Former UB President's Book Takes on the Myths Surrounding the Decision to Build UB's Campus in Amherst

Release Date: April 22, 2008

BUFFALO. N.Y. -- William R. Greiner has always remained true to his roots. UB's 13th president serving a little more than 13 years, Greiner drives a vibrant blue UB car with the license plate UB13. But given that his heart is firmly in teaching and research, his latest project, "Location, Location, Location: A Special History of the University of/at Buffalo" is completely in character.

Co-authored with former Law School Dean and SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Thomas E. Headrick, "Location, Location, Location" boldly examines some of the most celebrated urban legends surrounding UB. Many of them revolve around building the UB campus in Amherst, which today comprises 146 buildings on 1,192 acres and is one of three UB campuses, including the original South Campus on Main Street in Buffalo and a new Downtown Campus in Buffalo that is beginning to take shape.

Greiner looks much the same as he did when, as provost in the 1980s, he talked demonstrating students into leaving the president's office without incident, not to mention the '90s, when he cultivated many of the Buffalo-UB alliances that have blossomed today under current UB President John B. Simpson. Greiner's insight into how and why UB got to be where it is may just close the book on some of Buffalo's popular misconceptions.

In the Q&A below, he discusses the some of the findings described in the book.

Tell us briefly why the location of UB's North Campus in Amherst matters so much to those within the UB community and those in the Buffalo community at large?

WG: There are many answers to that question, and we explore many of them in the book. Most simply put, we think that "the question" reflects a belief that UB is a very important public asset, a point of view with which we strongly agree. There's also a belief that if only the new campus had been located somewhere in downtown Buffalo, downtown Buffalo would have been "saved," and this point we think is, at best, debatable.

In particular, we think that the continual assertion that the Amherst location is a "mistake" can only be tested in light of the conditions and possibilities at the time the decision was made. As a minimum, we provide some graphic evidence of the alternatives available to the SUNY Trustees in 1964 and 1967 as well as narrative of the decision process, and the hopes and aspirations of the university and its constituents when the decision about the Amherst site was made by the SUNY Trustees.

Did the decision to build the North Campus in Amherst have anything to do with a desire to exile UB's students from downtown Buffalo?

WG: We don't think so. As far as we can tell, the SUNY Trustees never seriously considered a downtown/waterfront site for UB. Their choices were between a new campus in Amherst; an expanded campus at Main and Bailey; or split campuses, i.e. the old campus at Main and Bailey and a new campus in Amherst. We, too, have heard the rumors about some community leaders in 1964 wanting to isolate students, but we found no evidence for that proposition. The evidence does support the proposition that the choice of Amherst and the two-campus solution was based on careful and very deliberate academic planning led by UB President Clifford Furnas and which engaged UB faculty and staff, the UB Council, and the SUNY Central staff.

There's an interesting subplot with UB alumnus Frank Moore. How did he play a significant role in UB's transition from a private to a public university?

WG: A graduate of the UB Law School, Moore practiced law in Buffalo, held public office in Tonawanda and Kenmore, town clerk and mayor, and later as state comptroller and lieutenant governor. He was a close associate of Nelson Rockefeller. Moore was appointed to the SUNY Board of Trustees and Board Chairman by Gov. Harriman. Moore was one of several state officials and state civic leaders with Western New York roots when Governor Rockefeller set about expanding the fledgling State University of New York soon after he became governor in 1959.

Having a UB alumnus as chair of the SUNY Trustees during the build out of SUNY certainly may have been a positive factor in the choice of UB to become SUNY's major "upstate" university.

Here's the other urban legend: What about those lasting reports of influential land developers making money by getting the state to buy land in Amherst?

WG: In our opinion, no! My co-author Tom pored over the land records regarding the North Campus site acquisition. He found no evidence to support the frequently made claims of insider dealing involving these land purchases. About 72 percent of the parcels acquired were of three acres or less; 93 percent were of five acres or less. In terms of dollar values, 81 percent of the parcels sold for $30,000 or less; and all parcels sold at prices per acre well within the range of then-current prices for developable land in that part of Amherst. The acquired parcels were sold by many owners, none of whom had connections to UB or SUNY.

As with most of the rumors about the North Campus, the evidence doesn't support the allegation.

What prompted you to pick that topic and title focusing on UB's places rather than on your experiences as president?

WG: I arrived in summer 1967, and Tom Headrick in summer 1975. When I got here, not much was being said about the matter. We regularly heard the talk about the possibility that there might have been a "downtown" campus "on the waterfront" as an alternative to Amherst. Neither of us paid much attention at that time. We both were immersed in the building of an expanded Law School in our new North Campus location, O'Brian Hall. By that time, the wringing of hands over the decision to locate in Amherst had become a Buffalo habit, reinforced by lots of rumor and innuendo, including charges of insider dealing regarding the purchase and sale of the land assembled for the North Campus. While I was president and Tom was provost, we had other things to do, but we vowed to look into the matter when we went back to teaching.

Along the way, our research expanded into a broader view, i.e., not only how did we get to Amherst, but how did the South Campus get to Main and Bailey in Buffalo; and where were we before that? We think that we answer most of the questions regarding the North Campus selection.

We were helped by colleagues, here and elsewhere; by the writings of Clifford Furnas, and Julian Park, first dean of the college; and by our superb library staff, and especially the archives staff. We put together a capsule history of UB from 1846 to 1973. We pay special attention to the process of selecting and designing the North Campus, but there's more to it than that. And I should acknowledge two special contributors, E.J. Snyder and Steve Mindy, two very talented law students and indefatigable archival researchers.

Will UB's plans to expand its presence in Buffalo finally put to rest some of the myths and allegations surrounding the decision to build the North Campus in Amherst?

WG: Probably not. Old habits are very hard to break. The plans for expanding the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, however, rest on a much more solid footing. We have never had a true central place for our medical school's clinical practice and teaching. Our capacity for doing biomedical research will also be greatly enhanced by our partnership with Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute. The BNMC is one foundation for an exciting future for our region and for UB. Success in the years ahead will cure our tendency to focus on the past and its myths.

What would you tell someone about the book if you only had 60 seconds in a noisy room?

WG: It's a labor of love about a remarkable institution located in a great community. Its purpose is to see if the truth really can set us free.

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