Union College President Stephen Ainlay, in his 10th year as president, recently sat down for an interview with The Daily Gazette in his Union office. The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How do you view the role of Union College in the broader Schenectady community?
A: Whenever you ask me questions about Union, I end up talking about history. That whole history was the history of a city, Schenectady, which wasn’t even quite a city, coming together to say that we wanted to have a college. They understood that to be a great city you need to have a college. Union is Schenectady’s school, and so we have been tied at the hip for our entire existence. I think the city has appreciated that Union plays a critical role; it’s an anchor tenant in the city and so we understand that with that comes an economic responsibility, a cultural responsibility and a whole host of other things. On the flip side, we recognize that what Schenectady is and does has a huge bearing on our success. We have been, are and will be closely tied together.
Q: Where is Union now in its long progression as a school and how does it fit into where the city of Schenectady is today?
A: By any measure we are stronger than we probably have ever been as an institution, and I think our fortunes in terms of success have been tied to the city’s resurgence. Over 10 years, we have seen remarkable progress in the city as it has tried to reestablish itself and that undoubtedly has been helpful in what we have seen in terms of interest in Union College. It’s not the only thing, but it’s an important variable. Union has never had greater interest in it — for seven years in a row we have kept breaking records in the total number of applicants and the same is true this year. A lot of that has to do with facility development on campus, a lot of that has been the communication office’s ability to articulate our mission and who we are very clearly, a lot of that has had to do with the financial aid packages we can offer students, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the city is improving.
Q: When you are recruiting teachers or students, what are the perceptions of Schenectady and how are they different today than they were 10 years ago?
A: I think people see it today as a much more attractive place to live, and it’s not just that there are more restaurants and cultural developments, which is obvious. The improvements to the State Street area downtown, and on lower Union Street the development we have seen in just the last two years, have made a difference and have been a real advantage to our students. If you are bringing in a visiting faculty member or a potential new employee and they see that level of activity and realize you can walk to those restaurants — that makes a huge difference. And people are very excited about things in the works, like the train station, people feel a real sense of momentum and that there has been a tipping point that we are past and things are getting better.
Q: Looking five years down the road, where do you see the college being and how do you get there?
A: It’s going to be even stronger; when you come back five years from now, I will likely declare that Union has never been stronger — that is certainly my aim and my goal and what I’m told we need to do. I think all indications are we are moving in that direction. We have a number of projects that we are currently in a planning stage on, including a major renovation of the science and engineering complex. Our goal is to be the very best liberal arts college with science and engineering in the world, and we are making the sort of commitments we have to make to put reality behind that aspiration. That’s about bringing in stronger and stronger students, providing state-of-the-art laboratories, but also providing state of the art facilities that are outside of the sciences. We have invested a lot in things like a dance program, a theater in the round, a music facility that is all Steinway and now we are doing a renovation of the art building for facilities that will range from digital photography to print photography to 3-D printing.
For us to be the best science and engineering experience a student can have, you have to have art, you have to have humanities, you have to have music and dance. Because the students who are coming to Union, if they are a physics major they want to be in the theater; if they are a mechanical engineer, they want to be in the dance program; if they are an electrical engineer, they may want to be involved in the music program. We are building the facilities, we are building the faculty, we are building the student body that pursues the connection between fields of study. We believe that is preparing a student that will be a in a highly competitive employment situation when they leave here.
Q: What major improvements and projects on campus do you have moving over the next three years?
A: In the 10 years that I have been here, we have done 13 major renovations, complete renovations or new buildings. All of those projects are putting us in the position we need to be in, and this science and engineering project we are in the planning phase of is in some sense the capstone on all of this work. I can’t emphasize enough that the art building is as important as the science and engineering building, it’s just that science and engineering has been such an important part of Union’s identity that we really need to attend to that. Other projects we are in the planning phase of — I would emphasize that none of these projects have been finally approved by the Board of Trustees — are major renovations of the dining at Union, which is still a fairly traditional system of delivering food. The students have come to expect more choice, more food on display, the preparation on display, so we are looking at that as another project. We obviously have work to do on residence halls. We are at the beginning edge of trying to do some of those residence life projects on campus that need to be done as well.
Q: You just broke a record on the number of applicants. What do you attribute that to and what more can be done to make sure you are attracting the most competitive students and that the ones you accept choose Union?
A: That’s really the challenge that every school faces right now. What no one understood was that there would be greater regional interest outside the Northeast in places like Union College, and we have really seen that. We have seen students apply from California that wouldn’t have 20 years ago. We now have students from 40 states and 40 countries. The international piece is the other thing; when I arrived, 2 percent of the incoming class would have been international; now that is 10 percent. Part of the reason applications are going up is that there is a much broader pool of people who are interested. What’s much more impressive about Union’s health is we have set records year over year on early decision requests. That’s a real measure of your institutional strength, whether or not you are seeing that kind of commitment to come here as their first choice.
