Open university: The people’s university

In her 2014 State of the University of New York Address, Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher launched Open SUNY, a systemwide distance learning consortium. Over the near term, it will reduce the time it takes to complete a degree, course or certificate.

What is especially distinctive about Open SUNY is that it is one of the largest and most complex statewide public university systems in the US. By creating this multipronged approach to sharing distributed learning , Open SUNY has reduced the time it takes to complete a degree – which typically lowers the cost of instruction.

Chancellor Zimpher put it this way: “Online education is arguably the hottest topic of the day, but I want to be clear: this isn’t about SUNY being trendy. It is about making sure New Yorkers have the educational opportunities they need to be successful in the 21st century economy.”

Open SUNY offers eight degree programs through six inaugural campuses, chosen for their capacity to address New York’s unmet education and training needs. Already, 85,000 SUNY students are enrolled in 12,000 online courses across more than 150 fully online degree programs.

President Kevin Drumm, president of SUNY Broome Community College, says, “The strength of 64 SUNY campuses eventually coming together to offer many online programs ought to become as formidable as any distance learning university in the world.”

In this role, Open SUNY’s efforts align with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s goals to connect higher education with economic readiness for the state and its several regional economic and workforce development regions. The eight pilot degrees offered at the six inaugural campuses of Broome, Delhi, Empire, Finger Lakes, Oswego and Stony Brook, were chosen in part for their capacity to address unmet education and workforce development need and demand.

The good news is that SUNY didn’t have to start from scratch – already 85,000 SUNY students are enrolled in 12,000 online courses across more than 150 fully online degree programs.

Over the last several years, Broome’s Clinical Laboratory Technician program has grown and is now ready for expansion through Open SUNY. Broome President Kevin Drumm articulated it this way:

“The strength of 64 SUNY campuses eventually coming together to offer many online programs ought to become as formidable as any distance learning university in the world.”

Stony Brook’s online Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering is a collaborative effort with the Universities of Binghamton and Buffalo.

We learned from Stony Brook Professor Wendy Tang, BU Professor Charles Westgate, and UB Professor Pao-Lo Liu that, “We are excited about being part of Open SUNY. It provides an infrastructure for our faculty to share resources and expertise with other colleagues [at] other SUNY campuses [and] our students also benefit from support, tutoring, and advising services available. Overall the partnership is a win-win situation – leveraging resources to reach out to a large and diverse student population.”

Delhi’s President Candace Vancko shared, “[Our] top-ranked online BSN program is particularly attractive to females working in health care professions who aspire to advance their careers, It offers the flexibility they need to balance their personal and professional lives.”

There are more than a score of consortia similar to Open SUNY, including pioneers like The Boston Consortium, The Claremont University Consortium, The Five Colleges Consortium, The Great Lakes Colleges Association and, most recently, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. These consortia are designed to effectuate economies of scale, efficiencies in operation, and non-duplication of program, faculty and staff effort.

Founded in 1962, the Great Lakes Colleges Association is an early example of a consortium of 13 private liberal arts colleges located in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. With a mission to preserve the integrity of the liberal arts, the Association is structured through committees, councils, and advisory groups made up of faculty, staff and administrators from member institutions.

Membership in the Association provides access to a number of shared services and resources for both faculty and students, including grant funding for research and professional development, student study abroad program opportunities, and a reciprocal tuition remission exchange.

Chartered in 1965 the Five Colleges Consortium – consisting of Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and UMass Amherst – promotes “the broad educational and cultural objectives of its member institutions.”

Five Colleges strives to foster long-term cooperation and sustainable collaboration amongst its members, including shared facilities, joint libraries, open cross registration, and open theater auditions. Participating colleges and universities offer joint academic programs and departments, intercampus transportation, and shared facility use.

The Five College Consortium members are now working toward new shared library solutions for storing and accessing infrequently used print materials. The driving motivation behind these and other collaborative initiatives is that they are about more than sharing building space, developing cooperative library and information acquisition, and multi-site networking.

Established in 1925 as “The Claremont Colleges,” The Claremont University Consortium supports the academic and organizational efforts of the seven independent Claremont colleges – Pomona, Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Claremont Graduate University, and the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences.

Supporting 6,300 students and 2,300 faculty and staff, Claremont shared services, programs, and joint ventures include a central library, a central bookstore, ethnic centers, and campus safety among many others.

Uniquely, the Claremont Colleges are contiguous within a one-square mile area – yielding ease of access to shared services and academic programs. Claremont Consortium students have the best of both worlds– a small and intimate private liberal arts education, yet with connectivity to a much broader and diverse network of sister institutions.

The Boston Consortium – chartered in 1995 –is comprised of 15 diverse institutions, including Babson, Bentley, Berklee College of Music, Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis, Emerson, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Olin, Suffolk, Tufts, Wellesley, and Wheaton.

The group holds the underlying belief that today’s business challenges can best be solved by creating dynamic and actively facilitated communities of practice. Consortium collaboration has resulted in reducing current expenses and avoiding future costs in the several areas of health insurance, risk management, and information technology.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which began in 1953, involves 16 member states and territories that work to expand educational access for Western State citizens through resource sharing initiatives. Western’s Internet Course Exchange initiative allows students to take online courses at other WICHE member institutions that count towards their home institution degree.

Beyond course exchange, the Interstate Passport Initiative is a pilot project to develop and introduce block transfer agreements for the general education core – based on learning outcomes, with goals of improving graduation rates, shortening time to degree completion, and saving students money.

Higher education faces unprecedented challenges and close scrutiny in the year ahead – as the US economy starts and stops its way through the 21st century global higher ed marketplace.

“It’s SUNY’s responsibility … to push the limits of what it can do to better serve our students and our state,” says Zimpher. “This means experimentation. It means pioneering. It means trying new things. And it means ensuring the enhanced quality of everything we do. And at SUNY, that’s what we’re all about.”

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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