Forging a Path to Leadership: Dr. Havidan Rodríguez

Story By: Kristian Jaime

When asked to reflect on a career that has led him to become president of the University at Albany (UAlbany)— and the first Latino president of a four-year State University of New York (SUNY) campus—Dr. Havidán Rodríguez says it was far from an easy or direct path.

 Dr. Havidán Rodrígruez - President, University at Albany ( @HavidanUAlbany)

Dr. Havidán Rodrígruez - President, University at Albany (@HavidanUAlbany)

Rodríguez, born in Puerto Rico, is one of three children who grew up with a single mother. At about age five, his family moved to the Bronx, making several trips back to the island territory. Having moved back to Puerto Rico for part of middle school and high school, his guidance counselor suggested he should take auto mechanics. Although he did receive a high school degree with a specialization in auto mechanics, young Havidán knew he wanted to go in a different direction.

“In many poor communities where the goal is to move out of poverty, young people (and their families) want a job traditionally associated with high incomes,” says Rodríguez. “For me, that meant becoming a medical doctor, but I lacked many of the prerequisite classes. So when I joined the Air Force, I became an Emergency Medical Technician.” However, he quickly learned that treating emergency room cases was far from his desired path.

While serving in the Air Force, Rodríguez was able to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology through a distance-learning program based at the University of Maryland, becoming the first in his immediate family to graduate from college.

During his undergraduate program, he connected with Pat Donavan, a sociology professor who would became a mentor. Donovan encouraged Rodríguez to pursue a master’s degree, which he followed with a doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Prior to arriving at UAlbany, Rodríguez served as provost at The University of Texas-Pan American. Along with the numerous duties of the post, he was also tasked with consolidating that campus with The University of Texas-Brownsville to form a new public research university: The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). Rodríguez, who became UTRGV’s Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, says the consolidation—which also included standing up a school of medicine—was the most significant challenge of his career thus far. However, he says it was also extremely rewarding.

Across Rodríguez’s education and career, he has had a front-row seat to Latino/as’ increased degree attainment and career success. But he is quick to note that more progress is urgently needed.

“We need Latino/as to establish greater participation in nearly every profession,” Rodríguez says. “For example, we need more senior administrators in institutions of higher education, where they can also serve as role models for students.”

According to Rodríguez, Latino/as are particularly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 8.6 million jobs nationally were STEM-related just three years ago. Because the vast majority of STEM occupations have wages above the national average, it is critical that Latino/a students be positioned for these high-paying jobs.

However, as Rodríguez acknowledges, to make progress in increasing the representation of Latino/as in STEM fields, and all professions, the challenge for leaders in higher education is to improve access and success for Latino/as and other minorities. This is an area where UAlbany has been highly successful; the university boasts one of the highest minority student retention and graduation rates in the SUNY system, and has been recognized nationwide for the academic success of Latino/a students.

Furthermore, with 38 percent of its undergraduate students identifying as minorities, UAlbany is among the most diverse research universities in the nation. This is a significant point of pride and distinction for the campus, and also a responsibility that Rodríguez takes very seriously.

“I have a President’s Diversity Council that takes a comprehensive look at diversity and recruitment practices,” Rodríguez says. “This also includes a focus on attracting and recruiting minority faculty and staff, an area where we need to make significant progress. In addition, “Diversity and Inclusion” has been identified as one of five core institutional priorities, which will drive the university’s strategic plan and work for the next five years. At the SUNY system level, the Chancellor’s Task Force on Diversity also focuses on outreach and developing an inclusive climate at all SUNY campuses.

In addition to leveraging Rodríguez’ leadership on diversity, SUNY has also tapped his expertise in the area of disasters. When Chancellor Kristina Johnson established a system-wide task force to focus on disaster recovery and relief in Puerto Rico, she appointed Rodríguez to serve as co-chair of this group. The major areas the Task Force will be focusing on include education and health, along with disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

During a recent trip to Puerto Rico, Rodríguez and a small team met with multiple stakeholders and partners on the island, including institutions that form part of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) system, such as the UPR-Mayagüez and UPR-Cayey, as well as the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico.

“Over one-third of the island population is still without electricity. So this is a major challenge” says Rodríguez. “I am proud that New York has been highly responsive to the hurricane that impacted Puerto Rico. Governor Cuomo has sent professionals to the island ranging from healthcare to those with expertise in repairing infrastructure; the state of New York has provided extensive support to the people of Puerto Rico.”

With no shortage of items on his to-do list— including building and enhancing UAlbany’s research enterprise, diversity, international visibility, and public engagement—Rodríguez says the key is to keep the right focus.

“At the end of the day, everything we do is about our students. We want to support them to become successful and engaged global citizens who will go into the world and make transformational changes. Our success will be measured by their success.”