Retiring Union College president talks past 12 years, future

'The No. 1 priority for me is to make for a very smooth transition'
Union College President Stephen Ainlay stands in the shadow of the Nott Memorial on Aug. 30, 2017.
Union College President Stephen Ainlay stands in the shadow of the Nott Memorial on Aug. 30, 2017.

Union College President Stephen Ainlay last week announced his plan to retire from the college at the end of June.

As the campus prepared for the start of the school year — the 12th under his leadership — Ainlay sat down for an interview with The Daily Gazette. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: With students starting to filter on to campus, what do you remember about your freshman year of college, you are kind of entering your senior year of college?

A: I’ll be graduating with the class of ‘18, in a sense. We had resident assistants, about 60 of them, over to the house for dinner last night, and so many of them were asking about what was the most memorable thing, and I turned the question on them and said, ‘So, what’s the most memorable thing during your time here.’ And we had a nice night.

Q: Why now? How did you decide now was the right time to retire the presidency and what are your plans going forward?

A: It’s been a remarkably difficult process of discernment to try to figure out exactly the answer to that question: what’s the right time for us, personally? What’s the right time in terms of Union’s needs? I think the way we came down on it, frankly, is family and writing. Those things are really important and it’s not getting any easier to find time to spend with family. And from the standpoint of the institution, it’s in a very strong place, so it’s a good time to be passing the baton to someone else. It just seemed to make sense for us both personally and, of course, for the institution. I would say, though, that there is never a good time and one of the things that the last 24 hours has made me acutely aware of is just how difficult it’s going to be to separate from Union when that time actually happens. It is so much a part of us, it’s a place we love, we love the job, and it’s in that sense never going to feel completely right to pull away from it. But the outpouring of support from the students, from the trustees, from faculty, from friends of the college who live in the region has just been overwhelming. They all seem to care very deeply about us, which is also very nice.

We don’t really know right now exactly what will happen after June 30. I’m in conversation with the board and the board chair about how we can best advance Union, and we will do whatever the college sees fit in terms of how we can best help Union. There’s no better school, there’s no better community, there’s no better group of people or purpose than supporting this college and I will do so for the rest of my life.

Q: What kind of writing do you hope to devote more time to?

A: Sadly, I was working on a book when I came to Union, and I’m still working on that book. Some of it’s research work I had started before, I have some Union-related projects I want to do that really focus on the incredible history of the school and the contributions it’s made to America and the world more broadly. And I want to write about higher education; I think it’s an interesting time, and I look forward to have the chance and, frankly, the time to put my mind to that.

Q: What’s on the agenda for the next year?

A: The No. 1 priority for me is to make for a very smooth transition to the next president of Union. I think this is going to be a coveted position that people are going to have a lot of interest in, I think people understand that what Union is doing is particularly relevant to this time. I expect there is going to be a crop of remarkably talented people who will be looking at this position. The number one priority is to help Union, the board, the community find the right person to let me pass the baton to, and I will spend an enormous amount of time making sure that they are successful, because that is the most important thing I can do in this last year.

We have other things we are working on, there will be additional facilities work to be sure, notably the science and engineering building. We will open the first phase of that next summer, so this year there is going to be a lot of time spent on getting that right and making sure that all of the complex moves take place. I will continue to actively fund raise for that and other things the college wants to do in the years ahead, so it will be a busy year.

Q: On the new science and engineering building, will there need to be more fundraising that needs to be done after you leave or do you expect to get the project to the finish line in terms of funding?

A: I wish I could say with complete assurances that yes I will have it done but we will see. The interest that people have had in that project and the belief that it is essential to Union’s future has also been overwhelming, so there is no question that we will have some very productive conversations over the course of the next year, but we are very far along the way toward funding the construction costs already, so it’s entirely possible we will get it done during the year. But if it carries over to my successor, I think it will be a good way for them to hit the ground running because it’s a project that has a lot of appeal. 

Q: Do you expect the search and transition process to be complete before you leave?

A: I do. That’s part of the reason we wanted to give a year’s notice, so the college would have time to conduct a successful search, and we’re right on target with the way academic searches go.

Q: What do you remember about being a part of Union’s search process 12 years ago?

