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Saying So Long, But Not Goodbye: Interview with Chancellor Nancy Zimpher

By Suzanne Lazar ’17; student, School for Graduate Studies, SUNY Empire State College; Editor, The Student Connection

August 17, 2017

The SUNY System for education is the largest university system in the U.S.  SUNY’s mission is to provide the highest quality of educational services to the people of New York through the 64 educational institutions it serves.

The SUNY brand essence focuses on designing and leading the future of education.  To achieve this goal, SUNY needs great leaders. Over the course of time since the SUNY system was established in 1784, the New York state educational system has seen many great leaders provide students with the best educational opportunities available. 

SUNY’s most recent leader, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, made a great and positive impact on the SUNY system and led initiatives, such as the strategic plan for The Power of SUNY, with successful results.

Zimpher announced earlier this year that she would be stepping down from her role as the 12th Chancellor of SUNY, which began in 2009.

I had the honor and pleasure to interview Chancellor Zimpher and talk about the road she traveled to becoming SUNY’s Chancellor.  Here’s what she had to say:

The Student Connection (TSC):  Did you have passion for teaching when you were a student in high school? 

NLZ: My mother taught Latin and commercial studies. My father was a school principal. Both began their careers in a small town in southern West Virginia. That my siblings and I would go to college, that we would work hard to succeed at whatever we set out to do, was a given because my parents set that example.

TSC: Upon completion of earning a Bachelor’s degree, what drove you to pursue a Master’s degree in English Literature and a Ph.D. in Teacher Education and Higher Administration?

NLZ: Out of college I became a teacher in a divided one-room school house in rural Missouri. It was an eye-opening experience, and I met wonderful people—but more than anything, it made me realize that perhaps my preparation to teach in a challenged, underfunded setting was inadequate. And this was with me coming out of Ohio State and what was, and still is, an excellent education school!

The feeling of not being fully equipped to give students my best so they could achieve their best bothered me because I knew it meant there must be legions of teachers out there who felt the same way. So, I returned to school at OSU to do graduate work in education with a focus on teacher preparation.

TSC: Why do you think your interest continued to grow to eventually lead you into the prestigious roles you filled - president of the University of Cincinnati, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and executive dean of the Professional Colleges and dean of the College of Education at The Ohio State University? And why do you think that interest also led you into the many other areas of education you are connected to with the seats you fill on different boards and your interest in writing books – both steered towards education, teaching and leadership?

NLZ: I’ve dedicated the better part of the last forty years to advocating for turning teacher preparation on its head—working at every level to make it more of a practice-based education akin to what other professions experience, from doctors to architects to chefs to hairstylists. Teachers don’t experience nearly as much rigorous clinical training as these professionals, and that’s a shame.

I like to use the metaphor of an airplane pilot: You don’t want to put a pilot in the cockpit of a plane full of people if she or he hasn’t logged the quantity of quality experience they need to fly that plane. People’s lives are at stake. The same goes for teachers—to best serve their students, teachers need hundreds of hours of real-life experience in classrooms and access to cutting-edge pedagogical techniques and tools and high-quality mentoring in order to get their students where they need to go, which is, ultimately, a healthy, successful adulthood. It’s a huge responsibility, and we have to treat it seriously and be sure teachers are well prepared the same way you’d want your pilot or surgeon to be prepared.

TSC: Tell us about why you chose to pursue the role as Chancellor of the SUNY system?  When elected as the 12th chancellor of SUNY in 2009, what was your mission, before you developed your strategic plan, The Power of SUNY, and what was it about the current state of the SUNY system then, that drove you to develop The Power of SUNY?  

NLZ: I was drawn to SUNY because of its potential. I could see, even from the outside, that a public university system like SUNY—with so many schools, and so many kinds of institutions, embedded in communities all over the state, had unique potential to do great things. I took the job to cultivate SUNY’s “systemness,” to see how by working together in new ways—across our 64 campuses and with other partners in local and state government, in business and industry, could work together to make New York stronger than ever and a leader in university-community engagement.

TSC: During your role as Chancellor, what challenges did you face?

NLZ: Being the head of a university may seem like a far cry from focusing on teacher preparation, but really, it’s not. Overhauling teacher training in the U.S. is a massive undertaking, a movement that needs big voices calling for change and demonstrating how it can be done. I decided that leading a university, being in a position that comes with a bully pulpit, was the thing to do. After all, universities prepare the teachers who prepare the students who come to college, ready or not. And SUNY owns this challenge because we educate nearly 5,000 new teachers every year.

Getting thousands of players to work together toward common goals is not easy. That’s always a challenge, especially when you’re talking about institutions or sectors who are used to working the same way for a long time. Changing the mindset about how we work together, how to create what is now called collective impact, is very challenging, but ultimately worth it.

TSC: Did you find yourself feeling more connected each year to the SUNY system with the many events you attended and participated in with students?

NLZ: Students are at the center of everything we do. I mean, that’s why we’re here, it’s why we exist—it’s in our university motto: To Learn, To Search, To Serve. So, yes, absolutely, connecting with students, always putting students at the center of every decision we make, is my modus operandi as it should be for every educator and education professional. How can we do better for our students? How can we empower them to do better so that society is better overall? These are the questions we need to always be asking ourselves and working toward answering. 

TSC: You also co-authored books and academic journals, all related to education, teaching and academic leadership.  What drove you to share your knowledge in those areas? 

NLZ: As someone with a PhD who works in academia, publishing is an essential part of what we do. It’s how we disseminate ideas and knowledge and advance our cause. 

TSC: What do you plan to do when you end your career as the Chancellor and begin a new chapter?

NLZ: I intend to spend time in my adopted state of New York and my home state of Ohio, continuing to work on student success, cradle to career!

TSC: In closing, is there anything you would like to tell the current and future students of the SUNY system and do you have any last remarks in general?

NLZ:  I would say to anyone, pick something you really believe in and focus your energy on that. Pick the thing—the cause, the practice, the subject—that speaks to you and where you are confident you have something to contribute to the world, even if it’s at the most local level. Use your innate passion in something to fuel you, otherwise your work will drain, not sustain you.

Although SUNY Empire State College does not have a traditional Student Government with a Student Body run by a President, the role as Student Chair of the Student Affairs Committee offers participation in many events outside of Empire State College.  Attending these events, State of the University Addresses, SUNY Student Assembly Conferences, and others, creates a feeling of inspiration when listening to Zimpher’s speeches and she displays a tremendous amount of support and genuine care for students.  Although it seems to come natural for her, Zimpher makes it a point to connect with students in general, and those who she worked with directly, in their different roles across the 64 SUNY campuses. 

Marc Cohen, SUNY second term President of the SUNY Student Assembly and Trustee for the New York State Higher Education Services corporation, worked closely with Zimpher and had this to say: “Working with Chancellor Zimpher these last few years has shown me what can be accomplished by strong partnerships between students and administration. Her dedication to, and passion for, enhancing the student experience manifested itself in outstanding initiatives which moved our University to incredible heights.”

Marc recently graduated from SUNY Albany with a BA in Political Science, and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration.  Marc has displayed great leadership skills in his many roles and is on his way to be another great leader, like Chancellor Zimpher.

Since Zimpher’s announcement to leave her role as Chancellor, she has recently announced plans for her next endeavors with officially launching the nation’s first “Center for Education Pipeline Systems Change” as a senior fellow at SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government (RIG) in January, and as a member of the University at Albany faculty in the School for Education, Zimpher will serve as chief adviser to President Havidán Rodríguez and his staff for cradle-to-career partnerships, ensuring that the university’s national leadership in this area continues to build. 


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