2018 State of the University System Address

2018 State of the University System Address

January 22, 2018
Albany Capital Center  |  Albany, NY

Good morning. I am thrilled you are here with me today for my first State of the University System address.

Thank you, Chairman McCall, for that generous introduction. Every day, you inspire me with your service to SUNY and your deeply held beliefs about the importance of higher education in allowing people to make the best use of their talents and to make a difference in the world.  I recently heard Chairman McCall tell a group of our students, “Education is the opportunity to change your life for the better … Take hold of your opportunities and use them for all they are worth.”

Chairman McCall, I am grateful to you and our Board of Trustees, for appointing me as SUNY’s Chancellor—an inspiring opportunity to serve that I plan to use for all it is worth.

I’d also like to thank my other boss, President Satish Tripathi, who recently told me that I had received tenure at the University of Buffalo in the College of Engineering. However, it is subject to Chancellor approval.

I would also like to thank Governor Cuomo, Lieutenant Governor Hochul and the entire executive government team for their remarkable support of SUNY. Thank you to our New York State legislators for their dedication to higher education and ensuring the success of the next generation. Thank you Mayor Sheehan for being here today, and a special thank you to Chancellor Emerita Nancy Zimpher, my predecessor, for all she accomplished over eight years to elevate SUNY’s reputation.

I would like to thank the Presidents of our colleges and universities, the Faculty Senate, Faculty Council, and the Student Assembly for the warm welcome they have given me.  I thank my fellow faculty and staff members who have joined us, especially my Executive Leadership Team—the best team in Higher Education!

I also would like to acknowledge and thank SUNY’s partners in industry, government, and philanthropy, some of whom are here today. A decade from now, when we look back at what we have accomplished together, I know your leadership will have been instrumental to our shared success.

I am very grateful to my wife Veronica Meinhard, who is with us today, for her love and support as I took on this role.

Lastly, I want to thank the students who have joined us. You are what today is all about. Or as Governor Cuomo recently said in his State of the State Address, “Our greatest asset is our young people, and everything we do is for their future.”

When I first started as the Chancellor of SUNY, people would often ask me about my vision for the SUNY system. And I would tell them that in order to have a vision for SUNY, I needed to first experience SUNY. So, I began traveling the state to visit our campuses.  And everywhere I went, I asked everyone I met “What makes SUNY the best?” and “What does it mean to be the best?”

What Have I Learned?

I learned that SUNY is unlike any other university system in its scope and range and it’s up to us to define our own best model.

We are distinguished research universities and academic medical centers, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and colleges of agriculture and technology. Within the enormous, beautiful, and diverse geography of New York, very few people live more than 30 miles from a SUNY campus, and we have a large online learning network.  The entire system is devoted to opportunity and access for students from all backgrounds.

In my travels, I experienced the range of SUNY firsthand. I visited the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, Where our students partnered with the NFL to redesign their team logos and graphics to help attract younger fans to a century-old sport.

I visited a cleanroom where the world’s smallest transistor was created—5 nanometers —16,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. This breakthrough radically increases the potential density, performance, and power of computer chips—enabling technologies crucial to the future of SUNY that I will talk about in a minute.

I visited a culinary arts classroom at Buffalo State, and when one of the students posted my offhand comment about wishing I could make piecrusts in their state-of-the-art kitchen—my friends and family quickly weighed in, asking when they could expect their pies—and texting, “Oh my, Chancellor’s got pie!” Having met those talented Buffalo State students—I’ll leave the baking to them.

I developed a soaring pride that SUNY is able to offer its students so many different opportunities to build a better world, matched to their own particular talents and interests. And I learned that each SUNY school is distinctive, with its own history, legacy, and future. I learned also that many of our schools are the cultural and economic hearts of their communities—offering crucial resources for local businesses as well as educating their workforces. Our presidents co-chair six of ten Regional Economic Development councils established by Governor Cuomo, and SUNY schools are viewed as gems by the cities and towns that host them.

To me, the challenge of leading SUNY is figuring out how our campuses work together as a seamless 21st century educational system—while retaining and amplifying the distinctiveness of each of our schools.

Last summer, I gave every SUNY president a copy of a book called The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, which argues that the most adaptable and resilient organizations are open organizations—where leadership is distributed.  In other words, organizations that understand the power of their networks—and catalyze innovation at the local level, and at the center, to strengthen the entire system.

