Teressa Pace/Photo Editor (Alumnus)

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher delivered what was by all counts the first-ever State of the University address last week, in which she outlined her vision for SUNY as an integral driver of the state’s economic recovery in spite of a challenging fiscal environment.

In her Jan. 19 speech in Albany, Zimpher sought to bring new life to a host of reforms that failed to pass in the New York legislature last year, but she also introduced several newer initiatives that all but confirmed that SUNY would need to seek new ways to raise revenue — including tuition increases — in the absence of additional state funding.

Zimpher referred early on to newly inaugurated Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, given two weeks earlier. She quoted him directly on his comments on the role of SUNY in the state economy.

In his discussion of creating jobs, Cuomo said that “higher education will be the key economic driver. We look to partner with our great SUNY system, especially across upstate New York in making this a reality.” It was the only time he referenced SUNY directly in his 45-minute address. Zimpher then directed her speech to Cuomo himself.

“Governor: SUNY is up to the challenge and we are well positioned to answer your call,” she said. “We are absolutely focused on leveraging our mission toward economic recovery and job creation for our great state.”

Zimpher also took stock of what she saw as the top 10 SUNY milestones of the past year, which included the SUNY strategic plan, advances in research, technology and green energy, increases in outside funding and the ranking of 11 SUNY campuses in Kiplinger’s Top 100 Best Values in Public Colleges ranking.

But Zimpher also highlighted some grim economic realities.

Higher education, she said, “stands at a crossroads. Less public investment, more demands and rapidly shifting economic sands require us to be increasingly agile.” She also spoke of upstate communities that have suffered from the loss of manufacturing jobs, campuses that have been subject to persistent cuts in funding and students’ difficulties finding jobs after graduation.

To overcome these challenges, Zimpher proposed many of the reforms that were initially part of the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, which was introduced last year as part of the state budget. But as the budget was already one of the furthest behind schedule in state history, Democratic leaders withdrew the PHEEIA proposals when it became clear that they would not pass.

Among these reforms were demands that the state loosen regulations to allow SUNY campuses to enter into public-private partnerships and to procure goods and services with less oversight from the state. Tuition policy reform was also a keystone of PHEEIA.

“I ask all of you today to join me in establishing a five-year tuition plan, beginning in the 2012 academic year, that recognizes the reality of our tuition environment, is based upon fact and again, above all else, is fair, responsible and predictable,” Zimpher said.

If implemented, this plan would likely mean more consistent, yet more moderate, tuition increases, as opposed to the current trend of infrequent spikes in tuition.

The chancellor also shed light on some newer priorities, including expanding online learning, making it easier for students to transfer between schools and implementing performance-based incentives for individual campuses.

“Beginning with our fiscal year 2012, SUNY will distribute state support among campuses based on performance in critical areas like research expenditures and awards, student course completion, retention and degree completion, diversity of students and faculty and degree programs that address workforce shortages and the needs of emerging industries,” Zimpher said. “Thanks to the leadership of our campus presidents, we are currently deciding how this new formula will work.”

Though several campus presidents were in attendance, BU’s interim president was not.

“President Magrath was not able to attend the session in Albany but a representative from our state relations office was in attendance,” said BU spokeswoman Gail Glover.

BU was indirectly featured several times throughout the address, including references to a BU geothermal technology project for the Greater Binghamton Airport, as well as participation in an introductory video that featured all 64 SUNY campuses and the Taio Cruz song, “Dynamite.”

The official transcript of the Chancellor’s address  can be found at http://www.suny.edu/chancellor/speeches_presentations/SOU2011.cfm