Remembering Dr. Aaron M. Podolefsky: the Spree interview
Photo by kc kratt
We were saddened to hear of the death of Aaron Podolefsky, who became president of Buffalo State College in 2010. He was, quite simply, a really nice guy. He also offered an innovative, adventurous, and compassionate vision for the college. Here's Chris Schobert's December, 2010 interview with Podolefsky and his wife, Ronnie.
It's clear within minutes of meeting new Buffalo State College, Dr. Aaron M. Podolefsky, and his wife, Ronnie, that they are enjoying their surroundings in Western New York immensely. They walked to the campus’s Burchfield Penney Art Center with their dogs, Harry, a farm collie, and Mishka, a bouvier des Flanders, in tow on a gorgeous, seventy-degree October morning. (Harry was actually found run over, with broken legs and hip; he’s now an active, happy member of the family.) Their adventurous approach to life and learning has taken them from a year in Papua, New Guinea, to their current careers. He comes to Buffalo State following a position as president of the University of Central Missouri, during which time he was also a professor and provost elsewhere. She is an attorney practicing civil rights law, among other specialties, and has also worked as everything from an earth sciences teacher to a nuclear medicine department supervisor and radiation safety officer.
Now, they are living in Buffalo, where Aaron is Buffalo State’s eighth president. And they’ve grown to adore the area, so much so that one of their two sons, Isaac, is planning to move to the city from Iowa. (Their older son, Noah, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, was coming to the city for his first visit during the week we talked.) They discussed the college, its future, their incredible journey to New Guinea, and more.
Taking over the presidency of a college is like taking over a large business. So for both of you, where do you begin?
Aaron Podolefsky: As the Cheshire Cat says, “You begin at the beginning.” We came in July, and we started by just getting to know the city of Buffalo and the surrounding area. We met many, many people just out visiting and talking to them about how they see the college, and what they see for its future—people from block clubs to the health care system to legislators to businesswomen. That’s where you begin getting to know how Buffalo State is seen in the community. I’ve held several meetings with students over lunch in my conference room, and asked them to think about what they like about Buffalo State, and what they think we can do better. And that’s been fun, and the interesting thing is, with every group, their main concern at what we can do better is parking. It’s the only issue that comes up consistently!
Ronnie Podolefsky: For myself, I’ve had some good opportunities to meet some of the attorneys in town. Generally, though, to get to know people is far more important for me at this stage. [We’ve been] spending time at university events, and things that we have at our house or that are happening on campus, and I’ve been trying to get to as many as I can.
AP: I have to add one of our key responsibilities is to try and eat at every restaurant in Buffalo. I could almost make a joke and say we’re trying to find a bad one, because they’ve all been terrific. We’ve wandered around to coffee shops on the west side and restaurants on the East Side. The museums—the Burchfield Penny, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the history museum—are wonderful. I can’t imagine being in a better location. And I haven’t been here in winter yet, but the summer was absolutely wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where the summer was so pleasant—you can sit out in a sidewalk café and the temperature is just right, it’s not too humid. The fall has been long and the trees have turned gradually, compared to some of the climates where we’ve lived. It seems to me that Buffalo is a best-kept secret. We’re so excited to be here.
It seems to me that the identity of a college is very important. Did you have a sense of what Buffalo State’s identity in WNY is?
AP: You always begin with its historical identity, and Buffalo State has, more than most, undergone a real significant growth. Many people still think of it as the teachers’ college. That’s a wonderful history, and there is no reason to devaluate or depreciate that, but it has to become universally known that we have 162 undergraduate and sixty graduate programs, and we span human knowledge. I think one of the things that my mission will be is to make sure Buffalo State is known for its breadth of offerings, yet still has that small-college feel.
Buffalo State is in an interesting position because it’s grown a lot in the past few years, but it’s also in New York State, so there have been many cuts.
AP: Buffalo State has suffered about $8 million dollars in reductions. That sort of thing is happening around the country. The real challenge in New York is that there is not much we can do to compensate. My passion is to keep it as inexpensive as possible, but if students can’t get into classes because we don’t have enough faculty, or if the classes grow too large, or the laboratory equipment gets too old, or the computers are not up to date, then the education they get is not as valuable. So what we’re doing now is trying to look for ways we can maintain the quality in the short run. The state has an interesting pattern, it seems to me, of not having any tuition increase for years and then [hiking] it up. You’re better off with a gradual, modest increase for students. Because the lack of tuition increase combined with a state budget cut is a double-whammy.
You spent a year in Papua, New Guinea, as a young anthropologist in the seventies. That was an incredible move, and surely a difficult decision. How did it come about?
AP: I was looking at anthropology of law; most cultures have people in authority. But in the highlands of New Guinea they are what’s called an acephalous society—headless, meaning there’s no people in authority to tell people what to do. The little bit that had been written about things like law does not exist in the New Guinea Island. I was a young person from the sixties, and that sounded a little interesting to me. It’s the second largest island in the world, with mountains up to 14,000 feet. So, we decided that’s where we would go to research law in culture and society.
RP: Noah, our older son, was less than one year old when we were contemplating this and writing for grants. It was maybe a naïve thing of being young and thinking we would live forever and nothing could happen, but more so, I think our approach to life has always been as a pair—as colleagues—and together it seemed like, ‘Okay, that’s fine, let’s go.’ I wasn’t quite sure what was going to be ahead, but in some ways maybe I was better off being naïve. We put one foot in front of the other and moved forward to what was coming next, and dealing with the different manners of survival and everyday living, rather than long-term planning. I guess the only long-term thing was to get eggs.
AP: We’re kind of ‘solutions’ people. When we see something happen, we say, ‘How do we get things done?’ We stepped back. How do you build a high chair for a one-year-old in a house with a grass roof and bamboo floor? Well, you can’t stand something up, so we decided to make him a swing as you would out of bush with different things; we got some rope and hung it from the ceiling, and that’s what he used for a high chair.
RP: It did double duty as a swing! Other things like, where do you get your water from? You can’t go buy a bottle of water, and you can’t turn on a tap. Where do you get some of the foods that you’re accustomed to eating? Trying to stay healthy and balance our meals [was vital].
AP: We had a one-burner kerosene stove, and we’d take it apart and light the wicks, and then put it back together. That’s what we cooked on.
RP: I’ll never forget it.
How did the experience influence the rest of your lives and careers?
RP: For myself, it was a very humbling experience. I think one of the things that’s very important is [for] students to leave the comfort of where they always lived and to go some place where they’re challenged, [where they can] gain greater respect for other people and for humankind. Coming back, I saw my own culture in a very different way and I was changed by that. It influenced how I approached life and people after that and also affected our child rearing, and how I approach the law.
AP: The most unusual instances can help you learn something—to learn to listen, and to not make quick judgments, to understand why things work the way they do before you try to make something change. These have really impacted how I operate in my career. I don’t come in and say, ‘I’ve just come here, and this is what you’re doing because this is what I want you to do.’ The faculty have a lot of power, and to me it’s never been [about] a struggle between the president and the faculty.