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Karen Hitchcock: Removal Of College of Nanoscale Sciences A No-Win Decision

On July 16th, the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York voted to separate CNSE, the College of Nanoscale Sciences and Engineering, from its university, the University at Albany. Many opinions have been voiced, both pro and con, since the possibility of such a split was “leaked” this past March. As the president of UAlbany when the nanotechnology initiative was begun and moved through critical phases in its growth, I have expressed my opinion regarding this decision in a recent interview with The Business Review. Indeed, an editorial expanding on my deep concerns will appear tomorrow in the August 8th edition of this same publication.

A bit of history: University presidents have the responsibility to set priorities and select areas for investment based on their ability to advance the institution’s quality and reputation, and to increase the impact of the university on its region and state. Nanotechnology was a major area chosen for investment at UAlbany. Starting as a research center, it ultimately evolved into a new component college of UAlbany –CNSE. With the leadership of Dr. Alain Kaloyeros and his excellent team,  the College has moved from strength to strength, given major investments by the state, by industry partners and by UAlbany.  Indeed, given this trajectory of success, it is difficult to understand CNSE’s rationale for wanting to divorce itself from UAlbany.  

UAlbany’s original vision for what ultimately became CNSE, was to carry out world-class programs of research, development and technology deployment, and do it in partnership with the private sector in such a way as to attract major manufacturing to this region. Through the programs of CNSE, UAlbany’s vision was realized. It is being argued by some that CNSE was split off from UAlbany so it could pursue a mission which differs from that of UAlbany. Nothing could be further from the truth. CNSE’s very creation was to enable UAlbany to fulfill its mission of facilitating economic growth, here in the Capital Region and across New York State.  Universities are made up of schools and colleges, each of which brings its own, unique disciplinary strengths to bear on the mission of the entire institution. Major universities like Berkeley, MIT and Illinois do not “spin off” their strong schools and colleges. Rather, it is through these component schools and colleges that they fulfill their institutional goals and mission.

Hence, the decision of the SUNY Trustees to separate CNSE from UAlbany diminishes UAlbany, damages its reputation nationally and makes it more difficult for it to fulfill its mission. The precedent being set by this decision, likewise, will damage the reputation of the SUNY System, labeling it, fairly or unfairly, as a state system of higher education not committed to the growth of its research universities. Further, students of CNSE will no longer be enrolled at a multidisciplinary, multidimensional institution of higher education with all the attendant opportunities for personal growth.  And, CNSE is no longer part of a research university; it is now a free-standing, single focus college and, notwithstanding comments to the contrary, will never be competitive with such full-service, multidisciplinary universities as the University of Illinois, Urbana, MIT or Stanford, universities which represent, as does UAlbany, a completely different category of institution.

Despite the very real risks I see for UAlbany and the SUNY System arising from this decision, my final concern is directed at CNSE. Universities are among civilization’s longest-lived institutions. They have survived over the centuries because of their rich intellectual diversity and their resultant ability to adapt. As some fields of knowledge grow in importance, others recede, only to reappear when needed by a constantly changing world. Universities, thus, protect the different disciplines of their component schools and colleges and allow them to evolve over time, regardless of their current utility to society. Free-standing, single focus institutions, on the other hand, are completely exposed to often unpredictable shifts in their areas of knowledge and in societal interest and needs. When the field of nanotechnology is superceded by a yet-to-be defined area of science, as inevitably it will be, free-standing, single focus colleges like CNSE can be at risk. However, as component colleges of vibrant and always evolving universities, they can be protected as they are given the time to transform themselves in keeping with the advances in their discipline.

In my opinion, no plausible rationale for this decision by the SUNY Trustees has been presented, and benefits which might result from this action have not been described by either the SUNY Trustees or the leadership of CNSE. Unfortunately, many feel, as do I, that it is an action which can do real harm to UAlbany, the SUNY System and CNSE, itself. 

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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