Eager to listen, learn
New Fredonia President Kolison sets collaborative tone
“The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing and vice versa. Avoid surprises, especially at 4 p.m. on Fridays.”
That’s the philosophy that will guide Stephen H. Kolison Jr., Ph.D., the new president of Fredonia. As the chief academic officer and member of an executive team at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy), Dr. Kolison saw that approach produce success.
“As one of my takeaways from the University of Indianapolis, the president, Dr. Robert Manuel, emphasized the phrase ‘network university’ to describe how he wanted his vice presidents to work with each other,” Kolison explained. “It simply means any decision that you make for your agency or in your area of responsibility, needs to be known by your colleagues, and you need to consider how that decision is going to impact other areas of the university or other vice presidents,” Kolison explained.
“For example, if the vice president for Finance is making a decision, there has to be an awareness of what that will do or means for Academic Affairs, for Student Affairs, and other areas of the university.”
For that concept to be successful, Kolison said, leaders have to be connected to each other and be fully aware of what’s happening on the campus. “They have to collaborate, coordinate, and communicate; they have to share things; and they have to be able to say that if we go left, this is what will happen; if we go right, this is what happens. For it to work, even the president cannot go off and make a major decision that the vice president and other senior leaders get to know about for the first time from the newspapers, or from the Internet. No, that should not happen
if the president expects this concept to work well.”
When everyone is on the same page, on the same team, Kolison said, then everyone is moving things forward.
“The ‘network university’ in the true sense of the phrase has relevance to how I will manage and how I will lead,” Kolison said. “Sure, it sounds simple. But, in times of pressure, or for convenience, it is easy to forget. So, constant practice, and sometimes incentives, are essential to make it become the operating DNA.”
Kolison brings nearly 30 years of leadership experience in higher education gained in public and private universities to Fredonia, including the last three years as Executive Vice President and Provost at the University of Indianapolis.
The State University of New York Board of Trustees appointed Kolison as Fredonia’s 14th president in July, succeeding Interim President Dennis L. Hefner, who returned to campus a year ago following the retirement of President Virginia Horvath.
A native of Liberia, Kolison joins two African-Americans currently serving as president of one of SUNY’s 13 comprehensive colleges.
Interim President Hefner indicated he was pleased to see Kolison chosen. “His experience with public and private universities, his extensive grant record, his intimate knowledge of higher education systems and his strong academic background give him the knowledge and experience necessary to assume this important leadership position during these very challenging times,” said Hefner, who was Fredonia’s president from 1997 to 2012.
Frank Pagano, chair of the Fredonia College Council and the Presidential Search Committee, said Kolison brings a wealth of experience to this position and is well prepared for this role. “I look forward to working with Dr. Kolison as we begin a new chapter in Fredonia’s history.”
Virus poses urgent challenge
In this new chapter, Fredonia, with Kolison at the helm, must take on major challenges — declining enrollment, shifting demographics, the structural budget deficit and, of immediate concern, the opening of the fall semester in the COVID-19 era — all institutions of higher education are confronting.
“What’s going to be heavy on my mind is going to be launching the fall semester under this COVID cloud that we have to deal with,” Kolison said. “How do we bring students and faculty and staff back to campus and do it in a way that is safe,” he explained, while demonstrating concern for the welfare and safety of the surrounding community.
“Ultimately, we want to ensure the safety of every person who comes onto the campus,” Kolison said. The campus wants parents to feel comfortable that they are sending their children to a campus that cares about them and that they are safe.
Another challenge facing Kolison is the campus’ budget deficit. “Without addressing the deficit, it is very difficult to take on new initiatives, or to move things forward,” he said. While Kolison recognizes that deficits can curtail an institution’s ability to add new programs, he firmly believes it’s important to keep academic options vibrant and responsive to attract more students.
An enrollment drop of more than 1,000 students over the last 10 years is another hurdle for Fredonia to clear. Helping to fuel this change is a shift in demographics, Kolison explained, resulting in the pool of traditional college-age students falling about 15 percent. These forces make budget deficits even more difficult to address.
“These are things that we have to deal with in the months or years ahead,” Kolison said. So is serious competition from other schools.
“In our neighborhood, a 100-mile radius, you have five other public schools that we have to compete with for students, and then if you look at where our students come from; about 95 percent of our students come from the state of New York,” Kolison noted. Very few are from other states or are international students.
“I want to be clear about this. These are challenges I was aware of in pursuing this opportunity. I came because I believe that the campus and the SUNY System will support me addressing these challenges. And, together, we will address all of these challenges and move ahead to many opportunities because we are SUNY Fredonia!”
Going in the ‘right direction’
Kolison is also pleased to report encouraging signs for the campus.
