In Memoriam: Aaron Podolefsky, Buffalo State's Eighth President

In Memoriam: Aaron Podolefsky, Buffalo State's Eighth President

Posted: August 8, 2013

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.

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Jerod Dahlgren, Public Relations Director | (716) 878-5569 |
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Duda Hahn
September 16, 2013
I was very fortunate to have met the Podolefsky's during their passage through the University of Central Missouri. I can not say that I knew Dr. Podolefsky as I knew his wife, Ronnie but I always admired his courage and fairness. He leaves a tremendous void not only in the academic word but in the many lives that he touched including mine. My heart goes out to my good friend Ronnie and family.
David Sundberg
August 30, 2013
Aaron and Ronnie share the same Alma Mater, SUNY ar Stony Brook as well as a love for the same New York delicatessens. Aaron was a person of vision, a scholar and a leader who prized learning and teaching. He, as well as Ronnoe, displayed inordinate courage and ethical as well as moral leadership in their contributions to the UCM and Warrensburg community. Sue and I are thankful for the warm welcome and support provided them by wonderful Buffalo community. Aaron was a true mensch in every meaning of this word and he and Ronnie, to whom we owe much gratitude for sharing Aaron with us. Left our community a much better place for their having been here.
Jim Pryde
August 15, 2013
During my tenure at Central Missouri as a student and staff member, I have been privileged enough to meet each of our Presidents, but Dr. Podolefsky has always been a favorite of mine. He was always cordial and friendly to all who approached him and had a steadfast dedication to academics and did his best to foster a caring environment at Central. Though my duties never led me to work very closely with him, he was always accessible to students, faculty and staff and made it a point to listen to what you had to say. I'm saddened at his passing and send my condolences to his family and to the Buffalo State community.
Davie Davis
August 13, 2013
I was fortunate and honored to work closely with Dr. Podolefsky during my terms as Faculty Senate president. He was unfailingly respectful, cordial, gracious, and patient with me as I scaled the steep learning curve of my new post. From my current vantage point, I can conclude that my working relationship with Dr. Podolefsky was one of the most personally and professionally satisfying of my experiences at UCM and perhaps in my life. As others have commented here, he was certainly one of our finest presidents, but among the characteristics that most endeared him to me was his insistence that he was first and foremost a faculty member and a scholar. As an administrator, he accomplished so much for UCM, but he was as excited and proud about the new edition of one of his books as he was about his achievements as president. He was the most shining embodiment of the ideals of a liberal education that I've ever encountered.
Don Wallace
August 13, 2013
There will be a memorial service for Aaron Podolefsky on Thursday, August 22 at 3:15 pm in the Alumni Memorial Chapel on the University of Central Missouri campus. The campus and Warrensburg communities are cordially invited to attend, along with anyone else touched by the life of Aaron Podolefsky. Information about his life will be read and then a microphone will be available for individuals who wish to share personal stories or remembrances. Sue Sundberg & Don Wallace
Dean Murphy
August 13, 2013
I had the distinct privilege of getting to Dr Podolefsky while he was the President of the University of Central Missouri. His good nature and easy smile are just a few of things that come to mind and will be missed. My sincerest condolences to Ronnie, Noah and Isaac.
Peter J Brown
August 13, 2013
I met Aaron Podolefsky right at the beginning of graduate school in Fall 1973. He had been a high school Math teacher and recently earned a Masters in Liberal Studies degree by studying part-time at SUNY Stony Brook. In that program he took a course in Cultural Anthropology and got hooked. So we started graduate school together – he with long hair and a beard and me with just long hair. Aaron was older than me and I looked up to him. We were both recently married, and the four of us had great times together. Noah was born in the third year of graduate school, and we were all in awe as Aaron, Ronnie and the baby left for field research in New Guinea. In graduate school, I was immediately impressed with Aaron’s practical intelligence and wisdom beyond the counter-cultural exterior. Leading a discussion on social anthropological theory, I remember him drawing a diagram on the board to explain the theoretical point that the ethnographer had try to make with thousands of words. Aaron’s diagram was almost like a proof done in a Geometry course. Intellectually, he cut to the chase; he was neither intimidated nor impressed with fancy academic language. He simply wanted to better understand cultural variation in the world. I was drawn to this practical orientation. We found an intellectual kinship in common interest in the relevance of Anthropology for understanding problems of the contemporary world. I was interested more in issues of health, disease and