April 29, 2011
By: by Mike Hendricks, The Business Review
When you get off the Thruway at Exit 24 you see rising up over the trees the impressive modern cluster of white buildings that is the University at Albany nanotech center.
Those buildings house 3,000 well-paid, highly educated private-sector employees working for some 250 companies and represent $7 billion in investment. The people in those buildings are working for some of the most powerful, technologically advanced companies in the world.
And it is essentially the achievement of one professor's vision, commitment and acumen that provided the spark that led to the GlobalFoundries chip plant being built a half-hour's drive away, or perhaps 20 minutes in one of that professor's Ferraris.
All that is literally changing the landscape around here, transforming the economy, and providing the Saratoga/Capital Region with the brightest prospects of any part of upstate New York.
Every community in upstate New York would like to have what we have right here.
It all goes to that one professor, Alain Kaloyeros, who came to the state University at Albany from the University of Illinois to teach physics classes and created what is now the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering across Fuller Road from the main campus. The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany is regarded as the best of its kind in the world.
The ability of the University at Albany to attract such professors and engage in more endeavors with the private sector is on the line right now as the state decides what to do with a proposal pushed by the University of Buffalo to give it the ability to set its own tuition rates, use the tuition money for its own budget and to be freer to collaborate with the private sector.
This legislation has been around for awhile. Last year a version proposing system-wide changes was approved by the state Senate, but failed to get out of the Assembly because opponents were concerned poor New Yorkers would be priced out of the state university system. The new bill is limited to the state University at Buffalo.
The University at Albany has not had the same assertiveness as the folks in Buffalo in pushing for change, but now UAlbany President George Philip is trying to stir up attention so that his campus will get the same deal. A lot is at stake. There is a belief that the UAlbany would fall in academic standing and miss the potential to grow the campus.
Philip says he wants in on the discussions that he believes will be held at the Capitol in May and he wants the Albany campus included in the legislation called UB2020.
A hastily called meeting filled the auditorium at the SEFCU headquarters down the street from the campus Wednesday and the crowd of business leaders listened to Philip talk about what is at risk.
As it stands, the proposal would allow the University at Buffalo to break away from the current structure and give it the ability to set its own tuition, use that tuition money for its own campus rather than have it go to the state, and to engage independently with the private sector.
Philip called the current setup, where tuition is set by the state and raised only in hard economic times and does not go back to the campuses, a regressive tax on students.
Philip says the Buffalo proposal, if extended to Albany, would mean great things for the university at no taxpayer cost.
He had some numbers to make his point, saying that the proposal, if implemented for UAlbany, would lead to 2,300 new jobs, $750 million in research funding and $650 million in capital construction, and create some 8,600 construction jobs over 10 years. In the more immediate future, the change would mean 670 new jobs, $80 million in research funding and $157 million in construction and 2,580 construction jobs over three years.
Philip says this is a crossroads for the state university. Should state universities aspire to greatness or should their purpose be to provide opportunities for everyone? Is there a model that will allow them to do both? Can a state support more than one flagship campus?
Should it? Will politicians in the state Capitol willingly give up some of their political power to local campus presidents? Are college professors expected to teach one or two classes a semester, take sabbaticals every few years and aspire to the security of tenure, or should they be ambitious, entrepreneurial and seen as job creators?
Those are some of the issues being sorted out over the next few weeks at the state Capitol.
Imagine if Kaloyeros had gone to some other campus, say, the state University at Buffalo. The landscape around Exit 50 might well have been transformed instead.