WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2011
Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, The State University Of New York
What inspired you to pursue your current career? Like many young people who pursue teaching as a career, I was most inspired by family members of mine who were teachers, including my parents, my sister, and many aunts and uncles. Most definitely, my high school English teacher was the inspiration to choose English as my major, a decision that plunged me deep into American great authors whom I love to read and reread to this day. Even though I am no longer a full-time English teacher, I have never lost my respect for the profession of teaching and the important role universities play in preparing our nation’s teachers.
Challenges & Resolutions: For many years now, I have held top academic administrative positions, first as a college dean, then as a dean of deans, a campus president, university chancellor, and now as head of the SUNY system of schools. In each of these roles, my highest priority has been to lead each respective organization in creating a vision for its future. Once there is a vision, there is always the challenge of implementation and, ultimately, creating a set of measures to ensure that we delivered on that mission. So, the big challenges have always been in bringing other stakeholders to the table with a common purpose of developing comprehensive vision, creating the working teams of professionals to implement our tasks, and finding adequate resources to bring the vision to life. The process is incomplete without the metrics to hold each and every stakeholder collectively responsible for meeting our goals. Currently, the State University of New York is deeply engaged in a collaborative vision of driving New York’s economic revitalization and enhancing New Yorkers’ quality of life. We’re following precisely the steps I’ve just outlined and we are publically sharing our progress. For SUNY, delivering an accessible, affordable and high-quality education for New Yorkers is essential to our success.
Accomplishments You’re Proudest Of: Forty years (and counting) serving in public higher education institutions is certainly an accomplishment that I take pride in, mostly because those institutions have distinguished themselves as pathways for educational, career and social advancement for the tens of thousands of students and their families. Further, throughout my career, I have championed the need for highly effective teachers who are well prepared to serve in urban and rural schools where the need is so great. I have organized and led national networks of public urban research universities that are deeply committed to this goal. Recently, I helped form a national network of “cradle to career” local community initiatives to ensure evidence-based intervention wherever the “educational pipeline” is failing our kids, whether it’s in the Pre-K years or in our middle schools or beyond. This has been my highest personal and professional calling; to make sure every young person in America has equal access to a high-quality educational opportunity.
Most Influential Mentors: My mother remains my most inspired mentor and role model. She graduated from college in record time, back when most women were not being exposed to college. She was a Latin major with a business school background — what a combination! She gave her life to the classroom, eventually teaching young women in the commercial sciences and placing them in competitive jobs in their communities. She was ahead of her time throughout her career! While many, many women and men have helped advance my career, only one was willing to edit my papers, help me rehearse my speeches, correct my posture, sew my dresses, ask me to speak loudly, and always, always lead with a smile — and that was my indefatigable mother!
Turning Points: I happened into my doctoral career almost accidently, which is usually the way with life’s turning points. You could say I began following the lead of others who were doing the same thing, largely without a specific direction. Through that process I was eventually exposed to many people who planned and plotted their career steps with more foresight than I had. They taught me how to be more strategic about the kind of knowledge and experience I was acquiring, what field of study I pursued, and persistence in my studies. Even so, about 10 years out in my career, I seemed stalled. A colleague came along who helped hold a mirror up to my abilities, encouraging me to be the best that I could be, and to exercise my skills in a more directed fashion. This colleague became my co-teacher, my co-author, my soul mate, and, ultimately, my husband. And that made all the difference in my career and in the quality of my life going forward.
Future Goals: I have landed in a wonderful place, leading one of the largest, most comprehensive and diverse public higher education systems in the country. You could say that the State University of New York and I were brought together by a mutual vision. I see SUNY playing a decisive role building the future of New York State. Because of the size of this system, I believe we are strategically positioned to take great ideas to scale across multiple sectors, from community and comprehensive colleges to doctoral universities and medical schools. What we need is the collaborative vision to bring our collective knowledge and skills, innovation and entrepreneurship to bear on some of the most challenging problems facing our state, and our nation. I believe SUNY can be a catalyst for social and economic advancement beyond any impact a single institution can muster — 64 institutions working collaboratively to meet 21st-century challenges locally, nationally and around the globe. #