Challenges ahead for new SUNY chancellor

We like Johnson’s focus on students.

The tens of thousands of city residents who attend public colleges and universities outside the five boroughs, and the ones enrolled at a handful of SUNY campuses in NYC, just got a new chancellor.

And Kristina Johnson’s breadth of experience should serve her well as she leads the State University of New York. One of the nation’s largest and most complex systems of higher education, SUNY also faces funding issues and pressure to increase graduation rates and access, especially for lower-income students. Nancy Zimpher guided SUNY for the last eight years. Now it’s Johnson’s turn.

She’s an engineer, a powerful statement at a time when scientific and technological fields are gateways to success. She’s been a teacher and a researcher. She’s an entrepreneur who started five companies and holds 118 U.S. and international patents. She’s a former dean at Duke University and provost at Johns Hopkins University, and was undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Energy.

None of that guarantees success as SUNY chancellor. But we like Johnson’s focus on students. She told us she wants to help them identify their interests early and then “develop individual experiences for students where they can really connect that passion and purpose.” She wants to reduce the time it takes to get a degree, and she is considering boot camps for students who need remedial work.

But Johnson, 59, who comes across as self-effacing, acknowledges her SUNY-specific learning curve is steep. Different campuses have different needs. Research powerhouses need to turn discoveries into economic development. Community colleges need help retaining students struggling with living expenses. Medical centers like SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn are negotiating with the state on fair reimbursements for indigent patients. And though Johnson is a fan of the state’s new tuition-free program for some families, she must make sure schools have resources to keep the students 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