By MICHAEL GORMLEY
ALBANY — A Midwestern academic named to lead the State University of New York said Tuesday she will work to bring the system to the nation's top research echelons, while keeping tuition affordable and just maybe grabbing some more exposure on ESPN.
University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher said she's committing at least five years to the SUNY chancellor job, which will pay her $545,400 a year in total compensation to lead the nation's largest state university system. She becomes SUNY's first woman chancellor on June 1.
"Five years hence, I would hope that people see this as the best public higher education system in the country, as a global model and that we have learned to work together to create a positive impact and also to be efficient and to be accountable," she said in an interview.
The Board of SUNY Trustees approved Zimpher with a vote Tuesday. Her selection comes after a national search of more than a year.
"We will have a chancellor who recognizes the critical role that public higher education — and particularly our research universities — play in building a knowledge-based economy, and who has the experience and acumen to advance this role in significant ways," said University at Buffalo President John Simpson, who was on the search committee.
Zimpher said more state funding — as well as federal and private sector funding — are needed to reach the SUNY board's goal of reaching the top levels of high technology, scientific and other research.
She said the effort should continue despite the state's fiscal crisis, which is forcing billions of dollars more in taxes and fees to address a $13 billion deficit.
"I really believe that putting off and waiting is inappropriate in challenging times," she said. "I think you have to keep investing so that when the economy turns — and of course I hope we're a contributor to that turn — we're ready."
She also said SUNY can learn from innovations in Michigan and Colorado to leverage private sector and government funds to bridge the gap between traditional financial aid and the quickly rising cost of higher education.
"If you are asking are there answers to the affordability question, I believe there are," Zimpher said.
She is also open to boosting SUNY's image through bigger time sports, the way public universities in California, North Carolina and other states have.
"I am totally steeped in both the benefits of collegiate athletics and the challenge, and the balance that needs to be created," said Zimpher. In 2005, she famously forced out Cincinnati's popular basketball coach over what she considered a character issue after he was charged with drunken driving.
SUNY has no campus with the major sports reputation of Syracuse University, a private institution that has a long history of national television coverage in basketball and football against the country's top universities.
"If there is an appetite for advancing the athletics in some sites around some particular sports, not all sports across the board, I would be a good listener," said Zimpher, who has served as a Big East conference representative on the NCAA board.
Trustees at Cincinnati twice extended her contract to run through 2012 and credited her with raising the school's academic profile, building enrollment and donor support, and improving finances. Cincinnati has 37,000 students compared to SUNY's 500,000 students on 64 campuses.
Besides her pay, Zimpher will get the use of SUNY apartments in Manhattan and in Albany as well as a car and driver.
Her husband of 20 years, Kenneth Howey, will also get a part-time position that she said is yet to be determined. He is a research professor at the University of Cincinnati and has written books with Zimpher on urban education.
SUNY released data showing at least 10 other public universities pay their top administrator hundreds of thousands of dollars a year more.
Zimpher will replace John O'Connor, the vice chancellor and secretary, who was named interim chancellor in December. He replaced interim John Clark, who stepped in when John Ryan, a former U.S. Navy admiral and superintendent of the Naval Academy, resigned in May 2007 after two years on the job. Before that, SUNY was headed for five years by Robert King.
There was no immediate comment on Zimpher by the union representing SUNY workers or from other state officials.