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2017 State of the University Address

2017 State of the University Address

Opening Remarks: Chairman H. Carl McCall
Welcoming Remarks: Student Assembly President Marc Cohen
2017 Feature Video | SUNY Completes

Welcome and thanks

Wow. I think that’s our best one yet! Aren’t our students just amazing?

Good morning, and welcome!

Thank you, Marc Cohen, for that introduction, and for your passion and commitment to the students of our system. You make a fantastic Student Assembly president.

As always, thank you to our chairman, Carl McCall, for your leadership, your vision, and your deep care for SUNY and public higher education.

And I want to thank everyone, all of you, for coming this morning—for filling this theater and giving us a thousand ears and eyes.

Now let’s get down to business.


Here’s my math: One big announcement of The Power of SUNY in April 2010 plus seven annual updates take us to this—my eighth State of the University Address.

Because this is my final address as chancellor, I can’t help but think about where SUNY and New York were—deep in the Great Recession—when we began our work together.  

From day one, at every campus and in every corner of the state, we listened to thousands of New Yorkers’ hopes and concerns about their future. When would the economy recover? Could they continue to live and work in New York? Would they have a shot at a career that not only pays the bills but allows them to have a good life, to support a family, and to feel that what they do every day matters

From those many conversations, we built our plan for SUNY’s future, and in doing so, how SUNY would help New York recover. We made it our business to know what New York needs and to find a way to provide it.

I think it’s fair to say, The Power of SUNY has stuck. Our six-point agenda to improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers, connecting education and economic development, bound together with the thread of SUNY’s unwavering commitment to equity and inclusion.

[Breaking Down the SUNY Brand]

Simply no one else does what SUNY can do. No one else matches our reach, our strength, our potential to educate more people and educate them better…to be New York’s best economic engine…to push the boundaries of research and innovation…and to always figure out how to improve.

This is who we are. This is the SUNY brand. More than a logo, it’s our value proposition, our identity, and our promise. Let me tell it to you this way…


It’s never been a secret that I am from and of The Ohio State University. Or should I say, THE Ohio State University. No article in the English language has been so over-inflated so successfully!

So if “imitation is the finest form of flattery,” I guess that makes us THE State University of New York. We capitalize that “T” in everything we do, and for good reason. It shows singularity. It defines our character and what we lift up for all to see.

I will never get tired of telling people that SUNY is THE largest comprehensive public university system in the nation, what that means, and why it’s special.

Just look at the composition of diverse sectors: doctoral, medical, comprehensive, tech savvy… 30 community colleges, which Joe Biden said “carry the fate of the country’s competitive capacity for the next 20 years.”

Again, why THE? Because we cracked the code on a formula that reflects our biggest commitment of all: ACCESS plus COMPLETION equals SUCCESS, for every single student, every step of the way.

A formula so elegant in its simplicity, but very difficult to deliver.


For years now we have been telling you access is our middle name. Our doors are wide open. But asking students to walk through those doors is harder than you think.

For many students, navigating college financing is really a challenge, preventing them from even applying, let alone completing a degree. So to solve this problem we built the best financial literacy tool in the country. Since we introduced Smart Track, the number of SUNY students graduating with student loan debt is going down—by 5 percent in the last year alone. Now, almost half of all SUNY students graduate debt free.

See the pattern: we heard about a problem, we found a solution, and we have seen results.

We also know that today’s students need more flexibility. Instead of asking them to come to campus on a set schedule, we need to meet them where they are. So we built the largest online learning platform in the nation. Through Open SUNY, in the last three years, more than 320,000 students have taken online classes, and 8,000 have received a SUNY degree by taking the majority of their classes online.

So there’s a pattern: ProblemSolutionResults. That’s how we roll at THE State University of New York.


So, if access opens the door, how do we keep everyone of SUNY’s students working towards completion, the diploma, and the degree?

