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Book takes in-depth look at the potential power of SUNY



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The State University of New York's central administration offices.
September 30, 2013
Colleges and universities stand tall like hundred-year-old trees, anchoring their roots deep into certain communities where they will develop not only themselves, but develop the entirety of the regions they inhabit.

The latest volume in the State University of New York Press series, "Critical Issues in Higher Education," addresses the growing trend of university, government and private sector collaboration being used as a way to spur economic development. "Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers" is a collection of academic essays stressing the importance of higher education institutions to the economic stability and growth of the regions those institutions are located in.

"The idea that universities are more than just teaching centers, and that we can actually use them to revitalize the economy, got a lot of national and international attention because no one had really systematically done that review," said Jason Lane who, along with former SUNY Chancellor Bruce Johnstone, edited "Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers."

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Students head to class on the SUNY IT campus.
The idea for the book was sparked in 2009 by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, when she arrived in New York as the university system's new head. Zimpher, coming from her six-year tenure as the president of the University of Cincinnati, saw something special in the SUNY system; 64 separate campuses, situated in such a way that nearly every single resident of the state is no further than thirty miles away from a SUNY school.

"Were you to take a map of New York state and superimpose the locations of the SUNY campuses on it, you would see the system as a kind of supporting framework, as an infrastructure," Zimpher said in the foreword of the book. "SUNY, with its ubiquitous presence throughout the state, coupled with its innate power to be the creator of new knowledge and jobs, is uniquely positioned to be the support structure and the economic engine New York needs."

Lane says SUNY's infrastructure is incredibly unique and allows the system the ability to create mechanisms to incentivize collaboration within itself. "It's a part of a larger SUNY agenda, 'How do we make 64 campuses work together instead of working against each other,'" Lane asked. "So we want to find a way to make everything more collaborative and a lot of that is being driven by economic development."

"Universities and systems need to be thinking more about the ways in which competition and economic competitiveness dovetail with academic institutions," Lane said.

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The University at Buffalo.
The universities offer an extremely vital resource to communities, a never-ending flow of young residents who are ready and willing to patronize almost every aspect of their new community. Students eat and drink at bars and restaurants, rent local apartments, shop at area malls and small stores, and the supply of students never runs out, in fact, it only continues to grow.

Lane discusses in one of his essays in the book, "Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness," the "triple-helix" that is necessary between higher education institutions, government and the private sector. When these three separate institutions are working in conjunction with one another, they can all seek to advance their individual mission statements.

Governments allot higher education institutions money in their annual budgets, the universities then partner with private sector companies — anywhere from small businesses to large scale research companies — in their specific region, the universities and businesses work together to boost economic development in the region, strengthening the region's overall economy and giving more money to the government, who then can restart the cycle. "Part of it is changing the conversation to say 'How are colleges and universities contributing to the public agenda,'" Lane asked, citing the absence of economic development in conversations between public universities and the governments who fund them.

According to Lane, the institutions should look at what they can contribute back to the state in terms of economic development, and then approach their respective governments with that information. In the past, universities have lobbied for more money based on the civic good they do for the community, such as producing better-educated citizens and a more skilled workforce. A university partnered with private sector businesses, however, can prove their economic worth with hard numbers directly affecting the community.

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"It's about businesses investing in downtown communities and new buildings and helping to revitalize neighborhoods that have been under supported, and it's about all of our campuses trying to figure out ways that we are aligning academic programs with economic demands and needs," Lane said.

Ken Pokalsky, the vice president of government affairs for the New York State Business Council said "There is far more entrepreneurship on campuses leading out into the local business community. My observation knowing what our members are doing, the ties have grown; the interdependence has grown so absolutely, more people recognize there is a direct link there.

"Twenty years ago if you asked the typical business how important local universities were to them, you would have gotten a very different answer than today," Pokalsky said. "There's far more interaction on technical assistance and specific training needs; particularly at the community college level."

The paradigm between government and universities is surely changing however, mainly due to the common bond they share with the private sector, insists Lane. Both universities and governments are more willing to respond to the needs of businesses and industries; by merging the three, Lane believes the new collaborative approach will spur noticeable economic development.

"We need people who will be responsive to changes in their environment," Lane said. "The job we were prepared for ten years ago does not exist anymore, and we don't know what the next job will be ten years down the road and I think students are understanding this need to be more engaged with business and industry."

Students, however, may be apprehensive in viewing their school as an economic driver — thanks in part to the lack of trust in government and big business. Lane, however, is adamant in assuring that nothing will trump the academic mission of the individual college or university, and at no point would it evolve into a system where a business is dictating the operations of a higher education institution.

"Some students have concerns about the extent to which economic development pursuits can harm the academic heartland," Lane said. "But this is not about turning universities into economic developers. We are here for students, first and foremost; and making sure they, not only have a good experience, but are educated effectively."

Pokalsky, echoing Lane's belief, insisted universities and colleges could have a high functioning relation with the private sector while maintaining their academic mission.

"There is a division between academic research and applied research. I think applied research can grow not at the expense of academic activities," Pokalsky said, pointing out the nanotech center was funded by new sources of revenue, not money siphoned from the college's budget.

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