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SUNY chancellor talks diversifying staff, students having more access

Kristina M. Johnson, chancellor of the State University

Kristina M. Johnson, chancellor of the State University of New York system, plans to continue to increase private and philanthropic partnerships and investments for innovation and entrepreneurship in 2019. Credit: Charles Eckert

SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson emphasized the need to increase access to higher education for students and diversifying faculty and staff across the 64-campus system during her State of the University address Thursday.

“Supporting democracy, justice and the American dream not just for the lucky few, but for the many, at scale, is something SUNY is really, really good at,” Johnson told state education and legislative leaders during her second address in Albany. Johnson became the 13th chancellor of the system in September 2017, succeeding Nancy L. Zimpher.

“Our students are diverse and our administration and college presidents are becoming even more diverse,” she said of the nearly 430,000-student system, which has more than 91,000 employees statewide. “It’s hard to argue we’re doing all we can when so many of our students see so few role models in our classrooms.”

Johnson’s priorities for 2019 include increasing diversity of SUNY's faculty through strategic recruitment and hiring practices. SUNY will launch the Promoting Recruitment, Opportunity, Diversity, Inclusion and Growth program, or PRODI-G, hiring up to 1,000 early to midcareer professionals from underrepresented groups over the next decade. The program will be funded through private contributions and state investment.

Old Westbury has a diverse student body, but it’s often difficult to find qualified, diverse faculty who are willing to work for state university pay and move to different areas of the state, SUNY Old Westbury president the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III said. “It’s very expensive to live on Long Island.”

There’s also increased competition from private colleges and universities looking to diversify, he said.

About 30 percent of Old Westbury’s more than 5,000-student population is white, 10.7 percent is Asian, 25.9 percent are Hispanic/Latino, and 27.1 percent are black or African American, according to SUNY data.

The more the schools are able to hire people from different backgrounds, the more they’ll be able to attract, which benefits the campus, students and society as a whole, he said. “I’m behind every effort to diversify our faculty.”

About 56 percent of students systemwide are white, 13.6 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 11.1 percent are black or African American, and 6.5 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, according to SUNY enrollment demographic data.   

The chancellor’s announcement “dovetails very nicely” with Farmingdale State College’s plans to diversify its faculty, college President John S. Nader said. The college’s hiring team has been looking for potential job candidates at SUNY’s university centers and graduate schools, which have a diverse population, he said.

Leaders of the more than 10,000-student institution have been working to come up with other ways to make sure search committees are “devoted to getting broad and deeper pools of candidates,” Nader said.

Along with diversity, Johnson stressed the importance of expanding opportunities and access for students.

SUNY this fall also will launch a systemwide online learning initiative, establishing new online programs and campus partnerships.

Johnson applauded the state Legislature for passing the Sen. Jose Peralta Dream Act last week, which makes so-called Dreamers — those brought to the country illegally as children — eligible for financial aid.

“One of the bright spots in the American scene is higher education, which still levels the playing field for those who complete a degree at any level,” Johnson said. “Increasingly, higher ed is the only path to opportunity.”

Her 2019 agenda also includes plans to increase private and philanthropic partnerships, and investments for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Johnson said she would build on priorities and programs announced in her inaugural address last year: focusing on clean energy, sustainability, and reducing the system’s carbon footprint.

SUNY will launch a Green Revolving Fund for its campuses, allowing them to use loans to invest in conservation, efficiency and clean energy. All loans will be repaid to SUNY using energy cost-savings realized on campus.

“The chancellor’s overall vision for the State University of New York is a solid one,” Butts said. “I think it has some ambitious aspects to it, but I think that’s what our university needs in order to be competitive and remain the largest comprehensive system in the nation.”

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