Eight years ago, we ran the numbers and saw that too many students were having trouble transferring within our own system. They were losing credits, which means time and money…they were dropping out without anything to show for it. Working together as a system, we built the best policy in the business to help students keep their momentum towards graduation. Seamless transfer—guaranteed credit transfer—is finally a reality at SUNY. We have sets of courses guaranteed to transfer in more than 50 majors and, as a result, more SUNY students than ever are finishing degrees—more than 96,000 completions a year. Well on our way to our target of awarding 150,000 degrees annually by 2025.

There are so many ways to thread this completion needle at SUNY; we don’t just stop at a single solution. We look at the data…we see what works…and we take what works to scale. Blow it up so the good stuff isn’t just happening at one campus, but throughout the system.

So what is THE engine that helps us live up to our brand promise of taking what works to scale?

Every one of the programs I just mentioned was expanded or replicated through SUNY’s Investment Fund. When we started this incentive program in 2015, campus response was overwhelming. Thanks to Governor Cuomo and the legislature we had $100 million to spend, and we got almost $500 million worth of ideas from our campuses.

With this kind of enthusiasm and creativity, what if we could say to our partners in business and philanthropy, “Here’s an opportunity for you to help us increase completion, not at one campus, but at all of them.” Imagine the impact that could have.

So in the spirit of “finding a problem, solving a problem,” today I am proud to announce the formation of The State University of New York Impact Foundation. SUNY has never had anything like this until now—a system-level repository that allows us to actively seek private-sector investment in programs proven to expand access, drive completion, and prepare students for success. We needed a way to engage funders who get scale.

Our promise to investors: Send your money to the SUNY Impact Foundation and we will allocate it to campuses who we know can move the dial.

We filed the papers, hired the experts, are recruiting our own board, and yes—we are already soliciting investment to move the SUNY completion dial. And your donations are welcome.


But again, what’s special about THE State University of New York, is that we don’t just worry about getting students in and getting them out, it’s about success in the long-term.

This we know: students want real-world work experience before they graduate… they want to learn by doing. And business owners and CEOs tell us this is a great idea—that they need fresh talent and that they’re more likely to hire students who have an applied learning experience in college than those who don’t.

Here’s what our good friend and partner at National Grid, CEO Ken Daly, has to say about applied learning.

That’s what we’re talking about. An education pipeline that moves graduates from school right into a career.  

For some campuses, this is their bailiwick: SUNY Optometry, Maritime, FIT. But others are catching up: last year, Cobleskill and Alfred State made applied learning a graduation requirement, because they know—and we have the data to prove it—that opportunities like this can make all the difference in student success.

Applied learning starts even earlier for students who do internships through IBM’s P-TECH, which links high schools and SUNY community colleges. Let’s pause and think about that. Access – providing college courses at no cost to students and their families. Completion – community colleges granting associate’s degrees right out of high school. Success – a willing business ready to hire you when all is said and done.

This is what we strive for. This is what ties our equation together.

And let me put a bow on this THE business; it is about our self-determination to stand for public higher education in New York.

THE State University of New York is within reach for every New Yorker, whether by traveling to campus or enrolling in an Open SUNY course from anywhere in the world.

THE State University of New York leads all state research institutions, universities, and hospitals in research expenditures and operating start-ups. We rank among the nation’s top patent-producing universities.

THE State University of New York is THE only university that serves every region of this great state, from Stony Brook to Buffalo, and Binghamton to Canton. As we so often say, look at a map of SUNY and you’re looking at a map of the great Empire State.

And by the way, you don’t have to say THE; just don’t roll past it without remembering what it means.


Now let’s look at the State in SUNY.

Morrill Act, G.I. Bill, and SUNY’s Founding

Public higher education in the United States is what it is today because of the Morrill Land-grant Act of 1862, a completely new vision for higher education in America that was all about strengthening our nation by improving the technical and mechanical growth of our states

For the first time, higher education wasn’t only about learning theology or just for the elites. The Morrill Act recognized that more people would have better lives if they were better educated. No matter who they were. And that providing advanced education was a state responsibility.