economic development. Aaron was interested in questions of conflict, law, war, and dispute settlement. As such, Aaron became an expert in the Anthropology of Law; certainly that interest fit the cultural milieu of the Viet Nam era anti-war movement. Aaron was remarkably disciplined as a graduate student; he started publishing before any of the rest of us. He was the first to get a NSF grant. He decided to do dissertation fieldwork in a classic ethnographic setting the Simbu highlands of Papua New Guinea. This joined the work of two of his faculty mentors, Paula Brown who had done pioneering work in New Guinea and June Starr who was one of the founders of Legal Anthropology. Aaron’s research was on kinship and mechanisms of dispute settlement in a part of the world that had only recently stopped more traditional patterns of tribal warfare. That was tough fieldwork, and I remember that Aaron lost an awful lot of weight. This research became the subject of his second book (Simbu Law) since his first book came from post-doctoral work at Northwestern in a project about neighborhood reactions to crime. Methodologically, Aaron was way ahead of his time – this was 1977 and he was working on computerized analysis of qualitative field notes. The project had hired several ethnographers who wrote thousands of pages of notes; it was Aaron’s job to analyze all those words. He accomplished this in an analytically clear and pragmatic way. Aaron and I shared a room at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association for some twenty years. As new assistant professors we talked for hours about teaching strategies. We both bemoaned the fact that there was no good teaching text that would show students –whatever their major, from engineering to social work—that Anthropology was relevant to understanding and suggesting solutions to practical problems in the real world. Students needed to know how this unified study of humankind was use ful – we both knew this from the classroom. With Aaron’s enthusiastic leadership, we envisioned an edited reader called Applying Anthropology: an Introductory Reader and later a companion volume called Applying Cultural Anthropology. I clearly remember Aaron coming out to Berkeley one spring break to finish the manuscript – which we hand-delivered to the publisher by driving over the San Francisco Bay Bridge. These books have eventually become the largest selling texts of their kind; they are currently in their 10th and 9th editions respectively. Some people have said that these volumes changed the way that Anthropology came to be taught in the U.S. Some academics have asked me why Aaron went over to the “dark side” of University Administration. It turns out that he had remarkable talent in managing people and budgets, more importantly he was inspirational and passionate about public education. His administrative expertise reflected his practical side, his experience with tribal dispute settlements without war, and his high school math teacher experience that allowed him to read budgets. In the end it seems clear that throughout his career Aaron has found the study of the tribes of academia more fascinating than the so-called “primitive” Simbu of New Guinea Aaron was always a very strong advocate for regional State Universities. He did not come from a privileged background, but he was able to go to college at San Jose State – part of a fantastic state university system. Aaron argued that these universities are remarkable and equalizing American institutions. He therefore devoted his career to institutions like Western Kentucky University, Eastern Iowa University, Central Missouri State University and finally at Buffalo State. He made real contributions to all of those institutions. He influenced countless students’ lives through his selfless academic leadership and stewardship. My life has been remarkably enriched by my friendship and colleagueship with Aaron. His death at such an early age is a tragedy. My deepest condolences go to Ronnie, Noah, Isaac and the rest of the family.
M. Jenise Comer
August 11, 2013
Dr. Podolefsky was the most powerful champion of diversity Central has known. He created an unprecedented sense of community by bringing together faculty, staff at all levels and administrators, to increase inclusive participation. Together with Lenita Johnson, he created the Kansas City Initiative, reaching out to form partnerships in the minority communities. I respected and appreciated the work he and Ronnie did, and was saddend by his leaving, just as I am the news of his passing. We are all better because of him and his work. I am honored to have known and worked with him. My prayers are with his family.
Sol Ahiarah
August 10, 2013
It is very sad to hear of the sudden passing of Dr. Podolefsky. What a loss to the Buffalo State community, and the other ones that his life touched! My heart goes out to his wife and the other members of his family. We all will miss him greatly.
Judith Siminoe
August 9, 2013
Aaron Podolefsky was an exceptional academic leader. He will be missed but those of us who were able to work with him will recall his humor, analytic style and willingness to support his colleagues; and hope to serve as well. Best wishes to Ronnie and family and to the higher education communities Aaron served.


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