing director, International Monetary Fund

Still in the midst of his presidency and only 21, Viqar Hussain can’t have Heymann’s long-range perspective. But he recognizes the worth and impact of his campus experiences, saying, “I have improved my people, management and decision-making skills. I gained experience that I could not possibly find anywhere else. I will retain everything that I learned from my SA presidency and apply it to my future everyday life to be a successful individual and leader.”

So what are the collective lessons of leadership for this group? They are many, of course, but perhaps are best expressed by Anthony Burgio, BS ’05, who headed SA in 2004–05 and is now an income tax and financial consultant in Williamsville. “SA taught me that leadership, more than anything else, is most aptly defined as being a good steward of something much greater than oneself,” says Burgio.

“I truly believe that when you embrace and apply this standard of leadership to all areas of your life, ranging from the personal obligations of friendship and family to professional responsibilities, there is no limit to the things that one can achieve.”

Ann Whitcher-Gentzke is editor of UB Today.

Related Reading: SA Presidents Roster and Staying in Touch