Interview with Outgoing SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher!

Dear Commons Community,

Reporters from The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted an interview with outgoing SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. In it, she provides excellent insights into issues important to all public higher education including funding, K-12 collaboration, New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship program, and women in leadership positions.  Below is the entire interview.


In 2009 Nancy L. Zimpher took one of the toughest jobs in higher education. As the 12th chancellor of the State University of New York, she would run one of the largest public-university systems in the country, one with a history of drama and leadership instability. The system faced steep cuts in state support because of the recession, and higher-education everywhere was entering a period of disruption: deliberate and otherwise.

Ms. Zimpher will step down at the end of June, and will leave SUNY in a better place. Her eight-year tenure is the longest of any SUNY chancellor since the 1980s. Money is still tight, and the 64-campus system is still unwieldy, but her administration has brought more cohesion and calm.

She has taken steps to make the system more effective and efficient, despite a failed attempt in 2011 to make some institutions share presidents. She has worked to improve teacher education, improve graduation rates, and to raise the profile of SUNY within the state.

As she departs, the system is gearing up for the start of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program, which will offer free public-college tuition to many state residents, and for the arrival of Kristina M. Johnson, the system’s 13th chancellor.

Ms. Zimpher spoke with The Chronicle about higher education’s need to improve, what it can learn from health care, and what she would have done differently.

What didn’t you get to fix that you wish you had?

We’ve progressed to a point where we know what needs to get done, but we don’t know as much about how to get it done as we ought to. We, as a country, have not moved the completion agenda. The Lumina report, “A Stronger Nation” — 7-percent growth in postsecondary credentials in six years. We’re stuck.

So if I could do one thing walking out the door, it would be to create a pathway to teach ourselves what is the real methodology for improving the outcomes that we are charged to move. It ought to be about everyone who comes to our door exiting with a degree. We just can’t move our economy, we can’t move our quality of life, without it. So it’s not something I “didn’t get done.” But it’s something we should be doing.

I have said to Kristina Johnson, what a great time to assume the chancellorship. If I had it to do over, I’d start now, not eight years ago, because now we have so much more understanding of how we can work effectively together.

It sounds like there might be a role for foundations or other outside players.

There are two sources that have enhanced my own understanding. The first is that I have worked for a decade to try to improve outcomes for children and youth. Particularly in my work in this thing called StriveTogether, this network of local communities across the country that have bought in to owning the low-education-outcomes problem, I have seen that the methodology of continuous improvement really moves communities to report improvements in everything from preschool to college completion. And it’s because they’ve adopted a methodology of breaking down challenges. When you set a new policy or a best practice, you don’t put it on a shelf and call it a day. You keep going back to it, keep working at it, keep making it better. Instead of staring at the big, awful low completion rate, they’re looking at, well, how does this move along?

The second discovery is what’s happening in health care. New York is one of a very small number of states participating in the federal Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program, which provides a methodology to improve population health. Essentially it’s a different way of investing in Medicaid that incentivizes prevention measures. So in New York, physicians are getting rewarded for healthy populations instead of hospitals being rewarded for filling beds.

What should be driving us is a better- educated population, and we should be rewarded for that. There’s an immense opportunity for states to get more engaged in measuring what matters most and rewarding it. We do have a performance-funding system at SUNY, and I’m proud of that, but we’ve got to use that system to be that incentive for trying to do better.

You’ve done a lot during your tenure to change perceptions of SUNY. What can be done to improve public perceptions of higher education generally?

I don’t think we’ve done ourselves any favors in focusing so much on the lack of state funding. Every state is restricted in its ability to meet all the financial needs and demands that exist. And in New York, and most other states, the competitors, so to speak, are K-12 and health care. These are two things that ought to matter to us.

At the cutting edge of state allocation is a thing called fused funding, or hybrid funding. People say our funding model is broken because we’re not getting enough money in higher ed. But what if the funding were for the overall education pipeline, and we didn’t see our work as that primary and secondary education do up to grade 12, and then we start at 13? Our work cannot begin at 13. Our work ought to begin where the work begins, which is in early childhood.

