SUNY & The Web: Connecting the castles

The loaded question of the day is one right out of The Dating Game (or What do the World Wide Web and SUNY have in common, and what can they do for each other? (OK, that’s two questions.)

SUNY’s own website makes our first cut at an answer obvious: SUNY is already a Web.

SUNY’s 64 geographically dispersed campuses bring educational opportunity within commuting distance of virtually all New Yorkers and comprise the nation’s largest comprehensive system of public higher education.

What “largest” means is that even though the California system — University of California, California State University, and Community Colleges — is larger, they do not act as a comprehensive system. SUNY puts together community colleges, four-year colleges and universities under one umbrella.

What “system” means is a little harder to pin down. SUNY is definitely a system because it is funded by the NYS legislature and organized and administered by a single entity here in our castle-like home. All the money flows along one course, more or less. And as they say, follow the money.

SUNY System Administration occupies the old D&H Railroad HQ building in Albany overlooking the Hudson. It’s a stunning Gothic-style castle, completed in 1918, often the feature of postcards and pictorials showing Albany’s landmarks.

Old Postcard of the D&H Castle

An old postcard of the D&H Castle (1918), now SUNY System Administration’s building

Castles are strongholds — and symbols — of feudal hierarchies. But SUNY, despite its integrated budgetary systems, not to mention the symbolism of its headquarters, is also something of a confederacy. Thirty campuses are community colleges, one for most of the counties in New York, and they are additionally funded with allocations from their counties. This arrangement gives them both another master to serve – their counties — and a degree of freedom from complete oversight by SUNY System Administration.

The four-year colleges and universities are bound together by the SUNY allocation from the state legislature, but they each have their own colorful histories and personality. Many began as private institutions or teachers colleges with legacies dating back long before SUNY was consolidated in 1948.

Institutions generally have deep genetic codes that survive despite environmental changes, and this may be especially so for universities. If you’ve ever spent time working in the academia game, you know adminstrations and students come and go but tenured faculty, the guardians of core values, are forever.

This creative tension between hierarchy and confederacy makes SUNY boisterous, wonderful, and strange. Meetings of all the presidents or provosts from the campuses convened by SUNY System seem like conventions of feudal lords, though none are likely to swear an Oath of Salisbury. System makes demands on them, they make demands on System. Consensus emerges. I wake up every day with a keen sense of the untapped potential that could be unleashed if we could find a way to forge cross-campus collaborations, without demanding that the campuses sacrifice their individuality.

Even among a confederacy, everyone’s gotta get on the same page about certain basics. Like what language you’ll use at your parlays. And some things ought to be networked and interoperable just for the sake of civilization. Like standards – if not systems – for highways and money and energy grids and telephony. Sixty years after SUNY was founded, we still have a long way to go.

From the campus perspective, having individual fiefdoms with incompatible standards, redundant operations, and duplicate investments — every campus its own moat and pile of stones — isn’t very painful. Each campus has its own flavor, its own distinctive mission, its own local climate and culture, its own ratings on US News & World Report. But the price of such independence – I wouldn’t call it real freedom – is expensive.

I encapsulated this principal about 10 years ago, for better or worse as a corollary of Porush’s Law (a minor one, to be sure):

The natural state of everyone’s communication device is on, listed, and connected.

Like an inverse MasterCard commercial, the price is incaculably high of remaining off, unlisted and disconnected.

If the university is about finding and circulating knowledge in order to make the most good of that knowledge, then some common means of communication is necessary. Campuses should be on, listed and connected to each other. The cost from basic friction at the interface — call it the translation overhead — is just too high.

To its credit, System tries to do reduce the translation overhead and has had some successes in integrating the 64 campuses over the Web. The IT group here in Albany along with the ITEC technology farm in Buffalo have us riding on the same network backbone. There are System initiatives to create a single integrated e-mail system for all students and employees across SUNY. We’re making headway in getting all campuses on a single Student Information Service for registration functions and the like. We have wrangled SUNY onto one magnificent online libary system, SUNYConnect, giving access to the catalogs of all 64 libraries. We’re trying to get as many of the campuses as we can on the same learning management system, the SUNY Learning Network.

But there’s a whole other enterprise whose surface we’ve just skimmed, and it goes to the heart of what the university is about in the first place. For simplicity, let’s call it “knowledge sharing.” If you want to put it as a business proposition, put it this way: knowledge, the most precious property of the university, is one of those commodities that grow more valuable the more you share them.

The beauty of Web is that this is exactly what it does best. Furthermore, it unleashes the power of multiple individuals without necessarily creating a command and control hierarchy that demolishes their individuality. They only need to agree to be connected, on and listed … and of course, to contribute. There are by some estimates 55 million bloggers on the Web. Millions of users create videos and animations and photos and other content. 99% of this user-generated content is provided freely and for free and by private citizens, acting outside institutions of education. I often reflect on it as the single most breathtaking world wide example of generosity and optimism, unprecedented in human history.

It is up to us who are caretakers of the university as a system to embrace this vision of connecting the castles. It is up to us to harness this generosity. It is up to us to sponsor and coordinate the deployment of the best web tools for contributing knowledge and collaborating u-wide. This is not just desireable, it’s a necessity if SUNY is going to survive and evolve as a system. One might conclude that because SUNY already has a special balance of hierarchy and robust, noisy independence, we can exploit this opportunity with special vigor.

[To come: SUNY and Web 2.0]