Reaching Others University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content

A Conversation with Chip Zukoski

By BERT GAMBINI May 24, 2013

“I wanted a chance to work at a comprehensive university at a high level of leadership to help drive it forward. ”
Charles F. Zukoski, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

In the office of UB’s new provost, Charles F. Zukoski, a round table, four feet across, sits between his desk and a sofa. Beside the sofa is a neglected potted palm.

“I should probably water that,” he says, looking at the wilted plant. “But I’ve been so busy.”

Zukoski, wearing a pale blue shirt, khakis and a broad smile, scoops up all the papers on the table with a single sweep of his arm and places them on his desk. He is the embodiment of energy. It’s not surprising to learn he’s a runner.

“Sit down, please,” he says. “Call me Chip.”

He mentions how friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic he has found everyone since moving to Buffalo with his wife, Barbara Morgan. They enjoy the conversations encountered in their new neighborhood, in the shops and restaurants, and on campus.

“Everyone is cheerful,” he says. “I like that.”

And as he begins to speak, it is clear that UB’s new provost exhibits the same qualities he appreciates in others.

“Pitch point” for campus operations

President Satish K. Tripathi announced Zukoski’s appointment on April 6. In addition to provost, Zukoski is UB’s executive vice president for academic affairs, making him both the university’s chief academic officer and its chief financial officer—the “pitch point,” says Zukoski, for the campus budget and any decisions made about the model UB will use to distribute that budget.

“As an educational institution we’re all about students,” he says. “Students are taught by faculty; faculty report to department chairs; department chairs report to deans; deans report to the provost. In that sense, the provost is in charge of the academic programs across the campus and holds responsibility for ensuring that we’re delivering a quality education.”

He says he has tried to absorb as much as possible in the past five months, yet he talks about the university and the larger Western New York community not as someone trying to get acquainted, but as a longtime resident fascinated by the region’s assets and their potential.

“I wanted a chance to work at a comprehensive university at a high level of leadership to help drive it forward,” he says. “But I also believe there is a renaissance taking place at UB and in Western New York.”

He mentions the redevelopment along Buffalo’s waterfront and the medical school’s planned move downtown as examples of the community coming together to solve its problems.

Universities are being asked more and more to leverage their research dollars in order to improve the economy, Zukoski notes.

“New resources to leverage government investment in research are part of NYSUNY 2020. This presents UB and Buffalo with the capacity to reimagine the future.

“With NYSUNY 2020, we will be able to grow the campus by 250 to 300 faculty members, with all sorts of impact on the education of undergraduates and on the research and scholarship that happens here,” he says.

Zukoski says it’s hard to predict today what will develop traction tomorrow, but he clearly sees UB having an influence in many of its core areas of expertise, including the social sciences, the arts and humanities, and especially rapidly evolving advances in medicine, science and engineering.

“Smart grids, materials and pharmaceutical development are just some of the areas that are likely to form,” he says.

That transformation is part of a process that, according to Zukoski, might take a decade, but it’s a process that he says is already taking place.

Zukoski the “builder”

A respected chemical engineer and member of the National Academy of Engineering, Zukoski in casual conversation sounds more like a structural engineer. The idea of building is always on his mind, whether talking about partnerships, models or actual construction. He is an administrator with an academic soul that seeks to contribute to the larger community’s economic health.

“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 comprehensive universities enhance the economic vitality of their communities. This is key.”

Zukoski’s father was a medical researcher at a number of universities, moving his family from Birmingham, Ala., to Richmond, Va., then Nashville, Tenn., and later to Chapel Hill, N.C., before settling in Tucson, Ariz.

Zukoski headed a bit further west to obtain his own bachelor’s degree in physics from Reed College, a small liberal arts school in Portland, Ore. After graduation, he applied for graduate school in geology and biochemistry.

“I told the graduate schools, ‘I don’t know a lot about your discipline, but if you accept me, I’ll make you proud,’” he says.

No one accepted him.

So for the next two years, Zukoski built the platform on which he would ultimately conduct his graduate work. He took a position as a research assistant in a biochemistry lab at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center. During that time, he attended two international meetings and published eight papers. His application to Princeton for graduate school in chemical engineering came directly out of this experience.

“I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign almost immediately after receiving my doctorate at Princeton and followed the classic process: I was an assistant professor; I taught courses; I learned about chemical engineering and how to teach it,” he says.

After six months of studying applied math and applied physics during his first sabbatical in Melbourne, Australia, Zukoski returned to Illinois as a department head.

“I was asked to build a department, to make things happen,” he explains. “That gave me a great deal of freedom to explore the campus and to create partnerships both on campus and across the world.”

One of those partnerships established a joint masters and PhD program with then National University of Singapore. In fact, Zukoski 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 he continues to serve as a senior fellow of the agency.

In 2002, he was named vice chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, motivated because he felt the university should have more of a role in making sure public funds were improving people’s lives beyond the idea of formal education.

“At Illinois, we didn’t know how to deal with companies and we didn’t have a good patenting and licensing office,” he says. “Over the course of 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.”

He says it took a decade of steady pressure acting on the system before the community could see the return, but in that time the downtown area was transformed and the results continue to enable new businesses to take root.

“I see something similar happening here. UB’s medical school will transform our downtown area,” he says. “Once the move is complete, 12,000 current and future jobs will be located in the medical core.”

In addition to investing in the community, the university’s role also involves lending and applying its strengths to government investment. Zukoski says UB is central to Albany’s $1 billion commitment to Buffalo, announced in January by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“We are the area’s major research institution,” he says. “We are the core of the knowledge-based economy. If we can solve the problems in Buffalo, we can solve the problems of the world. How many cities are there like Buffalo, in the U.S., in China and other places? How do you plan for the future? How do you redevelop those places? How do you get the infrastructure working? These are local issues that can go global.”

Keeping in touch with students

Zukoski looks out of his office window, finishing the answer to a question. Five floors below, outside Capen Hall, students are making their way to class. He has been an administrator for nearly 20 years, and although the responsibilities of that role increasingly have taken him away from working with students, student contact is something he values immensely. That’s why Zukoski makes it a priority to schedule time to shepherd doctoral students and remain active in research.

“I find research fascinating,” he says. “I worked with a graduate student from the University of Illinois over the Labor Day weekend, pouring over data and coming up with detailed questions and how to answer them. I still very much enjoy that, but it was a conscious decision on my part to begin to think more broadly about higher education and how universities like UB can impact people’s lives in a holistic way.”

Still, when given the opportunity, UB’s new provost welcomes the chance to talk with students. At the start of the semester, he attended a welcoming event for incoming freshmen, greeting them personally as they entered a large tent on the North Campus.

“Are you going to finish in four,” he asked them, referring to the pledge between the university and members of the class of 2016 to complete the graduation requirements within four years.

He says it’s important to create the expectation that students will finish their undergraduate work in four years.

“I want to emphasize that this is the place where you’re being educated for the rest of your life,” he says. “We have to work with students so that they understand the education here is rigorous, excellent and designed to be finished in four years.”

Setting those expectations, however, is part of a broader ambition for Zukoski that also includes faculty, chairs and deans.

“We want to go for the strongest grants and the best hires. We want to publish in the most respected journals,” he says. “That should be our expectation. UB is on a strategic path to being the best. My goal is to get us there.

And that begins with engagement, creating a mindset.

“Some of it is found in policy decisions. But mostly, expectations are about hearts and minds, not just policy. It’s about communication. It’s about working with people. It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about all the people at our university that have great aspirations.”

Zukoski says he is still familiarizing himself with the university’s budget and is working closely with Tripathi as part of that learning process.

“It’s fun working with Satish,” he says. “I rely heavily on him for advice and direction. He knows the institution deeply. He helped UB through a shocking financial crisis and kept people enthusiastic. He built UB 2020 and NYSUNY 2020. Together we form a partnership.”

Zukoski says his role as the university’s second-ranking officer is closer to that of a coordinator than a director.

“My philosophy is not to establish a personal agenda. Again, it’s not about me,” Zukoski stresses. “It’s about where the institution wants to go, where it needs to go and about examining our obligations. My job is to coordinate and facilitate along those different aspects.”

Setting expectations

Zukoski will speak at UB’s ninth annual Celebration of Academic Excellence on Oct. 3 following President Tripathi’s welcome. It will be his first opportunity to address a large campus gathering.

“How many opportunities does a provost have to set expectations?” he asks.

Although he didn’t offer a preview of what he has planned, Zukoski has touchstones that surface in his conversations about UB: Why are we here? What are we trying to accomplish? Who are we serving? His message is about excellence and growth. It’s about delivering impact to the university, the community and its people. Answering those questions and realizing those goals requires imagining new possibilities.

“It isn’t clear to me that given the financial crisis hitting higher education around the country that it’s enough to simply rebuild from previous budget cuts,” he says. “In order to build excellence, we will have to choose areas that we want to enter. Students come to UB to study health care, not just medical care, the ethics and the economics of delivery, the devices we might engineer in the future.”

Zukoski says that those investment themes will create incredibly rich programs that will attract students to the university.

“I think about these things all the time,” he says.

He revels in the opportunities presented by his new role.

“I was attracted here because of where UB wants to go and where it can go,” he says. “I am enormously proud to have been chosen as the provost and glad to be part of Buffalo and part of UB.”