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  • Many things are uncertain.
    SUNY is not.

2021 State of the University System Address

Chancellor Jim Malatras

 

 

Good afternoon.

This time last year, the SUNY community gathered in Albany to hear the annual State of the University Address.

We didn’t know at the time that only six weeks later our world would be turned upside down, with COVID crashing down on New York’s shores like a tsunami. In March our classrooms went dark and students were sent home. Our SUNY hospitals and healthcare heroes were pushed to the brink, yet never bending or breaking. Anxiety and uncertainty ran high as we confronted this invisible enemy.

But we came together and the SUNY family met the moment.

Our faculty and students quickly transitioned to online learning. We provided financial support to struggling students. We forged connections in a socially-distanced way, like through eSports and Zoom concerts. Our professional and support staff acted selflessly—they were the unsung heroes of the crisis. We expanded mental health services when we could see the social and physical isolation starting to take a toll—not just on our campuses, but across the nation.

And our students have inspired us through it all with their perseverance and determination to achieve their dreams, no matter the obstacles thrown their way. One student, Gabrielle Young of Finger Lakes Community College summed it up best saying, "I faced a lot of hardships in my life, but that kept me determined... I wanted better for myself and I pushed forward, even when I felt like life was pushing me back."

As of today, we still cannot gather in one place to celebrate SUNY with the annual State of the University Address. Nor is it the moment for fanfare or pomp and circumstance. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and continue our work.

So, rather than listing new programs and policies, I'd like to speak to you about the ethos of SUNY and how our history and mission can power us forward.

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SUNY’s mission is a clarion call that we 'provide to the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population.'

First, as our campuses welcome the spring semester—the season of rebirth and renewal—we must still cope with the lingering effects of COVID, both for our health and our economic future. Reopening is a major challenge, but with our planning and diligence, we will do so successfully.

But we're not just confronting COVID. The stress of cultural and political division has frayed the social fabric of this nation and SUNY isn’t immune from the impact of it. While we may be torn and tattered, I’m hopeful that together we will weave a stronger, more unified, and inclusive community for the future.

SUNY's mission is a clarion call that we "provide to the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population."

That is a heavy responsibility. But it is a righteous one.

Donning our Phrygian caps, let us recommit to our core mission. Let's take this crisis as an opportunity and a call to reimagine how we bring that critical mission to life today and tomorrow. We see the need for greater social justice, racial justice, and economic justice throughout this nation. And we know we must start by embodying the change we want to see.

We must work day in and day out for it. It will not simply come to us. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability."

African american male student stands outside in the middle of campus wearing a face mask.

SUNY students, faculty, and staff stepped up to respond to COVID-19.

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With 64 campuses, including universities, medical schools, and technical and community colleges, we’re perfectly positioned to meet the needs of a changing world.

I'd like to offer our community a path towards progress.

Our storied history will be our guide. Former Chancellor Clifton Wharton, Jr. argued it was a mistake to overlook the past, and he was right.

In 1948, after decades of false starts and failed attempts, the State University of New York was created with a stroke of the pen by Governor Thomas Dewey and reinforced by the rectitude of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  

We may take SUNY for granted now, but our very existence is nothing short of a miracle. A public system of higher education in the State of New York was opposed by powerful forces that blocked its creation for decades.

But SUNY's founders persisted. The dream of SUNY was realized with grit, determination, and a bit of fortune that the timing was finally right in the wake of World War II.

There are many parallels between our present and our past. When SUNY was created the international economy was undergoing significant transformation. We built a vast system of public higher education to meet the workforce training demand of our returning veterans.

Our History Will Be Our Guide
Old newspaper headline clip that says SENATE IN ALBANY FAVORS UNIVERSITY. Votes for 200,000,000 dollar State System and Outlawing of Racial Discrimination.

Article from the New York Times, March 11, 1948 - "SENATE IN ALBANY FAVORS UNIVERSITY. Votes for $200,000,000 State System and Outlawing of Racial Discrimination."

Clip of a New York Times article with highlighted text saying It should not be necessary for native NY youth to migrate from the richest state in the nation in their quest for a low-cost education.

