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Meet Lisa Vollendorf

Empire State University’s new President is energetic, motivated, and focused on tearing down the country’s insidious paper ceiling - one page at a time.

{From the 2024 Spring magazine}

Written By Megin Potter |  Photos PROVIDED

Barriers facing the 63% of Americans without a college degree are substantial. Despite possessing in-demand skills and experience, career advancement for these millions of workers is blocked because they lack a college degree. Simultaneously, institutions of higher education across the country are struggling to remain relevant, plagued by increasing operating costs and crippling debt. 

Empire State University’s responsive, high-quality, and affordable path to certificates, undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate degrees is the magic formula for change, said President Lisa Vollendorf, Ph.D.

“As the state’s only public online university, we are in the unique position to lead regionally and nationally, and deploy change in response to what’s needed,” she said.

Leaning In to the “Lost Generation” 

Lisa Vollendorf, an educator, author, and leader with more than 28 years of experience, was inaugurated as the new President of Empire State College, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) in 2022. 

Since then, the college has rebranded and is now known as Empire State University, the state’s first public online university. During the pandemic, the country saw millions of students switch to online learning. Today, many are staying the course. Ninety percent of students enrolled in the University are transfer students, and their average age is getting younger every year. For the Spring 2024 term, the University experienced a 25.3% increase in new student enrollment. 

“My favorite thing about the job is having the opportunity, every single day, to expand the impact higher education has for people who have historically been left behind,” said Lisa.

Unearthing Unheard Voices

Starting her career as a professor of Spanish, Lisa has worked at public universities in Ohio, Michigan, and California, where she spent more than 15 years in the Cal State system. She is passionate when discussing what she refers to as “a narrow and elitist mindset” in American higher education. 

“I believe education can be a driver for social mobility and speaks to the core of what public education can and should be in this country,” she said.

Before becoming enmeshed in the world of higher education, Lisa was captivated by the untold stories of women in Spain and Latin America during the 1500 – 1700s. Inspired by accomplished baroque author, Maria de Zaya, a noblewoman and pioneer in literary feminism, Lisa spent many long days at the National Archives deciphering manuscripts.  She unearthed these forgotten voices of antisemitism, gender violence, and exploitation in a series of published titles and said the experience gave her great insight into our collective history.

“Society changes but it doesn’t change very much. The lessons we can take away from it create empathy for other people’s stories and experiences. When we think deeply about their everyday suffering, it shapes our behavior,” she said.

Finding Her North Star

Today, Lisa says students are her “North Star.” Leaving their six koi fish out west to enjoy the warm weather, Lisa and her husband of 22 years, Dr. Scott Votey, moved to Saratoga in June 2022 (their son practices law in Manhattan).

“I love the sense of community, the track, and the cultural opportunities we have in Saratoga,” said Lisa. “I feel very thankful and honored to be President of the University and to live in a beautiful, welcoming, and vibrant community.”

Creating a Ripple Effect

Maintaining a flexible approach to student needs outside of the classroom is a lesson Lisa has carried over into her current role.

“Empire State University builds out holistic student supports (by not just offering academic advising) but also mentoring, coaching, tutoring, mental health, and basic needs support,” she said. 

By accepting up to 93 transfer credits, providing 63% of undergraduates with financial aid, awarding credit for prior learning and experience through Prior Learning Assessments (PLA), connecting students with community support services, and launching a new way to offer additional emergency funds, Empire State University students are achieving their goals, getting off the education turn-style, and moving on to new economic opportunities. 

“They come to Empire State University because they want to finish what they started. I identify very deeply with the student population here because they’re looking for an opportunity that meets their needs and I’ve sought opportunities in my own life,” said Lisa.

“I believe, whole-heartedly, higher education can be the number one force for good in our country,” she continued. “If I can help one more person get a college degree, I know they will be wealthier, healthier, live longer, and live a better life. That will have a ripple effect in the community.”