Pipe Dream sat down with Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger to reflect on his first five years in office and discuss what he hopes to accomplish in the next five years. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pipe Dream: What do you think are the most important accomplishments you’ve contributed to in the past five years at Binghamton University?
Harvey Stenger: Me, personally, I have not done much. I’ve just helped other people identify things they can work on that I think will help improve the University. One of the things that I knew we were great at was undergraduate education; we had great students, we had great faculty, but a university needs to be a little bit more than that. So, setting the expectation and finding the resources necessary to grow our graduate programs was one of the things that I wanted us to be successful at, and I think we have. We’ve increased our graduate enrollment significantly, we’ve grown our faculty by almost 25 percent. When you grow your faculty and the student growth is only 15 percent, the student-to-faculty ratio goes down and it allows the faculty to spend more time teaching and doing their research, so our research output has also gone up over that period of time.
I think it’s been a combination of growing smart, taking the resources you get when you grow and investing them smartly, and we chose to invest them in expanding opportunities for students in graduate education and in research. And that has a big impact on the undergraduate community as well, because they can see that at Binghamton that there may be opportunities to stay here, get a master’s degree to set them directly into their career, but also with research opportunities to work with faculty more directly, because many of our undergraduates go into advanced degrees in research. Those are the big ones.
PD: How has the University changed in the last five years, and what are you most proud of?
HS: The student body hasn’t changed; they’re still as smart and as interactive and as engaged as they were when I got here, and that’s great. Sometimes, when you grow, you might lose that character because you have more students and you didn’t perhaps focus on the quality of students. But we’ve attracted very strong students — not just by measure of SATs and GPAs — but also by their desire to be engaged.
Probably the biggest change is the facilities and the physical nature of the campus. When I first got here we were still completing [the new Dickinson Community], and now that’s done and people can hardly remember when it wasn’t there. The renovations to the [University Union] and the Marketplace: those are great. The Chenango Room was done, the Student Wing classrooms have been completed, the new building on the ITC campus, the Smart Energy building for chemistry and physics … and then a lot of interior renovations you might not notice, but campus has been improved significantly.
Certainly, the expansion into Downtown with the Southern Tier Incubator and the expansion into Johnson City with the [School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science] and the [Decker] School of Nursing. So the physical capacity of the campus and its change in growth has been something that I feel excited and proud about.
PD: What do you consider your biggest failure of the past five years, and what do you wish you’d done differently? What do you plan on doing differently in the future?
HS: You have to find failures in life, because if you don’t fail you’re probably not pushing the envelope hard enough. If I were to say the failure I learned the most about is to manage uncertainty. For example, in 2014, our undergraduate population — specifically our freshman population — grew faster than we had anticipated. When you make offers to students, you never know how many are going to take those offers. At the same time, we were still in the beginning phases of the Student Wing renovations, so we had 30 classrooms offline. That was probably the biggest mistake that we made; you look back and say, ‘Could we have done this differently?’ Certainly, we probably could’ve been more conservative on the offers we made to freshmen that year, we could’ve managed it through the waitlist or transfer-student process. And what we suffered was classes that went until almost 10 o’clock that semester. I think the campus tried hard to understand it wasn’t intentional or something that would be long-lived, and I think we made it through it.
I also look at the future now as being something we will continue to look at [things like] that; before you set your enrollment goals, that you have your facilities well ahead — not just on time — but well ahead of it.
PD: During your time here, the relationship between the city and the University has progressed. What [are] your goals moving forward to further improve that relationship?
HS: Well certainly, we worry about the so many students who live in the community — 10,000 students, because we have 7,000 on campus so the rest live in the community. They’re not always living in the best of conditions, they’re looking for bargains, they might not be living in places that are as safe as we would want it to be, but they make those decisions on where they live. I worry about them making smart choices and doing the right thing; I also worry about people in the neighborhood who might not be as friendly as we would like them to be, so I worry. And of course, having lost two students this year to tragic accidents has probably been the thing that has hurt me the most as a president; it’s almost as if you lose a child or a close friend’s child when you lose a student. If there were anything I could do to bring them back or prevent something like that in the future, if someone could give me one thing I could do, I would do it … two things, ten things, I would do them all. That’s the most important duty we have is to make sure our students are safe.
