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Dr. Kristina Johnson has begun her tenure as State University of New York Chancellor, hoping to make SUNY campuses a beacon of economic development across the state. She spoke with reporters on Tuesday in Albany.
Johnson’s first order of business was getting to know her colleagues, and discovering the opportunities and challenges that SUNY and its 64 campuses have to offer.
“…And to make sure everything we do is about excellence, whether it’s in research, education, outreach, engagement. So those are my challenges right now,” Johnson said.
Johnson takes over from SUNY’s first female chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, who stepped down after eight years. Johnson is SUNY’s 13th chancellor.
A former professor at the University of Colorado and later dean of the Pratt school of engineering at Duke University, Johnson has experience in forging research partnerships with technology entrepreneurs.
She says academic research can lead to innovation in the marketplace.
“We used to say as engineers, that patents and spinoff companies to us are similar to what libraries are for the humanists, you know, it’s part of our DNA, it’s part of what we do,” Johnson said.
She believes connections between campus research facilities and small business can be a direct line to increased economic opportunity in cities and towns where the SUNY campus is what drives the economy.
“The way I think about economic development is really like the blue ocean strategy. The blue economy. It’s what’s local. And leveraging what’s local with the education, with the local industry, and creating small businesses that can contribute to the economy,” she said.
Johnson takes over at a pivotal time for SUNY; uptown Albany’s SUNY Polytechnic Institute has been under a cloud since former CEO Alain Kaloyeros was charged in connection with a state contract bid-rigging scheme.
Johnson says she is excited about the new state Excelsior scholarship, which covers tuition for students whose families earn less than $100,000 a year. Despite tuition increases for non-Excelsior students, Johnson says she feels “blessed” to be working in a strongly-supported public system.
“We’ll continue to work together and find ways that we can contribute to the state and the economic engine… we’ll get to know each other and make it work,” Johnson said.
The new chancellor says she will do everything possible to support students, whether it be garnering donations and resources for scholarships, or protecting undocumented students and DREAMers from deportation.
“My grandparents came here through Ellis island. And so I’m a second generation product of allowing and welcoming immigrants. So I’m very strongly in support of DACA,” she said.
And as more SUNY schools bulk up their science and technology departments, Johnson, an engineer by trade, says the focus should remain on both the sciences and humanities. During her first visits to SUNY campuses, like to the University at Buffalo, the chancellor has been most inspired by innovation in art departments.
“You know, the national academy of engineering, the first thing they tell you when you’re inducted is that there’s art and there’s science,” Johnson said. “Art is anything human-made. So it’s the creative side, engineering, architecture, the arts, they’re all together. Music. And the science side are all the living things. So it’s an interesting thing they don’t separate those.”
Johnson envisions SUNY as a partner in growing the state’s economy, by keeping close ties with Governor Andrew Cuomo, using the Excelsior scholarship to provide affordable higher education, and partnering with local businesses.
“I think that what we can think about when we think about economic engines is how we can use these individual campuses to become the innovators, whether it’s in the arts or in food science, or in the tech sector, or in other areas, energy or energy efficiency,” Johnson said.
The 60-year-old Johnson will make a base salary of $560,000.