This August, the University at Buffalo (UB) kicked off the fall semester in an unforgettable way. On August 22, over 7,200 people joined us on campus as the 44th President of the United States spoke about higher education challenges and opportunities.
I’ve spent the majority of my life in education. So over the years, I’ve experienced some 50 first-day-of-school moments, each of them special and memorable in their own way. And I hope to experience dozens more.
But it will be difficult to top this moment.
President Obama’s visit marked the first time since 1853 that a sitting U.S. president has spoken at the University at Buffalo. That last President, incidentally, was Millard Fillmore—the 13th president of the United States and the first Chancellor of our university.
160 years later, as UB’s 15th president, I had the great honor of welcoming President Obama as he stepped off his tour bus. As I escorted him to the arena, I had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one for a few minutes.
It’s the kind of 60-second moment everyone dreams about. Since that day, many friends and colleagues have asked me how it felt to exchange a few words with the President of the United States.
I’d like to say that I used my minute with the President to share a few brilliant but concisely worded ideas that have since transformed the face of U.S. higher education policy.
In reality, I’m sure what I actually said was fairly mundane. But our exchange was all the more meaningful for that. I was pleasantly surprised to find that meeting the President felt a bit like seeing an old friend at the start of a new fall semester—although he paid me the honor of greeting me as “Mr. President”! President Obama asked the kind of friendly, interested questions any colleague might ask in catching up with another. He wanted to know about life at UB and in Buffalo (including our famous Buffalo winters), my earlier days at UC Riverside and the University of Maryland, and about the path I took from India to the U.S. higher ed system.
As long as I live, that brief conversation will stand out as a personal highlight. It’s also prompted me to reflect back on the road that brought me to U.S. higher education in the first place.
As a young student in India with dreams of becoming a teacher, I developed an early and lifelong respect for U.S. higher education. Like many international students, I considered a degree from a premier U.S. university to be the gold standard in academic achievement—the opportunity of a lifetime. And today, as president of a major American public research university, I want to make sure that we provide these kind of life-changing opportunities for students from across the globe, for generations to come. That’s why the issues President Obama has opened up resonate so strongly with me—and with UB as a whole.
In his remarks, President Obama challenged us to focus on two key goals: ensuring that our U.S. system of higher education remains the best in the world, and making sure its doors are open to all with the talent and determination to enter. Some of the coverage can be seen here:
Obama Heads Back To School To Talk College Affordability NPR Obama heads back to school to talk college affordability
Obama stresses higher education as ‘pathway to middle class The Buffalo News Obama higher education plan is pathway to middle class
Obama’s visit brings UB national recognition as a leader in access, affordability UB Reporter Obama visit Brings UB National Attention
President’s visit highlights UB’s affordability WBFO Obama highlights UB’s affordability
That’s really the essence of the mission of a public university like UB. And in today’s globalized world, the “public” we serve is very much an internationalized one.
UB started life in 1846 as a small private medical school training physicians for the growing city of Buffalo. I’m proud to note that today it is a flagship of the State University of New York system and a large, international public research university with nearly 29,000 students from across the U.S. and 115 nations around the world.
Our academic year began a week ago. With all of our faculty and students now back on campus, I’m reminded every day that we are truly a global community of scholars.
That rich diversity of our academic community makes President Obama’s r
emarks about educational opportunity and access all the more poignant. It’s a powerful and tangible reminder that the conversation he has opened up about higher education opportunity, achievement, and access affects all students—across the nation and around the world.
At UB, we embrace this responsibility, and we are proud to be a leading voice in the national and global conversation about educational excellence and innovation and the endless doors they open for our students.