When we funded No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the federal government gave the money to the states, and the states gave it to the state education agencies. If you want 15 stakeholders to come to the table but only one of the stakeholders allocates the revenue for reform, you’re going to get what we’ve gotten, which is a divided, siloed effort to improve education in this country. My remedy for that is, next time we get the chance, the governor keeps the money and convenes the stakeholders, and we form an integrated effort to improve learning outcomes. That’s where fused funding could get its start — we’re funded to work effectively together to get the outcome everybody wants.

Most leaders in public higher education believe the level of funding that colleges got 10 years ago is gone forever.

It’s not coming back. So the exhortation to the state to give us more, in the same old way, is really not going to help things.

There have been a couple of responses that we’ve implemented in New York that I think are worthy. I do think our predictable tuition was a good thing. The downside is we can’t keep putting the burden on the students. But what was good about it is, first, it held tuition to a pretty reasonable level. Second, it was predictable. Third, it settled down the discourse for five years. We did not debate every year what’s going to happen to higher ed.

The second thing that New York did is this notion of helping us create an investment fund. Three years ago, we asked for $50 million, unrestricted, from all the nits and nats that the legislative process can bring to the table. And we got $18 million. But we were able to use that to coalesce other funds to create an investment fund of $100 million that we asked our campuses to apply for. And as a result we got $400 million worth of ideas from themes around completion and inquiry and engagement, which was our game plan.

Of course, the state should expect us to show that we are moving the dial, which I think we can do, because every one of these allocations is tethered to our performance funding. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was undedicated, and it gave us the flexibility to incentivize changes in behavior. What industry doesn’t live with that kind of discretion?

Has the landscape for women as leaders in higher education changed during your time in this job?

I was a first dean and first executive dean at Ohio State, the first chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the first president at the University of Cincinnati, the first female chancellor of SUNY. A student who was shadowing me one day heard me introduced at a Rotary — first, first, first. And he said, don’t you get tired of being introduced as the first whatever? And I heard myself say, “When it doesn’t need to be said anymore, it won’t be.”

Improvement is very slow. It’s very slow in the C-suite. It’s very slow in corporate boards. It’s very slow in women running for elected office. And we do have a model in Europe that does set a quota for women on corporate boards to be 30 percent. And they meet it. Typically, I wouldn’t go anywhere near that. But the dial is moving so slowly that something has to give. And it isn’t just gender, of course, but within gender it’s moving even more slowly for women of color than it is for white women. And that’s not just true in presidencies and chancellorhoods. So what would be the jarring effect that would have to occur?

“Slowly” would have been the one-word answer.

Excelsior, the program designed to offer free college in New York, has been the topic of much debate. Is it going to do what people are hoping?

The criticisms of the framework for Excelsior need to be contradicted. The first criticism is that this is too tilted toward the middle class. What about the students with family incomes under $75,000? Well, we’ve been there. New York is one of the most generous states with regard to tuition support. A huge number of our students avail themselves of this opportunity.

The second thing is we should not expect that just because you received this generous tuition support, you owe it back to the state. But I don’t see anything wrong, really, with a return on our investment. Eighty-five percent of our students already stay in the state.

And the third criticism is this notion that we were mandating full-time enrollment. Well, the data clearly reflect more success when you are full-time enrolled. The policy has a flexibility quotient in it that gives you a year to be full-time.

So I think we can move the dial. That makes this the most innovative tuition proposal that’s been put on the table yet.

Can you share any further details of what you’re up to next, or is that t.b.a.?

It’s t.b.a., but I suspect the die is cast. I have been a champion for public education and for the integration of the education system. I don’t really think we have a system of public education in this country. I think we need one. And so my advocacy around the connectivity of higher ed to K-12, the thread that good teaching provides, that’s not likely to change.

Are you looking forward to a period in your life where everything you do or say isn’t questioned publicly?

I am so attuned to the fishbowl that I will probably miss it. But here’s why: I do think personal persuasion, advocacy, getting out in front of the issues is the best part of my job. And you have to take the bitter and the sweet. When you’re speaking to a room full of people who are recording every word, you’re very careful. You get smarter about it. You get better at it. Because the real point is to say something that matters. Say something that’s going to make a difference.

And be self-critical. That is one problem with my sector. We’re so good, and we like to talk about how good we are. What we really need to talk about is how we can get better.



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