Time to put SUNY in gear

Time to put SUNY in gear

This week I had the opportunity to attend the SUNY conference on Universities as Economic Drivers: Measuring Success. It has been a little over two years since SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher took over the helm of NY’s flagship campus system and a year and a half has passed since she laid out the Power of SUNY strategic plan.  My primary motivation was to gauge SUNY institutions’ progress in fostering entrepreneurship on the campus and in their surrounding communities.

The most commonly used reference to SUNY’s role in reviving NY’s economic fortunes was that of an engine.  However, I left with the distinct impression that the gear is still in “Park”.  Chancellor Zimpher deserves a great deal of credit for committing SUNY to this formidable task and putting a strategic plan together, but the organization as a whole needs to pick a direction to drive in, gas up, and get going.

Herewith, some advice as someone who wants to see SUNY and NY succeed: 

  • Time matters because the rest of the world is not standing still. The natural mode of academic institutions is to learn, debate and teach.  The pace of change in the outside world is compressing the time between idea and action in a manner that is rendering entire sectors of our economy irrelevant.  SUNY needs to get ahead of the curve and figure out just how much of its curriculum needs to be replaced and recruit the best people who can teach new skills.  Continuing to prepare young people for jobs that don’t exist or have a short lifespan is not a recipe for success.  This is particularly true for the “Clusters” such as Back Office (7,600+ degrees), Financial Services (8,800+) and Front Office & Producer Services (13,000+).
  • Entrepreneurial talent matters more than anything else. After a century of training people to get a job, we need to encourage them to create jobs.  That is the only way to stem NY’s brain drain.  If we don’t have new high growth companies forming at a faster rate (than the old ones die or move out), all we are doing is supporting some other economy elsewhere by supplying them with well-educated (NY taxpayer supported) graduates.  SUNY educates nearly half a million students and has 1.6 million alumni in-state, but not one of the 17 sessions was directly focused on student entrepreneurship or alumni engagement.
  • If you can’t commercialize, give it away.  This was one of the more provocative statements made by noted entrepreneur, academic, and commentator Vivek Wadhwa during the opening session.  In 2008-2009, SUNY institutions received $1.3 Billion to support research projects and programs.  License income was $23 million; twenty-five startups were launched (see page 5 of How SUNY Matters). As the report card shows, research expenses are up, but outputs are trending flat to down (see Fall 2011 SUNY Report Card).  As Wadhwa noted, you only need a single measure of success—how many new jobs are being created.  Measure that and you know where you stand.
  • The future is uncertain; pick a direction and be prepared to adjust your course. SUNY is a large institution, so there will always be examples of innovation and excellence that can be pointed to in speeches and publications.  But, like any other large decentralized organization, it is faced with many instances of the Innovator’s Dilemma—“Which of the many innovations that could disrupt my long-standing business should I adopt and how far do I go to resource this shift in direction?” There were plenty of references to programs that were showing positive results (e.g., the Fredonia incubator) as well as others that are also making their mark in various communities (like UB’s partnership with Buffalo to build a network of talent and capital for research commercialization; Cayuga Community College and SUNY Morrisville’s collaboration with the Kauffman funded enitiative program and the Syracuse Student Sandbox).  What each of these examples has in common is that they take too long to realize, generally operate with severe budget constraints and even when successful, there is no clear mechanism for spreading the best practices to other parts of the SUNY system.  Chancellor Zimpher realizes that the SUNY system can be a powerful force for change in NY.  To achieve the promise inherent in its mission and vision, SUNY needs a mechanism for identifying, rewarding, and spreading these practices and (for New York’s sake) they need to do so…FAST! 

Note to Readers: Are you aware of a SUNY (or other university) entrepreneurship initiative that should be adopted system-wide by SUNY?  Write to me at nasir@uvc.com.

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