“This summer, the numbers of students enrolling are higher than where we were last year, so that’s very good. Also, I saw in the last few years the decline has kind of stopped, and it’s beginning to point in the right direction.” These are not the high numbers of a decade ago, Kolison noted, “but at least I can say we have stopped the bleeding; so, I want to acknowledge that and say thanks to everyone on campus who has put forth the effort to stop the bleeding and then pull us in the right direction.”
Kolison wants to see Fredonia diversify the student pipeline. “Yes, it is a good thing that many of our students come from New York; we are a public institution and we should be serving the taxpayers of New York.” Kolison said. “At the same time, I am sure you will agree with me that we will need to go out and find students from other states and also find international students that can come to our institution. We have world class programs that can attract students from New York and other parts of the country and the globe. So, let’s make it happen!”
Getting to know the campus community and other stakeholders — much of it through meet-and-greets and what Kolison describes as responding to a stream of “very kind emails from well-wishers” — was a priority in the weeks leading up to Aug. 17, his first official day on campus. He’s eager to get to know his administrative team as well as faculty, staff and, of course, students, “So, I want to hit the ground listening, learning as quickly as I can and as much as I can, so when it’s time to make decisions I’m making decisions based on data and on highly reliable information.”
Kolison also wants to get to know the Fredonia community, including elected officials and residents.
Kolison served three years at UIndy, a private school, where he said performance drives revenue. “As Provost, I also spent a lot of time dealing with enrollment and retention matters. I think that’s very relevant to where we are at Fredonia.”
Shared governance, working closely with Faculty Senate and major stakeholders, was also a priority at UIndy that Kolison is carrying with him to Fredonia. Kolison said he was fortunate to work with an effective team — the Provost’s Council — that was visionary, cohesive, diverse, and committed to advancing UIndy.
Kolison points to a strong faculty and staff, great students, world class academic programs and a beautiful campus, as Fredonia assets. “These are all incredible strengths to have, that make an institution a place of destination. There’s a lot going on for Fredonia that makes it actually a very strong institution.”
At UIndy, Kolison, during his three years, planned 10 new degree programs, secured overwhelming faculty support to establish three types of faculty tracks and planned, launched and completed the development of an intellectual life vision and an academic master plan for the university.
Before joining UIndy, Kolison spent nearly nine years in the University of Wisconsin System Administration. As Associate Vice President for Academic Programs, Educational Innovation and Governance, Kolison was responsible for academic program planning and array management of the system that serves approximately 170,000 students across 13 universities.
At Tennessee State University, Kolison was responsible for providing direction of a comprehensive research program related to agricultural and environmental sciences. During his 10 years there, he was the Founding Dean and Research Director of the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Research, and Director and Research Director of the Cooperative Agricultural Research Program.
Kolison also taught for eight years in the field of Forestry/Forest Economics and was a research scientist at Tuskegee University. He began his career in higher education as a teaching assistant at the University of Liberia, his alma mater.
Kolison has Ph.D. in Forest Economics and an M.S. in Forest Economics and Marketing, both from Iowa State University of Science and Technology, and a B.S. in General Forestry from the University of Liberia. He holds four post-doctoral certificates from Harvard University.
Throughout his career in higher education, Dr. Kolison has been the principal investigator on grants totaling in the millions of dollars.
Father ‘inspired me tremendously’
Dr. Kolison's father (Stephen H. Kolison Sr.) passed away nearly 10 years ago, but the legacy that he left his children growing up in Liberia clearly nurtured the career trajectory of Fredonia’s new president.
With a high school diploma, the elder Kolison became a teacher at schools (elementary and junior high schools) operated by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which established about a million-acre rubber plantation in Liberia, for the children of its workers.
Kolison said his father realized that in order “to do even better,” he needed to obtain a higher education, so, as a non-traditional student, he enrolled in the University of Liberia to earn an undergraduate degree.
The younger Kolison was in the second grade when his father went back to school.
“I still remember how he would take me to the campus of the University of Liberia on Sunday afternoons to study with him at the university library. I would sit by him and he would take breaks from his study to help me with my arithmetic and reading. And every time we were on the campus, he would show me many things and it all looked big to me. In a way, he may have been laying the groundwork for the day that I would enroll at the University of Liberia. Maybe.
“But, this is what I remember: When I was admitted at the University of Liberia, unlike the many freshmen, especially the first-generation freshmen, I already knew where most things were on the campus including the library, the registrar office and the cafeteria. Think about that for a moment. Think about that in terms of what universities could do for first generations students who lack such advantages.”
“My father was a first-generation college student who did very well,” Kolison said. His father also received a scholarship from Firestone and enrolled at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio, to obtain a master’s degree in educational administration. The younger Kolison, his oldest son, was a sixth-grade student when that milestone was achieved.
