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September 25, 2008

Dr. David A. Heath, Inaugural Address

Inaugural Address
25 September 2008


Trustee Cox, Chancellor Clark, Assemblyman Gottfried, College Council Chair Stone, Distinguished Members of the Platform Party, Academic Delegates, Faculty, Staff, Students, Guests, Friends and Family; Welcome.  It is indeed an honor to have been selected to serve as the 3rd President of the State University of New York, State College of Optometry. 

I am grateful for your confidence and your support as we strive to enhance our programs and increase our impact as an academic institution.  I commit to you that our community - through dedication to our students, to education, to the pursuit of research and discovery, and to providing general and specialized vision care services - will serve the growing needs of the people of New York State and beyond.

I would like to take a moment to specifically thank the members of the Inauguration Committee who have worked long and hard to make today such a memorable experience, not only for me but for the entire SUNY College of Optometry family.  I would ask Ms. Ann Warwick, our V.P. of Institutional Advancement and the members of her inauguration committee to stand and be recognized.

I would also like to extend special thanks to all members of the College community for their warm welcome and the support they have provided to me and my wife Jeannine as we transitioned to being “New Yorkers”.


As I assumed the position of president well over a year ago, I have had a number of people ask me ‘Why have the inauguration now?’  And indeed, I have to acknowledge that as inaugural ceremonies go, the time between my appointment and this inauguration is perhaps a bit long.   But, it is my belief that such events should be less about an individual as president and much more about the communities that the president serves. This is the right time to talk about our collective vision for the future.  

Over the past year, the SUNY College of Optometry community has had the opportunity to assess, to reflect, to engage in broad (and generally civilized) dialogue and then to chart a course for the future of “OUR” institution.  Indeed, I am pleased to be able to share with you, that just yesterday afternoon our College Council, Chaired by Mrs. Stone, voted to endorse our new strategic plan, “A Shared Vision”.  In fact, you will find the College’s new Mission Statement included on the back of your program.


Before we look to the future, it is important - in light of the diverse representation at this gathering - to consider our past.  The SUNY College of Optometry, founded in 1971, is dedicated to the education of optometrists, to the advancement of eye and vision care through research and graduate education, and to the care of communities through the provision of comprehensive visual health services.  We are the only College of Optometry in New York State.

Our College is 37 years young, and during that time, was ably led by Dr. Alden N. Haffner, our founding president who serve twice for a total of 26 years, and Dr. Edward R. Johnston who served as president from 1978 to 1987.  The achievements of SUNY Optometry, in what is by any standard a brief period of time, are remarkable and both of these gentlemen deserve our gratitude for their service.  I would be remiss if I did not also extend a heartfelt thank you from the entire community to Dr. John Clark and Mr. David Bowers for their contributions guiding the College during the 18 months between Dr. Haffner’s retirement and my appointment as President.

As the faculty and staff have quickly learned, I am committed to planning and assessment, understanding the impact of our efforts, and sharing that information openly.  Shortly after my arrival, we conducted a “State of the College” assessment and the results show we have a strong and unique foundation from which to grow.  Let me share with you just few of our findings:

Our students are remarkable and a source of strength. Each year, we accept just 25% of the students who apply and have an 8:1 applicant to seat ratio.  The average entrance test scores of our incoming classes are among the highest in the country and the mean undergraduate grade point average of our entering students is over 3.50.

While fifty percent of our students are from New York State, the remainder, come from across the United States and Canada.  Our percentage of out-of-state students may well be among the highest in the SUNY system: We are, indeed, a national institution.

Our researchers in vision science are well known, highly productive individuals who publish seminal work and in spite of cutbacks in federal support for research and NIH, their innovative work continues to be supported.  With approximately $2.8 M annually in federal research support, we rank fourth among colleges of optometry nationwide.

Patient Care:
Our clinical care effort supports 70,000 patient visits a year at our College’s patient care facility on 42nd Street, while an additional 60,000 patients are seen by our faculty and students at affiliated sites located throughout the New York metropolitan area.  It is always a bit awe inspiring to consider the long-term impact of our pr
ograms and my best estimate is that we have provided for over 2.5 million patient visits since the College was established.  As important as numbers are, a particular point pride for us is our support for diverse and underserved communities within New York: Ours is a commitment to the public health.

