2020 State of the University

Published October 16, 2020

Greetings! Thank you for joining me for my ninth annual State of the University address. As you know, we have never held this address in a virtual format. However, for everyone’s health and safety, we must respect the continued threat of the coronavirus.

That said, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how much I miss the opportunity to gather in-person with you—our incredible university community of faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends.

Because of you, we are weathering this public health crisis with uncommon resilience and adaptability.

Because of you, in an unprecedented time, we are seizing unprecedented opportunities to serve the greater good.

To each and every one of you, thank you for rising to the challenges of the past ten months. Thanks to you, I am proud to report that—175 years after UB’s founding—the state of our university remains strong in spite of these challenges.

Ten months ago, none of us could have imagined how much this pandemic would have up-ended our lives: That Zoom would become standard for meetings and classes. That face masks would become standard attire. Or that terms like “social distancing” would become standard in our vernacular.

Since the first report of a pneumonia of unknown cause on the last day of 2019, to the more-than 32 million cases of COVID-19 reported to date, the pandemic has tested resolve, tapped reserves, and toppled expectations.

By far, it has taken the greatest toll on human life—more than one million lives to date. As a university community, we mourn them all—including members of our own UB family.

While UB has dealt with many periods of uncertainty and upheaval throughout its history, I would contend that 2020 has proven exceptional in this regard. And yet, I would also contend that the response of our students, faculty and staff has proven equally exceptional.

From March, when we transitioned 4,000 courses to a remote-learning format within ten days; to May, when we converted UB’s 174th commencement exercises to a virtual celebration; to a fall semester that has seen an 87% reduction in classroom density, our first priority has always been providing our students with a transformative educational experience, while ensuring the health and safety of our university community.

Allow me to underscore my commitment to keeping our campus—and the communities in which we reside—safe.

As I walk across campus and see our students, faculty and staff complying with UB’s health and safety protocols, I am so grateful that you share this commitment. These protocols follow: evidence-based research; guidance from the Centers for Disease Control; and the expertise of our faculty in infectious disease and public health.

These same faculty—and many more, across the disciplines—have played a key role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in the confusing early days of the crisis, many of our faculty members had already pivoted their research to this complex problem.

And not only our faculty. Throughout the pandemic, our entire university community
has doubled down on our mission-driven priority to contribute to the welfare and well-being of the communities we serve. This is how a great public research university responds in times of crisis: Not by wringing our hands, but by rolling up our sleeves.

Many thanks to all of the members of our university community for your response—particularly our clinical faculty, fellows, residents and students serving on the front line of care.

As you just saw in the video, even when the world goes on pause, our mission persists. We continue to harness our research and scholarship for the greater good.

In so doing, we are not only solving problems related to the pandemic, we are enhancing quality of life through our work in climate change, social and economic justice, and the creative arts and literary expression.

In the same vein, our alumni are contributing to the social, cultural and economic vibrancy of our region and our world.

For example, a start-up co-founded by UB alumni—which specializes in technology that allows boats to self-navigate—is now using the same technology to streamline the process of taking temperatures in the work-place.

Last year, an online automobile auction site co-founded by a UB alumnus achieved the rare benchmark of being valued at one billion dollars—making it Buffalo’s first ‘unicorn.’

We are so proud of the members of our alumni community—more than 270,000 strong around the globe—who are leading the world in areas such as healthcare, journalism, marketing, and the arts.

Despite our university’s accomplishments, advancing the ideals of higher education amid a public health crisis has proved trying on every front. COVID-19 has put an extreme strain on both our state’s and UB’s finances. And even before contending with the economic fallout from COVID, UB—like other public higher-education institutions—already faced a number of financial burdens.

In our case, these included new unfunded mandates with limited resources. Based on the state budget deficit, we have anticipated reductions to our direct state tax support. And, SUNY is projecting that these reductions could range from 20 to 25%—that equates to some $30-million to $40-million dollars.

From March to June—the first quarter of this fiscal year—we reduced expenditures
by 22.8 percent from the previous fiscal year. In addition to the projected reductions
to our state operating budget, we have also experienced revenue loss in housing and auxiliary services with the reduction of students living on campus and tuition—especially with the decrease in undergraduate and graduate international student enrollment.

On a bright note, our overall enrollment was actually higher than last year. However, we are still due $19.2 million from the state for the previous fiscal year. Clearly, this is a serious financial situation—for our state, and for UB. And we anticipate this financial strain for the foreseeable future.

