Not by legacy but by growth, Casamento reflects on presidential tenure

President Laura Casamento answers questions from Tangerine News Editor Mickale Thompson in a recent interview. Casamento will retire as president of Utica University at the end of the semester.

Leola Beck

President Laura Casamento answers questions from Tangerine News Editor Mickale Thompson in a recent interview. Casamento will retire as president of Utica University at the end of the semester.

Mickale Thompson, News Editor

The dome collapse in 2017 was the first of several challenges that March would have instituted for President Laura Casmemto

The 2018 lockdown followed shortly and five years later, Casamento still calls it “the worst week in her professional career.” Yet during a global pandemic that forced Utica University to shut down, she learned one thing in her presidency–how to adapt.

“You can’t panic,” Casamento said. “You have to do your very best in those situations and keep a clear head and focus on the task ahead of you.” 

As the Mohawk Valley’s first female bank president, Casamento knew a thing or two about breaking barriers when she became the 9th and first female president of Utica University in 2016. That itself was unimaginable growth for her that would rub off on Utica throughout her presidency.  

She joined the university, then Utica College, in 2004 as vice president for institutional advancement and later became the vice president and chief advancement officer. 

Casamento never stood still. Building on the work of her predecessors, she took growth a step further when Utica achieved university status on Feb. 17, 2022, after years of work and conversations.

“There were times we really thought it wasn’t going to happen along the way in those 19 years,” Casamento said. “I’m really glad it happened while I was president. I would’ve loved to have it happen even sooner but when it did happen I have to say we were ready to go.” 

Succeeding former President Todd Hutton, the longest-serving president in the school’s history, left big shoes to fill. 

In her seven-year tenure, the institution made additional strides in the capital campaign investing $21 million in capital improvement throughout the university. 

The new Construction Management building, Francis Wilcox Intercultural and Student Organization Center, the science building and raising six-year graduation rates by 40% were a few of many enhancements that took place under Casamento’s leadership, which in her eyes has increased the value of the institution. 

“Our campus here [in] Utica is like the crown jewel,” Casamento said. “You have to have a meaningful experience and having nice facilities and keeping up with physical plans is so important [because] it’s not just for the students who go here [but] for the students that will come here.”

With all that was accomplished for the strategic plan the most gratifying one for her was the tuition reset, an initiative she co-led during the Hutton administration. The reset reduced the average student debt by 30% and in her eyes was one of the institution’s biggest accomplishments.

“It took most students out of the private loan market where interest rates are just ridiculous,” Casamemto said. “If you’re paying a student loan and most of your payments is going to interest, it’s just this endless sea and that’s just not what you want for yourself, your family and as a university.” 

The journey had its silver linings, but was never without criticism. 

In those tough days, Casamento learned to stand behind her decisions but leaned on the support system of family making sure to carve out Friday nights for her husband and Sundays for family dinners.

“That really keeps you grounded and then you understand what your purpose is in life,” Casamento said. “Being able to bounce those things off your family and some very good friends, that’s what gets you through.”

The decision to retire was made last summer. After coming out of a pandemic and with a new strategic plan around the corner, it was time for a transition and a change in leadership.  

However, she will miss the students the most. In an era of disruption and great change, Casamento wishes she was leaving in a time of greater stability, but wants to be judged not by legacy, but by having known she tried her best.

“I’m not a legacy person. I just want people to know that I did my best,” Casamento said. “[I] came in every day and did my best and that’s it. I don’t look for anything else than that.”

The extended interview will be shared on The Tangerine website in the coming days. A video of the interview will also be available on YouTube. The Tangerine would like to thank UticaTV, specifically Laura Lewin, Leola Beck and Jeff Kopek, for recording and editing the interview.