Interview: Former UAlbany President, Longtime WAMC Voice Dr. Karen Hitchcock

Nov 14, 2018

Earlier this month, Dr. Karen Hitchcock was one of three recipients of the University at Albany Foundation's Citizen Laureate Awards. Here is Hitchcock’s interview with WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas.

The awards were given November 1 at the University at Albany's SEFCU Arena.    "Well I was very honored to be selected for what's known as the Academic Laureate that's part of the Citizen Laureate Award Program that the University at Albany Foundation has granted to people in the community for many years. I was very honored to receive the Academic Laureate given that it recognizes both professional life, research and teaching, my life in the academy, as well as service to the community."

Currently a special advisor at Park Strategies, Hitchcock was named the 16th and first female president of UAlbany in 1994, leaving for Canada after 10 years to head Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. After that, it was a return home to Albany.

Hitchcock says her UAlbany presidency was "a wonderful opportunity."   "To be the first female president was a great honor. I was always so impressed with the ability of the community both within and without the university to look at what someone's credentials and what their vision might be for the university before other considerations. So, it was a challenging time, but a very exciting time, and one filled with the opportunity to make wonderful connections, if you will, for the university."

Hitchcock also served as chair of the Business Higher Education Roundtable.   "As I looked at what the needs of the university were, but also all universities across the United States, the need to relate more closely to the community that supported each university, was very important. The need for relevance was very important. So we needed to have a very close dialog with the people that we served. And that was certainly, of course, our students, but also the community, the businesses, the organizations that with the university were looking to enhance the economic growth and vitality fo the region. So we put toegther a group of university presidents as well as CEOs of many of our businesses in the region, so we could sit down and have good dialog about what needs were, where universities could play a part to helping to meet those needs, be it in workforce development or particular research programs, and businesses could appreciate the challenges being faced by higher education during those times. So it was a very fruitful, very rewarding set of relationships, which persist to this day."

Hitchcock has served on many boards in the Capital Region, and has been a longtime on-air presence at WAMC, including co-hosting "The Best Of Our Knowledge."    "Oh that was a wonderful experience, and I'll always be grateful to our leader, Alan Chartock, for making that happen. It was a wonderful time because it enabled us to address a lot of the issues facing higher education in a format that allowed for input from the community as far as what kinds of things they wanted to hear. I also had the experience of taking that on the road and we broadcast that from Canada when I was principal of Queens University in Ontario. That was wonderful. We were able to interview everyone from the main Canadian astronaut to someone who has since won the Nobel Prize. So it was a wondeful experience as I said to be able to broadcast that thanks to wonderful technology and the willingness of WAMC to new environs and new people."

Hitchcock's academic accomplishments are impressive. She earned her degree in biology from St. Lawrence and her Ph.D. in anatomy from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Hitchcock's research career in cell and developmental biology happened during her years as a faculty member at Tufts University and as a faculty member and academic leader at Texas Tech and the University of Illinois at Chicago.   "That was of course what defined me for many years, was work in research and teaching, much of it at Tufts Medical School, in Boston. The research area, I taught areas of anatomy and embryology and such to medical and dental and veterinary students. In the research side, I was very involved in the various factors that led to lung development and in that regard, as premature babies have a tendency to not be able to breathe because of the lack of certain components in the lung because they're premature. And I studied that, looked at ways that one could stimulate that so that premature babies had a better chance of survival. It was a very exciting time in my professional life, and we were thrilled at the results we got and the opportunities to make a difference in that way."

Hitchcock believes her legacy will inspire unity.   "Well, I hope my legacy will be one of communication. One that looks to involve people from multiple sectors to address issues from different points of view, different backgrounds, different contexts. And one where coming together in that way in the form of a team, be it in research, be it in scientific research or be it in trying to bring the Giants to the Capital Region. The nanotechnology initiative. All of that was the result of people from different sectors coming together. So I would hope relationship building, communication would be a part of my legacy."

Hitchcock believes higher ed has become more community-centric since she got started in education and research.    "Institutions of higher education have become aware that they really must look to relevance, they must look to the needs of the communities they serve, and they need to be part of the discourse that is informing our political life, our intellectual life, everything from workforce development to the most sophisticated, esoteric some might say, areas of research.; All of that has to be part of the agenda of the vibrant university. It's past the time where simply one can say 'everyone should go to college' and that defines us. Universities have huge roles to play in advancing knowledge and also in looking to the economic vitality of the regions they serve. Looking at the quality of life. They have to be more expansive in their mission and that's a change. Universities, many many years ago certainly were ivory towers, but they're not any longer. They're doing a wonderful job I think in most cases to relate to their constituencies."

Hitchcock, suffering from an undisclosed illness, understands her time is limited.    "I'm receiving treatment right now and am very optimistic and looking to remain an active part of the various groups I'm honored to serve on in the Capital Region, so it's going forward, full speed ahead."

Could a memoir be in the works? Hitchcock says it's not off the table.   "Well I think basically that I'm really extremely blessed to have been part of higher education. As I said at the awards ceremony, this is a mission where I've been associated with organizations that really have one strong calling, and that's to make everyone associated with it better for that association. It's a place where people come and our role is a simple one, very difficult one but a very straightforward one, and that's so that everyone can fulfill their potential. And that's an honor and it's been a thrill all of my life to be part of an organization whose mission is to try to assist everyone in making the most of their talents."