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July 26, 2010 4:19 PM The State in State University

By Daniel Luzer

SUNYHQ.jpg

According to a fascinating piece by Peter Applebome in the New York Times, the State University of New York (SUNY) is trying to change. Like so many things about New York State—the prison system, the thruway, the economy—SUNY is gigantic and doesn’t really work very well.

The university has constant funding battles with the state and, in part because it doesn’t have a flagship school, the SUNY divisions have trouble marketing themselves to high school students and outsiders. Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the system, is trying to fix that. According to the article:

For much of this year, Dr. Zimpher has been crisscrossing New York State, PowerPoint engaged, promoting “The Power of SUNY,” with its pragmatic and somewhat buzzy bullet points — “SUNY and the Entrepreneurial Century,” “SUNY and the Seamless Education Pipeline,” “SUNY and the World” — about the university as economic and community-building engine for tough times. Dr. Zimpher is somewhat famous in higher education as a tireless and creative marketer.
“My belief is that to move an organization forward you have to have a common, comprehensive and ambitious agenda,” Dr. Zimpher said. “It has to be aspirational. It has to move you. I think the full manifestation of SUNY is underexposed and underexploited.

What?

Apparently something has to change at SUNY, but Zimpher’s not quite sure what. It’s a constant tension at a university that’s only about 60 years old. One of the last state universities created in America, it’s got 64 campuses, some of them research universities, some of them liberals arts colleges, some of them specialized schools, and some of them community colleges.

All of this was fine as long as the money kept flowing from the state (the system was tuition free until 1963), but now that it’s drying up ($634 million less in state funds over the last three years), many SUNY schools want branch out and become more distinct, in part in hopes of capturing private money. The recent efforts of one potential SUNY Stony Brook funder highlight how this works. More money in private donations means more money for the school, but it essentially means giving up on the whole concept of the state university.

Phillip Smith of the United University Professions union said that private partnerships tend not to work out for public universities: “The public-private partnerships the university has entered into in the past… not only have they not brought significant and continuing dollars into the university, but instead have caused a long-term drain on university revenues and financial resources.”

But at this point private partnerships are looking like the best option for many public schools. New York State used to cover about 80 percent of SUNY costs. Now it’s down to near 30 percent.

This declining public support for public colleges is part of a national trend, though SUNY remains one of the cheapest public universities. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer