Article and Photos by Enid Bloch, Ph.D.
Editor of Jewish Muslim Friendship in WNY Magazine
As Air Force One approached the Buffalo airport on August 22, thousands of students, faculty, and staff of the State University of New York at Buffalo, along with members of the public, excitedly followed the plane’s progress on a large monitor suspended over Alumni Arena. Cheering as the plane landed, they watched President Barach Obama step down onto the tarmac and enter a large bus with blacked-out windows, for the relatively short ride to the University’s north campus. Soon enough, the President himself bounded into Alumni Arena, and the waiting crowd roared its greeting.
Obama recognized that his visit to UB was the first by a sitting US President since the administration of Millard Fillmore. He also noted that Fillmore had remained chancellor (i.e., president) of the University of Buffalo despite taking on the presidency of the nation. “Hmm, university president, now that sounds like a fun job,” Obama joked. “But I have enough on my plate.”
And indeed he does. At the very time he was speaking at UB, top officials in his administration were meeting to consider possible responses to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. (In brief moments during his talk, the President’s face seemed suddenly to turn grim, and an observer couldn’t help but wonder what sad realities were weighing on his mind.)
But the President never lost his focus on the initiatives he had come to the University to announce. Referring to the difficult American economy and steadily rising educational costs, he asserted his administration’s determination to ease the financial burdens on students and their families. “I know how hard it is to repay college loans,” the President commented. “Michelle and I were in our forties when we finally made the last payments on our own college and law school loans.”
The President outlined several measures to reduce student debt. Some will require Congressional action, he advised, but there are other steps he is prepared to take on his own. The audience cheered his promise of independent presidential action.
The President announced that he has tasked his Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, with developing a new method of ranking colleges and universities according to their ability to lower costs while sustaining high educational value. Institutions which successfully take on this dual challenge will be rewarded with a greater share of governmental funding.
Less than an hour later it was time for the President to return to Air Force One and head for his next stop, SyracuseUniversity, and after that, the State University of New York at Binghamton. But before leaving UB’s packed Alumni Arena, he plunged into the crowd, happily shaking hands and even fulfilling that old and venerable American political tradition — kissing a baby!