Harvey G. Stenger Jr. became the seventh president of Binghamton University on Jan. 1, 2012. He sat down with Pipe Dream for the first time last week to discuss his time here so far and his plans for the future. The complete interview is available online.
PD — What is your main priority for BU as of today?
HS — The main priority is to get the governor to approve our NYSUNY 2020 proposal. That’s number one. We submitted it, and they are reviewing it, and we’ll get feedback today. I think it’s in good shape. It speaks to an area that we are very good at it, which is smart energy and a proposal to develop more research and education around the concept of smart energy. That’s the No. 1 priority and then once we get approval from the governor we will follow through on all the things we have said we are going to do.
PD — There has been some controversy over your $510,000 compensation package, including some students protesting at the announcement of your hiring. Obviously you feel that your salary is a fair one, but what’s the rationale?
HS — The SUNY Board of Trustees sets the salary of the presidents on SUNY campuses. In their opinion, the salary they offered me was a competitive salary that would be similar to similar institutions, and I did agree with that. I think if you look at institutions that are like Binghamton, like Delaware University, or Ohio University, we’re as good or better than them, so the compensation should be similar.
I also think if you’re going to compete at the highest level for faculty, that you need compensate at that level as well. Ultimately, it’s a trustee decision, and I think the decision they made was appropriate.
PD — Some people, including Joseph Belluck, a member of the SUNY Board of Trustees, are concerned that by hiring an academic with your background, BU is seemingly forsaking its roots as a liberal arts school in favor of lucrative research programs. How do you plan for BU to pursue the humanities in your time here?
HS — The need to be a great scholar or researcher is an independent field in academics. So if you are an art history professor or an economics professor or a chemical engineering professor or a physics professor, you have to be a great teacher, but you also have to be a great scholar.
It’s a balance between the two that’s important. I am not an expert in the fields of humanities that are here, but I am a professor first, and an engineer second. For 28 years I have been professor where I have taught classes, advised students, published my papers and work, done service, worked on committees. So therefore, being a professor of engineering is more similar to being a professor of humanities than it is being a professional engineer.
I think I have a lot more in common with the academic, professor side than I would with a practicing engineer. But I have to admit that I have to learn about all the different disciplines here that I don’t know about. So I am going to spend a lot of time this semester visiting each department, hearing from as many faculty members as possible and talk about their research and their teaching, what their strengths are, what their desires are and what their challenges are.
PD — Have you begun to reach out to students and faculty? Why do you think that is important and how is it helping you adjust to your new campus?
HS — It’s fun. And I have a very short period of time where I can do that. It would be sad if in six months somebody said, ‘Well I haven’t met the president yet.’ I would feel bad about that. I may not remember everybody’s name, but I am going to go out of my way to meet everybody here: all the faculty and all the staff, and as many students as possible.
15,000 students. That’s a lot of people. But meeting hundreds of those thousands is certainly possible. Some things I am working on include contacting the faculty masters of each of the residence communities and I have asked them to arrange two dinners at each location. We will have 12 opportunities to go to dinner with a group of 12 to 15 students and to talk to them about what they are working on.
I also want to advise some students. We are probably going to create a senior-level advising program for freshmen in this next recruiting class, and that’s something I have always tried to do. We will identify just a random group of six to 10 students that will be my freshman advisees that I will be responsible for guiding into that first year.
And other than that, I need to just go out and be a part of the activities on campus: Frost Fest, Winter Madness, all the athletic events. I’ll also meet with the SA board, and other organizations on campus as well.
PD — Regarding the Student Association, what do you think the role of student government should be at BU?
HS — I got an invitation from the SA to attend Frost Fest. So I came, but I was not the president yet, but they walked me around and introduced me to a lot of people. [SA President] Kathryn Howard was the one who I met. And Kathryn sounds like she’s very interested in meeting with me and telling me what the student activity programs are. University at Buffalo had a student activities group also, very similar. I am interested in meeting the SA, getting to know them, talking to them and to see what I can do to help them.
PD — What is the status of the University’s search for a new provost? And why now?
HS — When SUNY appointed Peter Magrath as president a year and a half ago, they also appointed Jean-Pierre Mileur as interim provost. And the process of selecting a provost is a process that has to involve faculty, students, staff, alumni through a search process, and Magrath knows that. So we will begin that search now that I am here.
I have asked the Faculty Senate and other groups like the Alumni Association, the SA, some of the vice presidents for recommendations for people that will serve on the search committee. I have gotten almost everybody on that committee, and we will be announcing the membership of that committee within a day or two, can’t say yet because I have one or two more names to confirm. But it’s a great committee, its probably going to be about 14 or 15 people, a chair, a respective faculty member, a senior administrator, two students — one graduate and one undergraduate — an Alumni Association member, another person from the community, six or seven faculty, a couple staff members.
It will be a big group but it’s an important position. This person is a senior vice president of the University who manages faculty, students and staff, academic administration group. It will take about six months to do the search and we’re hoping to have the person in place by fall 2012.
PD — What qualities are you looking for in a provost?
I want somebody who complements me. I probably have a certain amount of strengths and lack of strengths that I want to complement. So I need to find somebody who is supportive of the things I am trying to do but can also give me some expertise in areas I am not very familiar with.
I want somebody who is already at the University level, as good as Binghamton or better. I want somebody who has been a great teacher, somebody who has been a great scholar, somebody who has had academic administration experiences and responsibilities and who will come with great recommendations from their colleagues.
PD — What are some of your concrete changes you plan to make at BU?
HS — There are no concrete changes I am planning to make yet. I am taking the first two months to learn and to find out where our strengths are. At the end of those two months, I will form a planning committee and that will help me pull together the measures of success we want Binghamton to be great at.
The planning will include several steps; the first will be to determine what our measures of success are. The traditional ones are to see that we have great students, if they get good jobs, if they go to graduate school and if we have faculty that are great teachers and great researchers. Those are traditional measures. There are also measures that are more qualitative: Are we a good neighbor? Are we a good community member? Are we supportive of the region? Are we good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars toward tuition?
So first, we must determine the things we can measure and represent a great university with, and second we must find out who our peers are: Who do we want to compare ourselves to? Who do we want to aspire to be like? Then we must compare ourselves in those measures, to other schools and then we’ll see what things we can do better and some things that Delaware or Michigan does better than us. So we will assess where we are relative to our peers, and then we’ll determine how we are going to move forward and close those gaps and move up in the ranks of our peer institutions.
I want students to graduate from one of the top 20 public universities in the county and I think we can do that. We are in the top 40 right now, and I think we can be in the top 20 in the next four to five years. That will add value to everyone’s degree and make the community stronger.
— This interview was conducted by News Editor Emily Melas and has been edited for length and clarity.