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Spring 2013

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Standing Out in the Crowd

The university seeks to define and capitalize on its distinctive qualities amid stiff competition and a declining pool of high school grads

Story by Bert Gambini; Illustration by Scott Bakal

“UB is prepared to take another big leap forward,” President Satish K. Tripathi said emphatically at his State of the University address in November 2012. Helping to guide that progress is the university’s new provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Charles F. Zukoski, a respected chemical engineer who arrived at UB last summer following an international search.

Zukoski has responsibility for all things academic, and Tripathi has charged him with leading a comprehensive campus discussion to chart the institution’s course for the next decade. This initiative—dubbed “Realizing UB 2020”—comes at an opportune time: UB has emerged from several years of budget cuts and, with strong support from leaders in Albany, is poised to make great strides.

The opportunity comes largely in the form of new funding resulting from the NYSUNY 2020 program, an initiative proposed by SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and supported by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. UB foresees enough revenue growth to fund 250 new faculty positions, a similar number of staff and many improvements that will enhance the student experience.

Zukoski is excited about what he calls a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”— something that he thinks has come at the perfect time for the university.

“Higher education in the United States is going through a radical transformation,” Zukoski observes. “We are witnessing new demands and greater challenges than at any time in the modern history of higher education.”

To address these issues UB must become more distinctive, Tripathi has stated in outlining the process of Realizing UB 2020. In his November address, he elaborated on this principle, urging UB to begin “defining and maximizing our distinctive qualities as a university.

“When we do this,” he added, “we will truly set ourselves apart from our peers. And we will lead with even greater impact.”

A Time of Challenges

A declining population of young people, new ways to deliver education, international growth and flat levels of research funding are acting together to create a hyper-competitive environment for UB and other major universities across the country. These forces, coupled with uncertainties about the economy, are exerting pressures on universities to adapt and respond.

The number of high school graduates in New York State is projected to decline 7 percent through 2020, from roughly 180,000 to only about 168,000 students. Similar drop-offs in the traditional college-bound population are also happening in other states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“Every university wants to attract the best students, the high-end achievers, but the pool is getting smaller because of these changing demographics,” says Zukoski. “The challenge for us is how we’re going to convince those students to come here when they are also being pulled by other schools.”

Global Forces in Education

Zukoski’s years in higher education, both at home and abroad, have provided a perspective on how UB can capture and create opportunities from these emerging challenges.

“My experience has allowed me to learn about the broad aspects of research found at a comprehensive university,” he says. “At the same time, I have come to appreciate how universities like UB enhance the economic vitality of their communities.

“We must get better and we must distinguish UB from its competitors,” Zukoski insists. “Out of the Realizing UB 2020 process will come a new and interesting way of understanding who we are as a university and the direction we should head to achieve continued success.”

Zukoski is highly tuned to how global forces are shaping higher education. “Here at UB, we’re welcoming to people around the world and have built a reputation for educating people from around the world,” says Zukoski. “This confers a tremendous advantage on all of our students. They will graduate into the global economy much better prepared because they’ve learned how to interact with their peers from other nations.”

Yet UB cannot take its leadership in international education for granted, Zukoski maintains. Many other nations, especially in Asia, are working to dramatically expand their own universities. Meanwhile, many other U.S. universities are working to recruit students from overseas, a reality Zukoski has witnessed firsthand. Serving as a department head at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he helped create a partnership that established a joint master’s and PhD program with the National University of Singapore. He also served six years as chairman of the Science and Engineering Research Council of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore, and continues to serve as senior fellow of the agency.

Impact of Online Courses

In addition to the growing global competition for talented students, Zukoski also points to the rapid rise in online courses. The phenomenon known as MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—has exploded onto the higher education scene in the last year. These courses are becoming wildly popular, with some enrolling as many as 100,000 students.

Zukoski understands the appeal of MOOCs and believes they will have an impact in education going forward. Accordingly, UB in his view must move to understand how to use IT more effectively in a pedagogical sense. Even so, the benefits of a residential education are manifold.

“The ages between 18 and 22 are very important for maturity and determining how effective we’re going to be later in life,” Zukoski says. “And residential universities offer that kind of environment. There is thus a tension between increasing access through online education and personal growth experiences of traditional place-based education.

“To be a successful individual is more than a matter of acquiring your detailed knowledge. You have to have the soft skills,” Zukoski adds. “The environment outside the classroom is where you develop those soft skills. How do you interact? How do you talk to people? What are the clubs [students are involved in]? What does it mean to be a leader? Where do you see yourself? You get to explore these elements at a residential university.”

Moreover, says the provost, “at UB, you’re surrounded by smart students and a smart and active faculty. You’re exposed to the problems of the day and the methods for solving them. And you have interactions that foster personal growth. These are experiences that you cannot easily get online.”