It is quite clear that the SUNY College of Optometry is strong. Together, we are in the position to sculpt our future to lead in the advancement of eye and vision care for all people.


While our foundation is strong, our environment is demanding.  The challenges ahead are significant.  As many of us in this room know too well, the past couple of years have not been a cause for celebration in higher education or in health care.  Our nation’s and our state’s economic downturn has reduced support at both the federal and state levels for higher education, health care and research.  There is increasing regulation and an expanding number of unfunded mandates.  Against this backdrop of declining resources, there are increasing stresses upon our health care system.  Nationally, there are over 37 million people living below the poverty line and the number of uninsured remains high with approximately 46 million Americans living without health insurance.  While the latest numbers indicate a small decrease in the number of uninsured, the decrease is almost entirely attributable to increasing numbers of our citizens qualifying for Medicaid: Not a positive trend.

The demand for vision care is increasing and it will continue as the number of Americans over the age of 65 doubles over the next 20 years.  With an expected 71 million Americans to be over the age of 65 by the year 2030, the demand associated with age-related vision disorders will increase dramatically. 

On the other end of the age spectrum are our children.  An increasing recognition of the importance of vision care in young children and the implications of compromised visual function for a child’s educational and personal achievement are leading to states nationwide to adopt vision examination requirements as part of school-entry, health care standards.

For the young and the old, wealthy and poor, our profession serves 6,500 communities across this country and provides 70% of all eye care services in the United States.  In 3,500 of these communities, optometry is the only provider of eye care. 

Ladies and gentlemen, the need for the SUNY College of Optometry and indeed for all colleges of optometry nationally, to be proactive and to provide leadership for the future of health care education, research and eye care delivery has never been clearer. 

“A Shared Vision”

At this time last year, I established the Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Dr. Michael Heiberger and Dr. Catherine Pace-Watson.  The thematic focus of the strategic planning process was “Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders”. It was a community-wide effort, building upon our strengths and focusing on our impact relative to the future of vision care and the profession.  I would like to take the opportunity to ask Drs. Heiberger and Pace, along with the Strategic Planning Committee to stand and accept our thanks for their work.

The theme of Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders embraced the premise that the positions our graduates assume and the impact of they have on diverse communities as alumni is a core indicator of institutional effectiveness.  And, while the concept of impact applied to the essential abilities of our graduates as practitioners, it also required we look at the value-added elements of the SUNY Optometry experience.  It required that we look beyond the professional degree program and also examine graduate programs, residency education, specialty certification, health care business, the quality of our research efforts and the provision of advanced care to our patients.

The resulting plan, “A Shared Vision”, understands that today, optometry is a broad profession, with many career paths.  It supports the diverse interests of our students as they look to their futures.  It strives to increase the benefit of our work to the public.   I would like to share with you today a few specifics from “A Shared Vision”.


Educationally, we must remain focused on the long-term success of our students and the quality of their SUNY Optometry experience. While ensuring our Doctor of Optometry program reflects contemporary trends in health care education and patient care, the College of Optometry will be expanding what may be considered complementary or value-added educational opportunities.  This includes the expansion of dual-degree opportunities, recognizing that leadership positions in health care, research, industry and public health increasingly require more than the clinical credential.   Building upon our past leadership in post-graduate residency education, we are committing to an expansion of residency programs such that by 2013, at least 50% of our graduates will participate in residencies; a level of commitment unmatched nation-wide.  And, we are reforming our graduate research education programs, to insure our Ph.D. awardees emerge as successful and funded vision scientists.


It is often suggested that the hallmark of a great university is its excellence in research and dedication to intellectual inquiry and discovery.  As a leader in vision science research within the State University of New York, the College of Optometry is reaffirming its commitment to intellectual leadership.  Within the next five years, we expect to double our sponsored research activity and will establish a new Center for Clinical Research which will build upon the large and diverse patient population we now serve and encourage interdisciplinary collaborations between our basic science and clinical faculty.