This is the kind of hybrid organization I envision for SUNY, since there are times when SUNY gains the most from being part of an integrated system—and other times when students and faculty are best served by a campus that can act on its own best knowledge and mission. And there are examples of success in between—when a handful of SUNY schools work together and share their resources to benefit students on their campuses.

A great example of the adaptability enabled by such a hybrid form of leadership was our rapid response to the devastation in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Our faculty and students were eager to help, to apply their education, and share their knowledge.

SUNY Maritime President Rear Admiral Michael Alfultis told me that given Maritime’s resources, Puerto Rico recovery efforts were a natural area of focus for the school. And, In October, I had the honor of joining SUNY Maritime’s training ship the Empire State VI, as it returned home from Puerto Rico after being activated by the federal government for relief efforts. On board, I had the great pleasure of meeting Captain Rick Smith—as well as a Cadet named Hannah Leese, who intends to spend her career making shipping a lot cleaner to help limit the extreme weather provoked by climate change.

Meanwhile, at the University at Albany, led by President Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, who grew up in Puerto Rico, we have a college focused on emergency preparedness. This college is a national leader in research and education in planning for, responding to, and recovering from disasters, both natural and manmade.

So my office connected the dots. Last fall, I asked Presidents Alfultis and Rodriguez to co-chair a task force to coordinate the SUNY efforts in Puerto Rico. This spring, the task force will visit Puerto Rico to determine how SUNY can help to restore its infrastructure and to add resiliency to all its systems—on a trip that will include some of our most passionately committed students, including a group called “Acorns to Action,” the brainchild of Isabella Kaplan of our College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which intends to ensure that rebuilding efforts are sustainable. [I would like to ask all those involved in the relief efforts to stand so we may acknowledge your service]

Such collaborations between distinct schools make the SUNY system a force to be reckoned with in the world at large. At the same time, ideas piloted at a single school may well be worthy of scaling across the entire SUNY system.

Within this hybrid model, I want to ask every part of the SUNY System to focus on four themes that will position SUNY as a national leader in higher education, positively impacting the lives of our students and continuing to drive the economy of New York State and the nation.

The four themes of my vision for SUNY are:

Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Individualized Education; Sustainability; and Partnerships.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Let’s being with innovation and entrepreneurship—particularly in the age of digitization and the internet of things.

Competitor nations to the United States understand that those who lead in artificial intelligence and machine learning will own the next century.

Well, I want SUNY—and, by extension New York State—to lead.

As a measure of how far and fast the world has come in terms of artificial intelligence —the last time I owned a car was 2009, and self-driving vehicles were considered pretty “jetson” futuristic. This weekend I leased an electric vehicle that comes with a “driver assistance feature” and will soon have a self-driving option. Autonomous vehicles are now an inevitability.

But advances like this also cause painful dislocations. Automation has already cost the United States manufacturing jobs.  According to one study, 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing between 2000 and 2010 were due to technology-related productivity growth—in other words, machines allowing businesses to do more with fewer people. And this technological unemployment is likely to accelerate as machines become more intelligent and adaptable.

On the other hand, many jobs are about to become much more interesting, as people work alongside machines that can relieve them of routine tasks and add to their capabilities. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report found that 60 percent of Jobs can be partially automated. However, resourcefulness, creativity, and social skills will only become more valuable.

The question for SUNY and New York State is, will we simply bear witness to the loss of not only jobs, but entire industries? Or, will we educate our students, and empower our faculty and industry partners, to lead in a new era of augmented intelligence?

Answering this question means asking if our programs today are preparing our students for the future complex social, technical and geopolitical landscape.

And to prepare our students to thrive in the future, we have to recognize that boundaries between disciplines are disappearing. My own career started in engineering, and evolved into policy, startups, and academic leadership. This evolution gave me an appreciation of the importance of persuasive oral and written skills—and the ability to draw from history and psychology that the liberal arts provide. And the reverse is also true. Our liberal arts students will need to know how cognitive computing can enhance their creativity and critical thinking.

