Distinguished Leaders in Higher Education Lecture

Published April 22, 2019

Good evening!

First off, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the University of Missouri community for inviting me to speak as part of your “Distinguished Leaders in Higher Education” series.

It is both a pleasure and an honor to serve as the inaugural speaker in this series. And it is truly exciting to be with you at the start of what will no doubt become a great tradition for the University of Missouri.

In particular, I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to Chancellor Cartwright for extending this invitation to me. It has been wonderful visiting with my former UB colleague during my time at Missouri.

It is also wonderful to have the opportunity to spend time at a fellow AAU institution: to see how you are evolving as an institution, building on your success and achieving the vision of excellence that connects all of us in the AAU.

As with the University of Missouri, the University at Buffalo has been in the midst of a pivotal transformation. We, too, are building on a long history of institutional evolution. And, it seems to me that much of UB’s institutional evolution is relevant to the transformation taking place at the University of Missouri.

AAU institutions like the University of Missouri and the University at Buffalo can learn much from each other, as we are driven by a shared priority – namely, to achieve academic and research excellence as expressed through our university mission.

On the face of it, that seems like a straightforward priority. But experience has shown us that this requires a balancing act.

On one hand, we must remain true to our academic mission and our foundation– we must ensure that our core institutional values guide everything we do. On the other, if we are to not only meet the changing demands of the 21st century world – but remain relevant in it -  we must continuously transform and innovate.

Before I share the story of the strategic plan that has informed our institutional transformation, I think it would be helpful for you to have a bit of historical background on the University at Buffalo.

UB was founded in 1846 as a small private medical school, training physicians for the City of Buffalo. We became part of the State University of New York system in 1962. And we steadily grew into the most comprehensive public research university in New York State. Since 1989, we have been a member of the Association of American Universities.

To give you a sense of UB’s scope, scale and impact:

  • UB is the largest and most comprehensive public research university in New York State. 
  • We have approximately 30,500 students hailing from all 50 states and over 100 nations. 
  • And, we have more than 5,400 full-time employees.
  • This includes more than 2,400 total faculty.
  • Our annual research expenditures exceed $387 million.
  • Our annual revenues exceed $1.6 billion.
  • Western New York’s fourth-largest employer, UB has an estimated economic impact of more than $2 billion annually on our region.
  • We have over 260,000 alumni in approximately 150 countries.
  • And, for more than a decade, we have consistently ranked among the top 25 U.S. universities in international enrollment.

We have three campuses:

  • Our North Campus, in suburban Amherst, NY;
  • our Historic Main Street Campus, in the City of Buffalo;
  • and our medical campus, at the heart of our city’s medical corridor.

It was against this backdrop that, 15 years, ago we launched “UB 2020.”

UB 2020 is our strategic vision for:

  • advancing our university’s prominence among the world’s best research universities; and
  • expanding the impact of our mission—regionally, nationally, and globally—through our pursuit of academic excellence.

Fifteen years ago, we were a good institution with potential to be much better.

We recognized that, as a public research university, it was imperative that we achieve greater impact through our research and scholarship. We knew we needed to strengthen our academic disciplines, advance our research portfolio, enhance the student experience and build out our physical environment to support that experience.

Yet we had no clear path to reach our institutional potential. We would need a strategic plan to guide where we would invest in excellence, and how we should prioritize those investments.

We also needed to determine how to mobilize our institutional resources for transformative change. This entailed:

  • Developing a sustainable plan for investment;
  • Considering what our students need to learn to compete in a global world;
  • Considering how to engage all members of our campus community in this process;
  • And forecasting the potential impact of our transformation on our city, our region, our state, and our world.   

The core elements of UB 2020 consisted of:

  • One: Academic and research priorities;
  • Two: Our campus master plan;
  • And Three: Our plan for achieving operational excellence.

To help convert our plan into action, we began to seek stakeholder support—internally, with faculty, and externally with:

  • New York State elected officials
  • Business and industry partners
  • And our alumni and friends in philanthropy.

And, we had several enabling mechanisms in place to help us convey the details of our plan and to garner resources. These included:

  • A marketing and communications strategy;
  • Advocacy at the state and federal level;
  • And engagement from our strong and widespread alumni base.

In order for us to achieve our goals, all elements of our plan had to work synergistically. We had to be cognizant of any internal and external pressures. And our faculty had to not only buy into the plan, but help drive the process, with the support of our administration.

Back to the elements of our plan. These included:

  • Academic planning. Here, we defined our academic priorities and how we would build our faculty strength across the range of disciplines.
  • Research planning. This entailed identifying strategic fields then investing in faculty.
  • Campus master plan. This involved designing a comprehensive physical plan to support our academic, research and student-life goals.
  • Our operational excellence planning involved initiating a comprehensive review to ensure that we were operating at our most efficient.
  • Creating efficiencies would allow us to invest those savings into our academic and research priorities.

For the purposes of today’s talk, I would like to address the first two domains – academic planning, and research planning.