PD: Do you see any more plans for expansion into Downtown?
HS: We will probably continue to look at Downtown Binghamton opportunistically; we may find properties that become available that we could use, [but] right now we don’t have any expectations or needs. Again, you should have your facilities planned ahead of your enrollment plans, so if we see a property we can acquire relatively inexpensively in the Downtown area that we might be able to use for [College of Community and Public Affairs] growth or the Graduate School of Education growth, we’re going to grab those.
In Johnson City, the opposite is there; we have a lot of land there, and we’re acquiring more land there, and we don’t know exactly what the expectations are. And that’s a good thing, because assembling land in a small village or city can be very difficult depending on who owns the land. But assembling almost 15 acres in Johnson City for nursing and pharmacy and the other expected health sciences programs that the nursing school will start … that is pretty exciting. That will be the exciting part of change in the next 10 years that I’m looking forward to.
PD: Unlike previous presidents we’ve had, you’ve been open in holding office hours. Do you plan on increasing that communication and interaction with students?
HS: I want them all to join me at 6:30 a.m. for a run so we can have more communications, I’ll give them 50 minutes solid … but I know it’s hard to get students up that early. But I do want to see students in more informal, social settings. For example, I’m going to be at Shabbat 1800 tonight and we’ll probably meet 1,799 students at the event. But also walking through the Marketplace, students are always tabling and I’m stopping by, buying a cookie, stopping and seeing what they’re doing … I’d rather it be in those settings where people can talk as regular people. In office hours, people are usually there because they have a problem; there’s something bothering them or not going right, and they come to me to ask if I can help. And that’s good, because I don’t think they’ve had that in the past; I don’t think I can solve their problems, I know who can, so it’s good that they come to those office hours. So far, we haven’t turned anybody away; we usually have enough room for four different topics, and we have them write down their names and what they want to talk about because we only have 15 minutes, but I think everyone goes away satisfied and knowing they can come back next week if they have some more questions.
Past presidents — everything changes in the future. I think students are ready to be more engaged maybe than when I was a student, and I think that’s great. It also raises the expectations for availability, but university presidents have a lot of other things to do like raising money, going to Albany, talking to the legislature … those are all important, but the fun part of the job is being with students.
PD: The first five years of the Road Map to Premier have passed, and so have the first five years of your presidency. What are your biggest goals and plans for the next five years?
HS: Right now, we’re in the middle of the Road Map Renewal. We’ve been meeting every other week with five different groups. They’re coming up with big ideas, and these big ideas are due May 1, so they’re coming through very quickly, and we’re hoping to identify in their projects ideas that will probably take five to 10 years to complete. This is different than the the first Road Map where we were looking at smaller projects and trying to improve things that we knew we wanted to get better at, but now we’re trying to say, ‘Let’s look at some really big ideas.’ I haven’t seen the results of the proposal writing yet; they’re almost complete, but I do expect to see people focusing on the physical expansion of the campus as an opportunity to do new things. Once you’re in Johnson City or Downtown Binghamton, the opportunities to do new things with the community and in the community are easier to see.
For example, when students leave the Vestal campus on foot, it’s not easy to go places. So we’ve never had this concept of riding your bike to school or walking to school. Once we’re in Johnson City you’ll see students walking and biking to the nursing school or the pharmacy school, and I think that’s gonna be exciting too. Right now we’re more of a commuter campus, and moving into the neighborhoods and local communities will allow us to be more [of] a walking and biking community.
And the new green way that they’ve already started is phase one, which will be completed in about a year, and they’ll continue that bike path [from Downtown] all the way to campus.
PD: Is there any one goal you’re really looking forward to?
HS: When I got here, the first thing I said when I got here is that Binghamton gets it. Binghamton understands that the primary mission is to make students successful. So whatever we do, I want to see measurable improvements in how successful our students are. It’s hard to measure success — is it a job or graduate school, or is it that they’re happy? So, we want to make sure we understand all the different measurements of success, and that whatever we do in the future, we can see those things improve.