SUNYCON2012 Remarks

Harnessing Systemness, Delivering Performance: Remarks for Critical Issues Conference 2012

November 8, 2012

Just as we have come together for this conference, SUNY has been focused on coming together as a system. While each of our 64 campuses maintains their own identity and meets the specific needs of their stakeholders, we are also leveraging the strengths we possess throughout the system to have a greater collective impact on the students, businesses, and communities we serve throughout New York and across the globe.

University systems embody the potential to rebuild their state’s economy, to improve the delivery of public education, and to populate a workforce that is relevant in the 21st century. These are daunting tasks that no one group dare tackle on its own. Rather, it takes the full force of a coordinated collaborative university system to rise to these occasions – a system in which all involved are committed to the vision and willing to work together to see that it is achieved.

And so this is the theme of this year’s Critical Issues Conference – Harnessing Systemness, Delivering Performance. Over the next two days, you will hear from many of the country’s top leaders in higher education and business. As you listen, participate and share with one another, we hope you’ll discover opportunities for systemness in your future work.

Today and tomorrow, together, we are going to advance an inclusive debate on the possibility of harnessing systemness. We have intentionally invited commentary on both sides of the issue: do systems add value, or do they just get in the way?

It is my challenge to each and every one of you to look at systemness from every angle and make these determinations. For my part, I aim to make the best argument I can in favor of systemness as a means to drive our future successes in education, economic development, and quality of life.

So, here goes!

SUNY’s Systemness Weathers the Storm

Everyone now knows the East Coast effects of Superstorm Sandy. Less known, though, may be the effects SUNY – and its inherent systemness – has had on New York’s recovery.

Just north of New York City, SUNY Maritime has served as a staging area for relief and recovery workers from across the system and across the country. On Long Island, Stony Brook is providing accommodations for displaced neighbors and patients. And from within the SUNY System, we were able to move equipment and personnel to the campuses that needed them most.

The value of SUNY’s systemness in times of crisis is indeed a powerful force. So how did we become so impactful?

Systemness Is Not New

This concept, this word “systemness” cannot be found in any printed dictionary, but we’re working on that!

That said, its as-yet unofficial status does not diminish its power, especially in higher education, where it describes the core strength of today’s public university systems and how they are promising and delivering far more than our educational forebears could ever have imagined.

Coordinated, innovative systemness in statewide universities is proving to be a powerful gamechanger in how communities—and entire states—are redefining and rebuilding themselves in today’s challenging economy. Many of today’s universities are embracing their roles as “anchor institutions”—enterprises that are not likely to pick up and move away because of their large size and deep roots in the community. They are, in effect, anchored in place – serving as reliable and powerful forces for economic development and natural contributors to the local quality of life.

SUNY, for example, was established in 1948 to answer the educational needs of an increasingly diverse population. But at its founding, SUNY was decidedly not meant to be any kind of educational powerhouse. Rather, it was intended to be a more of a catch all, a supplement to work in cooperation with the state’s “priceless private colleges and universities,” as Governor Thomas Dewey once explained.

But the 1958 election of Nelson A. Rockefeller as governor of New York set SUNY on a new course, and provided the first glimpse of our systemness. Under Rockefeller’s leadership: state teachers colleges became liberal arts colleges; community colleges rapidly expanded; and students began supporting the system directly by paying tuition for the first time. Importantly, SUNY faculty undertook significant scholarly research … at four university centers – on Long Island at Stony Brook, and in Albany, Binghamton, and Buffalo.

Rockefeller’s vision for SUNY was strikingly parallel to that of President Lincoln and Senator Justin Morrill’s for national higher education. They each saw the potential of university systems to, in some way, offer all things to all people. In fact, that was their visionary legislation – The Morrill Act of 1862.

And that is where it all began. When we talk about systemness, we cannot help but put it in the context of the Morrill Act, which celebrated its 150th anniversary this year. It was this visionary legislation that first introduced the idea of colleges and universities as the driving forces that could make the American Dream a reality for all citizens.