Academic Planning:

Our goal was to:

  • Connect our students directly to the research enterprise;
  • Provide robust global experiences; and
  • Ensure that our students could be a part of close-knit learning communities.

To that end, we focused on enhancing the innovation and rigor in our both our undergraduate and graduate education experiences.

In the undergraduate domain:

  • We developed our UB Curriculum—an innovative, student-centered approach to general education;
  • We expanded study abroad, internship, clinical and entrepreneurial opportunities;
  • We enhanced our Honors College ;
  • And we initiated our unique Finish in Four program to provide students the support and resources they need to graduate on time.

To transform our graduate program, we:

  • Created new doctoral programs;
  • Launched new interdisciplinary academic departments (Biomedical Informatics and Materials Design and Innovation);
  • Initiated new Dual-Degree programs (MD/MBA, for example);
  • Grew our medical education;
  • And developed our inter-professional education programs

Together, these initiatives have formed a truly vibrant educational experience with endless opportunities for exploration. And these investments in our education enterprise have yielded substantial outcomes.

For example, we’ve seen a significant increase in graduation rates, which has been a challenge across U.S. higher education institutions for some time. Specifically, our 4-year graduation rate rose from 35% in 2005 to 57% in 2017 – well above the national average of 33% for public universities.

The graduation rate for our Finish in Four program is even better—63%. At the same time that many U.S. universities are experiencing dwindling enrollment, we have been experiencing an increase.

We have also seen an increase in both the diversity and the academic credentials of our incoming students. And now, a growing number of our students are competing at the highest level for the most prestigious national and international awards and honors, such as:

  • NSF graduate research fellowships;
  • Fulbright Awards; and
  • Marshall, Udall and Truman scholarships.

In our graduate education enterprise, we have also experienced numerous positive outcomes, including:

  • A significant increase in degrees earned;
  • An elevated national reputation across our graduate and professional programs; and
  • Higher national rankings in several of our graduate and professional schools’ programs.

Moving on to our research domain:

  • Our guiding principle here was innovation in our basic and applied areas of research.
  • We were also focused on impact:
  • Our research and scholarship should be contributing meaningfully to today’s challenges, and to the social, cultural and economic vibrancy of our communities.

In order to advance our strategic vision in research, we envisioned a new paradigm.

To that end, we identified our strategic strengths—areas where existing faculty strengths, together with investment in world-class new hires and resources, would create integrated, interdisciplinary solutions to vexing problems.

We also invested in high-impact, high-return initiatives responsive to UB strategic priorities:

  • A cluster faculty hiring strategy;
  • 3-E Funds to support cross-university research initiatives; and
  • Our Communities of Excellence, interdisciplinary teams built around diverse fields—Global Health Equity and the Genome, Environment and Microbiome, to name two.

The result: Our research profile has expanded by several significant measures.

  • For example, from 2013-2017—the most recent data available—our federal R&D expenditures rose from $159M annually to $187M annually.
  • In this category, UB is ranked 35th among public universities.
  • Another important gauge of research impact—faculty citations—rose from 48K to 106K.
  • In this category, UB is also ranked 35th.

Also as a result of our strategic research focus, we have seen a marked upward trend in faculty being recognized with:

  • Major national honors;
  • Membership in National Academies; and
  • NSF CAREER Awards.

We are also seeing an increase in the number of our faculty receiving the rank of SUNY Distinguished Professor – the highest rank in our state university system. Since 2007, 61 of our faculty have been promoted to this rank—more than at any other SUNY institution during that time.

Our strategic planning in research involved several explicit extramural funding goals:

For example, In 2015, UB was awarded the Clinical and Translational Science Award (2015), a $15M NIH grant that places UB among some 50 U.S. academic institutions charged with accelerating the translation of research discoveries into improved patient care.

And in 2013, UB was awarded a $25M Science and Technology Center Award, which is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award.

Of note: Chancellor Cartwright was our Vice President for Research and Economic Development when we received this award.

  • With the initial award, UB and our partner institutions created a consortium that is developing new X-ray techniques to analyze targets for drug discovery.
  • Last fall, this award was renewed with a $22.5M grant.

As we have implemented our strategic plan, we have also seen a positive institutional outcome in our rising rankings.

Last year, UB achieved an all-time high ranking among the nation’s best public universities – at 38. In the category of best public and private universities, UB has risen 32 spots over the past decade.

UB is also recognized nationally and internationally for excellence at the decanal and departmental levels, with several of our schools ranked in the top 35.

So, as I just laid out, our strategic planning and implementation resulted in a significant uptick in several significant metrics.

And while we are very pleased with our improved graduation rates, increasing federal research expenditures and rising rankings, it’s what these numbers indicate that truly are a point of pride. Because they suggest that we’re making an even more profound impact than ever before.

Serving many – and serving meaningfully – has always been at the heart of our mission.

So, I’d like to now speak about our strategic vision and its impact on our local community – Buffalo and the broader Western New York region.

