SUNY Cobleskill leaders from the past and the present gathered Friday to discuss the future of the college as it celebrates its charter centennial year.
Current college President Donald Zingale and past president Thomas Haas, who served from 2003 to 2006, participated in a forum discussion about how the college, and academia in general, has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. Neal Robbins, Cobleskill president from 1986 to 1991, was scheduled to participate in the forum but couldn’t make it. He was replaced on the panel by Cobleskill Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Debra Thatcher.
Although Cobleskill’s history is rooted in agriculture, none of the three college leaders had any background in that area before coming to the school, which they said showed the changing nature of the college’s role in the community and the lives of its students.
Haas said he believes Cobleskill has grown to include many more disciplines than agriculture, such as the culinary arts and early childhood education.
Zingale said one of the big factors determining how the college will evolve will be the availability of state revenue to help support it. He said when he began his career as a college professor, all an academic had to do was propose a new program and governors like Nelson Rockefeller would metaphorically “pull out a roll of bills” to pay for it. This year, he expects the state to cut his aid by $1.1 million. This projected cut when added to prior years’ cuts will reduce the state-funded portion of Cobleskill’s budget by $3.4 million from three years ago.
Zingale said Cobleskill hasn’t laid off any professors, but positions have been eliminated through attrition, which has cut the number of available courses. He said as the college moves forward it will be expected to craft courses that meet the demands of students, but he cautioned that the new market approach to academics must be tempered with reason.
“It can’t just be that [the students] want and need a course; it has to be that the students will be wanted and needed when they graduate. Fifteen years ago, there was one program of forensic science in the western United States, just one. Then a TV program called ‘CSI’ became popular, and now there are over 100 of those programs, because students demanded them. Are there any more jobs in that area? No,” he said. “We have a very popular program called equestrian studies. If we merely wanted to give in to the demand of students from across the United States to study horses, we could fill this campus with those students, but it would do them a great disservice. Where are they going to work?”
Thatcher said another factor that will surely change the nature of the college is the level to which its future students have become accustomed to using mobile electronic devices and the Internet all of the time.
“We have students now who walk around and they’ve got their cellphones and their MP3 players — think what that’s going to look like in five to 10 years. The kids who are under 15 now are not anything like us and probably not all that much like the students who are here now,” she said. “We will see an incredible change in the way they think and behave just because they’ve grown up with electronics as a part of their everyday life.”
Zingale said he’s changed his thinking about electronics and the college will have to continue to do the same. He said that in the 1980s, he resisted using computers. Today, the college’s students can follow his activities on his Twitter account.