Shannon Mathew/Pipe Dream

In the first-ever State of the University address, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher continued the push for SUNY reform that has defined her chancellorship. Her Jan. 19 speech was a resuscitation of past plans that have stalled in Albany, but it also served to lay out an even broader set of proposals.

Incentivizing competition

Between universities and colleges within the SUNY system, that is. Zimpher’s speech included a section regarding “performance-based resource allocation,” a program that has the potential to change the landscape of the SUNY system as we know it. Market-based incentives in public education is a talking point across the country, and has been for some time — think No Child Left Behind. In the high school setting, some say that such programs promote competition and efficiency, but critics claim that incentivized funding perpetuates problems in already weak schools and encourages “teaching the test.”

Performance-based funding in a university system is inherently different than a similar program in a high school system, and Zimpher said that “we are currently deciding how this new formula will work.” But if this plan is intended as anything other than a prop for SUNY research centers, then it will have to be carefully constructed.

This program, on the face of it, makes us nervous — not for Binghamton University, but for places like SUNY Plattsburgh. The SUNY system has always been rather balanced compared to other states’ systems, and performance-based funding (if the proportions are right) could seriously change that. That said, incentivized funding between schools that are alike (say, research competition between BU and Stony Brook) could prove beneficial. And encouraging schools to improve retention rates is essential.

Again, there is no “formula” yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Easing border security

Zimpher announced that she intended to make it easier for students to transfer, SUNY-to-SUNY. Roughly sketched, her proposal would allow students that had completed general education requirements at any SUNY school to transfer to any other school in the system — hopefully with a minimum GPA attached.

We’re skeptical of this idea for two reasons. One, we go to a selective school within SUNY and (bluntly put) this new policy could hurt quality at BU. Two, setting SUNY-wide entrance qualifications patently contradicts Zimpher’s other reforms. Across the board, she supports changes that would give individual schools more flexibility and autonomy — especially with funding and tuition. Here, though, Zimpher’s transfer policy paradoxically says to schools, “Hey, now you have to pay your own bills, but at least SUNY gets to tell you who to accept.”

Moving classes online

In her speech, Zimpher also chose to promote online education, and the expansion of digital classrooms has become a SUNY priority.

Taking a class online certainly isn’t the end of the world, especially with reading- and writing-intensive courses. But the face-to-face interaction between a great professor and eager students is impossible to truly simulate, even with discussion boards. The classroom is supposed to be a place for the exchange of ideas, and with so much of our lives already becoming virtual, we hope that this policy is a supplement, rather than a replacement.

Besides, her proposal is a transparently simple attempt to cut costs, not improve the quality or availability of education.