When the G.I. Bill passed nearly a century later, it was to support veterans who would soon be returning from World War II needing new knowledge and skills to rejoin the workforce. Those G.I.s needed to know that they could return to their home states and receive a great education at a public university. And thanks to our governor and legislature, any veteran who chooses to live and learn in New York State can pay resident tuition rates at SUNY and CUNY. The G.I. Bill on steroids!

In the midst of the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson shepherded in the Higher Education Act and Pell Grants, which have advanced the education of generations.

In its image, New York has charted its own course towards broader access. The State University of New York system was founded in 1948 to create educational opportunity for every New Yorker—whether they were returning from war…or because they’d been shut out of private school because of their last name…or what they looked like…or because their family couldn’t afford it. SUNY was founded on the bedrock principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion—and 70 years later, this sacred promise is our north star.

And New York stepped up to the plate in providing financial aid. We created the Educational Opportunity Program, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and the Tuition Assistance Program, the most generous state financial aid program in the country. Thanks to TAP, federal Pell Grants, and scholarships provided by our campuses, half of all SUNY’s resident undergraduate students attend tuition-free.

That is all a part of our responsibility, as The State University of New York, to make sure all students have a shot. Recent studies underscore that state universities deliver real mobility—providing affordable, high-quality opportunities that lift graduates into the middle class and beyond. Access to higher education—completing higher education—matters; college graduates significantly out-earn people who stop at a high school diploma.

But higher education is about more than higher income. Mountains of evidence from around the world tell us that with more education people are more likely to have better health habits…they live longer…they’re less likely to rely on public assistance…they volunteer and make their communities better places to live.

Countries with more educated citizens have stronger economies, more stable governments, and an over-all higher quality of life. Justin Morrill knew it over 150 years ago, and we live and breathe it today as The State University of New York.


So if the State part of our name represents SUNY’s obligation to opportunity, the University part tells the world what we do.

Though we have changed the look of our brand over time, the sacred words of our University seal still resonate: To learn, to search, to serve. These directives define how we operate—advancing the triad of teaching, research, and service while providing expanded access to students from every walk of life.

Let’s start with teaching.


SUNY Potsdam, the oldest college in our system, celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. It has evolved from a teachers’ college to a leader in creativity, applied learning and educational excellence. But perhaps most importantly, it is one of 16 SUNY campuses preparing the teachers who teach the students who come to college, ready or not.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The number one in-school factor for student success is great teaching. So we’re working with the State Education Department and partners across the state like never before to re-invent and to elevate the teaching profession. 

To inform this effort, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and I traveled the state to meet with educators. We made 22 stops—speak outs, workshops, and meetings with faculty, superintendents, and future teachers.

During this listening tour, we heard right from the teachers themselves, nearly 1,000 of them, about what they need in order to help their students thrive. Have a listen to what we learned:

I cannot say it enough: If New York’s students are going to come to college ready to succeed, teaching, as a profession, needs a new playbook. And that is TeachNY. Right, Commissioner?

So that’s the first part of our University triad—teaching. Next up is research.


The State University of New York Research Foundation is the largest, most comprehensive university-connected research foundation in the country. And SUNY faculty continue to lead research and innovationto help us live longer and better, and keep us safer.

In 2016, not only did we increase our investment in research and discovery to more than $920 million, but we modernized our patent policy so we can collect more of the revenue generated by our patents. And the new policy gives maximum flexibility for university-industry partnerships, enabling us to do more and go further to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

We also celebrated the induction of three SUNY faculty members into the National Academy of Inventors, from Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook. There are 757 fellows worldwide, 41 in New York State and of those, we are proud to say 12 are at SUNY. This includes our own Provost, Alex Cartwright. This professional distinction is a mark of the outstanding contributions that our SUNY researchers make to New York and the world.

Also this year, our award-winning SUNY Press turned 50, continuing to push the boundaries of scholarship in history and the arts and sciences and literature, and producing absolutely top-notch work.


The final part of our founding triad: service. We never lose sight of the critical role SUNY campuses play in their cities and towns.... as the largest landowner and employer…. as the chief healthcare provider… and as a place where communities come together. As a lifelong partner in education, not just for two or four years, but from cradle to career.

