By STEPHEN BARTLETT
PLATTSBURGH — The State University of New York's schools must attach themselves to real challenges in their communities, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher said Friday.
"You have to get beyond the rhetoric of community engagement and focus on real problems that need to be solved."
Zimpher visited Plattsburgh State for the sixth strategic planning statewide "conversation," which is part of SUNY's planning effort as well as a movement to put SUNY at the forefront of New York's revitalization.
The conversations, each held at different campuses, focus on themes such as globalization, health affairs, energy and sustainability.
Quality of place was the focus for the day-long event at Plattsburgh State.
'WE ARE SHACKLED'
Zimpher said SUNY's challenge in the next decade is outlining how the system can promote meaningful and lasting economic vitality and improve the quality of life in the communities it serves.
SUNY's 64 campuses enroll nearly half a million students. Besides providing an education, the schools create jobs, train workers and promote public-private partnerships to develop new technologies and resources.
Yet New York state, to cure its own fiscal woes, continues to cut SUNY's budget by millions of dollars and twice now has kept revenues generated from tuition increases for use in the general budget.
"We are shackled by state policies," Zimpher said. "We are at the tipping point.
"If the state can't deliver, then give us the ability to grow ourselves."
ACT SEEN AS TOOL
Zimpher heralded the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, proposed by Gov. David Paterson, as a tool that could do just that by cutting through the red tape of public-private partnerships and allowing SUNY to set tuition increases while paving the way for differential tuition and more.
"The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act is a license to be this economic revitalization and quality-of-life driver," Zimpher said.
She also stressed the importance of building community service into courses, as did keynote speaker Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania.
"The future of Plattsburgh and the future of Plattsburgh State are intertwined," Harkavy said. "No other institutions can make such significant contributions to quality of place than colleges and universities."
But he cautioned that there is strong discontent with higher-education's product. Most Americans today believe colleges operate like businesses, Harkavy said.
He touted academically based community service as a form of problem-solving service learning and said universities should be involved in economic development in their communities and in tackling issues such as reducing poverty.
Students can learn by focusing on a real problem in the community surrounding their university.
"You need to have some victories on the ground that show real progress and that the benefit is not just for the higher-education institution," Harkavy said.
"If they see your campus doing something to help people and educate students simultaneously, that is a powerful draw to get funding.
"Build it into the curriculum and be there, be there, be there."
Plattsburgh City Mayor Donald Kasprzak agreed the importance of Plattsburgh State to the community is immense.
And Zimpher doesn't plan to slow down until SUNY's value to New York state is clear.
"We are an engine for economic revitalization and quality of life for New York state."
E-mail Stephen Bartlett at: firstname.lastname@example.org