“While I was working on my doctorate, civil war broke out in Liberia. It was a devastating civil war that pretty much destroyed Liberia; it threw the country back by more than 50 years,” said Kolison, who was then at Iowa State University.
“There was the destruction of thousands of lives. I was getting very close to finishing my dissertation when this was going on, so I realized very quickly that I was going to be a man without a home to go back to,” Kolison remembered.
Life in Liberia was so catastrophic, Kolison recalled, that he didn’t know where his family members or friends were or if they were safe or still alive. “Imagine trying to process all that while trying to complete a doctorate degree. But I was very fortunate; America gave me a home and also gave me a career.” Kolison was initially hired by Tuskegee University to its faculty and to lead its forestry program.
“Let me also say this to you. America did not give me only a great education, home, and career. When I need to be loved in a very special way, America gave me a wonderful wife called Valeria, a native of Alabama.”
Kolison’s father was an educator, a farmer, and a public servant elected to help rewrite Liberia’s new constitution in 1984, and Kolison proudly says his father’s signature is on that document. “My father was my hero and my best friend. He inspired me tremendously as I grew up.”
That inspiration helped the younger Kolison overcome an early setback in elementary school: he failed the second grade and had to repeat it.
“It was a very difficult, hard time,” recalls Kolison, who had a form of dyslexia, so he had difficulty recognizing and telling the differences between certain letters and numbers. “It was very challenging for me. My second grade teacher pretty much gave up on me; I still remember it like it was yesterday… He did not think I would amount to anything and did not hesitate to predict that openly so that all my classmates heard his prediction about me. I felt ashamed often in class.”
But the youngster, encouraged by family and other teachers, didn’t give up. Kolison became valedictorian of his high school class and enrolled in the University of Liberia to earn a B.S. in General Forestry.
Kolison comes from a very large family; he has nine sisters and seven brothers. “My siblings all call me ‘Big Kolison,’ a sign of deep affection, love and respect. You can imagine when you have that number of siblings, it’s not easy,” smiled Kolison, the family’s oldest boy.
“Dad said every one of us was going to earn a high school diploma — that was the minimum.” They all did, and many went on to college and today work in the fields of education, nursing, banking, forestry, business, religion, government, criminal justice and politics.
“So, the message from me to the students is about never giving up, no matter what your circumstance. Every day that God gives to you is an opportunity for you,” Kolison said. “Don’t give up. Work hard, and one day you will be very happy that you didn’t give up, that you tried.”
“So, the message from me to the students is about never giving up, no matter what your circumstance. Every day that God gives to you is an opportunity for you.” - President Stephen H. Kolison Jr.
Much of Kolison’s aspiration to be a college president is rooted in his desire to help students succeed. “I know what the value of higher education is; I saw what happened to my dad and my family.”
Kolison also holds his mother in very high esteem. A lack of formal education did not hold her back from starting and running a successful small business. Kolison said he learned a lot — emotional intelligence, kindness and to be caring for others — from his mother. “She was just a wonderful woman. I still remember the last time I saw her. It was in January of 2013 when visited her in Liberia. As I was about to enter the waiting car to take me to the airport to return to the United States, she hugged me and reminded me that I was loved dearly by my late father and she told me that she loved me, and concluded by saying to me that God was going to bless me in a very special way. She passed seven months later. I wish she and my dad were still alive to watch my appointment on June 29, 2020 by the SUNY Board of Trustees as the 14th President of SUNY Fredonia. My goodness, that would have been a really, really, big nuclear deal for them,” he said.
“I was very fortunate to have had wonderful parents who inspired me.”
Away from academia, Kolison’s expertise in the kitchen has yielded some recognition from friends, colleagues, and family members, including a blue ribbon that a spinach recipe won in a VA hospital cooking contest while he was at Tuskegee University. He grows African violets as a hobby, loves airplanes, follows advancements in automobiles, is into all kinds of music, and loves soccer, basketball and hockey. He enjoys hiking in forests and tall grasslands.
He says that if he had the time to learn to play a musical instrument at this point in his life, it would be the saxophone. He says his love for the saxophone was influenced by the late Mano de Bango of Cameroon and the late Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band.
Kolison and his wife are the parents of three adult children: Ophelia, Stephen III and Samuel. Mrs. Kolison, who has two master’s degrees, serves as a Chief of Nutrition and Food Services at a VA hospital.
“I’ve had an incredible journey, I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to be associated with a number of outstanding institutions, had opportunity to travel widely overseas, and work with people all over the world. It’s been a tremendous journey, and now I’m looking forward to being part of SUNY Fredonia.”