Today, SUNY is all about the seamless education pipeline. It defines how we plan, how we act, where we focus our resources. Because waiting until students come to college to find out if they’re ready simply doesn’t work.

Through our partnerships in community schools, in 60 early college high schools, with 800 Master Teachers, and 7 cradle-to-career communities—like our work on the Albany Promise with Mayor Sheehan at the helm—we are showing everyone what a 21st-century University looks like.

Universities today embrace a broader view of service than ever before and encompass a much wider range of programs and degrees than we could ever have imagined even a generation ago. Let’s be clear: when we say universities are a smart investment, when we say people need college to succeed in life, we mean all of this and more: a badge, a certificate, a two- or four-year degree. It all stacks up for well-paying jobs.

And guess what, folks? Twelve years of school used to be enough; today it’s 14 or 16 years or more. We are moving to universal higher education in the same way that we’ve been moving towards universal pre-K. Basic education is more complex than it was 30 or 50 years ago. There’s a new starting line and a new finish line, and it’s our job to help students get there.  

So back to our brand: The State University is New York’s biggest, best laboratory for ideas and innovation. It’s the place that—by virtue of the fact that we are a system—we can reach more people and improve more lives than any one college—public or private—can do on its own. Because of who we are and how we’re built, we touch the lives of more than 3 million people every year. This is a huge responsibility.

One in every three New Yorkers who has a college degree earned it at SUNY. And more often than you might think, so did their parents, or their siblings, or their children. Just admire the Weber Family from New Paltz. Among them, they have 16 SUNY degrees from 11 SUNY campuses.

And here with us today, in the front row, are the only two people more proud of this accomplishment than us—their parents, Arlene and Ron Weber. Please give them a round of applause!

Now that is what a University is all about.

New York

This brings us to the New York in our name. After all, we’re New York!

So as The State University of New York, the responsibility is on us to push boundaries, because if you do it in New York, other states will follow. You could say we have a history of making history.

The Excelsior Scholarship

And building off the foundation of EOP and TAP, that’s just what the Excelsior Scholarship will do. Governor Cuomo’s proposal:

Just putting the term “tuition-free” out there—that act alone—will move the dial on access. For young people who have written college off because they assume they can’t afford it, they’ll hear about this and think, “Maybe college isn’t out of reach for me.”

The Excelsior Scholarship will capture the attention and kindle the hope of young people who didn’t dare to dream of college but now know that they can not only dream, they can try, and they can succeed. In New York, at The State University of New York, we have a place for you.

Inspired by the Governor’s vision, we are taking things one step further. Right now, nearly forty percent of New York’s public high school students don’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. That’s more than 300,000 students—and their families—who never get a clear snapshot of what college will actually cost. Imagine thinking college isn’t for you, or your kid, because it’s too expensive when in fact, it’s considerably less than you thought, or could even be free.

This is happening to families across New York State. Because they don’t know they need to fill out the FAFSA form to get access to most aid programs and scholarships. Or because they simply can’t figure out how to fill it out. As a result, New Yorkers leave $174 million of federal financial aid untapped each year.

That’s a problem, a big one, and SUNY can help. SEFCU President and CEO Michael Castellana and I have a big idea. SUNY and SEFCU will spread the word about FAFSA, and host events for students and their parents to get help completing their forms. Together, we will move that FAFSA completion dial to 100 percent. Right, Michael?

Because that is just the kind of thing we do at SUNY—we think of every student, even before they think of us.

In service to our Empire State, this University is destined to be first. We are the backbone of every ambition the state has for a 21st-century workforce, a green economy, urban revitalization, vibrant communities, and global impact.

We must continue to lead. To be first in completion. First in inclusivity. First in research. First in teacher preparation. First in making good on the promise of public higher education. Educating more people and educating them better.

We have to see ourselves as the innovators for New York and the nation, maybe even the world… Because after all, we are THE State University of New York!

And the way we get things done, the way we will continue to serve our students and our great state, is not by magic, or sheer force of will…


In education and in government—it’s policy that makes a good idea real, that brings it to life, to scale.

