2013 APLU Annual Meeting

2013 Association of Public and Land Grant Universities Annual Meeting

Opening General Session: Transforming Higher Education

November 10, 2013

Keynote Remarks by Nancy L. Zimpher, State University of New York Chancellor


Thank you, President Wallace Loh, for that kind introduction and for leading us in this session.It is a pleasure to be here among friends and colleagues to share our ideas and experiences that are transforming higher education across the country.

And thank you, Mitch Daniels, for your thoughts so far. You have given us a great starting point for today’s discussion.

It is an honor to be asked to speak at this convening, and Peter McPherson and his APLU team, especially Jean Middleton, should be commended for all their hard work on an event that I know will be a huge success.

And Sally Mason, as the Board Chair of APLU, your leadership and guidance along with your fellow board members is the driving force behind the important work this organization is moving forward.

Now let’s see if I can pack almost 40 years of higher education engagement into 15 minutes of advice.

I still think Tom Friedman got it absolutely right when he opined:

In a world where the biggest returns go to those who imagine and design a product, there is no higher imagination-enabling society than America.

In a world where talent is the most important competitive advantage, there is no country that historically welcomed talented immigrants more than America.

In a world in which protection for intellectual property and secure capital markets is highly prized by innovators and investors alike, there is no country safer than America.

In a world in which the returns on innovation are staggering, our government funding of bioscience, new technology and clean energy is a great advantage.

In a world where logistics will be the source of a huge number of middle-class jobs, we have FedEx and U.P.S.

If only—if only—we would come together on an a national strategy to enhance and expand all our natural advantages: more immigration, more post-secondary education, better infrastructure, more government research, smart incentives for spurring millions of start-ups—and a long-term plan to really fix our long-term debt problems—nobody could touch us. We’re that close.

We are that close to being the America that Friedman challenges us to be, and most would agree: higher education – and especially public higher education – has been the driving force behind our development as a world leader.

When the industrial revolution was sweeping the nation and the economy needed to be rebuilt … it was higher education that drove reform through the Land Grant Act.

When we needed an advantage to win two world wars, higher education developed ROTC, radar, and superior weaponry and military strategy.

When the economy plummeted into depression, the nation’s colleges and universities lifted it up.

And when Russia beat us into space, it was investment in higher education through the NSF and NDEA that allowed us to retake and retain our leadership of innovation.

Now, in this flat world era, it is us – higher education – that can reclaim America’s competitive edge … if we can just get our collective act together.

No question, the contemporary challenges in the early decades of the 21st century are what headlines are made of: steeply declining state appropriations, wavering federal investment in research, an aging physical plant, upward pressure on tuition, and alternative instructional delivery systems demanded by a new generation of digital natives.

Today and repeatedly, we have heard President Obama’s call for reduced college cost, increased productivity in all that we do, greater innovation, and a stronger commitment to degree completion for college students and adult workers. And we agree - this “iron triangle” of challenges must be bent in the direction of bringing down our administrative and operational costs so that more of our funds can be invested in student services: shorter time to degree, increased availability of required courses, and more focused advice on navigating offerings in-residence, on-line, or next door.

We must, in short, ‘get down to the business’ of making our sector more nimble, more accessible, more transparent and yes, more efficient. Critics condemn this efficiency mentality as an attribute of business, one not appropriate for higher learning. But Jim Collins says it best: “We must reject,” he says, “the idea—well-intentioned, but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in the social sector is to become ‘more like a business.’ Most businesses—like most of anything else in life---…have a desperate need for discipline…disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined actions….A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.”

Higher education has historically embraced this principle; to think and act in a strictly disciplined manner. In fact, it is this way of thinking – and of doing business – that should shape the land grant university of the 21st century.

But our greatest gifts to this society remain in improving the quality of life among all citizens, increasing access and the distribution of a standard of living that closes, once and for all, the immense poverty divide in this country, and ensuring that the best and brightest ideas get translated into a better economy and a better life for people in America and around the world.

