Nancy Zimpher

Chancellor, State University of New York

Nancy Zimpher is Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY), the largest system of public higher education in the country, with 64 institutions, more than 465,000 students, 88,000 faculty and staff and almost 2.5 million alumni worldwide.

A former chair of the Association of Public and LandGrant Universities, Dr. Zimpher is now the immediate past chair of the national Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and cochairs a national blueribbon panel on transforming teacher preparation. She is Chair of the Board of CEOs for Cities, Chair of the Board of Governors of the New York Academy of Sciences, chairs the National Strive Network and board, and is a member of the BusinessHigher Education Forum.

Dr. Zimpher earlier served as President of the University of Cincinnati, Chancellor of the University of WisconsinMilwaukee and Executive Dean of the Professional Colleges and Dean of the College of Education at Ohio State University. She has authored or co authored numerous books, monographs and academic journal articles on teacher educa tion, urban education, academic leadership and school/university partnerships.

She received her B.A. in English education and speech, her M.A. in English literature and her Ph.D. in teacher education and higher education administration from Ohio State University.

Strategy Matters: What are the most important challenges facing higher education in the U.S. today?

Nancy Zimpher: I’m so tired of the typical response being financial. Everybody knows that the country is still in recession and understands that public universities across the country are suffering unavoidable retrenchments because of decreases in state support. What’s far more important is for us to think broadly about the unique contributions that universities—both public and private—make to society.

I believe that the most important challenge to higher education today is to remain true to our historic mission of teaching, research and service and to demonstrate what we are doing for, and on behalf of, the social good. This requires us to be very strategic about such issues as economic revitalization, expanding and extending the quality of life of our citizenry and our faith in this country, and to be highly specific about our value added, the impact of our work.

If American universities are as good as they say they are, then why are we still facing so many social challenges in this country and abroad? And the response must be that our universities should be far more strategic about their civic engagement.

SM: What does that suggest are the greatest opportunities and possibilities for higher education going forward?

NZ: I think it would be helpful if our global impression were more precisely defined in local terms. I know that a research university has a global imprint and focus. But I believe we have a local obligation to work where we are planted, if you will, and be a real player in addressing issues that encompass our particular environment. We should think global but act local.

If energy, health care, and education continue to be some of the big issues of our time, what specifically are the wonderful, powerful higher education enterprises of the nation doing to attack these problems on the ground?

It’s crucial that higher education play a leadership role in determining how the issues of the day can best be addressed. Following this line of thinking, we must think through and help close the achievement gap among our citizens and ensure that everyone has op portunities to realize their best potential.

The greatest opportunity for higher education today is to be highly specific and target ed about meeting the larger challenges of the day and to make our impact in meeting those challenges transparently evident.

SM: If we were talking ten years from now about the then state of higher education in the U.S., what would you wish us to be speaking about?

NZ: I have become a big fan of collective impact, of finding instrumental ways to work with government, the nonprofit sector and the corporate sector together to address important societal issues. We need collectively to put our shoulders to the wheel and ad dress such questions as increasing college completion rates, extending health care to underserved populations, solving the transportation problems of our country, creating a more just and peaceful planet.

I hope in ten years we will have achieved ways of enhanced connectivity between and among the various sectors of our society, working on common goals, using evidence of our impacts and really seeing ourselves as societal innovators because we’ve actually solved some of our problems together.

SM: One of your first initiatives upon assuming the Chancellorship of SUNY was to develop a systemwide strategic plan. What was your motivation for doing so?

NZ: I can’t imagine trying to move forward an organization without a game plan. I was recruited to SUNY with the primary goal of making the university system far more strategic in intent, thinking, and action and to collectively identify a set of powerful goals for the next decade.

As you know, I began my work at SUNY with a statewide tour of SUNY’s 64 cam puses, which became the first phase of our systemwide strategic planning process. This plan, called The Power of SUNY , was launched in April 2010, with the central goal of harnessing SUNY’s potential to drive economic revitalization and create a better future for every community across New York.

With AKA’s great assistance, we put to our constituents a very big question: What is the highest and best big goal for this comprehensive public university system, the largest of its kind in the country? The answer was quite forthcoming: as the state university of New York, we have a social responsibility to our state.

But that is such a huge opportunity and audacious goal that we needed to break down our aspirations into a set of specific realizable strategies. That’s the kind of work that expert external assistance really contributes to and that’s why we clearly needed outside eyes, an organizer and moderator to help us explore these issues, someone to hold us to task by asking us what exactly we intended to do with respect to achieving this goal. Happily, the result was our strategic plan— The Power of SUNY.

SM: How are you measuring the impact of the SUNY strategic plan?

NZ: The danger of any strategic plan is that it goes directly to the shelf…the proverbial shelf. We have several measures that indi cate the impact of our strategic plan.

First and foremost, our 64 campus presi dents are asked each year to assess their response to the plan and indicate the ways in which they contribute to realization of the plan at their institutions. Secondly, we’ve prepared and distributed annual re ports to our stakeholders and constituents with specific metrics that we think help measure our progress.

And third, we are trying very hard to lift up impact in local storylike fashion, where good is coming from our strategic initiatives—more qualitative periodic reports on what’s happening on the ground. Thus, we are relying on the presidential leadership of our campuses through comprehensive annual report cards and in a softer way, simply telling the story on how we’re doing.

As The Power of SUNY is put into action, we are leading a diverse set of new initiatives at SUNY in several key areas, including re search and innovation, energy, health care, global affairs and the education pipeline.

I have also been a vocal advocate for groundbreaking legislative reforms that ensure SUNY can continue to provide broad access to higher education in an environment of declining state support, while maximizing its impact as an engine of economic development.

SM: What are the most important lessons you have learned in the past few years as the SUNY Chancellor?

NZ: I have reflected over the course of my time at SUNY about what I think contributes to effective leadership. I’ve articulated for myself and for other audiences a series of actions around leadership, a set of five components to which I try to adhere:

  • First, vision trumps everything, and it is absolutely crucial to articulate a vision that is derived at the hands of many. A successful leader does not solely dic tate the institution’s vision and then put people to work on making it happen. Rather, she works with all constituencies to identify what the future should hold for that institution; and then
  • The leader then builds the convening table, where all parties commit to the vision and decide how it will be achieved;
  • Next, the group authenticates the vision into action and ensures accountability by making public prom ises and mapping their progress;
  • We focus on the pocket book, demonstrating a re turn on investment as our vision is carried out and showing that investing in the vision is more afford able than the alternatives and;
  • Finally , we tell our story. Leadership is a lot about messaging and backing up the message with all constituents.

Rounding out my theory of leadership is this final point. As the head of the institution, a leader must be a persistent, consistent and tireless advocate for the vision, willing to speak publicly and with stakeholder groups and potential investors at every opportunity in support of the vision

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