Senator Morrill once summed up the aim of the legislation … “The fundamental idea,” he said, “was to offer an opportunity… to larger numbers… for the industrial pursuits and professions of life.

Morrill’s vision and his words have the ring of profound foresight of a national need—advancing the triad of teaching, research, and service while providing expanded access to students from every walk of life.

Out of the first Morrill Act grew the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) – a group of 109 colleges and universities managed at the state level and supported by federal funding originally drawn from the sale of public lands granted to each state. Of course, that was then and this is now. Today, our diverse sectors at SUNY are also represented by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), American Council on Education (ACE), Association of American Universities (AAU), National Association of System Heads (NASH) and others.

But the institutions set up under the provisions of the Morrill Act, and even these trade associations of today, didn’t – and don’t – operate together as a system or a network. Between and among us, there is no universal or agreed-upon curriculum, no transfer pipeline or assurances of articulation, no umbrella for administrative oversight or shared administrative functions. Something else we should be working on changing…

This is where today’s public university systems diverge from Morrill’s vision and that makes us undeniably effective and supremely powerful.

SUNY as a 21st Century Model

Surely, if Justin Morrill were here today, I’d try to convince him to look at SUNY for our 21st century inspiration.

SUNY is the largest comprehensive system of public higher education in America; 64 campuses spread across the State, from every sector. If you’re from New York, chances are you, or a member of your family, or someone you know, is or has been a SUNY student, faculty member, or business partner. Plus, we are located within 30 miles of every New Yorker.

One of the most important factors contributing to SUNY’s growth –and to that of any institution that aims to be competitive in the 21st century – is that we have, at our core, an identity, a vision, and a plan. We make it our business to know what New York needs and we find a way to provide it. But we don’t do it alone.

A vision is best derived through the collaboration of many, reflecting the ideas, ambitions, and determination of all stakeholders and a broad base of contributors. The plan SUNY is utilizing now – The Power of SUNY – for example, was launched in 2010, following a 100-day statewide tour of all 64 campuses. And in subsequent meetings SUNY devised what would become the six “Big Ideas” or driving tenets of our strategic plan.

In each of these areas, we are answering New York’s call: working to reduce our carbon footprint; supporting research, innovation, and new ideas; preparing students in high-need careers; training doctors and nurses to address a shortage of healthcare workers; partnering with schools and communities to seal the leaks in the education pipeline; and supporting vibrant communities.

Getting Down to Business

No question, the contemporary challenges we face 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.

Today and repeatedly, we have heard the federal call for reduced college cost, increased productivity in all that we do, 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.

We must, in short, ‘get down to the business’ of making our sector more nimble, more accessible, more transparent and above all, more efficient. Critics condemn this efficiency mentality as an attribute of business, one not appropriate for higher learning. But I think Jim Collins got it right:

“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. And it is my assertion that this way of thinking – and of doing business – should shape the university systems of the 21st century.

But our greatest gifts to 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. But our greatest gifts pose our greatest 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 few pages from SUNY’s playbook would help characterize the magnitude of our collective opportunity, to be expanded upon in several of our concurrent sessions.

Going Global

America’s public universities were founded to be everyone’s universities—places where everyone has a chance to get an education and build a better life. This assurance must remain at the core of everything we do, and the key to upholding this virtue is accessibility. Making it easier for students from all walks of life to apply to college, to be accepted, and once enrolled, to have access literally to the world, whether it is our faculty conducting research overseas, our students studying abroad, or our administrators partnering with their counterparts in foreign countries to deliver a more universal education.

In just the last couple years, for example, SUNY’s Office of International Programs has evolved into what we call “SUNY Global” – a genuine global powerhouse that has expanded partnerships with China, Turkey, and Russia, to name a few. We’ve also opened a SUNY campus is South Korea and worked with leadership in Malaysia to bring cradle to career education to its communities.

