New SUNY Old Westbury President Talks Higher Education in a Pandemic

suny old westbury
Timothy Sams recently took over the presidency of SUNY Old Westbury from longtime predecessor Rev. Calvin O. Butts III.

Timothy Sams started the new year with a new role, as president of State University of New York (SUNY) Old Westbury. He talked with the Press about the college and its about 4,800 students, education during a pandemic, the school’s value, and his vision.

Did serving as a vice president at schools such as Prairie View A & M in Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York help prepare you for a job as president? Being a three-time vice president is probably the best way to move toward a presidency. My commitment at these schools was about leveraging resources on behalf of the students for their success, erasing barriers to their success. 

For how long has becoming a college president been a goal? It became a goal when I moved on to Rensselaer. It wasn’t before that. It was something I considered and many of my mentors pushed me to consider it. They felt as though they saw presidency in my future. Once I got to Rensselaer, I was being trained in how to move an institution strategically and I enjoyed doing that.

What attracted you to becoming president of SUNY Old Westbury? The diversity of the institution and familiarity of the challenges. And knowing how to remove those challenges at the institutional level, as well as the values of the institution around community.

What do you think makes SUNY Old Westbury a good fit in terms of your experience? If you gleaned anything from my 30 years of work, it would be that I’m an ardent supporter of social justice education, inclusive excellence. That’s a contemporary version of multicultural education.

What’s it like to lead the school at such an unusual time due to Covid-19? It’s challenging. Covid has a way of removing things that are important to graduating students at our institution, a close educational experience, intervening to remove barriers that keep them from being successful. Raising funds that require building relationships, the difficulty of building a relationship over Zoom. Knowing our students prefer to be on campus and in the classroom.

How do you build community in a world of Covid? You have to temper your expectations and realize you can’t do it in the most ideal way. Given the constraints of Covid, you make a determination about what is possible. And you engage in ways to realize those possibilities: smaller cohorts, letting students connect on smaller levels, leveraging social media without allowing fatigue to set in. Building community is a part of the educational experience.

How can you build connection between students? The smaller the core cohort, the stronger the connection for students. You want to prevent isolation. And you want to support things that allow students to see each other, even if it’s virtual. To talk to one another. And you want to make sure that faculty are engaging students in a way that they feel worthwhile, that students feel they’re achieving. What is often lost during this period is, faculty and staff experience the same things students feel. They’re dealing with challenges, teaching in this medium.

How do you engage students remotely in an electronic classroom? We’re a brick-and-mortar school for the most part. Students commute to our campus We had to do a hard shift to train our teachers how to deliver course work within the online realm. You’ve got to remember students are curious about the subject matter. Tap into that curiosity. Mold your style, your slides. All those things have to come together in a way that harnesses that curiosity.

Is making the school safe amid Covid also a priority? The area we often forget in the challenges of being a president in this era is keeping the staff and faculty safe. We too have front-line workers who every day risk their health to keep the place clean, sanitized. We have to make sure we’re mindful of the challenge associated with their work as well.

What are you proud of in terms of the school as you arrive? You know what I’m proud of? We have not compromised the delivery of our excellent education. We feel very confident that our course offerings and the quality of our education remained excellent. We trained teachers. Students are staying engaged. We have not experienced a mass exodus of students. Our enrollment numbers stayed strong.

How would you describe SUNY Old Westbury in a few words? We are a “hidden gem.” We have tremendous potential. I hope quickly we won’t be a hidden gem. Everyone will understand what makes us a great place and we will realize our potential.

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