In reviewing the strategic visions posted on our websites, we do not lack ambition. We can see Jim Collins’s Big Hairy Audacious Goals peppered throughout the aspirations of every campus represented here today. We pride ourselves in not only the familiar higher ed motto - “to learn, to search, to serve” - but on those far-reaching promises we make to solve the world’s greatest problems and to address those societal issues that ultimately distinguish a flourishing democracy from countries riddled with poverty, illiteracy, and social unrest. That is exactly the character and climate of the 1860s that undoubtedly drove Lincoln to advocate for the Morrill Act. And it characterizes, even today, this dilemma:

If we are the most preeminent higher education system in the world, producing more knowledge and innovation, and educating more of our population than institutions in other countries, sought after by parents and students from literally all around the globe, why is America still facing so many seemingly daunting and unsolvable problems? In short, what is the relationship between our magnificence and the problems of the world in which we live?

One must ask: how can American higher education put its imprint on the most challenging problems of our day? Perhaps a page from SUNY’s playbook would help characterize the magnitude of our collective opportunity, should APLU decide to take the lead in delivering change at scale.



As David Leonhardt implores: “More educated people are healthier, live longer and, of course, make more money. Countries that educate more of their citizens tend to grow faster than similar countries that do not. Education—educating more people and educating them better - appears to be the best single bet a society can make.”

And lest you think this is not higher education’s problem to solve, I remind you that we prepare the teachers who teach the students who come to our campuses underprepared for college and career. This is exactly what our completion agenda is all about; for all students, and especially for more STEM students - so SUNY is launching community-based efforts to ensure a quality educational experience for every child.

This pipeline approach also answers the evolving way that today’s college students move through our system – enrolling in several colleges at the same time, transferring from 4-to-2-year and 2-to-4-year campuses, seeking digital course alternatives – so SUNY has become 100 percent transferable. Credits earned at any SUNY campus are now accepted everywhere within SUNY, without exception … Could APLU create an alliance with existing cradle-to-career networks to seal, once and for all, the leaks in the education pipeline, literally across the country?



SUNY’s online environment was created by the strategic and tactical decisions of our 64 individual college campuses, has moved along with various central supports over the years, and has already yielded 150 online degree programs. But our system, frankly, is out-dated and lacks the full capacity to meet the needs of modern-day college students.

So at the turn of the year, we will launch Open SUNY, taking every online course we offer at every SUNY campus – now upwards of 12,000 courses – and making them available to every SUNY student, anywhere, anytime. Meaning students won’t be shut out of classes they need to graduate, speeding completion, and cutting costs to students and campuses … Could APLU create universal online enrollment, literally across the country?



Aided by our commitment to discipline, SUNY has redefined what it means to be efficient. Procurement contracts have started being issued for several campuses as one … tutoring programs are now offered regionally, rather than by campus … even high-level administrative positions such as Chief Financial Officer are being shared by neighboring SUNY campuses. We tried shared presidencies, too; an idea truly not ready for its time! But the savings we have achieved – with a total annual goal of $100 million – are being reinvested in our students as we ask them to invest more in us … Could APLU create a national system of efficiency savings?



SUNY has partnered with state departments of labor and economic development to better align the degrees and programs we offer with the jobs and training needed in the local workforce, resulting in more of our graduates competing for more of New York’s jobs.

To this end, we are taking co-operative education and internships to scale across our system and letting employers actively shape their own workforce for the future. Data tells us that not only are a vast majority of co-op students employed immediately upon graduation, they start at higher salaries and often stay to live and work in New York … Could APLU Create an employment switching station that links current students and graduates to the global workforce, literally across the country?



SUNY’s massive research portfolio has solidified our partnership with Governor Andrew Cuomo, positioning our campuses to serve as innovation hubs, hotspots, incubators, and newly formed networks of excellence, where student scientists and faculty researchers across campuses – and across public-private sectors – can co-invent new knowledge and devices. Further, Governor Cuomo’s STARTUP-NY initiative offers 10 years of tax-free development on or adjacent to our campuses to companies that bring net new jobs to New York … Could APLU create an innovation ecosystem, linking our incredible public research universities in a national network of excellence?

I could stop here of course: calling on a more disciplined cadre of land grant universities as we reinvent or reinvigorate our land grant commitment. But I have to go back to this vexing dilemma: If we are so good and so disciplined, why aren’t more of our societal problems getting solved? It is because we are not approaching problem solving with the same discipline required to move this country from good to great, or more accurately, from great to premier.