Indeed, Zukoski reports, student exit polls indicate that UB is providing a rich student experience and is routinely “applauded for the programs on campus. We will need to capitalize on that,” he says. “It’s an asset. We have the right social environment and the right educational environment. Students want to come here because of the quality of the education and the quality of the extracurricular experience.”

Still, he does not downplay the risk that online delivery of higher education presents for traditional “seated” universities.

“Someone will come up with online educational techniques that allow students to learn online and learn well,” Zukoski continues. “When they do, companies will start hiring those graduates in larger numbers.”

Addressing Cost and Competition

Concerns about the cost of higher education may be one of the main reasons why students are flocking to MOOCs and other alternatives. Students can live at home, saving some of the costs of attending a residential university like UB.

While UB remains a terrific value—with tuition and fees that are well below the average among major public research universities— Zukoski acknowledges the financial worries of parents and students. “We must be mindful of our costs, and make sure that students are receiving an excellent value.”

He cites UB’s “Finish in Four” guarantee as one example of how UB has responded to these concerns. The program, which Tripathi established for the freshman class entering in fall 2012, assures that students can graduate on time, thus potentially saving the costs of an extra year or two.

UB has already invested some of the new revenues from NYSUNY 2020 by adding course sections. This way, students can now get the courses they need when they need to take them.

“They are also guided and mentored to get through the program in four years,” Zukoski explains. “We’re offering more support to the student and driving up the impact of their time at UB. This program is in direct response to the fact we are in a highly competitive environment.”

Another challenge for higher education is the fact that federal research funding will remain flat or perhaps even shrink in the next few years. Universities are competing for these scarce dollars just as they are competing for students.

“You have to be excellent to win this competition,” Zukoski says. “Mediocrity will be ignored as companies fight tooth and nail to develop the best technologies and deliver the latest innovations. They need the best graduates to achieve those aims. So our research has to be top-rate, but I also see our knowledge creation as having a sharper edge. We must be excellent.”

Partnerships and New Models

The confluence of these factors is responsible for universities increasingly being asked to partner with the private sector.

Historically, universities developed knowledge, educated students and conducted fundamental research. “And we did some great work in that regard,” Zukoski says.

But the old models are being tweaked in response to competitive pressures, and universities are being asked to partner more with the private sector, he says.

In 2002, Zukoski led such a collaboration as vice chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, motivated by his belief that the university should have more of a role in making sure public funds were improving people’s lives beyond the idea of formal education.

“In the late 1990s at Illinois, we had poorly developed mechanisms for dealing with companies, and we didn’t have a good patenting and licensing office. Due to hard work over a decade, there is now a well-greased mechanism in patenting and licensing technologies coming out of the university; there’s a research park that now is contributing in a substantial way. Many companies and startups are in that park, while the community has been buoyed through the most recent recession because of those high-paying jobs.”

Zukoski says it took a decade of steady effort before the surrounding community was transformed. Today, the results continue to enable new businesses to take root in the area around the University of Illinois.

“At UB, we are being increasingly asked more and more to take our discoveries and grow their value in such a way that the private sector can harvest them,” says Zukoski. He also points out the value companies get from having a major research university as a partner. “Private-sector ventures need students they can hire, and they need faculty who can come in and teach their workers. They need the research infrastructure the university can provide,” Zukoski says. Furthermore, these partnerships produce jobs and opportunities for students and community residents.”

Indeed, collaboration of all sorts is now the preferred strategy. Zukoski points to UB’s Clinical Translational Research Center (CTRC), which opened in September 2012, as one example.

This new nine-story building in downtown Buffalo houses researchers and clinicians who work together to translate scientific discoveries into health care treatments. The CTRC shares the $291 million facility with Kaleida Health’s Gates Vascular Institute, a leader in the treatment of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

“That whole building is dedicated to figuring out how to take discoveries from the basic sciences and apply them to deliver better health care,” says Zukoski. “Society wants us to realize greater returns on its research investments. Universities like UB are being asked to deliver on that.”

Ultimately, Zukoski is bullish on UB’s future. “We are feeling all these competitive pressures but we have new resources that will help us to respond and to thrive,” Zukoski states. “The state has given us the opportunity to position ourselves to provide greater impact for our students and for the State of New York.”

Who is Charles Zukoski

Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala. PhD in chemical engineering, Princeton University, 1985; BS in physics, Reed College, 1977. Previously Elio Eliakim Tarika Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Vice chancellor for research at Illinois, 2002-2008. Head of the university’s Department of Chemical Engineering, 1994-2002. Named one of 100 Engineers of the Modern Era, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2008. Elected to National Academy of Engineering, 2007, for “research on the manipulation of particle interactions to alter their suspension properties, and for leadership in education.”