Article from the New York Times, March 11, 1948 - "It should not be necessary for native NY youth to migrate from the richest state in the nation in their quest for a low-cost education."

Historical photo of a model of the campus at UAlbany being reviewed by Nelson Rockefeller and people.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Albany Mayor Erastus Corning view a model of the University at Albany campus.

A historical photo of SUNY Plaza with leaders standing together in front of the center tower.

A historical photo of SUNY Plaza with leaders standing together in front of the center tower.

A historical photo of a sign marking the place where Hudson Valley Community College would be built.

A historical photo of a sign marking the place where Hudson Valley Community College would be built.

 

Similarly, today we face a significant shift in our economy as a result of the pandemic. We must expand opportunities for hundreds of thousands of individuals who find themselves unemployed or underemployed, helping them learn new skills to fill the jobs of the new economy—like combatting climate change or improving healthcare.

Today, like then, we find ourselves challenged to work toward a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive college system. I’ve said that social justice is in SUNY’s DNA, and it’s true—SUNY’s founders were actively combatting discrimination in existing colleges and universities in New York at the time. In those years, while the horrors of the Holocaust were fully coming to light, our country and state were still plagued by anti-Semitism in higher education with highly discriminatory exclusionary policies. The strict quota systems put in place by many colleges excluded a diverse range of the state’s residents including communities of color, and SUNY was designed to be the antidote to the disease of discrimination. We did it by policy and through creating a public university system more affordable to all.

We've still not realized our mission’s ideal of inclusion. We must be honest and open about that. There is more work to be done to expand opportunities to all students no matter their race, color, or creed, and to ensure that our faculty and leadership across the system is more reflective of our increasingly diverse student body.

And to fully demonstrate the past is indeed prologue, SUNY was created as a way to expand much-needed medical education to fill growing healthcare demands—something we are again grappling with as we step up to combat COVID in our communities.

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We must rise again to this moment, for it’s our moral obligation as a public system of higher education to serve all New Yorkers.

The stormy sea of COVID is shifting the sands of higher education—and we must and will meet the challenge. The pandemic continues to test us in profound ways, not only in how to safely reopen, but how to contend with declining applications and enrollment. Across the country, this is forcing many institutions to reduce faculty and staff, or most dramatically, closing their doors for good.

But though the pandemic has exposed many of our challenges, it did not cause them.

The state and the nation’s workforce have been shifting for some time, particularly because of technological advancements in artificial intelligence and automation. The virus has compounded the problem, especially for those individuals within service industries. Emerging businesses require new tools and higher education can close the skills gap, yet enrollment has been an ongoing challenge nationwide.

We must rise again to this moment, for it’s our moral obligation as a public system of higher education to serve all  New Yorkers.  

Aristotle said, "in order to secure the good life, education and virtue and ability would have the highest claim to consideration."

Education can secure the good life. But first, we must overcome a confidence gap facing higher education, and to do so we must be more inclusive. Too many current and prospective students do not think we reflect their communities—and they are right.

We must break the chains of tradition that college is a static period in one’s life, be it two or four years, and build a system of lifelong learning. That is what the modern workforce demands, and we need to meet it to remain relevant to our students.

We must invest more into research and development, because as we’ve demonstrated from COVID to climate change, our intellectual fire power is second to none. I will always reject the ignorance that SUNY—a public institution—isn’t a research juggernaut. Remember, it was a SUNY researcher who developed the first MRI in 1971 and yet another in 2020 to create the world’s leading COVID saliva test. SUNY’s innovation is saving lives and improving society through technological advancement.

researchers at USNY Upstate Medical University work inside a lab studying COVID-19 test samples.

Researchers at SUNY Upstate Medical University developed one of the world's best COVID-19 saliva tests.

Let us recommit to supporting the creativity and individuality of every student. While adapting to these changing times, SUNY will be a safe harbor from the factory-line sameness of one-size-fits-all, big-box colleges currently permeating our communities online or in pop-up store fronts. Our students must not and will not be widgets processed through the machinery of education and spit out into a job.  

