Nancy L. Zimpher, who has been credited with elevating the State University of New York, the nation’s largest public university system, since becoming chancellor seven years ago, is stepping down next year, the university announced on Tuesday.
Dr. Zimpher has relentlessly promoted the system, through a strategic plan called “The Power of SUNY,” as an engine of economic growth and community development. She has also sought to raise academic standards and has made it easier for students to transfer within SUNY’s sprawling system of 64 campuses, which serves 460,000 full-time and part-time students.
Dr. Zimpher, who will turn 70 in October, is also SUNY’s longest-serving chancellor since the mid-1980s. She said in an interview that she would not be retiring but would continue to be active in various state and national initiatives, including teacher preparation.
She also said that she wanted to ensure a smooth transition to her successor — something that has hardly been a SUNY hallmark. By announcing now that she will leave on June 30, 2017, she is giving the university’s board more than a year to conduct a national search for a new chancellor.
“The State University of New York is the greatest, most impactful system of higher education in the country, and being chancellor of SUNY has been the highlight of my career,” Dr. Zimpher said.
She has steered the university during a fraught time for public higher education. Since the 2008 recession, states have slashed per-student spending at public colleges and universities by 17 percent while tuition has increased by 33 percent, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“The effectiveness of the SUNY leadership since the early ’90s has not been great,” said Kenneth P. O’Brien, an associate professor of history at the College at Brockport and an editor of “SUNY at Sixty,” an analysis of the university’s history since its founding in 1948. “In some sense we have been gratified that the leadership that Chancellor Zimpher has provided has been rational, and that she has spoken up for the university.”
Dr. Zimpher, a native of Ohio, previously served as president of the University of Cincinnati. She was credited with tightening that university’s shaky finances but was perhaps best known for forcing out its popular basketball coach, Bob Huggins, whose program was plagued by problems.
Dr. Zimpher, SUNY’s first female chancellor, confronted another basketball scandal not long after she arrived, when she ordered an investigation into the ascendant program at Binghamton University, a SUNY campus, over recruiting violations and players’ off-court troubles. The inquiry concluded that the school’s president and the athletic director had provided lax oversight.
Dr. Zimpher, too, has faced criticism.
In 2012, the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, a Democrat, questioned why money from a SUNY foundation had been used to pay for a private club membership for her, as well as for alcoholic beverages at events hosted by her office. At the time, a statement from Dr. Zimpher’s office defended those expenses as legitimate but said she had canceled her club membership in 2010.
Mr. DiNapoli also faulted SUNY, in another audit, for bad fiscal management of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.
State Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who is chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said Dr. Zimpher had not done enough to promote the individual strengths of some SUNY schools.
But over all, Ms. Glick said, Dr. Zimpher deserved much credit for raising SUNY’s reputation.
“People have a positive feeling about what the chancellor has wanted to do, and has worked very hard to get,” Ms. Glick said. “She’s done her best to try to stabilize SUNY’s financial footing.”