For SUNY to be a leader in this next century and realize the potential of artificial and augmented intelligence, we will need to increase cross-disciplinary research, scholarly work, entrepreneurship, and our outreach. I am setting a goal for SUNY to at least double all of these measures over the next decade. This includes expanding the opportunities we offer our students for research in emerging disciplines—and internships with innovators and entrepreneurs in fields that are changing our world.

We will make targeted investments in research that will advance our understanding of how artificial intelligence and machine learning will impact every industry and academic field, including finance, medicine, transportation, the arts, the physical and social sciences, and the humanities.

And to succeed in this theme, we will need to invest in more full-time faculty, forty percent of whom are near retirement age. We have to hire new early-career faculty now—before we lose our distinguished faculty to retirement.  We want the academic talent that we bring in to be able to learn from our current faculty so we don’t lose SUNY’s institutional knowledge and the rich histories of our campuses that will propel the explorations of the future.

Individualized Education

The next theme of my vision for SUNY, individualized education, will be enabled, in part, by advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Given the comprehensive nature of our system, SUNY has the opportunity to offer an individualized education to a degree that no other university system does. Individualized education is how we make the case for students to come to SUNY, as well as the way to establish SUNY as the leader in the higher education landscape.

That means, first of all, helping our students navigate the very complexity of SUNY–our 64 campuses; 4,345 undergraduate majors and 524 degree programs online; and 58,000 distinct classes. And we want to guide every one of our 1.3 million students to the best programs and opportunities for them, individually.

Our Empire State College, which serves working professionals, already is a leader in offering each student a customizable undergraduate degree program, and the blend of onsite and online learning. Now, the question is, how do we accomplish such custom-tailoring at the scale of the entire SUNY system?

Data analytics and machine learning can help us here.  Of course, the key to employing these tools is having a lot of data to learn from—which means that SUNY is uniquely positioned to provide this kind of educational opportunity for our students.

As the distinguished computational neurobiologist, Terry Sejnowski told me, he or she with the most data wins. This gives SUNY, with its huge student body and enormous alumni network, an important strategic advantage.

However, as we use machine learning to help guide our students—we also need to be cautious about reinforcing existing prejudices. Speaking from my own experience, the ’70s were not always encouraging of women pursuing degrees in engineering, or becoming professors, undersecretaries, or clean-energy CEOs.

Our challenge is to optimize a SUNY education, while encouraging each individual student to chart her or his own path—and not to be constrained by the stereotypes of the past.

Our faculty and staff must also reflect the diversity of our students—and changing demographics in the nation as a whole. We don’t want a single individual to be discouraged from entering a field because he or she sees no role models in their classrooms.

Another aspect of individualized education is helping our students to adapt to the challenges and opportunities they will face over their long careers.

No matter what field a student decides to go into, you can bet that social networking, communications skills, and critical thinking will be required.  So we will emphasize these adaptive skills in all we do. We also will give them the enormous advantage of entering the workplace having learned through experiences—with internships, apprenticeships, research projects, and other out of the classroom experiences that prepare them for their unique futures.

We must recognize, as well, that rapidly advancing technologies and the need for new skills mean that each of our students will have to continue learning throughout his or her life. It is often said that people become obsolete in their fields within five years of graduating from college. How do we continue to refresh the knowledge gained by our SUNY graduates?

One way is to develop the architecture for a dynamic education cloud— where our students can store and access every idea, note, lecture, book, paper, and problem set and have it automatically updated and enhanced as knowledge evolves, even after— and especially after—our students have graduated. We need to create what Spanish philosopher José Ortega called “just-in-time learning” where we teach our students what they need to know, when they need to know it, not just what we know how to teach.

And, by the way, four years after getting their degrees, three out of four SUNY graduates are still living and working in New York State. Therefore, if we at SUNY get individualized education and lifelong learning right, it will be an enormous benefit to our businesses and our communities.         

An individualized education, as I see it, is not just about helping our students chart a path through our classrooms.  It is about helping our students with different backgrounds and different resources succeed. Thanks to the Governor’s Excelsior Scholarship program, coupled with the New York State Tuition Assistance Program, and other State scholarships—half of our students now attend college tuition-free.

Of Course, students face challenges beyond tuition—including other financial concerns, academic barriers, and the general unpredictability of life. If we intend all of our students to stay in school and finish their degrees, we need to be prepared to help.

