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ESC 2.0 Leading the Future of Higher Education

by Helen Edelman

“SUNY Empire State College's dedicated faculty and staff use innovative, alternative and flexible approaches to higher education that transform people and communities by providing rigorous programs that connect individuals' unique and diverse lives to their personal learning goals.”

– The mission of the college, as conceived by its founders in 1971

March 27, 2014, was a momentous day in the history of Empire State College. In its 43rd year, the college formally welcomed its fourth president, Merodie A. Hancock, who was fervent in her address to the hundreds assembled at her inaugural ceremony about the future of the college and her keen excitement about spearheading initiatives to further align ESC with the State University of New York’s goal to make higher education more accessible and relevant.

 
 
Merodie A. Hancock was fervent in her address to the hundreds assembled at her inaugural ceremony about the future of the college, describing SUNY Empire State College as "the country's gold standard for rigorous, liberal arts open education."

The crowd gathered to honor Hancock featured dignitaries on the podium including State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees H. Carl McCall, College Council Chairman James Lytle, Foundation Board President Ann Turner ’86, College Council member G. Angela Henry, President of the Faculty Senate Thomas McElroy ’96, who served as mace bearer, Mentor Cynthia Bates, alumna and current graduate student and editor of The Student Connection Sandra Barkevich ’13 and Rabbi Anna Sugarman. Also in attendance were the college’s deans, its faculty, staff, students and alumni, Hancock’s family and friends, public officials such as Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen, presidents of other SUNY and area colleges, Empire State College’s three former presidents and members of the press.

Days later, Hancock took the time to reflect and expand on her inaugural remarks. She touched on a wide range of subjects, such as innovative educational technology, the economy and globalization as they affect students, social trends and morphing attitudes toward online education and nontraditional adult students. She also spoke of shifting demographics, politics, employment needs and opportunities that, in part, drive academic program development and her determination that Empire State College will emerge as the leader among U.S. public colleges in response to new demands and approaches.

The Unique Experience that is Empire State College

Hancock inherits a college that has been flexible and responsive in the execution of its philosophy, able to bend without breaking to accommodate continually shifting trends, while maintaining a steadfast focus on its commitment to uphold the vision of its founders.

Even the name of the college reflects its singularity. While other SUNY campuses assume the identities of their locations, Empire State College explicitly represents the entire state – from Long Island to Buffalo, and far beyond, as the Center for Distance Learning reaches every state in the union, international partners, Americans living abroad, and veterans and deployed service members around the world.

The stability and prestige of the institution is rooted in its relationship to the State University of New York, which is the largest public university system in the U.S. But its success, measured in the success of its students and nearly 73,000 alumni, abides in the college itself, in the interactions of mentors and students on a daily basis and over time and in the deep well of services offered to ensure that learning is rich, rewarding and sparks lifelong curiosity and discovery.

The unique experience that is Empire State College originated in 1971 as an education experiment conceived by then-chancellor of the SUNY system Ernest L. Boyer, who was passionate about serving those New Yorkers not accommodated by the state’s higher education system as it then was construed.

Now, in 2014, under Hancock’s leadership, the college is set to “re-emerge,” in her words, “stronger, more agile, more creative and poised” to both withstand and embrace the inevitable intellectual and practical evolution inherent in an increasingly fluid and unpredictable world.

With respect for the founders’ vision, Hancock pledged to safeguard and extend their intentions by continually promulgating the college’s “relevance,” not merely as a good idea, but as a fertile working model that connects programs and services to productive, meaningful outcomes for the diverse population served by the pioneering institution.

“I think about Boyer’s statement that education is meant ‘to transform you,’” says Hancock. “I don’t want to give up what we’ve been, but I want to take on today’s learners, responding to them with alternatives such as credit by examination, prior-learning and competency-based assessments as they advance toward a degree. I want the college to be proactive about a learning-centered approach. It’s a matter of looking at where we are in our world – the strengths and weaknesses – and re-emerging as the best, the most we can be. We will continue to lead by never sitting still.”

