Q&A: Katherine Conway-Turner
Buffalo State College's new president, Katherine Conway-Turner
You might anticipate a slow acclimation to a big job in an unfamiliar city for any recent hire, but the new president of Buffalo State College is not just anyone. In fact, Dr. Katherine Conway-Turner has a lifelong habit of immediately rolling up her sleeves to tackle a fresh challenge. The veteran academic, who served on the faculty and in administration at six institutions of higher education around the country in a career spanning more than three decades, jumped in with both feet here this past fall. From her early days on a scholarship to University of Kansas, where she was a very small-town girl and first-generation college student in a strange city, Conway-Turner has embraced a personal philosophy of making the most of every opportunity. A college campus has always been her second home. In Buffalo, she sees an institution poised for growth, with much success in signature programs in the arts and sciences, as well as a long legacy of community engagement. True to her background and optimistic nature, Conway-Turner wants more, for both Buffalo State College and Buffalo, her new home.
It’s not easy being a college president these days, let alone one who is a minority woman. How do you see this? What are your plans for the college?
The number of women in top positions in higher education administration has increased, but it’s still rare to have a black woman at the top. I’m a psychologist, and I think that gives me an edge. I know how people’s attitudes, the stereotypes, can defy reality. And I realize I am a role model, whether I want to be or not. An advantage I have here is that I have been in the SUNY family before, at Geneseo. I knew Satish Tripathi (president of State University of New York at Buffalo) when I was provost there, and he was provost at UB, so I already know many of the players. What I would like to see is Buffalo State College really elevating its work to the leadership level. I would like to help our campus become the leader in many areas, from our signature programs like art conservation, and our collaboration with Burchfield-Penney, to our strong ceramics, graphic design, and communications programs, and our use of state-of-the-art technology in programs like fashion and textile design. We are also strong in the sciences and community outreach—including the Great Lakes Center, which teaches students to be good stewards of the waterway while helping to solve environmental problems. I would like to see us elevate our work in all these areas as we move our students forward. People here have long known about this institution, but I want to show that Buffalo State College today is much more layered and complex—like this city is, as I have learned. And what I have seen on campus, and what attracted me here, is a great enthusiasm for social responsibility. The faculty, staff, and students here really feel a part of making the world a better place.
You hold doctor’s and master’s degrees in psychology. Your undergraduate degree is in microbiology. So how did you make your way to this office?
Getting into administration is a way to influence policy and really have a much broader reach. I did teach for many years, from 1983 until 200l, starting at Santa Clara University and California State University at Long Beach. When I was at the University of Delaware [where she also served as associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, director of the women’s studies program, and graduate program coordinator], I received a fellowship from the American Council on Education [ACE]. I was released for a year in 1996 to work on another campus, the College of New Jersey, training in administration. Later, I was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Georgia Southern University; provost and vice president for academic affairs at SUNY Geneseo; and, most recently, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. The fact that someone noticed me, and promoted me for that ACE fellowship is what led to my jobs in higher education administration—so I do believe in mentorship!
What else do you strongly believe in?
The power of reading—that’s where it all started for me, way back when, in the little Mississippi River town of Clarksville, Missouri, population about 600. My sisters and I—I am the second oldest of seven daughters, and the first generation to even complete high school—went to the local consolidated school, where we were bused every day, a necessity in our rural area. I learned to read really early, and I never stopped. Eventually I had to patronize the bigger library in the next town. I was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged me. They really opened doors to me, and enlarged my life. In high school, I was a big fan of Dickens, and I always had my nose in a book. My teachers encouraged me to think about college. I used to sit by the railroad tracks—freight trains ran through Clarksville—and dream of going somewhere. My older sister was by then at the University of Missouri in Columbia, but that was too close to home for me. I went to the library to research colleges, and picked out five, including the University of Hawaii. I applied, and was accepted at all five, but chose the University of Kansas in Lawrence, about a five-hour drive from home, because they offered me the best scholarship. My parents drove me there, dropped me off, and left—that’s what they did in those days, and we talked once a week on a communal phone. Here I was, on a campus of 25,000, and you can guess I got lost a lot those first few weeks. But they housed me in Scholarship Hall, with forty-eight girls, and that became my retreat, a smaller place for me to feel more at home, and help make the transition to this new world. In my head I was ready for college, but, in fact, I had no real experience outside my small town.
When it came time to declare a major, I chose zoology—just looking up science studies in a book, as I had loved sciences in high school. They told me there was no zoology major at KU, so I settled on microbiology. When I finished college, I worked for a time in a lab at the KU Medical School in Kansas City, where I was encouraged by colleagues to go to graduate school. I talked to my advisors at KU, and decided that since I didn’t want to work in a lab anymore, perhaps psychology offered more career possibilities—so I focused on social psychology, and finished my master’s and doctorate in that field back in Lawrence. I did some postdoctoral work in health issues for two years at UCLA, after which I started teaching. I still give some lectures and find ways to interact with students today—I enjoy being on the college campus.
You and your husband, psychologist Dr. Alvin Turner, are the parents of three grown daughters, Shana, Anya, and Jameela. Your family time is important to you, but you’ve talked about other ways you renew yourself, and perhaps reinvigorate your involvement with the wider world.
I make time for yoga every morning, which just centers me. And there is also a commitment I’ve made to volunteering in Haiti, something that refuels me, and I try to do that twice yearly, through H.O.P.E., a Rochester-based organization founded by a fellow Geneseo faculty member. I work primarily in the area of education, helping to ensure that there is a roof on school buildings, for example, a necessity in rainy season. We work in Borgne, a mountainous community in northeast Haiti. We started a mobile teacher program, sending teachers up into the mountains to teach preschool, early literacy, really—and let them see what school is all about. We’re planning to develop a student service abroad program for Buffalo State, in Haiti—already in place is the first lending library in the Borgne community, for which books are being collected. We are training local young people to staff their new library. Really, the needs there are so basic. Working there keeps me straight on priorities. It reaffirms for me the notion that we are all connected to a much broader world.
Former Buffalo News reporter Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.