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June 28, 2008

 

Heading home

Retiring SUNY Cortland provost will help rebuild college in her native Liberia

Heading Home

Bob Ellis/staff photographer      
Elizabeth Davis-Russell, provost and vice president of academic affairs at SUNY Cortland is leaving the college to work in Africa. 

By IDA M. PEASE
Staff Reporter
ipease@cortlandstandard.net

Elizabeth Davis-Russell, the SUNY Cortland provost and vice president for academic affairs since 2001, retires Monday, but will be back to work in six weeks as president of Tubman College of Technology in her native Liberia, Africa.
The Liberian college is located in her hometown of Harper, where she was born and spent the first 14 years of her life.
SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum remarked that she will have the “quickest retirement” he knows of from the college.
SUNY Cortland selected Mark Prus, the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, to replace Davis-Russell as provost and vice president for academic affairs on July 1 at a salary of $146,000. Davis-Russell earns $155,569, said Pete Koryzno, director of public relations at the college.
She will earn the designation of provost and vice president emerita for academic affairs and professor emerita of psychology at SUNY Cortland.
Davis-Russell, who is 65, said her move to Liberia is not a career move for her, but rather “a commitment to give back to my country.”
Davis-Russell said she had not been planning to return to her homeland, but she and her husband, Thomas Russell, a school administrator, had planned to offer some sort of assistance.
She received the offer of the presidency to help in the reconstruction of Liberia’s higher education system after announcing her retirement from the college.
She said the reconstruction is necessary after 14 years of civil war, ending in 2003, which destroyed the college.
“There are no roofs, no windows — just shells,” she said of the buildings there.
Davis-Russell said the University of Liberia is the only other public college in Liberia and it is at capacity with 17,000 students.
“I think it’s so powerful when you go and see what is needed — it’s hard not to be touched,” said Davis-Russell, who went with a team from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in spring 2007 to view the destruction.
The William Tubman College Foundation has been set up in Fresno, Calif., to help raise $10 million to rebuild and equip the Tubman College and for scholarships and an endowment.
Davis-Russell said the rebuilding also includes an expansion to a regional university that will provide more than just engineering majors. Education is one new major planned. She said the new president of the country, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is mandating free and compulsory primary and secondary education so preparing teachers is important.
Davis-Russell said SUNY Cortland’s mission “to educate and train students to make a difference” attracted her to the college in 2001 and that was the reason she turned to the educational field.
Before coming to Cortland, she was an associate president and psychology professor at Alliant University in California. Davis-Russell also served in administrative roles there, including dean of academic and professional affairs at the Fresno campus. She had entered the field of psychology to make a difference in people’s lives, she said.
She said she liked the initiatives and leadership of then President Judson Taylor, in particular his emphasis on academic excellence and making SUNY Cortland more diverse.
“Elizabeth has been a splendid provost,” Bitterbaum said. “She was truly a visionary for our college.”
During her tenure at SUNY Cortland, Davis-Russell said her top accomplishments were raising academic performance with a focus on students becoming better writers and participating in civic projects. Along the way several new programs and initiatives were developed, including sport management and international sport management, community health and teaching English education to speakers of other languages.
As part of program development, Davis-Russell said she worked with the campus to restructure academic units to form the School of Education from the Education Department and then create departments within the school, such as literacy.
Master’s programs have also been expanded to maximize the number of students at this level. Davis-Russell said the college set a goal of 20 percent of the student population being in a master’s program by 2010. “We’re not there yet,” she said.
“She had a deep impact on the campus, and she will be missed for many years to come,” Bitterbaum said.
“We can’t afford to educate students without educating them about the world,” she said.
Another of her goals was to give SUNY Cortland students a broader world view, as she had learned studying in several countries, including the United States.
“We can’t afford to educate students without educating them about the world,” she said.
Davis-Russell said had it not been for her husband working in California, she would have continued working at SUNY Cortland longer. Her new position prompted him to retire this June, too, so both will travel to Liberia together.
“He is going to go and help me,” she said.
They have two grown children, Allison and Scott, who have never been to Liberia, but she hopes they will visit.
The retiring provost said she did not know how long she would stay in Liberia, but said she wants to see at least one class graduate. Right now the college is closed.
“It’s like giving birth to something … you want to see it through.”

 

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