July 16, 2012

Bray: Time for UAlbany to shine

By: Paul Bray

Source: Times Union

Albany was on its way to becoming a university city in 1962, when the College for Teachers was given the mission of becoming a "university." Its 50th anniversary is an ideal time for a community conversation about how the University at Albany serves its community and whether it has realized its potential.

Public higher education in Albany has an illustrious history going back to 1844. It began as a normal school focused on teacher education. It was a response to dissatisfaction with the quality of teachers for the expanding common school education.

The Normal School evolved into the New York State College for Teachers. My parents were educated there. It was next door to the former Albany High School when I was a student in the 1950s.

The Teacher's College, as it was called, fit hand-in-glove with Albany.

The Boulevard Cafeteria, a former meeting place in Albany, was near for college students. Shopping on Central Avenue and Pearl Street in downtown Albany was not far away. I remember going to see college theater productions in Page Hall.

I met college students who were mostly from upstate and were impressed with Albany. They found it a more cosmopolitan city than the upstate communities they came from.

Their impression of Albany made me feel better about my city.

The University at Albany has not been as good a fit with Albany as the Teacher's College was. When H. Patrick Swygert was university president, he invited me to have lunch in his office. He asked my thoughts on why the university did not fully connect with Albany.

In part, I told him, it was a matter of geography and architecture. The university is isolated and its architecture puts people off. Many residents of Albany have little desire to go to the university campus. Even though there are lectures, concerts, art exhibits and performances on the new campus, it is not welcoming.

Swygert agreed that there was a disconnect between the faculty and Albany creating a feeling that the university may be in Albany, but it is not a committed and functioning part of Albany.

There are exceptions. Dean Katherine Briar-Lawson of the School of Social Welfare champions programs like SNUG (gun control) and SEED (small business development) in the community

Writer William Kennedy brought the Writers Institute to the university and to Albany.

An example of the university's lack of commitment occurred when Albany tried to interest the university in participating with The College of Saint Rose to have a married students' dorm in downtown Albany.

Then-UAlbany President Karen Hitchcock made it plain she did not want a downtown dormitory.

When it comes to being an economic engine like most American universities want to be, UAlbany is a mix of visionary leadership and an example of being stuck in the mud.

The UAlbany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering represents the vision. It attracted billions of dollars for research facilities and influenced tech development in Albany and across the state.

This led President Barack Obama on a recent visit here to say, "This community represents the future of our economy ... cutting-edge businesses from all over the world are deciding to build here and hire here. You have more to offer — some of the best workers in the world; ... I want what's happening [here] to happen all across the country."

However, as the Times Union's Scott Waldman reported in June, UAlbany has been without a formal proposal for the $35 million NY SUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Program, while the other state university campuses in Buffalo, Binghamton and Stony Brook have made their pitches.

Albany can prosper with strong education and medical sectors. The expansion of the Albany Medical Center and St. Peter's Hospital highlights the strength of Albany's medical sector. The whole of UAlbany also needs to shine to fully benefit Albany.

The NanoCollege can't fill the shoes of a great university by itself.

Let us take advantage of UAlbany's 50th to have a town and gown discourse on how to achieve greatness for both the city of Albany and UAlbany.

Paul M. Bray was founding President of the Albany Roundtable. His email is [email protected]