For Clarkson President Anthony G. Collins, leveraging innovation key to economic growth
Thirty years ago, Anthony G. Collins — then a 32-year-old Australian with little knowledge of the north country — arrived in Potsdam to begin work as an engineering professor at Clarkson University. In 2003, Mr. Collins ascended to the university’s presidency, becoming only the third person in Clarkson’s history selected for the post from inside its ranks. We sat down with Mr. Collins and talked about Clarkson’s successes and its future.
NNYB: In 1982 you came to Potsdam, you haven’t left. What’s kept you here?
COLLINS: The attractiveness to live and work. It has so many elements for success and once you see that, it’s hard to turn away from the challenge of being able to make a difference. I would say what has kept us here is the opportunity to make a difference in the region. It has all of the elements. To some extent the region lacked some directional leadership to help make the change.
NNYB: Being from Melbourne, did you ever expect you’d spend your professional career in upstate New York?
COLLINS: The story is better told through my wife’s perspective. My wife married me, expecting to move to Australia, instead we moved to Potsdam, N.Y. We’ve simply enjoyed it; it’s a great place to raise a family. Every day I see people that have been born and raised here that don’t realize the asset they have here. From the human assets to the natural assets. It’s almost a region waiting to be discovered. Therein lies the opportunity and threat. The opportunity is to develop it in a comfortable, sustainable way. The threat is that development can be a little chaotic and you can lose the advantages that we do have. The government’s regional economic development approach is ideal for this region. If you talk to a lot of people, our plan is one people can endorse. There was a lot of built up and enthusiasm here that naturally carries through.
NNYB: How did your experiences growing up on a different continent shape your career here?
COLLINS: Born and raised in Melbourne, I earned a bachelor’s degree and started working and wanted to travel the world, like many young Australians do. I thought about getting a master’s degree at Lehigh University. I traveled for a year or so until they offered me a financial aid package and I decided to go to graduate school two weeks after getting the offer. The rest is history. Lehigh and Clarkson have a lot in common, so I had an affinity for Clarkson. When I was growing up, the population in Melbourne was 10 million people. Here, there is a small population base and number of students, but they have a disproportionate impact on the world. That combination of similar factors was kind of a driving force for me to come here.
NNYB: What has driven you to spend most of your career in Potsdam and at Clarkson?
COLLINS: There is a strong tradition of engineering in my family and my wife is in information technology. A lot of what drives me and the direction of the institution is recognition that, frankly, there are not a lot of professional opportunities in the north country for families to retain their children in the region. Our oldest child works in Philadelphia, our next works in Manhattan, our next in Syracuse and our fourth is about to move to Cincinnati. That story is often repeated across the north country. The conclusion of that is that as a region we need to work hard to develop and grow enterprises here that give our future generation economic opportunities in the region. We see a huge interest in people to return here but there has to be opportunities for people to return to. Given the nature of Clarkson, its technical direction and the success of our records, we can do that.
NNYB: Next year marks 10 years as president, when did that moment happen in your career when you look back at what you’ve achieved?
COLLINS: I’ve never had a moment. Whether 30 years here at Clarkson or my 10 years as president, I am very much a ‘what are you going to do for me tomorrow’ person. I’m not a ‘what have you done for me,’ ‘what have you done for me lately,’ person. To me, it’s the experience that allows you to tackle tomorrow or the next day. I don’t look at what was accomplished; I work on a day-to-day basis.
NNYB: Going back and looking at when you were inaugurated as president, you are only the third home grown leader that came up through the ranks at the university. Why is that so rare?
COLLINS: Universities usually take the opportunity to reinvigorate or update their direction with new presidents. It was unusual and remains unusual to be hired from within. But you can bring in people and attract people like that with experience. That is critical to exposure to outside influences. I am very excited with our most recent hire, [Charles E. Thorpe,] as senior vice president. He brings a global spirit and he comes from the premiere world of robotics. That’s the risk of hiring someone from within like me. You can look at my record but in general it is unusual to hire from within.
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