Kristina Johnson gives first State of the University System address

ALBANY — Innovation and entrepreneurship, individualized education, sustainability, and partnerships are four basic themes State University of New York Chancellor Kristina Johnson outlined Monday in her first State of the University System address.

Johnson, who became SUNY's 13th chancellor in September, said she wants every part of the system to focus on four themes that will position SUNY as a national leader in higher education while positively impacting the lives of students and driving the economy of the state and nation.

Speaking at the Albany Capital Center, Johnson noted the pride she has gained in the SUNY system by visiting schools and learning about their distinct attributes and how they are the cultural and economic hearts of their communities.

Johnson said collaborations between the schools make the system a force to be reckoned with in the world and ideas piloted at a single school can benefit the entire system.

Starting with innovation and entrepreneurship, she said competitor nations understand those who lead in artificial intelligence and machine learning will own the century, and that the question for SUNY and the state is whether they will witness the loss of jobs and entire industries to automation, or educate students and empower faculty and industry partners to lead the new era of augmented intelligence.

“For SUNY to be a leader in this next century and realize the potential of augmented intelligence, we will need to increase cross-disciplinary research, our scholarly work, entrepreneurship and our outreach,” she said, speaking at the Albany Capital Center. “I am setting a goal for SUNY to at least double all of these measures over the next decade. This includes expanding opportunities we offer our students for research in emerging disciplines, and internships with innovators and entrepreneurs in fields that are changing our world.”

She said targeted investments will be made in research to advance the system's understanding of how artificial intelligence and machine learning will impact every industry and academic field, including finance, medicine, transportation, the arts, physical and social sciences, and humanities.

Plans also call for investing in more full-time faculty, particularly at a time when 40 percent are nearing retirement age. Johnson said she would like to bring on new faculty now so they can learn from the current distinguished members.

Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, Johnson continued, will enable individualized education — her second theme — customizing undergraduate degree programs the way Empire State College does through a blend of onsite and online learning.

She said the key to employing data analytics and machine learning is having a lot of data to learn from, noting Terry Sejnowski, a colleague and distinguished computational neurobiologist, told her whoever has the most data wins.

“Our challenge is to optimize a SUNY education while encouraging each individual student to chart his or her own path, and not be constrained by the stereotypes of the past,” Johnson said, recalling how in the 1970s women like her were discouraged from pursuing an engineering degree.

She received a bachelor's, masters and Ph.D in electrical engineering from Stanford University and, immediately prior to joining SUNY, was co-founder and CEO of Cube Hydro Partners, a Maryland-based clean-energy infrastructure company focused on building an operating hydropower plants in North America.

“Another aspect of individualized education is helping our students to adapt to the challenges and opportunities they will face over their long careers,” Johnson said. “No matter what field a student goes into, you can bet that social networking, communications skills and critical thinking will be required. So, we will emphasize these adaptive skills in all we do. We will also give them an enormous advantage of entering the workplace having learned through experience with internships, apprenticeships, research projects and other out-of-the-classroom experiences that prepare them for their unique futures.”

The third theme — sustainability — deals with preserving human civilization through the reduction of carbon emissions and use of renewable energy sources.

With 2,346 buildings, she said SUNY represents 40 percent of the state's building infrastructure and plans to source 100 percent of electricity from zero-net-carbon sources — including renewables and energy storage — as soon as possible, well ahead of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Executive Order 166, issued last June, to reduce the carbon footprint of state agencies by 40 percent and sourcing 50 percent of the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Johnson said all new SUNY buildings will be designed to achieve zero-net-carbon emissions and SUNY will invest in deep-energy retrofits and energy efficiency when performing critical maintenance in existing buildings which are an average of 47 years old.

To help with the initiative, she announced SUNY with partner with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority which will help campuses develop facility plans and co-fund on-site energy managers at each eligible SUNY campus or region to identify areas for improvement, engage in feasibility studies and implement changes.

Johnson said National Grid has been another great partner in readying students for rapidly expanding opportunities in clean energy.

“This leads me to my final theme, which is increasing and expanding partnerships,” Johnson said. “SUNY benefits tremendously from its alliances with industry, government agencies, nonprofit foundations and international organizations.”

To compete globally, Johnson wants more students to take advantage of study-abroad programs. She also wants to build a systemwide endowment to feed resources to schools without competing with philanthropic activities of individual colleges and universities.

“I see my role at SUNY as establishing themes upon which we will build the future, and connecting the dots between the many magnificent ideas and people emanating from the wonderfully distinctive colleges and universities that make up our system,” Johnson concluded. “I am so proud to serve as chancellor of this organization and to work beside all of you so that SUNY can lead as not just the biggest comprehensive public university system in the country, but the very best public system of higher education in the nation and the world.”

Johnson was introduced by H. Carl McCall, chair of the SUNY board of trustees, who called her an innovative and transformative leader who will lift up the great workforce of the future.

“We have a responsibility to provide the high quality education that our children and citizens need to improve their lives and those of their neighbors,” he said.