For example, I am so proud of a SUNY initiative, currently being piloted on seven campuses, that addresses those family emergencies that can force even the most dedicated students to leave school by providing micro-funds—often as little as $100 to students in need. We are extremely grateful to the Gerstner Family Foundation and the Heckscher Foundation for Children for supporting this family emergency funds pilot program. And I’m excited to see the results. At one similar program at SUNY New Paltz, emergency funding helped 100 students, and 87 of them are on track to finishing their degrees. We hope to scale this effort across all of SUNY.

We also have to address the reality of student food insecurity. In his 2018 State of the State agenda, Governor Cuomo underscored the need for a food pantry at every one of our 64 campuses—and we are creating a task force to make that a reality.

Our highest priority is to provide our students with a safe environment in which to learn and live, and SUNY is a national leader on this front as well. We have created a sexual assault and violence response resources website, or SAVR, which is a comprehensive source of information for victims of sexual and interpersonal violence—with policies translated into 120 languages. At the same time, we developed the sexual and interpersonal violence prevention and response course, or SPARC, an online course that trains students in proven prevention techniques. We have freely shared this course with other colleges and universities across the country.


The third theme I want to talk about today is sustainability—or our shared responsibility to preserve civilization. When we talk about climate change, some individuals talk about saving the planet, but the planet has been around for nearly five billion years and it’s expected to be around for five billion more. It is human civilization—our culture, and the environment that enables it—that is currently at risk.  How many people think we can sustain civilization for another million years? or, even a thousand years?

If we intend to last, we have to get a grip on our carbon emissions. And SUNY, as an engine of innovation, has a responsibility to lead. Certainly, our students, who are highly committed to sustainability, want and expect us to break new ground on this front.

Fortunately, our Governor is one of the nation’s most important leaders on this issue, and a founder of the U.S. Climate Alliance—a coalition of 15 states and Puerto Rico that is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the target set under the Paris Climate Accord.

Governor Cuomo’s goals for New York State are even more ambitious.  This year, he issued Executive Order 166, which calls for reducing the carbon footprint of state agencies by 40 percent and sourcing 50 percent of New York’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030.

As SUNY owns and operates 2,346 buildings—or 40 percent of the building infrastructure of the State of New York— it’s no surprise we are also responsible for 40 percent of compliance with Executive Order 166.

So I say, why wait until 2030? It is my pleasure to announce today that SUNY plans to source 100 percent of its electricity from zero-net-carbon sources, including renewables and energy storage, as soon as possible.

Last year, SUNY spent $189 million on energy. We will use SUNY’s buying power to buy clean power.  And the sooner we do this, the better, as we estimate it will reduce our carbon footprint by more than 400,000 tons of C02 equivalents per year.

Making investments in renewable energy and storage align with the recent initiative Governor Cuomo announced to install energy storage regionally in order to increase the resiliency of our communities, in case of a natural or manmade disaster. Let me be clear—when the power is out—we plan to have SUNY campuses have power—the power to help our communities rapidly recover.

Furthermore, and starting immediately, all new SUNY buildings will be designed to achieve zero-net-carbon emissions.  And in our existing buildings, which are on average, 47 years old, we intend to invest in deep-energy retrofits and energy efficiency while performing critical maintenance.

Now, you might be wondering—given the challenging budget times the state of New York is experiencing— can we afford to do this?  I would submit we can’t afford not to.

The fact is that energy is a commodity and commodities go in cycles.  Natural gas and electricity prices, interest rates, and market volatility have been low over the past decade. In other words, we are at the low-end of the commodity cycle. Market volatility, interest rates, and demand for clean electricity are expected to increase. Now is the time to lock in low power prices for the long-term and perform deep energy retrofits before energy costs go up.

Stony Brook University offers a great example of the benefits of such retrofits of aging facilities. Recently, they spent $5.7 million upfront to reduce energy costs by $832,000 per year—recouping their investment in about seven years. Carbon emissions will be reduced by 3,800 tons per year. Students, faculty, and staff will work and live in a more comfortable, energy-efficient environment.

We would like to scale this program across all of our campuses.  Of course, we can’t do this alone—the good news is we don’t have to. I am excited to announce today that SUNY and The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, will be partnering on this effort.