It's because we have not engaged in a strategy called “collective impact” – the idea that genuine change, real improvement on any social issue requires a cross-sector commitment from a group of passionate and dedicated leaders who are willing to set aside their individual agendas and work together to solve a specific social problem in which they all share an interest. In other words, moving from a thousand points of light to coordinated, coherent, national, evidenced-based interventions.

FSG coined the term “collective impact” within just the last handful of years, but its roots run deep, and they begin, not surprisingly, with us. While the Land Grant Act was conceived of as a decentralized set of institutional efforts, our commitment to some degree of intentional “systemness” – that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts – might be a better guide for us in a revitalized 21st century land grant mission.

Examples of successful collective impact at work are popping up all over the country. In Massachusetts, “Shape Up Somerville” has decreased childhood obesity. In Virginia, 1,000 acres of watershed on the Elizabeth River have been conserved or restored. “Opportunity Chicago” has placed thousands of public housing residents into new jobs. Memphis Fast Forward reduced violent crime and created 14,000 new jobs in the city. And the success of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati has compelled more than 100 communities across the country to replicate its framework for improving student success, from cradle to career.

It’s easy to see why collective impact is gaining popularity with reformers, policy-makers, and advocates on Capitol Hill and in communities across the country. Hundreds of individuals and organizations across the globe – including the White House – are exploring collective impact as a means to solve the most complex social problems of our time.

The truth is – we do not yet have a system of education. We have silos in which various forms and stages of education take place, and we have yet to connect the dots between the various stages of a student’s education. And as a result, 40 – 50 percent of children nationwide are underprepared for kindergarten. These same students are pushed through the system, and by the time they reach college – if they make it that far – they are saddled with remedial coursework that costs us all money and, in most cases, does not culminate in student success.

And just as no single organization is responsible for the problem, no one group can work alone to realize its solution. That’s what collective impact is all about. Only a single, focused, and united effort will generate the kind of reform our country needs to remain a global leader in education. It compels us to identify challenging social issues, commit to evidence-based interventions that we execute by working in collaboration with our local communities, against a common set of outcome metrics.

These issues cry out for our kind of institutional, place-based leadership. And APLU is just the kind of organization that can bring this approach to scale across the country.

APLU is after all, more than a membership organization; it is a leadership organization. Thus APLU may very well have the capacity to have a greater collective impact than any organization in America, because there is no greater opportunity for this approach than in reforming the way we deliver education in this country.

And we have already started doing just that. The member institutions of APLU have banded together to advance a Voluntary System of Accountability. Through SMTI, we have started to transform STEM education. Together, we have embarked on an Institutional Consortium Project to foster collaboration and share information technology platforms. And we have united nearly 500 four-year public colleges and universities in a pledge to boost completion and reach a national goal of 60 percent of adults possessing a college degree by 2025.

Data solutions are our next big challenge. Amazon, Pandora, Netflix – for shopping, music, and movies – are all using our data to show us what they have that we might like. So together, we have to ask – what can data do for higher education? How can our sector use data to drive our efficiency in basic and applied research … to run our physical plant more seamlessly, and at lower costs … to seal the leaks in the education pipeline, so we can educate more of today’s youth and educate them better?

The Land Grant Act was visionary legislation that fulfilled a great American need for highly esteemed research universities, with public service at their core. Today, with this vision at our back, we need only to embrace our potential for collective impact to become the world’s most formidable higher education enterprise in the 21st century.

Central to a successful collective impact strategy is the convening power of a leadership organization. APLU can exercise that convening power to help its members realize the capacity we have to meet America’s challenges – and those around the world – by harnessing the effects of systemness across our institutions, across our state boundaries, across our system infrastructures. Together, we can utilize effective evidence-based interventions – strategies and approaches that can be sustained over time until we reach our ambitious collective goals.

Doesn’t that sound like exactly what Justin Morrill and Abraham Lincoln envisioned in 1862? Isn’t it a perfect mission for the land grant universities of the 21st century?

“If only—if only—we would come together on a national strategy to enhance and expand all our natural advantages … nobody could touch us. We’re that close.”

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