The State University of New York system must achieve global academic recognition by first helping the state through tough economic times, its chancellor said Monday.
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher was at Herkimer County Community College on Monday, one of the final stops in her summer tour of all 64 SUNY campuses. The former University of Cincinnati president came to the job in February calling for SUNY to be a global model for academic research and excellence, particularly in the university centers at Buffalo, Binghamton, Stony Brook and Albany.
"Academics see themselves as citizens of the world. They seek national and international recognition for their work," Zimpher said. "But the greatest pathway to national and international recognition is to serve your state, and I just think that's an important way of thinking about our work."
Zimpher maintains that wider exposure is critical for the university system, which has about 440,000 students across all campuses. But as New York's recession has worsened, she has also emphasized that SUNY must help drive the state's economic recovery by creating jobs in research and innovation.
Even before the recession hit, New York was suffering from the drain of graduates leaving for better opportunities in other states.
That has hit hard at the area around the Herkimer campus in central New York, where rusted dams control the flow of water over remnants of the Erie Canal and shuttered factories line the streets of Mohawk River towns.
The economy and job opportunities were on the minds of several freshmen from nearby Fort Plain on moving-in day at the Herkimer campus.
"If I didn't come here I'd probably just work and just get by," said Stephanie Searles, 17, who wants to work in human resources. "I didn't want to live paycheck to paycheck."
"I'd probably end up working at McDonald's," said her friend Megan Trumbull, 18, a small business major.
"I'd probably be working with her," added Mallory Baum, 18. She plans to be a teacher.
Zimpher plans to present findings from her summer tour in a list of priorities to be made public Sept. 15. After that, she will seek ideas from faculty, staff, students, parents and other New Yorkers.
A plan for the future of the SUNY is scheduled to be released in the spring.
It will be a difficult task at a time when the state's fiscal crisis has kept funding flat. The United University Professions union says campuses are "budget starved," forcing staff cuts and freezes, larger classes and increased use of adjunct instructors.
SUNY costs about $15,000 a year in tuition, room, board and fees, and substantial increases in tuition have long been politically risky.
"These are tough times, and the last thing in the world we want to do is challenge the pocketbooks of our students and their families," Zimpher said in an interview. "That's a partnership we have with the state and all the elected officials I meet are just as committed to affordability as I am."
The sullen economy has led to "a surge in applications as more and more families look to send their children to SUNY as an affordable alternative," said Phillip Smith, president of the professors' union. "We can't afford to provide the next generation of New Yorkers with a less than top-notch higher education."
To advance her goal of boosting SUNY's stature, Zimpher also emphasized with faculty her plan to attract more students from out of state and from other countries. Those students pay significantly higher tuition.
Herkimer, which traditionally had a very local focus as part of the community college system, is already attracting those students.
Gregory Griffin, 18, of Dallas, is studying criminal justice and hopes to join the FBI. For him, college will provide a stable life, one where he can someday provide well for his children, he said.
Kazuyuki Matsunaga, a 21-year-old tourism major who came to the college from Japan, had another word for the promise of affordable higher education: "precious."