Spring 2012

The Stenger strategy
Jonathan Cohen

The Stenger strategy

Listen, learn and lead


Google barely had a chance to retrieve all the information it could find on Harvey Stenger before people were asking: “What’s he going to do for Binghamton?”

In a press conference and interviews, President Stenger offered some big-picture answers — increasing enrollment by 2,000 students, presenting the University’s NYSUNY 2020 proposal to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and developing a strategic plan. He also shared a more personal priority, which was getting to know Binghamton. He would start, he said, by meeting the people who work on campus.

Since then, Stenger has spent time with hundreds of people at all levels within various divisions and disciplines, including the people who produce this magazine. While he
won’t be able to meet all of you, we hope this interview — conducted on his fourth day on the job — will help you get to know him.

Q&A with President Stenger

Question: In a year, you’ve advanced from dean to interim provost to president. What did you learn about yourself?

President Stenger: I would say that each step in my career as an administrator has caused me to view the institution and the people I work with from a broader, more global perspective than the position before. It’s been intellectually rewarding and a stimulating transition.

Going from dean to provost, I learned that I enjoy working with people of different backgrounds, different responsibilities and different strengths. That meant I could get multiple views on issues, and with multiple views you’ve got a better chance of making an effective decision. But it also means you have multiple views on issues, which makes it more difficult to make a decision. At Buffalo, I had 12 deans and 10 vice provosts, and they all had different perspectives. But it was an opportunity to learn how to listen and, after you’re done listening, to find ways to develop a consensus that everyone could embrace.

Being a president is like being a provost, but as president your view has to be even broader. As provost, your domain is largely academic and research-oriented — but as president, you also have to weigh the interests of every part of the institution. Your focus is going to be concerned more with the university’s external constituents than as a provost. For example, over the past weeks I’ve been working with elected officials and local community and business members on how Binghamton University can help improve the economy of the Southern Tier. They all have different ideas of how to do it, and I am listening carefully to the guidance that they offer. My role is to use their guidance to make good decisions and implement projects that will have an impact both on the region and on Binghamton University.

I have also learned that it is not essential, and it is not possible, that everyone agree with you, but it is essential and possible that everyone understand you.

Q: Whose leadership skills do you try to emulate?

A: I’ve had the honor of working with two very skilled presidents at my previous campuses — Peter Likins, who was the president of Lehigh University and the University of Arizona, and Satish Tripathi, president of the University at Buffalo. I’ve talked to both of them about how I can be a good president, and even though they have different approaches to being president, they both gave me the same advice. They said, “You should be patient, and you should let people help you.” They know that I am sometimes in a hurry, and that I try to do too many things myself.

I’m also taking a broader look at leadership styles, seeking the best fit for myself and the culture at Binghamton. I just finished a book about President Abraham Lincoln’s leadership. Some of the things that Lincoln did proved very effective for his presidency — he was a master of getting out of the office and learning about things firsthand, developing consensus from varying perspectives, and taking criticism with a positive attitude.

Q: What are the two most-challenging issues in higher education today, and what would you do about them?

A:  Cost and quality. College costs are growing faster than the rate of inflation, but I cannot say that the learning experience of college students is growing at an equally high rate. That combination does not support a positive future for higher education in our country. However, Binghamton University is a unique institution because the quality here far exceeds the cost of attendance.

Nevertheless, we have to watch cost. I think we’ll be able to apply what I call “Binghamton gets it” — that we understand that the success of our students is the major reason we’re here, and that we should be measuring that student success and finding ways to make it better. Once we make a commitment to that, we can be sure that we are going to try to make student success grow faster than the rate of tuition increases.

We also have to find ways for our students to leave Binghamton University with a plan to succeed. We have outstanding students who come here, and when they graduate we want them to be prepared for whatever they decide to do, whatever their passion is, even if they don’t know yet what their career will be. We shouldn’t just be teaching them. We need to give them advice when they are juniors and seniors on what they can do once they graduate. So many students graduate and don’t know what they want to do.

