Aaron Podolefsky, Buffalo State’s eighth president, passed away on Thursday (August 8) surrounded by family members after a courageous battle with prostate cancer. He was 67.
“We are profoundly saddened by the loss of this cherished member of the Buffalo State family,” said Buffalo State Council Chair Howard Zemsky. “Dr. Podolefsky was the embodiment of the welcoming, engaging, and collegial campus culture that defines Buffalo State. His wit, wisdom, and kindness will be immensely missed.”
Added SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, “It is with a heavy heart that we share our deepest sympathies regarding the passing of former Buffalo State President Aaron Podolefsky with his family, friends, and the greater college community. Aaron was a true educator, trusted colleague, and compassionate leader. His commitment to Buffalo State, to Western New York, and to the public mission of our State University was unwavering. Under his leadership, Buffalo State realized a renewed commitment to the arts, community, diversity, and student life. I know that Interim President Howard Cohen will help to guide the campus through this difficult time, and continue Dr. Podolefsky’s work in a way that honors his legacy.”
Dr. Podolefsky began as president of Buffalo State on July 1, 2010, a post he held until stepping down July 31, 2013, due to health issues.
A bold visionary and advocate for higher education, Dr. Podolefsky selected “Celebrate, Serve, Imagine: The Promise of Buffalo State” for his inaugural theme in 2010 to honor Buffalo State’s legacy and to demonstrate his commitment to preserving an affordable and accessible college education, the college's role in community service, and the importance of transcending economic challenges of the time.
Dr. Podolefsky said in his inaugural remarks, “No matter how much we have grown in enrollment, expanded in mission, created new programs, and transformed how we teach and research, our core purpose remains: Buffalo State continues to be ‘the people’s university,’ to serve the public, and to act in its best interest.”
Dr. Podolefsky remained true to those words throughout his ambitious three-year tenure, a period in which he and the campus celebrated the opening of the new Student Apartment Complex; phase one of the Science and Mathematics Complex; the renovation of Rockwell Hall’s third floor; the renovation of the Campbell Student Union; and most recently, the new Technology Building, which will host classes this fall.
To ensure the accessibility and affordability of Buffalo State for years to come, Dr. Podolefsky introduced the institution’s first-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign, Transforming Lives: A Campaign for Buffalo State, in 2012. More than $16.5 million of the $20-million four-year goal has already been raised to enhance the student experience through new scholarships and learning spaces.
In fall 2011, Dr. Podolefsky extended Buffalo State’s service to the community with the opening of the Community Academic Center. The center, located off campus at 214 Grant Street, now serves as a hub for cradle-to-career educational support programming for youth and families on Buffalo’s West Side.
Sensing a need to celebrate during a time of state budget challenges in 2011, the always affable Dr. Podolefsky declared the 2011–2012 academic year the Year of the Arts. What followed was an eclectic line-up of hundreds of thought-provoking performances and events that highlighted the college’s diverse and creative environment to the greater Western New York community. Over that same time period, Buffalo State was twice named a “Great College to Work For” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, both times earning recognition for the institution’s commitment to shared governance.
Said Zemksy, “Dr. Podolefsky believed in working collaboratively to achieve goals and took strong steps for growth to create an exceptional learning experience at Buffalo State, while striving to continue the momentum for the institution. With his characteristic enthusiasm and staunch devotion, he was best known for his steadfast commitment to putting students on the path to academic, professional and personal success, and instilling the importance of having a positive impact on their communities.”
Last spring, Dr. Podolefsky introduced a new institutional crest to better align campus identity, revealing a bold mark that embodies Buffalo State’s academic mission and dedication to excellence.
Howard Reid, chair of the College Senate at Buffalo State, said “On behalf of all of Dr. Podolefsky’s colleagues at Buffalo State, and particularly the faculty, staff, and students who had the opportunity to work with Aaron on the College Senate, I want to express our great sadness on learning of his passing. In only a short time he went from being our new ‘head administrator with an office on the top floor of Grover Cleveland (Hall),’ to being recognized as a vibrant leader of this college’s diverse community.”
Reid added, “In his too brief time as our president, Aaron made numerous significant contributions. However, for his many friends at the college, what will be most sorely missed will be his more personal qualities, which everyone will agree included openness, support, energy, kindness, and his upbeat attitude.”
From 2005 to 2010, Dr. Podolefsky was president and professor of anthropology at the University of Central Missouri, where he raised the university’s academic profile, initiated strategic and master planning efforts, cultivated mutually enriching campus-community partnerships, enhanced regional economic development, and launched landmark energy savings and sustainability initiatives.
Dr. Podolefsky previously served as provost and vice president for academic affairs (1998–2005) and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (1990–1998) at the University of Northern Iowa. He also taught and served as department head in Western Kentucky University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work (1986–1990). Prior to this, he was associate chair and tenured associate professor of anthropology at West Virginia University (1979–1986), and was a research associate for the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University (1978–1979).
He was a three-time graduate of Stony Brook University, earning master’s degrees in liberal studies (’73) and anthropology (’76) and a doctorate with distinction in anthropology (’78). Dr. Podolefsky also held a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from San José State University (’68).
He was the author of numerous scholarly works, including books, textbooks, and articles. Dr. Podolefsky was a fellow of the American Anthropological Association, elected by the organization’s executive committee in recognition of his significant contributions to the field of anthropology. His graduate field studies in anthropology took him and his family to the highlands of Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, an experience he oftentimes fondly recalled.
Dr. Podolefsky, who was beloved for his collegial and inquisitive personality, is survived by his devoted wife, Ronnie, and his two sons, Noah (Molly) and Isaac (Laura). He also leaves behind the “first dogs” of Buffalo State, Harry, Mishka, and the newly-adopted Cannoli. A memorial service for the campus community will be held this fall. Details will be announced at a later date.
If so desired, the family asks for individuals to commit to actions that speak to Dr. Podolefsky’s values and continues his legacy.