From the beginning of our UB 2020 plan, we had the support of our local community, and of New York State. Our community, our governor and our state supported us because they recognized the key role a university plays in propelling a region forward. They recognized that by harnessing our creativity, our scholarship, our research and our innovations, we could contribute to not just a temporal spike in regional prosperity—but long-term, sustained economic prosperity.

In 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo established 10 regional councils throughout New York State to develop long-term strategic plans for economic growth and build out paths to prosperity. I was fortunate to be invited to serve as the inaugural co-chair of the Economic Development Council for our Western New York region. The council was tasked with identifying areas of economic strengths and investing in these regional assets to generate opportunity.

Today, UB remains central to this plan through our leadership in:

  • Advanced manufacturing;
  • Professional workforce;
  • Entrepreneurship; and
  • Health and Life Sciences.

I’d like to share with you a few brief examples of UB’s contributions to each of these four areas.

In terms of advanced manufacturing:

The research we conduct – primarily in our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences – is at the heart of numerous advanced manufacturing initiatives taking place throughout the region.

These include UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics, which leverages our expertise in materials science, big data analytics and advanced manufacturing expertise to drive R&D activities that directly impact private sector growth.

Since 2012, the Center for Materials Informatics has:

  • engaged with over 200 industry partners;
  • assisted approximately 50 companies with UB Centers for Advanced Technology Funding;
  • co-funded more than a dozen faculty/industry projects;
  • supplied more than two dozen companies with workforce assistance; and
  • supported approximately two dozen START-UP NY companies.

In terms of New York State’s professional workforce, we contribute most significantly through our graduates. And, increasingly, companies are starting up here or relocating to WNY because of the high-caliber expertise of our graduates.

In terms of entrepreneurship:

UB is driving a culture of innovation. Our campus-based Blackstone Launchpad supports and mentors students, staff, and alumni in their entrepreneurship activities.

Our UB Incubators provide a seedbed for start-up, technology-driven businesses, from:

  • UB-led bio-tech companies;
  • To a start-up that is developing self-navigation tools for ships;
  • To a student-services data company that sold for $40M;
  • To a major pharmaceutical company that is developing new treatments for cancer.

In terms of health and life sciences: I would point to the move of our Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences from our Historic Main Street Campus to our downtown medical campus.

Our medical school is now in the heart of our region’s biosciences corridor. With this move, research and clinicians are part of a highly collaborative ecosystem. It has allowed us to enhance collaborations between UB and our hospital partners. Within this environment, we are able to accelerate medical innovations and bench-to-bedside discoveries, enhancing quality of life for patients locally and well beyond.

All told, these four areas of strength have translated into areas where we are making an even greater positive impact on our region, thanks in large part to the implementation of our strategic plan.

We take great pride that our institutional transformation is contributing in equal measure to the region’s transformation.

The statistics I am about to share are particularly consequential when compared to the previous decade, in which the region experienced economic decline with hard-hitting recessions followed by recoveries that took longer than elsewhere in the country.

So, when we look at the period from 2011-2017, the most recent for which we have data:

  • Private-sector jobs grew by 4%,
  • Wages for private workers grew by 19%, and the average annual wage grew by 15%.
  • The population of 20–34 year olds grew by nearly 2,700 per year.
  • Over 18.7 million visitors came to WNY in 2017, a 15.8% increase since 2011.
  • Home sales grew by 35%.
  • Unemployment dropped from 9.8% to 4.4%.
  • Total R&D investments in WNY grew 8.8%, reaching nearly $400M.

These statistics have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. And for our part, UB is extremely proud to be playing a key role in renaissance of our great region. It means that we are fulfilling our university’s public mission.

We recognize that not only the community, but the University at Buffalo, has benefited because our stakeholders understand the incredible value that the public research university brings to region and state.

And when we consider our strategic plan, we think we have executed it pretty well.

Of course, there was a degree of institutional risk involved. If you seek to achieve transformative change, risk is inevitable.

Reaching out and collaborating across the disciplines is a much more organic process than it had been in the past. We seem better able to handle and weather challenges. And for its part, our community has seen that we have made good on our promise to make a meaningful impact on the landscape.

Today in Buffalo, you can see a robust academic health center that is held up by our clinicians and researchers.

Today in Buffalo, you can see many companies seeking to relocate here because of our graduates.

Today in Buffalo, you can see university-industry partnerships driving innovation.

My final reflections:

I do not want to suggest that the transformation that the University at Buffalo underwent was without bumps or setbacks. Institutional transformation is never easy. But it’s worthwhile.

As you at the University of Missouri have indicated in your own strategic planning document – a strategic plan is a living plan. As you have noted, this plan grows and develops – and it may change as circumstances warrant.

There is no “a-ha” moment when you realize that you have arrived, so to speak.

Whether at the University at Buffalo or the University of Missouri, our challenge as public research universities will always be to find a way to embrace new opportunities for growth and innovation while keeping our academic mission at the heart of everything we do.

Thank you.