When Candace S. Vancko was introduced last year as the officer in charge of the State University of New York at Cobleskill, state lawmakers who represented the area around the campus promised to fight her appointment, she said.
The problem for the elected officials and many of the faculty members and administrators in attendance that day in August 2011 was that Ms. Vancko was also president of the SUNY campus at Delhi and would be leading both colleges. The shared presidency was part of a broad and sometimes controversial plan by SUNY administrators to make the 64-campus system more efficient so they could spend more on student support and academic programs.
More important, the plan represented the beginning of a new effort by the chancellor, Nancy L. Zimpher, to use the system's central authority to focus the campuses on the educational and economic needs of the state. In addition to encouraging campuses to share administrative functions and personnel, Ms. Zimpher's goal is to manage the academic programs and enrollment on the campuses from the system offices, in Albany.
That "systemness"—a term coined by Ms. Zimpher to describe what she sees as the unifying value of a central governance system—is the topic of a conference being held here this week by the chancellor. Only through cooperation and innovation, she says, can university systems finally make progress toward solving big societal problems that are beyond the scope of individual colleges.
"Why wouldn't that be a model for 49 other states?" she asked rhetorically during the conference on Thursday.
Not All Systems Work
One reason that the SUNY model wont't necessarily work in other states is that having a comprehensive statewide higher-education system does not simply correlate with academic or economic success, said Patrick M. Callan, who was president of the National Center for Higher Education and Public Policy.
And in other states, the value and authority of higher-education systems are being strained by the nation's economic woes.
In Oregon and Wisconsin, flagship universities have tried to split away from systems, arguing that their needs were being hampered by the constraints of central governance.
That approach may be good for the individual university, but it undermines the public mission and message of higher education, said Gary Rhoades, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
"We cannot win, campus by campus, in convincing the public that we need continued support," Mr. Rhoades said.
And while Mr. Rhoades praised the SUNY effort to marshal the system for good, he said systems in other states had been neglected and undermined by lawmakers pushing heavy-handed accountability while cutting higher-education spending.
Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the National Association of System Heads, said tensions between state government and higher-education systems have always been there. "What is different now is the language of privatization," she said. As state appropriations diminish as a percentage of institutional budgets, colleges feel they can move away from their public mission, she said.
Consolidations and Closures
But the authority of the system can sometimes collide with the autonomy of the individual campuses, even going so far as to close or consolidate campuses.
In the past year, the University System of Georgia has combined eight institutions into four. That led to the controversial move to eliminate college sports programs and the identity that campuses derived from their mascots, said Shelley C. Nickel, associate vice chancellor for planning and implementation for the Georgia Board of Regents. "When you touch somebody's swamp fox, that's a bad thing," she said.
The SUNY plan avoided campus closures but has had its share of complications, said Ms. Vancko, who now shuttles between the two campuses, about an hour apart.
For example, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting body for New York's state colleges, questioned whether the shared services complied with the commission's standards for governance and leadership.
And there is no road map for running two campuses with one leadership team, said Ms. Vancko. Both campuses have separate union contracts, and sharing faculty members creates accounting problems, she said.
What has been more difficult are decisions on closing or consolidating programs, even though doing so will provide the most savings that can be plowed back into other academic priorities. For instance, the campuses at Delhi and Cobleskill both have turf-management programs. But Delhi has a full-length 18-hole golf course for students to work on, while Cobleskill has only a shorter course. Persuading faculty members to share resources and trust the administration is a difficult task, said Ms. Vancko, who has promised not to eliminate any faculty jobs.
Sometimes, she said, "the system isn't ready for systemness."