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Karen Hitchcock: The Legacy Of Governor Mario M. Cuomo

Today’s Commentary, of course, begins with deepest condolences to Mrs. Cuomo and the entire Cuomo family.  Our hearts go out to them at this most difficult time, a time when we all mourn the loss of a very special man, Governor Mario Cuomo.   

I had the honor of meeting the Governor early after my arrival in Albany in 1991 as the new academic vice president at the University at Albany.  I was fortunate to be seated at his table at the Empire State Plaza where he gave a speech to a large gathering of the State University of New York. I still remember his kindness and most gracious conversation that day as he welcomed me to SUNY and the Empire State.  I was immediately impressed with his passion for public higher education and his deep belief in the importance of its role in the future of New York. His words inspired us all that day. We  left the hall energized and confident that we could, indeed we must, build a university system worthy of the people of New York – a state university which would provide all who attended with the education necessary to realize their dreams. Such was the power of our late Governor’s legendary oratorical skills.

Over the last several days, so much has been written and said about the Governor: his towering intellect, his unmatched oratory, his commitment to this state and its peoples, his passionate belief that all should have an equal chance at the American dream, his energy, his work ethic, his integrity, his competitive spirit and his uncompromising belief in the power for good of our democracy.

Permit me to cite two other attributes of the Governor which have struck me over the years. The first is consistency, the second, his ability to innovate – to find new solutions for important issues facing the state.

A treasured mentor of mine in the early years of my career in higher education gave me this advice just as I was to assume my first administrative post: “Never,” he said, “surprise anyone.” In other words, be transparent and consistent in your leadership. Indeed, the Governor’s views on the “haves and the have nots” were well known. He was outspoken in his belief that we should assist the downtrodden and care for those in need; and, his policy positions and program initiatives flowed directly – and consistently – from those beliefs. No one was surprised by his priorities or his actions. The Governor’s consistency around his often-articulated views of justice and democracy was, in my opinion, one of the most admirable of his attributes as a leader. Whether a supporter or opponent of the Governor’s particular proposals, I think most would agree that his consistency and clarity of intent were remarkable.

Second, the Governor was an innovator. He was one of the first to see the State University of New York as a possible driver of economic development across the state. He, of course, valued the System greatly for its educational mission – for providing the means by which all could reach their goals. But, he also appreciated the power the System had to advance the economy of the state through the many and varied programs of research of its faculty. He understood the need to capture this potential by funding programs which required faculty to partner with private sector businesses to translate their fundamental research into new products and processes that would, over time, lead to the creation of new businesses and new jobs.  The Centers for Advanced Technology – or CATs – established during his tenure did just this. Across the state, CATs were established in partnership with area businesses which have led to job creation and more vibrant economies.

The Governor also appreciated that New York was in a bidding war with other states for the best and the brightest new faculty, faculty who would enable SUNY’s research presence to grow and earn a place on the national scene; hence, his Graduate Research Initiative. Under this program, new faculty were attracted to New York and were provided with the resources and stability they needed to enable them to be productive in an extremely competitive national research environment.

Together, these innovative programs represented a new approach to economic development in our state, an approach which is proving successful to this day. Indeed, the investment the Governor made in university-based research during his tenure was both innovative and essential as other states were moving much more aggressively than New York in building the research capacity of their university systems. During my tenure as President of the University at Albany, I was able to capitalize on these programs across a number of research areas we had chosen for investment – areas such as nanotechnology and biomedical research. Continuing to expand the research potential of the State University of New York and finding creative ways of harnessing that potential to address economic development remain important areas for further development at SUNY, and the legacy of Governor Mario Cuomo provides an excellent roadmap for the future.

I end this commentary as I began, with heartfelt condolences to the Cuomo family. We all share in your loss of this exceptional leader, this exceptional human being.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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