SUNYCON reevaluates business model

The State University of New York held its fifth annual “Critical Issues in Higher Education” conference—or SUNYCON—in New York City from Thursday Oct. 29–Friday Oct. 30.

Project coordinator for Geneseo in Red Hook, New York in Brooklyn Maddy Smith ’14 attended the conference. “At SUNYCON, we talked about making college accessible to everyone in terms of lower-income students, credit hour tuition, overhead costs and the role of colleges with governments and non-profit organizations,” Smith said in a phone interview.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Long also attended the conference, explaining that the goal of SUNYCON was to “challenge our assumptions about … how we fund higher education, how we structure it in our course boxes, what its goals are, all those things.”

SUNYCON included a student fellows program. According to Long, hundreds of students and faculty apply and 12 are chosen.

“One of the students selected from one of the other colleges was a master student there and had her undergraduate degree from Geneseo,” Long said.

Visiting professor at Stony Brook Alan Alda spoke at the conference about how practicing improvisation can improve communication skills.

“He showed some before and after videos of a graduate student in science explaining her research,” Long said. “And then she does these improvisation workshops and then she comes back in the next video and she’s telling the story entirely differently with metaphors and examples and narrative,”

Other speakers at the event included president and chief executive officer for the Clinton Foundation Donna Shalala, publisher and executive chairman from The New Republic Chris Hughes and the CEO of edX Anant Agarwal.

“One of the interesting things about the conference was getting these very different kinds of entities talking about the same questions,” Long said.

According to an article in the Times Union, one major question that the conference attempted to answer was, “What do colleges and universities need to do today to ensure future strength and relevance?”

Long stressed the importance of being able to both cherish tradition and utilize new opportunities to better the education system. “You have to look at the values of the old, but not prevent yourself from taking advantage of the new innovations,” she said. “That’s sort of what our digital learning statement goes to in our own campus. Trying to adapt the very best of both, of all kinds of learning.”

One example of digital learning that Geneseo already has is Digital Thoreau, which professor and chair of English Paul Shacht runs.

“They’ve taken the text of Thoreau’s Walden and made it into a fluid text edition online where you can see all the different versions of the text … you can go back and forth between them,” Long said. “There’s a social reading frame around it, so that people can comment … They’re involving this digital learning space around a particular text and hopefully that will expand to other things.”

In addition, Long noted that the education department has some online courses available for future teachers and teachers are offering office hours online as well.

One of the goals of SUNY is to make higher education more accessible to everyone—a recurring theme throughout the conference. According to Long, SUNY plans to “[grant] 150,000 credentials rather than the 93,000 the system now grants by 2020, which means some kind of expansion. Some of that expansion will be in things like badging and certificates and micro-credentials.” Geneseo is looking to expand its programs by creating certificate opportunities over the summer.

“We can add a few new degrees at the master’s level; most of those will be in the professional fields and education and business because that’s where we have the capacity to grow at the moment,” Long said. “And we’re looking this summer to do some courses that would be primarily online but that would have … face-to-face experience—field experience in Red Hook.”

A group of interdisciplinary faculty members at Geneseo is also looking to develop a certificate course in data analysis. Long noted that the program could include “computational analysis, data analytics.”

“Those things that are valuable to a lot of different disciplines; the School of Business is interested in this, several of the sciences [and] English is actually interested as well,” she added.

In terms of the future of higher education, Smith expressed her belief that “colleges have to have a good handle on their strengths.”

“Instead of trying to do everything, they should know what they can offer,” she said. “They also should have an understanding of the needs of students coming in while not compromising the academics offered and know their roles in engaging with communities.”