Chancellor Nancy Zimpher of the State University of New York (SUNY) has added a new word to Wikipedia . While she was an English major in college, creating new words is not typically how she spends her time. But this particular word, “systemness ,” has uncommon utility for her, as she presides over a 64-campus system of public higher education in a time of austerity politics. In fact, she thinks that proof of this concept has the potential to ensure opportunities for affordable postsecondary education not only in New York, but in states around the country, including my adopted state of Wisconsin.
By rethinking the traditional models of governance in which institutions exist primarily for themselves and in pursuit of their own prestige, Zimpher is encouraging colleges and universities to gather on a broader, connected playing field where serving students is the name of the game.
While this idea might sound old-fashioned to some people, given that it doesn’t explicitly involve MOOCs or other “hot” ideas, I find much to like about it. As I listened to Zimpher talk through her ideas during a recent visit to UW-Madison , I was struck by the familiarity of this territory. Ever since writing my dissertation on “swirling students”  (those who attend multiple colleges and universities in pursuit of a degree), I have put the phrase “system of higher education” in quotations because institutional culture in the United States hardly reflects systems thinking at all.
Each school acts in a hypercompetitive, prestige- and resource-seeking space that feels almost Darwinian -- each striving to be the best and allowing those falling behind to simply die away. Given the tremendous potential supply of college-goers most public institutions enjoy, their adherence to this approach is remarkable. Instead of flagships working in tandem with sister schools to find places for each of the state’s high school graduates, they try to hog as many resources as possible, leaving other campuses to struggle with less. The greater good suffers.
So in theory, the idea of systemness sounds nice, promoting collaboration across campuses to coordinate program offerings and services, striving for common goals, and working together to count student successes as mutually beneficial. It is an idea borrowed from health care delivery , where so many notions of reform for higher education seem to develop.
But I have to wonder, who really wins? Do the smaller public comprehensives or community colleges really gain, or do the flagships and large urban universities continue to dominate? I am skeptical. Without specific provisions to protect against it, I am betting winners in the current system still manage to take all. It’s just too easy, even in a connected system, to downplay the players with less prestige. In other words, the system can bring everyone to the same table, but those whose voices are privileged, unless actions are specifically taken to disregard or reduce that privilege, will drive the conversation.
To be honest, really reaching the goals of systemness requires that Zimpher do more than coordinate SUNY’s 64 campuses. She must grab ahold of the current prestige drivers (inputs like student test scores, research dollars, percent of tenured faculty) and flip them, elevating the work of schools that really achieve New York’s goals. Since resources are obviously constrained, now and in the foreseeable future, this may mean pulling back a bit on the funds now flowing to the currently prioritized institutions.
Instead, the colleges and universities that welcome all state residents at whatever quality of education they managed to secure in high school and help them learn at the next level, the universities whose faculty go out and actively solve the problems New Yorkers confront in their daily lives, and the institutions that produce the most effective teachers who help New York’s kids flourish — these places should realize elevated voices and status in a renewed system.
Such institutions reject the notion of “higher” education and instead work at the “postsecondary” level -- they are workhorses in the creation of citizens for active democracies, picking up directly where high schools leave off (and indeed, wherever they leave off). Per-student funding needs to be higher where this kind of work occurs, not lower. Faculty should be tenured primarily for their excellence in teaching and service to the state, rather than the number of research articles published in barely-read academic volumes. And the value of degrees produced should be measured in terms of meeting the needs of a democracy, which requires teachers and social workers and writing tutors, not solely the high-tech employees that propel today’s economy.
It’s a big, audacious task and a controversial one. Zimpher seems inclined to try to do it really well — for example, next month she’s hosting a conference  where both proponents and critics of systemness will get together to argue over the concept’s value. Personally, I’m rooting for Zimpher and her word — if she can make it happen, the truly student-focused educators among us who reside in the nation’s so-called systems of public higher education will applaud.
Sara Goldrick-Rab is associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.