[Patient Care] 

We are redoubling our commitment to providing vision care to the people of New York by increasing our delivery of eye care services from 70,000 to 85,000 visits per year.  This goal will be achieved by targeted expansion of specialty services and of care provided to under-served communities.  We will expand clinical services in areas of rehabilitation, geriatrics, special testing and imaging, and Head Trauma - the first unit of its kind in the country.

Our College’s location in mid-town Manhattan provides easy access to care for our thousands of patients.  We will capitalize on this strategic site to facilitate the expansion of clinical services and to collaborate with other medical centers, hospitals and universities in Manhattan to further advance optometry as an integrated partner within the city’s health care system. 

I am pleased to announce that over the next year, our clinical care unit, known as “The University Optometric Center”, will undergo a name change in support of our strategic objectives.  By July 1, 2009 the SUNY College Optometry’s clinical care unit will be doing business as the “University Eye Center”.

[International Optometry]

While SUNY Optometry provides valuable services to the people of New York, our vision for the future is not only local, or regional.  It is global.  As many of you know, the State University of New York system embraces its global obligation. Recently, SUNY campuses received national attention for welcoming 150 undergraduate students from the earthquake ravaged Sichuan province of China. 

And SUNY Optometry will be expanding its international commitment, as well.  Over the past year, we have begun this effort by establishing affiliations with two medical universities in China and with whom we are currently engaged in collaborative research.  Our fourth year students are participating in clinical rotations in China and we have submitted grant requests both here in the States and to the Chinese Government to support our efforts.  Over the next five years, we will formally establish an office for international programs, anticipate developing five formal affiliations worldwide, and set a goal of providing 30% of our students with international experience prior to graduation.

[Our Campus]

Critical to the success of our programs is our ability to provide our students with state of the art facilities that will support a dynamic academic health care community.  In this regard, I must commend the Chancellor and his staff, and the SUNY Board of Trustees for their advocacy for capital investment in our campuses.  In spite of significant cuts in the state operating budget for SUNY, there has been increased support for capital improvements.  SUNY Optometry has benefited, receiving funding this year, not only for needed critical maintenance, but for renovations in support of our strategic priorities, including the creation of a new Campus Center for Student Life and Learning.

[Our University]

In the recently published report of the New York State Commission on Higher Education, the Commission pointed to four cornerstones as the foundation for excellence in the 21st century:

  • Attracting world class research;
  • Connecting faculty, researchers and students to a world of ideas;
  • Developing a diverse workforce; and
  • Adapting quickly to change.

It will be critical in the years ahead that the SUNY College of Optometry embraces these constructs as institutional values and operational imperatives if we are to create a significant impact.  This is the promise and reward of a “A Shared Vision”.


In closing, I would like to share a brief story with you.  Last month, my wife Jeannine, my daughter Morgan and I had the opportunity to take an Alaskan Cruise.   It was a wonderful respite after my first year at SUNY and a chance for us to spend time together as a family, while taking in breath-taking scenery and experiencing the grandeur of the glaciers. 

Jeannine picked up a small booklet by Katherine Hocker on the Mendenhall Glacier as gift for her father. The booklet included the following description of the glacier, which seemed appropriate to our community:

“…spend time in its presence and you’ll hear its many voices.  The ice sizzles, groans, roars and crackles.  It’s rarely quiet, and never silent. …. At a quick glance, [the glacier] may seem just a pile of ice, enormous, but static.  It’s not.  It’s an incredibly dynamic force: noisy, changeable…and powerful enough to carve mountains.”

I remain struck by my good fortune to have been selected as the 3rd president to lead the SUNY State College of Optometry, a community and a “dynamic force” of intelligent, talented, and, yes, vocal (“…rarely quiet and never silent”) individuals.  I am very confident in our future.  I expect that we as a community will in fact “carve mountains” as we advance visual health through education, research and patient care.  As we do so, let’s have fun in the process.

My friends, I am honored by your confidence, I am appreciative of your support and I look forward to working together for many years to come.  Thank you all!