A: That’s a wonderful memory. Twelve years ago I was the academic vice president at Holy Cross, happily building a science building there. A search firm that was working with Union at the time, I knew the search agent pretty well from a number of previous contact, she called me up and said Union was looking for a new president, she said you’ve got to look at this school, it’s you. I wasn’t particularly looking to take on a presidency at the time, but she asked me one thing, she said drive over to Schenectady and just take a look. I knew Union well, I’d been to campus visit with a group of deans who were hosted here for a meeting. I’d even been in the president’s house for a dinner, but until I came with an eye toward joining the Union community, I frankly didn’t fully appreciate how rich the history was, what the enormous potential was for it to not only make a difference for the students but others. I told this group that was in the house last night that that’s what I fell in love with: these students who come here, understanding they will have to bring together a range of interests. It’s the way in which that combination of fields comes together here in the students and in the faculty that makes this place nothing short of extraordinary. And I remember falling in love with that and wanting very much to be a part of it.

Q: Given that someone else will be going through that process this year, what are the skills you found to be most helpful and where were you under prepared?

A: A lot of people ask about fundraising, because coming out of an academic background they sort of assume an academic isn’t going to be a good fundraiser. In point of fact, I find that fundraising is basically teaching, teaching a potential donor or supporter why a particular project is important, why Union is poised to make a difference. I think the school needs to find someone that has a capacity to teach. 

I think the school has thrived in part because one of its great strengths is that it’s a community, a very, very close community that tries to support each other in a host of ways. And I think whoever comes really needs to build on that, they need to be a person who loves to be a part of a community and is committed to strengthening community. All that has to be a part of what a person’s commitments are. I have enjoyed being on the sidelines of a field hockey game and being in the stands at a hockey game, being in the audience to watch a play or in an atrium where a student is talking about his or her research. To the extent I have been successful it owes to the fact that I love this community, and I hope they find a person that wants to continue doing that.

Q: Union has and extraordinary history, including the longest-serving college president in history, how do you keep that history in context while trying to imagine and move a college in the direction of a 21st-century institution?

A: That is really a profound question for a place like Union College. In two strategic plans the board has affirmed and we have affirmed as a community that the trick at Union is to respect that history, to honor that history but not be handcuffed by it. I think that is a really important part of the dynamic that is Union College, this ability to be mindful of history, and I’ve enjoyed very much reminding this community about its rich history. We need to constantly remind this community of what it’s been, but we also have to remind the community that you can’t rest on that, you have to find ways of continuing to make a contribution because that’s what Union has always been about. 

When (longtime college president) Eliphalet Nott designed the campus, he was all about designing a campus that would build community and create the inspiration of looking off down the Mohawk Valley and thinking about the challenges of the frontier. We can’t talk about the frontier the way he did, we have to talk about it being a global frontier, but it’s still a reference to that history that Union has always been about. There are loads of other examples: Nott had the wisdom when no one else was doing it to allow modern languages to count for graduation alongside classical languages, believing the world was becoming more international. It’s why he brought engineering into the curriculum, the first to do so into the liberal arts, he believed in the importance of it as a kind of mindset, a method of solving problems. 

So our challenge today is no different than Nott’s, but it’s got to be about contemporary challenges and about making a difference and every graduating class at Union College, including the 12 I will have the honor of handing them their diplomas, is charged at the very end with living a useful life, making a difference. I think that’s what this school is about, has been about throughout it’s whole history, and we still see what we are doing with these men and women who are here now is trying to educate them to make a difference.

Q: How do you view Union’s relationship with the city, what its contribution is, and if you had another 10 years here where you would want to see it grow?

A: First, I want to make clear that I have incredible admiration for what the administration in Schenectady has been able to do for the city in the 12 years that I’ve been here. It’s nothing short of remarkable, and I told Mayor Gary McCarthy that. I think that what Union has always been is a key partner with the city. The city wanted a college in the late 18th century and was the first to be successful at making the argument to the Board of Regents to establish one, and that tied Union and Schenectady together at the hip forever. We are Schenectady’s school, and we see ourselves as very much a part of this community. We think we add a lot of value to the city by virtue of our very presence, by virtue of the cultural opportunities that we provide, that’s what Schenectady designed us to be, was to attract people here because of the strength of the culture and the educational opportunities. We have tried to work with the city, long before I got here, in ways that would be mutually beneficial to the college and the city. It’s the right way to approach it, because we benefit from the city and the city benefits from us.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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