Upwardly Mobile Academic: Kermit L. Hall

January 13, 2005

"Upwardly Mobile Academic" consists of brief e-mail interviews with newly named presidents about their career paths and philosophies. Kermit L. Hall has just been named president of the State University of New York at Albany. A historian of the federal court system, Hall has been president of Utah State University since 2000.

Q: You were selected for the Albany job after missing out on the University of Tennessee presidency, a search in which you criticized the process. Can you compare the two search processes?

A: The essential difference was a sense of dignity extended toward those in the process, especially those left standing at the end of what looked like American Survivor. Both institutions conducted open searches; both featured opportunities to be examined by internal and external constituencies. However, both SUNY [the sytem] and the campus were essentially respectful of the people who were in the process, especially at the end.

Whether one gets a job or not, the appreciation on the side of those doing the searching that human beings are involved does make a difference. I understand that Tennessee had to go through some process of exorcism given its past, a fact I was acutely aware of when I entered the search. That said, I think SUNY did a superior job of remembering that the search process is not a battle but a reconnaissance. On the other hand, I suspect that SUNY's task was made easier by having a person in the field who had all of his colleagues quizzed previously by agents of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Q:  What part of your record at Utah State put you on top of these short lists?

A: This question probably is best answered by those doing the searches. We have had success in enhancing our academic programs at a time when the state budget was in free fall. We did so by working collaboratively with a number of groups, from the regents to the students. In the end, we approached the problem with planning, enterprise, and openness. In the end, additional tuition dollars linked to an effective program of enrollment management (undergraduate and graduate) and a willingness to set priorities made all the difference. We captured better prepared students and kept them while expanding the size of the faculty by almost one hundred and financing a major construction program.... Perhaps as important, we were able to mend some tattered relationships with the community, with the Board of Regents, with the Legislature, and with the University of Utah. Indeed, never before have the University of Utah and Utah State University so effectively joined forces to build a broad base for academic research in support of the state's economic mission.

Q: At Utah State, you have sometimes spoken out against conventional wisdom in higher education -- for example in saying that the Michigan case on affirmative action wasn't as big a deal as many said. Do you worry that you'll be less able to speak your mind in New York?

A: No, and there were lots of things I said in Utah in support of women, diversity, and gay and lesbian rights that generated criticism here. My comments on the Michigan case were not directed at the efficacy of affirmative action, which we have pursued here and elsewhere, but instead at two important issues. First, cost remains a significant barrier to higher education, especially for students in non-elite public institutions that do  not have the private resources to support scholarships and fellowships at a meaningful level. Second, the Michigan case was narrowly drawn and ultimately narrowly reasoned by the Court's majority, especially by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

That is just what I expected the justices to do, and the results are a mixed bag for higher education in implementing admissions programs designed to diversify their student populations. SUNY in general and the University at Albany in particular have done a good job of addressing these issues, which is one of the reasons the opportunity there was so appealing.

One of my colleagues has told me that my views about higher education are often "orthogonal," but even if that is true I do not believe they are either unreasoned or unreasonable. I suspect that I will continue to say what makes sense to me, always doing so with a willingness to have those views challenged. Presidents are not exempt from the rules of the academic arena because, in the end, we are the leaders of academic institutions, no matter the rhetoric of business and its associated models that now pervades our ranks. Over my time as an administrator, I have heard how important it is for presidents to speak out, but I have also observed that those who do speak are often the first to be shot, sometimes by what some might perceive as friendly fire.

Q: When you were at Utah State, you milked a cow in each of the state's counties? Any similar plans for Albany?

A: The dairy herds of New York are safe! The task, however, made a lot of friends for the university, reminded our alumni of the institution's agricultural and land grant heritage, put me in immediate contact with every small town newspaper in the state, built a sense of identity with the Legislature, and humanized the office of the president. But the University at Albany is a different kind of place, one with a powerful core of graduate arts and science disciplines, an impressive array of public and human service learning and research opportunities, and emerging world-class programs in nanoscience and engineering and genomics and biotechnology.

What is always missed in reports about my milking trips is that I also managed to teach a history class in a high school in every county in Utah. I am not going to do that in New York (it is called the Empire State for a reason!), but in the Capital Region and Tech Valley, that might be just the way to underscore both the roots of the university as a teachers college and to remind the community of the importance that the president places on teaching in general and the arts and sciences in particular. But stay tuned on this front; I am still looking for my old milking pail.

Q: Public higher education has sustained significant cuts in recent years in New York. Do you think real damage has been done?

A: While general state funding for public higher education in New York has been flat over the past few years, the state has made significant investments in both high technology and construction projects -- a new library, a new sculpture studio, and new life sciences building for the University at Albany. Particularly spectacular for the campus have been investments in Albany Nanotech, the largest nanotechnology research and development enterprise in the world. The result is a host of budding public-private partnerships that are models of how higher education will function in the future.

In this light, the issue is probably not well conceptualized as "damage". Instead, I approach the current set of circumstances from the perspective of what is driving these funding changes in funding. This view is especially important given the current discussion about the "Tale of Two Pities" and the collapse of the so-called contract between public institutions and the states that fund them. Public universities appropriately cry foul because they see the proportion of state support falling; legislators, for their part, are equally pitting because they have to deal with other mandated demands, such as Medicaid and criminal justice, with not enough resources.

Taken together these perspectives remind us that we are living through a profound transformation, one that is privatizing significantly what has historically been publicly funded institutions. That shift means that we are increasingly relying on student tuition to pay more of the costs, seeking public-private partnerships, like the nanotech initiative, the NYSTAR program to facilitate research and technology commercialization, and pushing private giving.

In the case of the University at Albany, the level of student tuition is now larger than the direct state appropriation; research dollars are rising rapidly; and the campus is in the midst of a half-billion dollar campaign. Utah State University is doing the same. None of these developments were imaginable either when the University at Albany was founded as a teachers college in 1844 or Utah State emerged as a land grant institution in 1888. In fact, New York has experienced what just about every other state has: not enough traditional funding to support the traditional mission.

Added to that development there is an appropriate quest to assess the performance of the higher education institutions. I do not see us reversing direction in any of these areas, and I do see us having to be more transparent and accountable for what we are doing even as we receive proportionately less support from the state. We need state support, don't get me wrong, but we must also realize that whether it is in New York or Utah our greatest failure would be to address this transformation squarely.

The public cavalry is unlikely in the near future to charge over the hill. They may and should send a squad or two, but for the foreseeable future, public institutions of higher education are increasingly on their own when it comes to public support for the traditional missions. We simply have to have the courage and the determination to deal with that reality, because failing to do so would be genuinely damaging.

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