This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

A tradition of long-distance commuting

Barbara Wejnert spends Monday through Thursday in Buffalo, then drives home to Ithaca for the weekend.

Barbara Wejnert spends Monday through Thursday in Buffalo, then drives home to Ithaca for the weekend. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

  • “It takes a lot of stamina, careful planning and good will on the part of my colleagues and students, with whom I am able to keep in touch constantly thanks to email.”

    Joan Copjec
    SUNY and UB Distinguished Professor, Department of English
Published: November 18, 2009

The trip to class can be measured in big mileage for some UB faculty members who go the distance weekly traveling between home and university.

Joan Copjec, SUNY and UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, has been a frequent flyer since she joined the UB faculty in 1989, commuting weekly during semesters from her home in New York City to a room at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center at the edge of the North Campus.

“It takes a lot of stamina, careful planning and good will on the part of my colleagues and students, with whom I am able to keep in touch constantly thanks to email,” Copjec says.

She recalls that traveling the NYC-to-Buffalo route was encouraged by the university for many years. “It was a way to get New Yorkers, reluctant to leave the city, to teach at Buffalo. Many professors were successfully wooed by UB into becoming jet-fueled peripatetics.”

Former UB archivist Shonnie Finnegan, who kept a close tab on UB’s history and social culture since her arrival here in the mid-1960s, agrees that there was a conscious, if not formalized, recruiting outreach. “There was a perceived need to attract some luminaries who, for one reason or another, preferred or needed to live in New York City,” she observes. “I doubt that the (commuting) option would have been offered if UB wasn't keen to bring them on the faculty since it would no doubt require special teaching schedules and few, if any, departmental committee assignments. This was probably more common in the heady days when Martin Meyerson was president. They wanted to lure big names in a big hurry because UB was destined to become ‘the Berkeley of the East.’”

The commuting arrangement has leaned toward the arts, with imposing names like critic and playwright Eric Bentley, who taught in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and social critic Dwight McDonald and theater critic Henry Popkin, who were part of the English department.

While the heyday of long-distance faculty commuting seems to have slowed, there still are instances where frequent-flyer miles pile up and odometers keep rolling.

Harold Rosenbaum, associate professor of music, has been traveling between his New York City home and Buffalo for the past 11 years. He directs the UB choirs, heads the graduate program in choral conducting, and teaches other courses. He also directs a wide range of other choirs in New York City, logging hundreds of concert performances over the years. The scheduling, says Rosenbaum, can be very trying at times. “Most other times, I can get a lot of work done in the airport and on the plane.”

Elliot Caplan, professor in the Department of Media Study and director of the Center for the Moving Image, is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker based in New York City for many years. He worked regularly in Europe and Asia for about 20 years—right up until the night before 9/11 when he arrived home after filming a series of concerts in Germany, returning to the apartment where he and his family lived at the time less than a mile from the World Trade Center.

Commuting abroad became more difficult and tenuous after that fateful day. Caplan reined in his filmmaking commitments and considered a number of teaching positions, arriving at UB five years ago.

“I wanted to come to UB because it represented a more open situation, where they said this is a research institution and we want to help you do your work. Other schools talked about the money they wanted me to help raise for them,” he says.

Caplan usually spends Tuesdays through Thursdays at UB, which include teaching his two classes; attending meetings on graduate theses; supervising independent projects; chairing committees in the department; working with colleagues in other departments, like David Felder, endowed Birge-Cary Chair in music; and co-teaching in the Department of Theatre and Dance.

“The start of Jet Blue opening up the route to Buffalo gave me a solution that I thought I was going to be able to work with,” he says. “It’s not particularly easy, but there are people who spend more time on the Long Island Expressway coming into Manhattan in the morning than I do going to the airport and coming to Buffalo.”

Caplan says he maintains a small apartment near the North Campus, travels with just a toothbrush and a computer, and never checks any bags.

As for his home life, he tries to maintain some kind of daily contact. “I tell the kids it’s two nights away. Yesterday, our daughter got a hundred on a quiz and so I was fawning over her last night on the phone and telling her how happy and pleased we were. My wife said you should see the smile on her face. I should see the smile. But I look at it this way: it’s 15 weeks and a nice (winter) break, and then another 15 weeks and a very big (summer) break. Within the 15 weeks, there is compromise.”

Caplan used that big summer break and weekends of the fall semester to finish editing an 18-hour film, “15 Days of Dance,” which premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center on Oct. 22.

Faculty commuters shy of the New York City distance travel the open road.

Since she arrived at UB four years ago, Barbara Wejnert, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Global Gender Studies, drives to Ithaca every weekend where her family resides and then returns to UB for classes and advising Mondays through Thursdays.

“We have a big graduate program for a small department, which requires a lot of hands-on guiding,” she says. “Right now, I’m guiding about 10 dissertations.”

Wejnert says she has the two-and-a-half-hour trip down to a science. She has a small home near the North Campus, while her family residence remains in Ithaca, a mainstay when she and her husband were part of the Cornell faculty and raising their five children, now all grown.

Heavily engaged in research focusing on gender policies, women's well being and health in democratizing Asian, Eastern European and African countries, Wejnert has research facilities in both residences.

The Polish-born educator is comfortable living in Buffalo and likes the fact that there is a large Polish community here where she maintains social contacts. “For me, it’s a perfect arrangement. Modern communications makes it much easier,” she says. “At Cornell, we had many couples in my department who commuted.”

Driving to UB weekly from her home in Toronto is Susan Winton, newly appointed assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Graduate School of Education. She gained insight into the 90-mile trip from her experience as a visiting assistant professor at UB last year.

“This gave my family, my department, and I an opportunity to see how commuting would work for everyone. Things worked out very well. In large part, this is due to my colleagues’ flexibility with scheduling classes and meetings, and their commitment to balancing work and family. I also have a large support system in Toronto, including my spouse, mother, sister and great childcare providers,” she says. “The challenges I have sometimes encountered include long lines at the border and heavy traffic heading into Toronto. I now have a NEXUS pass and have learned the best times to leave UB in order to avoid traffic headaches.”

Winton also makes the international commute work in another capacity. “I also conduct a lot of cross-border research, so in many ways commuting facilitates my comparative work.”