I don’t want to say it’s all about getting a job, it’s not; it’s about knowing who you are and what you want to do with your life.

Q: A lot of our graduates work, or hope to work, on Wall Street. But it’s not the sure bet it once was. What advice do you have for them?

A:  Let me start by saying that even though the job market is tough, our students still rank very high in landing good jobs — on Wall Street and elsewhere.

But historically, Binghamton graduates have other goals in mind. I believe that our students want to make a difference in people’s lives. Just the few students I’ve met here, I can see it in their eyes, that it’s not just about a great career, it’s about helping other people. For some, working on Wall Street can be a step toward that objective — for example, many Binghamton alumni who work in finance have become strong supporters of the University, providing scholarships and support for academic programs. If you’re not working on Wall Street, you’re still working somewhere else, helping people, participating in your community, perhaps raising children. Those kinds of things might be harder to do if you’re on Wall Street — but I think that the students who do not go to Wall Street are well-prepared to succeed in whatever career and location they choose.

Q: Students are paying higher tuition and taking on more loans. Graduates are finding fewer job opportunities. How will Binghamton University protect the value of its degree programs?

A: The Kiplinger [Best Values in Public Colleges] report had us ranked second in the country this year for out-of-state students and 12th in the country for in-state students. They look at the percentage of applicants accepted, the percent who graduate in four years, the cost of attendance and average debt at graduation. It is essentially a surrogate for a return-on-investment calculation.

To be second and 12th and have places like the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan behind us feels pretty good. But we have to be careful because the SUNY plan to implement rational tuition increases for the next five years, in which tuition will be increasing about 4 percent to 6 percent each year, can lower our competitiveness in the best-value rankings. To remain competitive, we’ll have to reevaluate and rework how we give financial aid. I’m going to make sure our financial aid is given to help those students who are in need, who have the admission standards to come here but don’t have enough financial resources. We must also work tirelessly to provide a premier academic experience to our students both within and beyond the classroom. This will require a huge commitment from, and partnership between, the faculty and administration, but I know we are up to the challenge.

I would also add that the successes our alumni have in their careers add to the reputation and visibility of our academic programs. In some ways, this is the greatest protection for the value of a Binghamton degree.

Q: A recent headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education asked: “What the hell has happened to college sports?” How would you answer the question?

A: Running an excellent Division I intercollegiate athletic program presents some challenges, but it is important to recognize the many benefits that it brings to a campus. For students who participate in intercollegiate sports it is a tremendous opportunity to learn how to be a team member, to build character, to build leadership skills, to learn time management, and to build mental and physical toughness that can last the rest of their lives.

Athletics also offer students a way to engage with our community — each year our athletes spend countless hours working with economically disadvantaged children, raising awareness of breast cancer and developing support for local service organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club.

Intercollegiate athletics also offer benefits to students and alumni who never swing a bat or lace up track shoes. I enjoy how athletic events foster enthusiasm toward one’s alma mater. I am an avid sports fan, and you will see me at many sporting events on campus.

I strongly believe that college sports are a valuable part of the college experience. Can things go wrong? Certainly, but when a university makes a commitment to doing it right, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Q: You’re a chemical engineer leading a university built around a distinguished liberal arts core. How will you balance what can be seen as competing interests?

A: While my university training was as a chemical engineer, for 28 years I’ve been a professor, and my job has been to teach students, advise them, serve on committees, do my research and publish my work. That job description is very similar to that of the professors in humanities, social sciences and all the liberal arts. Thus, I think I have more in common with a professor in the humanities than I do with an engineer working in industry.

In the short time I’ve been at Binghamton, I’ve been impressed by the important role that the liberal arts play in providing a broad education for every student. I’m convinced that this is a key part of our success and what makes us so desirable.

But I do know that I must spend more time learning about the faculty in Harpur College, understanding their concerns and cultures, and being an advocate for their scholarship and teaching. As the historical heart of the University, Harpur shapes much of the learning and research that takes place here, even in the professional schools