NYSERDA will help our campuses develop facility plans and co-fund an on-site energy manager at each eligible SUNY campus or region to identify areas for improvement, engage in feasibility studies, and implement changes.  Together, we will work to educate and expand the clean energy workforce of New York State. And we expect to see a ripple effect in terms of entrepreneurship, as our faculty and students start new companies that can take the best practices learned at SUNY off-campus and into our local and global communities.

Thank you, Alicia Barton, the President and CEO of NYSERDA, and Janet Joseph, NYSERDA Senior Vice-President for Strategy and Market Development, for being such great collaborators.

National Grid has been another great partner in readying our students for the rapidly expanding opportunities in clean energy. In 2017 alone, National Grid hired 250 SUNY students and graduates. During the past year, it helped us to launch three new academies to train our students for jobs in the energy industry, so that now students at SUNY Farmingdale, Hudson Valley Community College, the SUNY Morrisville Educational Opportunity Center, Erie Community College, and Onondaga Community College have this option—which is soon to be joined by an online program. And the president of New York Operations for National Grid, Ken Daly, has committed to build upon this clean energy partnership in the future.


This leads me to my fourth theme, which is increasing and expanding such partnerships.

SUNY benefits tremendously from its alliances with industry, government agencies, non-profit foundations, and international organizations.

For example, when I visited Onondaga Community College in November, I learned the power of integrating a SUNY campus with a community’s K-12 education system. Onondaga has early college and concurrent enrollment programs at the high school level; partnerships for tutoring and academic enrichment at middle schools; and elementary school programs that begin to set expectations connected to attending college.

Then, there are partnerships at the state level. For example, we are using our expertise in advanced materials, health care, information technology, and energy to partner with four investment funds sponsored by Empire State Development—administering an $8M pool of capital that invests in high-growth potential, early stage companies. This partnership increases the number of SUNY-affiliated startups considered for investment, and makes SUNY an even greater force within the innovation economy and ecosystem of New York.

And our partnerships are global. We have 1,000 study-abroad programs across all seven continents. But even as we have increased students’ participation in these programs with additional scholarship support, only about 15 percent of our current four-year degree students will avail themselves of these international opportunities. And only one in 100 of our associate’s degree students study abroad. We need to raise these numbers, because more than ever, our students need to be global.

But to truly take advantage of the opportunities ahead, we must expand our philanthropic partnerships—because the only limitation SUNY truly faces in taking our best ideas to scale, is resources.

Many of our public university system peers have large endowments that support research and education. For example, at the end of fiscal year 2016, the University of California System had a total of $8.3 billion in endowment funds; and the University of Texas System’s endowment had $24.2 billion.

While our individual colleges and universities have some endowment, right now, the State University of New York System has zero endowment.

How can we be competitive with zero, when our peers are working in the billions? We need to change this—and to create more endowed professorships to attract the very best academic talent.

Again—it has to be a hybrid model—where we put in place a System-wide endowment that feeds resources to our schools, but does not compete with the philanthropic activities of the individual colleges and universities.

In my view, the best way to do this is to build a System-wide endowment to provide matching funds when the alumni of SUNY invest in the future of their individual alma maters.  We want to encourage that loyalty among our alumni to the unique campus or campuses that set them on the path to a productive career and a rewarding life.

Before I end today, I want to say something about our values at SUNY. We are an extraordinary example of a diverse, inclusive, and tolerant organization made up of driven people. We have to have the courage as a system and as individuals, to make clear that SUNY is a place of opportunity for every single student seeking a great education and the desire to contribute to our society. So it is crucial that we commit to each other, care for one another, communicate, collaborate, and trust one another.

I see my role at SUNY as establishing themes upon which we will build the future, and connecting the dots between the many magnificent ideas and people emanating from the wonderfully distinctive colleges and universities that make up our system.

The SUNY network truly is one of New York’s most important resources—contributing to a pride of place in major cities and rural communities alike, fostering a high-tech economy, spurring entrepreneurship throughout the state, providing our homegrown businesses with the brilliant human capital they require, and educating young people ready to break the mold in myriad fields. Together, our graduates show all of us a better way.

I am so proud to serve as Chancellor of this organization, and to work beside all of you, so that SUNY can lead—as not just as the biggest comprehensive public university system, but the very best public system of higher education in the nation, and the world.  I think we are well on our way.

Thank you.

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