If it is preeminence we are aiming for – if we want to lead the world in higher education – going global is critical.

Shared Services

One of the clearest measures of a university system’s strength lies in the benefits that being a part of a system provides to each of its components. This is the case for all institutions under our umbrella, who not only gain prestige by operating within the system, but by becoming unified have more resources at their disposal.

There’s a reason some of the country’s largest university systems have implemented shared services. In New York, Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin – we have learned that by generating cost savings on the whole, our systems and individual campuses are collaboratively maximizing revenue, and their ability to expand access to and increase the quality of academic programs and other services that directly benefit students, like enhanced program offerings, academic advances, and the hiring of more full-time faculty in every region of New York.

Student Mobility

But a university system is only as strong as the students it educates and the success they enjoy as a result of the education they have received.

To ensure that students graduate, and to promote efficient time to degree, fluid and easy mobility within a system is critical. All colleges and campuses within a university system must work together to guarantee seamless transfer.

This is one of the advantages we have as university systems - this ability to engage and serve students at every stage by offering thoughtful articulation and transfer mechanisms within the system that shorten time to degree, save students money, and get them into the workforce ready and willing to contribute to the local economy. And that’s where strategic enrollment management steps in.

Strategic Enrollment Management

Working hand-in-glove with student mobility, universities can devise a funding model that takes into account the types of degrees and programs campuses offer as well as the jobs and training needed locally, providing more support for those programs that graduate students for “high need” careers in the region.

Strategically managing enrollment should be the duty of any and all university systems, essential to ensuring that campus programs and majors are applicable to the current job market. In New York, we call it “the SUNY Advantage.” It means balancing demand for STEM graduates, nurses, and special education majors while also accommodating offerings in the arts and humanities, which are so critical to the creative, communicative, and team-oriented workforce of today and tomorrow.

Research & Innovation

And we don’t stop there. In addition to meeting existing workforce demands, we are constantly focused on where the knowledge economy is headed.

Building upon what we call “the innovation ecosystem,” it is on our campuses that faculty inventions are created and validated by partners in the public and private sectors on the path to commercialization, and where our students and faculty alike adopt an entrepreneurial spirit.

The value of growing research and new knowledge cannot be overstated.

Cradle to Career

Perhaps most important of these examples, higher education must embrace what I believe is its outright responsibility – to reach beyond college campuses in the opposite direction – becoming immersed in schools and communities and aiding in education reform pre-college. We must partner with our K-12 schools, local businesses, and civic groups to play a role in every child’s education from cradle to career. Then, and only then, will we build the more educated society that is the foundation of economic growth and engaged citizenship in every community, every state, across the country, and around the world

The full potential of systemness will be best realized once schools, colleges, businesses, parents, elected officials, and civic organizations in every region agree to educate more children, educate them better, and educate them together.

Collective Impact

This all sounds great, right? 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’s 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 reported by FSG, called “collective impact” – the idea that genuine change, real improvement on any social issue requires a cross-sector commitment to evidenced-based interventions by 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.

Our commitment to some degree of intentional “systemness,” that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, should be the guide for our future.

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. Since Stanford called attention to it last year, hundreds of individuals and organizations across the globe – including the White House – have started to explore collective impact as a means to solve the most complex social problems of our time.

University systems have the capacity to have a greater collective impact than any organization in America:

If one college or university can have such a profound impact on its local community, imagine then what a coordinated, fine-tuned university system can do on a larger scale across a region or an entire state.

As we strive to be the world’s most formidable higher education enterprise in the 21st Century, university systems need only to embrace our potential for collective impact.

You will recall Tom Friedman defined for all of us the flat world in which we live today. Today he adds, “We have a huge natural advantage to compete in this kind of world, if we just get our act together.

He goes on to say:

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

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

We must harness our systemness and drive our performance – for the greater good of our students, our faculty, local employers, and communities at home and around the world.

That is, indeed, the value add of systemness!

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