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Big tests await new chancellor of sprawling SUNY system

Kristina Johnson, seen in Washington, D.C., on July

Kristina Johnson, seen in Washington, D.C., on July 9, 2015. Credit: AP / Robert Severi

Kristina Johnson’s astonishing breadth of experience should serve her well as the new chancellor for the State University of New York, one of the nation’s largest and most complex systems of higher education.

The logistics alone are daunting. SUNY has 64 campuses with 440,000 students and widely varying missions. It gets tougher when you add in funding issues, pressure to increase graduation rates and access especially for lower-income students, growing competition for students in general, and the tricky nature of New York politics.

Nancy Zimpher guided SUNY for the last eight years. Now it’s Johnson’s turn. Here’s what she brings: She’s an engineer, a powerful statement at a time when scientific and technological fields are gateways to success. She’s been both a teacher and a researcher. She’s an entrepreneur who started five companies, holds 118 U.S. and international patents, invented a camera used in cancer detection, and collaborated on developing technology used in 3-D movies like “Avatar.” She has experience in high-level academia, as a former dean at Duke University and provost at Johns Hopkins University, and in government, having served as undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Energy.

None of that guarantees success as SUNY chancellor. But we are encouraged by Johnson’s focus on students. She said she wants to help them figure out what interests them as early as possible and then, as she told Newsday’s editorial board, “develop individual experiences for students where they can really connect that passion and purpose.” It’s an idea based on a successful fellowship program she started at Duke. Johnson wants to reduce the time it takes to complete a degree, and she is considering intensive boot camps for students who need remedial work upon entering college.

But Johnson, 59, who comes across as self-effacing, acknowledges her SUNY-specific learning curve is steep. Different campuses have different needs and Long Island, as Johnson points out, has schools all along that continuum. She is uniquely positioned to help powerhouses like Stony Brook University turn research into economic development, but must work hard to show smaller comprehensive schools like Old Westbury that she supports them, too. Farmingdale State College is poised for explosive growth, but needs to build more facilities and offer more degrees. Community colleges in Nassau and Suffolk need help retaining students struggling with living expenses. Medical centers are negotiating with the state on fair reimbursements for indigent patients. Small upstate colleges face rising expenses and shrinking enrollments.

And though Johnson is a fan of the new Excelsior program offering free tuition to students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year, it will be her task to make sure schools have the resources to advise those students and offer the classes that will keep them on a four-year graduation track.

When Zimpher started, she visited every SUNY campus and listened. Her impressive legacy includes raising SUNY’s national profile as a system of excellence.

Johnson would do well to follow those examples.

— The editorial board