COLONIE — The newly appointed president of the state University at Albany said he plans to develop stronger relationships with the Capital Region community, increase access to higher education for young people and build on the university’s athletics program and research opportunities during his tenure
“We have to become an anchor institution for our community,” said Havidan Rodriguez, the 20th president of UAlbany and the first Hispanic leader of a four-year SUNY campus. “We can’t be an ivory tower standing out there.”
Rodriguez discussed how he plans to guide the university into the future with Rex Smith, editor-in-chief of the Times Union, during a Monday luncheon at the Hearst Media Center. The event kicked off the Times Union Leadership Luncheon series, a monthly discussion with community leaders and business executives about issues affecting the Capital Region.
Rodriguez, 58, formally began his tenure at UAlbany in mid-September. He succeeds Robert Jones, who left the university last fall to lead the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
A native of Puerto Rico, Rodriguez spent 10 years in the Bronx during his early years watching his single mother work as a taxicab driver in order to give him a better life. Graduating from high school was one of the defining moments of his life, Rodriguez said.
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, a master’s in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
A person’s economic circumstances should not be a barrier to higher education, Rodriguez said.
“We need to do more to provide access. … We do not want income to be an impediment to higher education,” he said. “Having a college degree has a significant impact on social mobility and earnings.”
While Rodriguez said he supports and hopes to expand the school’s athletic programs, the university is also focused on helping students graduate on time.
“Before anything else, our athletes are students,” he said.
Within the last five years, the Capital Region’s minority population has grown by 11.5 percent, according to the Center for Economic Growth. The university is paying attention to the changing demographics in New York State and expanding its international focus, Rodriguez said.
Before joining UAlbany, he served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, a school he helped found in 2015. Prior to joining the university, he was interim president, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UT-Pan American.
He also served as deputy provost, vice provost for academic affairs and international programs and professor at the University of Delaware. While at the school, he led the Disaster Research Center, the first social science research center in the world devoted to the study of disasters. Rodriguez is known for his work studying the socioeconomic impact of disasters and the economic well-being of minority populations.
Research by students and faculty at UAlbany on the causes and effects of disasters can help shape public policy, especially in the wake of recent hurricanes that barraged Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other parts of the world, Rodriguez said.
“We have to instill a sense of urgency,” he said. “We’re taking a lead role nationwide.”
For more than a decade, Rodriguez also held faculty and leadership positions at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. He and his wife, Rosy Lopez, have three children.
“This is a strong institution with a long and rich history,” Rodriguez said of UAlbany. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”