That said, our university was on sound financial footing when the pandemic began, and we will be on sound financial footing when the pandemic is behind us.

That is why every decanal and divisional unit has been assessed a one-time, 10% reduction to state operating budgets for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. In addition to this one-time reduction, we have directed units to significantly reduce all state expenditures. That is why we have instituted a hiring pause across all funding sources.

While we have taken these steps, we also continue to fiercely advocate for the public good that our great public research university serves. It is our collective imperative to emerge from this crisis a stronger, more resilient institution.

Last year, during my State of the University address, I announced our ambition to situate UB among the Top 25 public research universities within the next decade. As I said then—and have echoed many times since—our Top 25 Ambition has nothing to do with pride. It has everything to do with impact. Specifically, it is about demonstrating our relevance and impact on contemporary society through our research, our education and our engagement with the communities we serve.

Despite the obstacles we all have faced this year, UB continues on our upward trajectory. Allow me to share a few proof points.

Over the past decade, UB has risen in the U.S. News & World Report rankings 24 spots. Over the past decade and a half, our sponsored research expenditures have risen from 129 to 178 million dollars. We continue to experience an increase in our selectivity and the enrollment of underrepresented minority students. And once at UB, our students shine on the national and international stage.

During the past academic year, UB’s recipients of prestigious awards and scholarships have included NSF Graduate Fellows, Boren Scholars, and Goldwater, Fulbright and Critical Language Scholars.

Likewise, our faculty have enhanced their national and international profile with cutting-edge scholarship, research, and creative work. As a result, they been recognized by the likes of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Fulbright Foundation.

What’s more, over the past academic year, seven UB faculty were promoted to the rank of SUNY Distinguished Professor. That brings the total number of UB faculty who have achieved this rank over the past 13 years to 81. In the number of faculty who have achieved the rank of SUNY Distinguished Professor, UB leads in the SUNY system.

We continue to recruit highly promising and accomplished faculty to UB. In 2020, we hired 115 new full-time faculty, of whom 77 are tenure-track. That’s a 12% overall increase from last year.

We have been so pleased to see our faculty’s innovative solutions making such a positive impact on the economic vitality of Western New York. This is evident in the rising number of UB start-ups and spin-offs in our region.

In fact, in the past decade, 71 start-ups formed as a result of our UB talent and technology. Of those, an impressive 32 formed just in the past year.

To illustrate some of the recent success of these ventures, one start-up has been awarded an NIH grant to pursue a vaccine against HIV. Another—named one of the Top 10 Medical Device Startups to Watch in 2020—received the prestigious  “breakthrough devices” designation from the FDA. Still another is now a publicly traded company that is developing cancer treatments and employing nearly 500 people worldwide—including more than 100 in Buffalo.

Our faculty’s dedicated work has also resulted in UB recently receiving a number of highly selective research awards.

Our School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences was awarded four federal research grants totaling more than $10 million to seek answers to health concerns including obesity and life-threatening infections.

Our School of Nursing received a nearly $2.5 million research award to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on mental health in under-represented communities.

During the spring 2020 semester, UB was awarded a $3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation in support of Indigenous Studies. With this extremely competitive Mellon award, we are building on UB’s 50-year tradition of Indigenous scholarship while addressing issues central to Indigenous life in our region.

Our spring semester also saw the NIH award UB a 5-year, $21.7 million renewal of our Clinical and Translational Science Award. Since the original CTSA, we have tripled the number of clinical trials we perform and doubled the number of underrepresented minorities participating.

Dovetailing with this work, last December, we launched UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute. In collaboration with our community partners, our institute is confronting one of Buffalo’s most entrenched problems—namely, race-based health disparities. This institute is rooted in a cherished concept of human rights—specifically, that all of our neighbors deserve the right to a bright, healthy future.

Although health inequities have been embedded in our country for centuries, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought them into sharp relief. This public health crisis has created a moment of reckoning for our country as we grapple with social injustice and systemic racism. At the same time, it is creating an opportunity for genuine societal transformation.

The social movement that emerged following the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and many other men and women of color has amplified our university’s call to address injustice, racism, and violence. We know we can effect real and meaningful change. More than ever, UB should serve as a bastion of hope and a community of action compelled by the greater good.

As a reaffirmation of our values, our university is actively working to realize the ideals of social justice.