Responding to the Changing Economy

Hancock also wants the college to be responsive to the changing economy of the state of New York and the evolving goals of workforce development.

“We will continue to relate our learners to their programs, both structured and unstructured, to connect students and their mentors on their academic journey and connect personal and professional components of an education,” Hancock says. “There are hundreds of thousands of nontraditional students who have not gone back to college and we will open the doors for them.”

Empire State College students, Hancock notes, “are both challenged and encouraged to push themselves in an environment for individuals who are not just looking for a job and a promotion, but for a broad, liberal education.”

To facilitate it, Hancock says, “We’re looking at technology in a number of areas that can bring us together in communities of common interest across the state and around the globe. Technology offers tools that promote collaboration and interaction and support Open SUNY Complete,” which is an initiative to help learners who have taken a break from their college degree programs and now want to return to school. Empire State College is well positioned to be at the forefront of the movement because of the college’s long experience delivering education to nontraditional students online, in small groups, through independent study, or at short residencies, enabling more students to participate in more educational opportunities.

“We are already doing well, but we can do better,” Hancock says. “We have to be agile. One course may be very traditional in a classroom, and another may be an independent study with a mentor, or the student may already know the material and want competency-based credit. The point is, our students can be online or face to face, they can mix and mingle approaches. We should always be looking at how we distribute education and asking ourselves, ‘What are the student touch points?’”

Additionally, Hancock underlines the need for faculty and students to develop “an international Rolodex.” As industry becomes more global and more international travel is required, ESC students will need to prepare to work both abroad and on U.S. soil with colleagues drawn from a worldwide arena. Hancock speaks of the potential of the college’s Center for International Programs to expand, continuing to serve foreign students in ESC’s overseas programs, but also hosting foreign students on U.S. soil, as well as encouraging USA-based students to study abroad. Many alumni already work for international corporations, or want to, the president points out, adding that current and potential overseas partners, as well as experts among ESC’s faculty and staff in international business areas of study are being consulted about student residencies – both in the U.S. and abroad – that would promote “a cohesive community.”

Breaking Down Silos

Hancock wants to “break down the silos,” so that students, faculty and staff, and the general public think of ESC as one college and not as separate divisions, thereby leveraging the college’s expertise across regions and programs – even spanning oceans.

“We have a lot of pieces to deal with, but we are so fortunate because we actually have fewer boundaries to break down than traditional colleges do,” says Hancock. “We have so much to accomplish that we have to take advantage of every resource in the college, regardless of where it is.”

She says there also will be a stronger emphasis on relationships, such as links with research partners and social services, increasing access as an inroad to relevancy in their education for students. Hancock wants to support SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s “aggressive agenda” by finding ways to “realign” with SUNY’s mission to match New York state’s needs with students’ abilities.

 
 

“With its world-class degree offerings and flexible class schedule, Empire State College has become a top choice for nontraditional and adult students. As the college continues to build upon its excellent reputation and service, we are fortunate to have Merodie at the helm. Congratulations to Merodie and the entire campus community.”

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher

“The chancellor is raising the bar for colleges and students and ESC is stepping up and doing it better, dedicating staff and faculty to make it the strongest place it can be,” Hancock says, while acknowledging that “the process will sometimes be uphill – but still fun.”

The president predicts she might “lose sleep sometimes,” but she is committed to listening to naysayers’ legitimate concerns as she leads the college through these changes.

“Concerns add value – that’s why I tend to put something out there and let people respond,” she says. “We are in a challenging time for the budget and social change, so we have to figure out how to build creatively. We have a great team, passionate about doing what we do in a way that has meaning and purpose.”

The president calls her plans for the college “innovative, optimistic and bold.” But, she says she won’t be alone in meeting the challenges, concluding, “People want to put in the effort and I am honored to lead them.”