The Flattening of SUNY

Two important news items came across my desk yesterday that has me thinking again about the flattening of higher education, something I started writing about back in 2007.  My use of the word “flattened” comes from Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat and is defined as “When the impact of the Internet and globalization render and industry unrecognizable, and in many cases, obsolete.” We are seeing evidence of this in higher education including IT staff being laid off by the hundreds on a single campus, academic programs and tenured faculty being eliminated and, the one that hits closest to home, web positions being eliminated.

The first news item was an announcement from SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher which provided details on how SUNY plans to share services among schools and the creation of SUNY Campus Alliance Networks.  To quote from the official SUNY announcement:

Campus Alliance Networks call for collaboration on administrative functions – among leadership and within information technology or human resources, for example – while increasing efficiency and enhancing educational opportunities by making the business and academic resources of other campuses in the region available to students, faculty, and staff at each site.

The second news item was a white paper from Deloitte called “Higher education must adapt to avoid ‘perfect storm’”. This report details how higher education is starting to function as a market economy and that higher education institutions must transform the way they do business. The report lists 10 areas that colleges and universities need to address to improve their performance. The first of these details how higher ed institutions are over budget and underfunded, and cost management is key. It predicted that some institutions “will improve efficiencies by reducing program duplication and fostering cross-institutional collaboration at the state level.” This sounds very similar to the SUNY Campus Alliance Network to me.

Taken together, these two news items paint a clear picture that the flattening of higher education has begun. Our system of higher education is based on a model that is centuries old.  It was built for a world that no longer exists. Change is coming, and faster than you think.

As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see a future where students can take classes at multiple SUNY campuses and get a SUNY degree rather than say a UB degree or a Fredonia degree.  Several writers including Don Tapscott and Anya Kamenetz have questioned the notion of the ivory tower as the fundamental unit of higher education. In a digital world, why shouldn’t a student take a course from another university?  If the best economics professor is at Binghamton or the best history professor at UB, why shouldn’t all SUNY students be able to take that class? Tapscott takes this one step further by  envisioning a world where a student receives a custom learning experience from a dozen universities from across the globe.

As the news broke yesterday about the SUNY Campus Alliance Networks, many of my SUNY friends and colleagues were up in arms. They are worried about their jobs, and rightfully so. But the fact is that the number of administrative positions on college campuses has doubled in the past 30 years and this is no longer sustainable.  I’m personally taking a more pragmatic approach. It’s time to think about how my skills can best be used in the flattened world of higher education.

I give Chancellor Zimpher full credit for thinking strategically and realistically about how we can move SUNY forward in the 21st century. I heard her talk at SUNYCUAD this summer and spent a few minutes with her afterwards talking about what SUNY will look like in 2025. While the idea of Campus Alliance Networks will not be popular, it is an important first step. Will this be disruptive? Absolutely.  Will there be some pain? Absolutely.  Welcome to the new normal. As Charles Darwin said –  “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

As I said in 2007, higher education is going to be flattened. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.



  1. While I see this “campus alliance” as a good thing, I would request that if you are going to write about education, you learn a few basics. The proper use of “there,” “their,” and “they’re” would be a good starting point. Second, when looking at a regional university system, it is best if you actually spell the names of the universities correctly. Unlike the sunny Long Island vacation mecca, Binghamton has no “p” in its name.

    • Thanks for pointing out the spelling errors. I should stop trying to write at 2:00 in the morning :)

  2. Sharing services is a fine idea. However as a former SUNY employee, I know that it’s hard enough to get centralized campus services for one’s own unit (like a school within a SUNY college or university). How would this work across the SUNY network? Seems like the queue would get awfully long and political projects would have top priority, of course.

  3. Good observations and an excellent summary of how e shared services movement is beginning to finally make it’s way into higher education. But SUNY’s approach is not that new. In the University of Missouri System, of which I am an employee, shared services was introduced in 2009, and the concept was first discussed by then-president Gary Forsee in 2008. Forsee, incidentally, came from the corporate sector and was CEO of Sprint during that company’s significant downsizing a year or two before joining the U of Missouri system. Where the SUNY experiment will likely differ from Missouri’s is a matter of scale. The University of Missouri System consists of four distinct campuses, a medical center and a statewide extension service. The process has been disruptive and at times unwieldy. I cannot imagine how disruptive it will be for a 30-campus system.

  4. Often many in HigherEd bemoan the inefficiencies of the existing system, but when some (much needed) change is mentioned, everyone gets all up in arms, as you mentioned Mark. Change is obviously a very difficult process to undergo, especially in education, which has rarely changed over the past several hundred years. The macroeconomic climate, and specifically the shortchanging of education budgets has forced many departments across virtually every campus to change how they’ve traditionally recruited, retained, fundraised, etc. They’ve had to. This environment right now is sink or swim, change or go belly up – several already have:

    We work in such a highly collaborative industry, yet most of the vitally important institutional knowledge is locked up, refused to be shared amongst peers for fear of falling a few notches in Princeton Review’s Rankings – oh heaven forbid! What needs to exist is a platform that allows peers in the industry to connect, share knowledge and expertise, vette vendors/suppliers and help one another achieve the kind of efficiency needed today – not tomorrow, or in 3 years from now. This is what Jason and I are trying to help accomplish through our platform for the sharing of transparent info amongst admins educators. Once institutions and their employees are comfortable with this sharing and aggregation of knowledge, then the flattening of university systems, state consortia and eventually across all universities will be a much less bitter pill to swallow.

  5. All of the arguments made for sharing come from within the shared services industry (IT companies, consultants). All of the so-called evidence is based upon estimates(guessing), projections (to make the savings sound big) and surveys (because if other people are doing it, it must be good? right?) . No real data.

    Professor John Seddon, an expert in service organizations with extensive experience in public sector systems says that there are two arguments for sharing services. The ‘less of a common resource’ argument and the ‘efficiency through industrialisation’ argument.

    The former argument is ‘obvious’: if you have fewer managers, IT systems, buildings etc; if you use less of some resource, it will reduce costs. But the reductions are often minor and one-off.

    The second argument is ‘efficiency through industrialisation’. This argument assumes that efficiencies follow from specialisation and standardisation – resulting in the creation of ‘front’ and ‘back’ offices. The typical method is to simplify, standardise and then centralise, using an IT ‘solution’ as the means.

    The problem with the industrial design is simple – it doesn’t absorb variety in demand. Because of this, costs soar as the IT system has to be modified and customers ring back again and again because they can’t get what they want.

    The evidence of this flawed theory can be found everywhere. In HMRC or South West One shared services which predicted savings of £176 million over 7 years and actually recorded a pre-tax loss over its three financial years. Duplicate payments sitting at £772,000 and a struggle to manage £12.9m in outstanding debts.??

    This week Western Australia followed Queensland in ending its shared services. It was claimed that it would save $58 million a year and instead cost $444 million dollars (no savings). It is estimated that it will cost taxpayers between $1 – $2 billion dollars to rectify.

    In the USA there is almost no counter debate to shared services or proper academic evidence. But then again, the majority of the business fads over the last two decades have arisen from the US.

  6. Excellent post. I am entering my 3rd year in an online communications role at a MA CC—and you are right, there needs to be shared resources and leverage within state systems. Change is hard for everyone but you need to be able to adapt to survive.


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