Published October 16, 2020
Notwithstanding the profound difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, “the state of the university remains strong,” President Satish K. Tripathi said in his ninth annual address to the campus Oct. 16.
Delivering his remarks virtually for safety concerns, Tripathi stressed research accomplishments, scholarly productivity and heightened philanthropy as signs of the university’s vitality amid the public health crisis. He paid tribute to the resilience of students, faculty and staff in responding to an “exceptional” upheaval in campus operations and the dramatic changes in academic life. He also outlined the university’s efforts “to realize the ideals of social justice” in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and others.
Tripathi began his prerecorded remarks by describing just how quickly the university transitioned to digital instruction as mandated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and how it adroitly moved events and traditions online.
“From March, when we transitioned 4,000 courses to a remote-learning format within 10 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.”
Tripathi praised students, faculty and staff for complying with UB’s health and safety protocols, and the manner in which many faculty have “pivoted” their research to COVID-19 investigations. “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.”
Even as the entire world seemed to pause, the university’s work continued for the greater good, Tripathi said. He cited research and scholarship in climate change, social and economic justice, and the creative arts and literary expression.
Despite such accomplishments, Tripathi pointed out, “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 20-25% — that equates to some $30 million to $40 million.”
In line with these financial realities, UB reduced expenditures during the first quarter of this fiscal year by 22.8% from the previous fiscal year. It also has seen revenue loss in housing and auxiliary services because of the reduced number of students living on campus. There also is less tuition income because of reduced international student enrollment.
Yet, overall enrollment was actually higher than last year, and UB is still due $19.2 million from the state for the previous fiscal year, Tripathi said. While financial strain can be anticipated for the “foreseeable future,” UB has taken steps to ensure a sound financial footing.
“That is why every decanal and divisional unit has been assessed a one-time, 10% reduction to state operating budgets for the 2020-21 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.”
Tripathi listed a series of notable accomplishments. Among them:
Tripathi described the formation in December of UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute, which “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.”
Indeed, COVID-19 has brought health disparities and social inequity “into sharp relief,” Tripathi said. He noted how UB is making a concerted effort to reaffirm its values through such initiatives as the inaugural cohort of Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholars and the President’s Advisory Council on Race, announced in June.
The latter has already presented recommendations to guide and shape UB’s programs, policies, activities and traditions with the goal of combating racism and dismantling structural barriers to equality.
Among the recommendations are 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.
In addition, Tripathi said, the university has been hosting a series of lectures and town halls to explore structural transformation. Efforts to reconsider honorific, historical names of buildings, roadways and such are not intended to “erase our history,” he said. Rather, the intent is “to ensure that these symbols align with our identity as a diverse, inclusive scholarly community.”
Tripathi said he has been reflecting on UB’s 175th anniversary in 2021. He said he was struck by a 1923 passage written by Samuel P. Capen, UB’s seventh chancellor, that reverberates today: “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.”
“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,” Tripathi concluded.