Figuring out how to get things done in a university system as complex as ours is perhaps SUNY’s highest achievement of the last eight years.

Chairman McCall highlighted for you earlier the Board policies we made together. Those achievements—many of them truly ground-breaking—were all accomplished using this clear and irrevocable process:

We did it just this way for every system-wide plan we’ve instituted to drive access, completion, success, inquiry, and engagement.

This process works, and it will keep working as long as we stay committed to it: A problem. A solution. Results.

If we’re going to keep refining our results, we know data matters. We’ve made progress in becoming data-driven over the past few years, but we’re not there yet. We need to up our game like never before.

[The SUNY Center for Systems Change]

Every year, within my State of the University address, when all has been said and done, I try to create some kind of disruption to our work. We have set audacious, system-wide goals that have raised the bar in significant ways. You’ll recall…

Embedded in these ideas is that SUNY is continuously adapting and improving. Figuring out what our students and state need, and then finding a way to provide it, at scale. To this end, today I am announcing the formation of the SUNY Center for Systems Change—the embodiment of our aspiration to be the best at getting better. To do this, we must redouble our commitment to using data to drive our decision making; to know which interventions are moving the dial, and by how much, and for whom. And then to apply those interventions generously across the entire system.

Today, the concept of continuous improvement is catching on:

What’s new is that to my knowledge, no single system of public higher education has launched a training program to touch every campus in a truly collective effort to get better at getting better.

We have put our toes—and maybe a whole leg—in the water of continuous improvement at SUNY; we have allocated the Investment Fund based on evidence of impact, and we have lifted up programs that are getting results. 

But we have not yet systematically prepared all of our people—our faculty, students, and staff who are the lifeblood of our system—to tackle these challenges more effectively. And if we don’t prepare ourselves now, it will only get more difficult as technology races ahead.

Of course, many questions remain about the Center: Is this the right structure? Where will it be housed? How will we draw on the best practices of our campuses? And the million-dollar question—who will fund it? Well we have to start somewhere.

So, SUNY System will draw up the concept and put it out for review, particularly across our governance bodies and campus leaders.

[RIG Expansion]

We know that change requires not just a commitment to improve, but also to refining policies that enable improvement. So as we jump start continuous improvement at SUNY, we must also enhance our efforts in policy implementation and research.   

I am happy to announce today that we will be expanding the Rockefeller Institute of Government, our very own policy think tank. RIG has a long history of helping organizations—including state and local governments and universities—effectively navigate complex systems, which is why it is the perfect home for our new Center.

RIG will raise its national profile, expand its portfolio, continue to recruit top-tier talent and train the next generation of thought leaders. 

All of this, thinking about what we do and how we do it, positions SUNY to be the best at getting better.


At the very heart of the The State University of New York’s brand, we are a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what a good system is, and it’s what systemness is.

Simply, we do better together than we could do on our own. Together, we are undeniably effective and supremely powerful.

People always ask me how I do it—how do I run 64 campuses? And I respond, “I don’t do it. We do it.”

It is our collective work—hard work—that has made our university system more ready, more productive, cohesive, and adaptable. We are more prepared than ever to take on the challenges and changes we will face in the years to come. 

SUNY is not a command and control environment. A chancellor can have a big idea or six, but you have to make your case to the Board. And you need to win the support of presidents and shared governance groups if you want to get anywhere. You need to get the governor and the legislature and the people of New York behind you.

And even then, good ideas don’t automatically make for good policy. But all of you in this room, you know how to do this work. You know what we need to do to keep moving forward.

SUNY is in good hands. We have steadfast and deliberate Trustees…fearless, visionary presidents… brilliant and dedicated faculty and staff …students who are curious and passionate and hardworking, and who keep their eye on the prize…alums who stay plugged in, who tell the world what a SUNY education meant to them and inspire tomorrow’s students to join our family…partners in all sectors who continue to work toward making SUNY, always, a more perfect system. 


You are The State University of New York.

You are the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

You are the engine that drives systemness.

You are our future. 

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