On the Go with Graduate Education
Garth Foster was on a small charter plane headed to Poughkeepsie, New York, to teach a class to IBM employees, when fire broke out in the plane’s heating system and smoke began to fill the cabin. The plane quickly landed—its doors and windows were opened to air out the smoke, and the problem was fixed. Foster climbed back aboard, wondering just for a moment why he was doing so, but his commitment to off-campus learning never waivered.
Now a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering, Foster was one of a massive group of professors who took part in one of the most unique undertakings in the 100-year history of the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS).
From the early '50s to the early '90s, ECS professors traveled to off-campus education centers in a variety of regional industries, providing graduate education for engineers in a number of disciplines. Like Foster, ECS’s commitment to off-campus learning was unquestionable no matter how difficult the circumstances. “It was an interesting situation because you were working with some of the brightest and best students imaginable, but it was a lot of effort to get to those students,” Foster says. “Most of these engineers were recent college graduates who had been working in their field with the most up-to-date technology and wanted to earn master’s degrees to keep moving forward in their work. They weren’t just going to school, but also working 40 hours a week, and many of them had families. They were serious about their studies and worked hard.”
In 1953, IBM approached a number of New York State schools to see if their engineering faculty members would travel to the IBM plant in Endicott to teach master’s degree-level courses. SU was the only school that accepted the offer, modifying its charter with New York State to create Extension Centers for Graduate Education. In Endicott, SU offered instruction in mathematics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and engineering administration. The program was immediately successful, and IBM extended the contract with SU a year later to establish a center at its main facility in Poughkeepsie. Eventually IBM added centers at its plants in Kingston, Owego, and Fishkill.
While the off-campus affiliations with IBM served the most students by far, SU began other affiliations at the same time. In Endicott, the University created an off-campus center in association with Link Aviation. In Johnson City, SU educated GE employees in the area. The most significant center not affiliated with IBM, though, was one established with the Rome (New York) Air Development Center, now the Air Force Research Laboratory at Rome. Bradley Strait ‘58, G’60, G’65, a member of the engineering college for nearly the entire period of off-campus centers, believes the affiliations were unique to SU. “I’ve been in education a long time, and these relationships were unmatched by any other school I’ve come in contact with,” Strait says. “Both sides benefited from the collaboration, because the businesses got highly skilled workers and the engineering college got to expand its faculty and take part in leading research. It was a helluva run.”
At the peak of the affiliation with IBM, SU professors taught 22 graduate sessions a semester in Poughkeepsie and another 14 to 16 sessions in Endicott. Foster estimates that near the end of the affiliations in the 1980s, SU granted about 150 degrees in electrical engineering and 150 degrees in computer engineering each year to students who never set foot on the SU campus until they received their degrees at Commencement. “By the late '80s, when IBM recruiters came to campus looking for students who were finishing their undergraduate work, they would print out a list of employees who had graduated from each school they were visiting,” Foster says. “There were many more graduates from SU working for them than from any other school in the world, and they were the world leaders in computer technology.”
Because of economic pressures, IBM was forced to close its off-campus centers by 1990 and a fascinating era in the history of the engineering college came to a close.
Nicholas Donofrio, senior vice president of technology and manufacturing at IBM, earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Poughkeepsie off-campus center in 1971. Donofrio, who joined IBM in 1967 as a designer of semiconductor logic and memory circuits and chips, currently leads IBM’s technology strategy, which includes research, global procurement, integrated supply chain, product development, and environmental affairs.
He began attending classes at the off-campus center just months after being hired, despite conflicting feelings about graduate school. “After earning my bachelor’s degree I was bound and determined to go to work instead of graduate school,” Donofrio says. “I was young and wanted to get married, have a family, and be successful. But I also knew I wanted to further my education, and the SU extension program was perfect for me.”
Donofrio’s hesitation was quickly erased once he began working with SU professors who he felt were “incredible, very competent, warm, and friendly.” He believes the off-campus centers were effective because they offered coursework that was on the leading edge of technology, and the subject matter was relevant to the students’ daily work. Donofrio was a circuit designer at the infancy of monolithic circuitry, and worked with professors who specialized in the field he was helping to create.
Although he had only been to SU’s Main Campus twice before receiving his degree in 1971, Donofrio now has strong feelings for SU and has ventured to campus to talk with students, staff, and faculty. “I have nothing but good feelings about SU and the education I received at the extension center,” Donofrio says. “It was a big help in shaping my career.”