Although this unprecedented time has strained the very fabric of SUNY, it demonstrates that together, we can innovate and thrive. While a reluctant Governor Dewey planted SUNY’s roots, Governor Rockefeller was the gardener that tended to our significant growth. And since then, SUNY has blossomed into the country’s largest system of public higher education. We’re not a static system, but an agile and nimble one. We’ve added Optometry to Online to SUNY Poly over the years. We’ve built new pathways and tackled new programming.

In other words, we’re change agents and must recommit to that spirit now more than ever. As Robert F. Kennedy said, "But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly." Let us not fear change. Let us embrace it. With 64 campuses, including universities, medical schools, and technical and community colleges, we’re perfectly positioned to meet the needs of a changing world.

At our founding, those opposed to the creation of SUNY said we were being created with "undue haste." They urged legislators and supporters of SUNY to slow down and take more time. But opponents were simply weaponizing time as a means of obstruction. And today, outside institutions would also like us to slow down. Sometimes the pull of the status quo is from within. But there’s no time to waste and inaction will only make us fall further behind. The time for bold action is now.

The greatest existential threat in public higher education, though, comes not from within, but rather from outside institutions with the gloss and glam of slick advertising and their promises of plenty, which often turn out to be fool’s gold for students.

But we’ve demonstrated that SUNY can deliver. We are at the leading edge of the new student-focused approach from our recently announced SUNY for All campaign—starting with a free online training center for economically struggling New Yorkers—to increasing access and support for our nation’s servicemembers and veterans to expanding micro-credential courses for lifelong learning.

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We have had a difficult past several months, and many challenges still lie ahead; but I am certain that no obstacle—no matter how daunting—will stand in our way.

Look at SUNY today. After a historically challenging year, we are at the forefront of combating COVID and successfully keeping our students on campus and on track. Many things are uncertain. SUNY is not.

My ultimate source of optimism that we will come out of this stronger is our people. In the end, the character of colleges and universities does not come from the buildings but from the creativity, intellectual curiosity, and personalities of the individuals in those buildings—our students, our faculty, and our staff. SUNY does it all, from nation-leading research to awe-inspiring arts. And it’s because of our people—

Like Giovanni Harvey, SUNY Poly’s Student Government president, an energetic leader, and EOP student who did not throw away his shot at an education.

Or recent Purchase graduate, composer Laura Jobin-Acosta whose multicultural background is breaking barriers in chamber music.

Or Dr. Frank Middleton from Upstate Medical, who led a team of researchers in March to develop what is the world’s leading COVID saliva test.  

Or Oswego’s Director of Counseling Services, Katherine Wolfe-Lyga, who is leading the nation on mental health.

Or Collin Lacki of Niagara County Community College, a blind student on the SUNY Student Voices Action Committee whose passion and perseverance in advocacy is improving the lives of many students with disabilities.  

Or Stony Brook Medical resident, Dr. Kisa King, who represents our healthcare heroes receiving one of the first vaccines, and giving hope to future generations of medical students.

Or Chief Nelson de Jesus Castilla, who became the first Latino chief to serve on Stony Brook’s campus while pursuing his master’s degree at SUNY Empire, hoping one day to become a university professor when his days in uniform come to a close.

Or Shonte’ Anderson, SUNY Sullivan’s Student Association president, who chose to go back to school later in life to be a role-model to her daughters and show them that they could do anything they put their minds to.

Or our student athletes like Morgan Davis on the Fredonia Women’s basketball team, who stepped up on our #MaskUpOrPackUp campaign to keep our campuses safe this past semester.

These are just a few of the thousands of SUNY students, faculty, and staff doing extraordinary things during trying times. They join millions of others in the SUNY family who have come before them to weave together a diverse tapestry and the greatest system of higher education in the world. We have had a difficult past several months, and many challenges still lie ahead; but I am certain that no obstacle—no matter how daunting—will stand in our way.

We will continue to rise. To overcome. To thrive. We will look back on this moment as a trial that proved SUNY’s strength and spirit—as long as we work boldly with a common bond to build our future.

Thank you.