We think it is the programs; we think it is the facilities; we think it is that the city is becoming a destination. And we have been intentional about trying to tell people that there are advantages to coming to school in Schenectady that you don’t have at other places. It’s not just about Schenectady; it’s about being in close proximity to one of the more interesting state capitals in the country in Albany; it’s about being in close proximity to the Mohawk and Hudson rivers — major centers of research but also recreation — it’s about being in close proximity to the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the Berkshires. When you put it all together this area is a really attractive place for students to be, and I think we have gotten better about telling that story. In terms of internship opportunities, research opportunities, recreation opportunities, there are lots of schools that don’t have the things we have by virtue of our location.
Q: Internationally, what countries are you seeing the most interest from and where are you trying to get word out about what Union offers?
A: We have predictable pockets of where people come from, Asia, China in particular, India. We have a relationship with the Czech Republic, where we send engineering students and they send engineering students. In Central Europe, we are seeing students from Paris, Italy, other places as well, and a growing interest from South America. It’s really no one single place where they are coming from. When someone comes here, they become ambassadors for us and they take the message back. We had a student thing in Beijing hosted by the father of a student who just graduated, recruiting students in Beijing. It starts to build its own momentum once a student has been here and has the experience. We see that continuing.
Q: How have the expectations students have of their college experience changed in the past 10 years?
A: One of the really interesting things about today’s students is they are very, very committed to the local community. One of the expectations we see is that students want to be involved in their city. Today’s generation of students is very interested in paying it back; they understand they have had tremendous opportunities in their life, and they want to pay it back; they are interested in being involved and engaged in the local community.
Q: What impact has the 2014 NCAA National Hockey Championship had on the school?
A: It’s really hard to weigh its impact. There is no question that it had an impact; the year we won the national championship there was no summer melt (students who say they are coming but don’t); it clearly had an immediate impact, and I suspect it still has some impact. It takes a little bit of time for that to get into people’s mind. We still have students come here and talk about it. We saw what it did to students wearing Union sweatshirts and Unionwear walking around campus. When you come as a visiting student and see everyone on campus wearing national championship sweatshirts and T-shirts and hats, it gives you a real feel this is a community that has some real school spirit. We know it had that kind of impact but it is hard to disentangle from everything else we do and what kind of weight it had. It helped on every front and is an important part of the success we are enjoying.
Q: How do you try and engage with students to figure out where they are at, what they are thinking and to put yourself out there?
A: That is one of the things I’m proud about. I obviously have a lot of things to do as president but one of the things that is real important to me is to be in the lives of students. I went into higher education well over 35 years ago to be in the classroom with them. That’s harder, but I still teach a class once a term and try to give guest lectures whenever appropriate. But just being at these events, supporting them at their games, supporting them at their plays, supporting them at lectures is an important commitment on my part. Walking around campus and stopping and talking to them is an important thing; I don’t get out to walk around campus as much as I would like, but it is very clear that they value that. They come to a place like Union, because they want to know their president, they want their president to know them. But it is also good for me, because I’m out talking to alumni groups, and every time I talk to a kid about what he or she is doing it gives me material to share with alumni about what students are doing today. My wife and I have students around the table in the President’s House for dinner. The stories you learn there become the stories that allow you to tell what Union is about. It’s in those encounters with students walking across campus or having a meal with them that I learn that stuff about what they are working on and then you retell those stories over and over again.
Q: How often do you spend time on the road and how much is fundraising a part of your life?
A: It depends on where we are in capital campaign cycles — usually at the beginning and end of campaigns you have a lot of travel. Because of the projects we are planning and talking about, I’m doing more traveling. It’s somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of my time — some days it is upwards of that. I tell people, in some sense we are all fundraisers and we are doing it all of the time, because if you deliver a good experience a student is going to be more likely to support you 30 years from now. So delivering a great classroom experience, delivering a good social experience, all that is about giving students a sense that they want to create that same experience for generations to come — that’s what fundraising is all about.
Q: Will you be able to hold tuition stable in the coming years?
A: We had a 3 percent increase last year. We look at it every year. I don’t think higher education generally maps out anything like it used to map out in terms of assumptions; I don’t think anyone feels they can do that anymore. So when you see these things about what happened over the last 20 years, I don’t think it is a very good predictor of the next 20 years. Every college president I know worries about affordability; every president I know would tell you that the cost of higher education is something that needs to be figured out.