New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called SUNY "the great equalizer for the middle class."
But now he's looking for the university system to do more than just lift up individual students: he wants SUNY to serve as a catalyst for economic growth in the communities that its schools serve.
Cuomo kicked off the process last year with promises of $35 million apiece for the state's four major research universities in Buffalo, Binghamton, Albany and Stony Brook.
Now he's proposing another round of so-called SUNY 2020 cash, for the state's remaining 60 schools to compete for.
Last year's round of cash has already been assigned for Buffalo and Stony Brook, which will use their money to build new medical facilities and hire new faculty. Albany and Binghamton have not had their proposals approved yet.
Three challenge grants valued at $20 million each will be available "to spur competition and provide funding for SUNY to reach the level of excellence that we all want them to reach," declared Cuomo in the State of the State address.
With dozens of schools potentially vying for just three payouts, competition is likely to be fierce.
For a smaller school like the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, getting one of those grants could be a challenge, though it could help with efforts like expanding the school's growing research in the field of environmental medicine, according to president Neal Murphy.
Murphy acknowledges that winning one of those three grants will be tough, but he has an idea to better the odds: teaming up with the other public schools in the region, like Upstate Medical University (UMU) and SUNY Oswego, to develop a more powerful proposal.
"I'd like to see a collaborative proposal for our region," says Murphy. "Is there a collaborative way that we could move forward that benefit the region forward as a whole, but also help advance all of those institutions?"
A joint application would build on collaboration already in progress among the schools.
Not far from the ESF and the UMU campuses, construction is underway on the Central New York Biotechnology Research Center. Set to open this summer, it will house research labs for both ESF and the medical school.
The plan is to surround the labs with room for stores, restaurants and housing at the site of the former Kennedy Square housing project.
"That area of Kennedy Square where the biotech research center is located, where the Syracuse Center of Excellence [is located], is there something we that we can do that could enhance that to be the technology development area for Syracuse and central New York?" poses Murphy. "I think there is something that we could do."
Using SUNY facilities to spark local growth is exactly what the governor wants the challenge grants to accomplish.
To that end, Cuomo's proposed $30 million in his executive budget [PDF] to pay for this year's grants, with SUNY pitching in $30 million as well. Funds to pay for last year's SUNY 2020 grants are also included in this year's budget.
SUNY chancellor Nancy Zimpher says she's more than willing to help out.
"Governor Cuomo's biggest challenge is creating jobs that will move the dial for New York's economy," said Zimpher during her State of SUNY speech. "And he has clearly chosen to do so in partnership with SUNY. Governor Cuomo is not alone in taking on this challenge."
Details and deadlines on the new round of grants have not been released yet and requests for more information from the governor's office went unanswered.