By Creso Sá

Last week Alain Kaloyeros resigned from the presidency of the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Polytechnic Institute in Albany, following charges of multiple felony counts in state and federal courts as part of a corruption investigation.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-1-55-07-pmKaloyeros, the university president who has been regarded as the “single most powerful force in the Capital Region’s high-tech economy over the past two decades”, is accused of rigging university contracts to favor selected firms.

The downfall of Kaloyeros is a dramatic development for SUNY’s nanotechnology agenda in New York. His high profile in the state and personality were fodder for the media, which often reported on his Ferrari-driving and million-dollar salary.

The university itself was exhortatory; a portrayal titled “Alain Kaloyeros: A New Breed of Scholar” (removed from the website since the charges were announced), described him as “a new breed of 21st century academician: a professor and researcher who not only embraces but delights in the role of entrepreneur.” Three years ago, one long-form profile in the Buffalo News asked “Can Buffalo find a guy like Alain Kaloyeros?”

The tenor and topic of reporting have changed since last year, when news surfaced of a federal inquiry into SUNY Poly’s contracts, including Kaloyeros’ role in them. How did he become such a powerful influence at the university and in the state? And what does his fall mean to SUNY’s role in the promotion of nanotechnology in New York?

A Mover and Shaker with a University-Led Nanotechnology Agenda in Albany

As I described in a 2011 paper, Kaloyeros emerged as the leader of a nanotechnology research and development (R&D) complex on the SUNY-Albany campus in the 1990s. Nanotechnology was quickly becoming the next big thing – the federal government would launch the multi-billion-dollar National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000, ensuring that every university created research centres in the field. Initially dubbed Albany Nanotech, this corner of the University at Albany campus became a real estate development for sophisticated Nano-fabrication facilities that were used to lure industry partners.

Kaloyeros presented a compelling vision for this venture that resonated with the thinking around technology-based economic development. Albany exemplifies American rust-belt industrial decline, and Kaloyeros promised to revitalize the capital region by creating a nanotechnology cluster, anchoring local firms such as IBM and attracting new ones.

Albany Nanotech would bring together industrial scientists to work side-by-side with university faculty, which would stimulate collaboration and knowledge exchange. To do so, specialized facilities with industry grade specifications were required, which the state of New York was willing to fund. Attracting the R&D labs and high paying jobs of the industry partners provided a compelling justification for the investments. Albany Nanotech was not a university research institute begging for more research money: it presented itself as a force for economic development in the Albany region.

To establish its academic legitimacy, a school of nanotechnology was created at the turn of the century, which became the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) in 2004. Kaloyeros’ profile – and power – increased, becoming a dean and vice-president for economic development.

CNSE has never been a conventional academic unit. Most R&D funding has come from industry sources, something the college proudly advertises. Its internal organization has remained flat, avoiding the usual departmental structure.

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This basic formula worked well for over a decade. CNSE was quite successful in establishing industry partnerships and bringing corporate labs and consortia to campus. It was equally successful in ensuring continuing investments from the State of New York to expand research facilities, and to provide matching funds in bids to recruit industry R&D facilities to Albany. In 2008, Kaloyeros gained an unprecedented level of autonomy for a dean from the SUNY Board, with:

full administrative, academic, and fiscal authority over CNSE’s internal management and operations, and those pertaining to the mission of CNSE as a state-wide educational, research, and economic outreach resource–said obligations, duties, and responsibilities being fully comparable and equal to the authority exercised by a SUNY President in the administration of an assigned campus

CNSE merged with the SUNY Institute of Technology to become SUNY Poly in 2014, and Kaloyeros was appointed its president soon after. This would seem to represent the pinnacle in institutional empire building for Kaloyeros. Yet, less than a year later, first reports started to surface about the federal investigation, and the governor stripped the autonomy of SUNY Poly to oversee economic development projects.

What now for SUNY Poly?

The story of Kaloyeros illustrates the power that accrues to those who are able to secure high levels of external support, visibility, and funding to resource-starved, politically contested public universities in the US. His championing of nanotech seemed to represent all things modern and cutting edge. It pleased the university, the state government, and corporate partners. For that he was well compensated and rewarded institutionally with an ascendant leadership career.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-10-24-31-amThe latest development in Kaloyeros’ saga, however it unfolds, is likely to cast a shadow over SUNY Poly’s role in the state politics of technology-based economic development. At a minimum, a much higher level of scrutiny will follow the boastful announcements of corporate investments and jobs created.

More substantively, the generous flow of state grants and contracts to the campus, which has been a constant over many years and governors, may at least temporarily be halted. What had long been a crown jewel for state political leaders, an on-going source of credit claiming, suddenly became tarnished by an unpleasant association.

As much as SUNY will try to dissociate from Kaloyeros – the Poly provost has been made interim president until the appointment of a new president – questions may be asked about whether the SUNY did enough to provide oversight of Poly’s operation. And moving forward, the university will have a tall order: restoring the credibility of its nanotechnology agenda, and proving that CNSE’s model of academic-industry collaboration can continue without its charismatic leader.

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