Nancy Zimpher is chancellor emerita of the State University of New York system and the director of The Power of Systems, a national effort by the National Association of System Heads to rethink higher education.
Jason Lane is former vice provost for the SUNY System. He is currently dean of the College of Education, Health, and Society at Miami University in Ohio, a senior fellow of the National Association of System Heads, and co-editor of “Higher Education Systems 3.0.” Lane is also co-editor of “Higher Education Systems Redesigned,” which SUNY Press is scheduled to publish in April.
When you introduce a new idea to higher education, there is inevitably discussion, debate and discord. This has certainly been true with the notion of “systemness,” which we introduced to SUNY and the higher education sector around a decade ago.
In fact, we were delighted to see the term invoked in a Jan. 6 article in Higher Ed Dive discussing a recent proposal by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to reinvigorate SUNY. But we were disappointed to read that the new proposal, which includes creating further differentiation in the SUNY system with two tiers of research universities, was viewed as “breaking” from SUNY’s systemness.
We couldn’t disagree more with this statement.
As part of the leadership team that advanced the Power of SUNY strategic plan and the concept of systemness, we can say that the vision was to leverage the collective assets of each of SUNY’s 64 campuses to benefit the entire state and each of the students enrolled. The Higher Ed Dive article wrote that the plan “emphasized the system’s power as a unit, rather than homing in on institutions’ specializations.” Yes, we did emphasize the need to view the system as a unit; and that the power of that unit was collectively greater than the sum of its parts. The view was never at the exclusion of specialization; instead, we wanted to leverage and enhance those specializations.
Since its inception, SUNY has built itself on having a diversified portfolio of institutions — community colleges, regional colleges, technical institutes, medical campuses and research universities. Across those divisions, there was further diversification by academic foci. In fact, as resources became more scarce, we actively worked with campuses to create collaborative degree programs and to invest in areas of specialization — recognizing that each campus could not provide all areas of study.
To suggest otherwise is simply untrue.
Yes, we implemented a seamless transfer system and required all campuses to participate, as it benefited all students and realized a 40-year goal of the system. We launched a systemwide online learning initiative to foster a systemwide approach to online learning (Open SUNY, now called SUNY Online). We created SUNY’s SAIL Institute to advance professional and leadership development, as we needed to invest in the capacity of our people.
All of this was done as a system because no one institution had the resources to go it alone.
For us, systemness was moving beyond the historic notions of systems as regulators, coordinators, and allocators, and toward a greater vision of facilitating collaboration, leveraging shared resources, and focusing on supporting the state and advancing student success.
Whether or not one agrees with the latest proposals by Gov. Hochul, they represent a clear extension of systemness and not a retreat. The idea of creating a seamless admission process was first advanced during our tenure. The idea was to make it as easy as possible for students to be admitted to SUNY campuses while only having to apply one time. The concept was built on a program first undertaken at SUNY Binghamton, where students who were put on the waitlist were offered the opportunity to pursue studies at nearby SUNY Broome Community College. They could stay in Binghamton’s residence halls and then transfer to Binghamton in their third year. Here, two institutions work together to benefit the students (and themselves). Why not extend this idea systemwide to automatically admit students to another SUNY school if they do not get into their first choice?
Today, we see systems from Maryland to California leaning into systemness. In fact, the concept is quickly spreading across the nation’s more than 65 systems, which serve approximately 78% of students in public four-year higher education. From the creation of the momentum year for student success in the University System of Georgia to the California State University system’s Graduation Initiative 2025 to the Montana University System’s transfer initiative, systems are advancing cross-campus efforts that are designed around students instead of institutions.
Hochul’s proposal leans into the individual and collective strengths of the SUNY system with overall goals of increasing enrollments and expanding research. The goal is to strengthen New York and expand benefits to the system. That, we can say without a doubt, is the essence of systemness.
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