This academic year, we welcomed our inaugural cohort of Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholars to UB. Through this program—believed to be the largest, most comprehensive of its kind in the country—these exceptionally accomplished scholars are leveraging their scholarship, creative endeavors and teaching to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at UB.

We have also purposefully strengthened our community partnerships to make an even greater societal impact. Engaging with Western New York—especially the city of Buffalo—remains a top priority for UB.

For example, over the next three years, our new UB Teacher Residency Program in the Graduate School of Education is expected to graduate 70 new teachers—all of whom will go on to teach in the Buffalo Public Schools. And in the School of Law the just-established Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic will represent imprisoned survivors of domestic violence.

In addition to these social justice initiatives, over the summer, I formed the University Police Advisory Committee to establish awareness of issues in contravention of a safe, welcoming, inclusive environment; to provide a forum for collaboration regarding fair, equitable, effective police practices; and to recommend solutions when concerns arise.

I also convened the President’s Advisory Council on Race. This dedicated group of faculty, staff, students and alumni has been addressing issues of race and culture to guide and shape UB’s programs, policies, activities and traditions. After several months of robust discussions, the Council presented recommendations—a sampling of which include: applying campus-wide holistic admissions to improve the enrollment of under-represented minority students; requiring UB undergraduates to take a course on anti-racism; developing a university-wide mentorship program for student researchers of color; and increasing the number of underrepresented faculty, staff and senior leadership to meet or exceed that of our AAU peers.

We are extremely grateful for the Council’s thoughtful recommendations. We are continuing our discussions with the Council, and are developing a process for implementation.

In addition to the Council’s ongoing work, our university has been hosting a series of lectures and town halls exploring structural transformation. Not surprisingly, some of these conversations have centered on historical, honorific namings. Clearly, these namings hold important symbolic value. We want to ensure that these symbols align with our identity as a diverse, inclusive scholarly community.

 As we consider these symbols, we have no intention of erasing our history. However, we can purposefully determine whom we want to honor in this way, and in this time. In renaming Putnam Way to Mary Talbert Way, we hope to shed light on a progressive civil rights pioneer. Who she was and what she stood for.

Coincidentally, our university community held a virtual celebration of Talbert’s legacy less than a week after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I found it fitting and poignant to be paying tribute to a historic champion of the disenfranchised who paved the way for a contemporary champion of the disenfranchised.

Naturally, my thoughts also turned to Justice Ginsburg’s visit to UB last year. We see the values of Ginsburg, Talbert and others who have left their imprint on UB embodied in our accomplished and driven students.

Our students, who are documenting the experiences of migrant domestic workers before, and during, the pandemic; inspiring children from underrepresented minority communities to pursue careers in STEM; and developing prosthetic devices for people who have lost hands and fingers to illness, accidents, natural disaster, or war.

Our students never fail to impress and inspire me with their determination to make a difference.

Now, more than ever before, the public research university is being called upon to solve the most complex issues of our times—problems including climate change, public health, the economy and educational reform.

In the face of dwindling state resources, it is clear that philanthropy will play an even more pivotal role in helping us achieve our mission-driven priorities—and, by consequence, our Top 25 Ambition.

Two and a half years ago, UB officially launched our Boldly Buffalo campaign. Since then, this ambitious campaign has helped us further invest in our world-class faculty, make our transformative education more accessible, and build and modernize the places where our students learn, discover and create.

I have been truly inspired to see our extended UB family embracing our bold goals. In fact, since our campaign began, donors have supported 216 endowed scholarships and 26 endowed chairs and professorships. What’s more, this campaign has transformed the physical face of our university. And, during the pandemic, we saw nearly 2,000 donors come to the aid of our most vulnerable students by contributing over 340 thousand dollars to our emergency fund.

My heartfelt thanks and gratitude to our campaign volunteers, faculty, staff, and friends. All of you are helping us achieve our historic goals.

In reflecting on our university’s 175th anniversary, I came across a report written by our university’s 7th chancellor, Samuel Capen. One passage, in particular, stood out. In it, Capen wrote: “A university is not a group of buildings. It is a group of persons assembled for the purpose of passing on knowledge, and for the creation of new knowledge.”

Since the origins of our university, our students, faculty and staff have always constituted the heart of UB. UB has always been defined by our community’s intellect, innovations and contributions to humanity. And it will continue to be for the next 175 years—and beyond.

To all of you who play a critical role in making UB the great public research university it is today—and will always be—thank you.