SUNY Canton President Zvi Szafran is focused and dedicated to ensuring that the college offers programs and services that can be accessed by face-to-face learning environments as well as non-traditional students who require remote learning due to life circumstances. NNY Business sat down with Szafran to discus his career and the future of learning at SUNY Canton.
NNYB: Since you began your career with SUNY Canton in 2014 you have accomplished many milestones for the college. One of those accomplishments includes record student enrollment for online and winter sessions. What drives this record of online enrollment?
Szafran: More than a decade ago, SUNY Canton put a lot of planning and resources toward developing high-quality online programs. Our innovative idea of looking at how we could engage our online students’ total college life led to significant shifts that made SUNY Canton very attractive to online students - the majority of our support programs became available online, as well as in person, and our business functions moved to online. More recently, we’ve also moved toward offering a lot of our courses and programs in Flex format, meaning that a student can switch from online to face-to-face and back as the circumstances in their life dictate. This is very attractive to non-traditional students who may face scheduling conflicts related to their job, childcare, military obligations, etc.
NNYB: You have established partnerships with international universities. What are these universities and why are these partnerships so integral to SUNY Canton’s degree programs and student body?
Szafran: One active partnership is with the P.K. Fokam Institute for Excellence in Cameroon. Students come to SUNY Canton to complete the third and fourth years of their degrees. The students who come are all excellent. As they are getting exposure to the United States and our perspectives, they provide our American students with a broader understanding of the world and other countries’ viewpoints. We are also working on forming some partnerships with Canadian universities. I’ve also been approached by the South Korean government about forming relationships with colleges there. In all cases, the partner institutions offer similar types of degrees to what we do and have the same goals for their students.
NNYB: What do you hope your legacy will be at SUNY Canton?
Szafran: Well, since my predecessors were both here for 20 years each, Presidents Dr. Joseph L. Kennedy and Dr. Earl W. MacArthur, I hope that I have a few more years to figure out what my legacy will be. My main goals are to have SUNY Canton known as a campus that is welcoming to anyone who wants to study with us. To be the best campus in SUNY and the State in terms of student support—helping our students to be successful—and to support our region and the State in economic development. We’ve got some very big plans to have students and graduates more involved in economic development by harnessing the power of their ideas and creating new businesses, and as a college of technology, that is the very core of our mission—that’s why we’re here.
NNYB: What was your first impression when you arrived on campus in 2014 and what do you think about it now?
Szafran: My previous employer was also a college of technology down in Georgia. When I came up to interview in the winter of 2014, I was interested in hearing about how technology was integrated across the campus in what SUNY Canton taught and did. I was planning to brag a bit about how well my previous college’s engineering programs did in national competitions, specifically in the American Institute of Steel Construction Student Steel Bridge competition. I found out that not only had SUNY Canton finished one place better than we had that year, but that it was also the only college in the east to have come in first place in a previous year. That was pretty impressive! Since then, I’ve only become more impressed by the quality of our students and the dedication of our faculty. We’re all about student success, and that’s exactly what we ought to be.
NNYB: SUNY Canton was very active in promoting remote learning and hybrid classrooms before COVID-19. Did COVID-19 change any of the approaches you were already applying?
Szafran: Having a lot of experience in offering courses online in fully online and hybrid formats in addition to offering strong online support to our students was obviously extremely helpful in allowing us to make the transition to doing everything remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We already knew how to do it well, and many of our students were familiar with learning in those formats. We are carefully reviewing the student evaluations we received over the past year to see how we can do even better in our online programs and continuing to implement new ways of teaching (such as Flex) that will make our programs more helpful to all potential students.
NNYB: Is there a return to “normal” or has the pandemic changed the way we teach and learn forever?
Szafran: We’re not quite back to “normal” at this time, since the pandemic is still with us, and we want to do everything we can to keep our campus and community safe. It’s great to see so many more students, faculty, and staff physically on our campus and able to participate in our co-curricular programs. A lot of learning takes place outside the classroom, both through academics and simply by interacting with other students. I don’t think that will ever change. What will change, I think, is that given the high quality of our online programs and student support, more students who normally might not ever have heard of us in earlier times will become interested in being either a face-to-face or online student here.
NNYB: How have the recent improvements to Chaney Dining Center and the completion of Dana Hall impacted life on the SUNY Canton campus?
Szafran: Chaney is great—the food is excellent, the staff are very friendly and accommodating, and the facility is beautiful. Students enjoy the dining experience there, and that’s very important. I personally love their soup and stir fry, and I had sushi there today. I’m very excited about the renovation of Dana Hall—it’s the best criminal justice facility I’ve ever seen on any campus, and we offer a police academy and a corrections academy that aren’t available at most colleges. The classrooms are fantastic and modern. The renovations kept the building’s historic wooden beams, which I particularly like. We’re also moving ahead on some plans to interact even more closely with local and statelaw enforcement agencies in ways that will give our students an opportunity to get real “hands-on” experience in many different aspects of the field.
NNYB: What is the next big thing coming to SUNY Canton?
Szafran: We’re working hard on several big projects that fit perfectly with our new governor’s priorities, as well as SUNY’s top goals. These will impact the economy of the north country in several significant ways, and will enhance the resources available to our students, faculty, and staff. Stay tuned—I hope to be announcing some of them by the end of the academic year.
NNYB: What keeps you motivated about higher education?
Szafran: The world is changing rapidly, and higher education needs to change with it. Our mission as a college of technology, our purpose as a college of access that is dedicated to meeting the needs of all New York residents who successfully complete their Regents’ high school diploma, and our degree programs that all lead directly to jobs together give us the perfect recipe to stay relevant and keep moving forward.
NNYB: In your most recent edition of the Weekly Blab, you referenced an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Five Ways Higher Education Will Be Upended.” What do you see as the biggest challenge facing traditional higher education?
Szafran: The most obvious challenge to us right now is the decreasing number of high school graduates in New York state, more specifically in Upstate New York. The most obvious opportunity is to offer degrees and certificates that support the lifelong learning that our national and state economy needs, in ways that are flexible enough to work for both traditional-aged students to get a great start, as well as older learners who are seeking to increase their opportunities.
NNYB: You have a trivia contest in your blog in which the winners are awarded a CD from your collection. What is the one CD you would not want a contest winner to choose from your vast musical repository?
Szafran: I often buy CDs and LPs in larger lots on eBay and the like, so I wind up with a number of really nice items that I already have. The blog winners get to choose from these duplicate CDs from my vast repository, so I don’t have to give up any of my favorites. I gave SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras a copy of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” and a copy of Shelly Manne and his Men’s “The West Coast Sound” when he visited campus. He gave me two jazz records, “Stan Kenton’s Greatest Hits” and Maynard Ferguson’s “Chameleon.” Surprisingly, I didn’t have either of those specific albums yet.
NNYB: Do you have a message you want to share with students starting college this year?
Szafran: My message to students is always the same. We’re glad you’re here. We really care and are here to help you be successful. If there’s ever a problem you can’t solve via our normal processes, give me a call and I’ll try to help. And finally, like all good kangaroos, Keep. Moving. Forward!