10/05/2012 05:25 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities (OK, a City and a Village)

From one Potsdam university to another

This summer, I had the great pleasure of visiting the University of Potsdam in Germany. The big journey took me from one public institution of higher education to another, and from one Potsdam to another.

It's quite a transition. Both Potsdams are founded on beautiful rivers with lots of surrounding green space. In Germany, they have the Havel and the former royal Prussian hunting grounds. In America, we have the Raquette River and the outskirts of the Adirondacks. We also share a dedication to higher learning. The similarities end there, though. Potsdam, Germany has internationally known palaces such as Sanssouci and Cecilienhof, about a 30-minutes train ride from bustling Berlin. Potsdam, N.Y., has quaint homes and churches most distinguished by the area's native reddish-pink sandstone, along with a small but historic downtown.

In 1787, a quirk of geographical nomenclature resulted in a village in the far reaches of upstate New York being named after the capital of the State of Brandenburg in Germany, when New York State named ten new towns on its Northern border after Old World cities, in the hopes of attracting settlers. So, within about 15 miles of Potsdam, N.Y., one can also find a Stockholm, Madrid, Lisbon, and Canton (a veritable European Union in our backyard).

In contrast, our namesake, Potsdam, Germany, was first mentioned in a royal document dating all the way back to 993. The city grew rapidly after the Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm I made Potsdam his residence in 1660, and in 1685 invited oppressed Huguenots and other immigrants to settle in Brandenburg through the Edict of Potsdam.

Today, the Universität Potsdam (University of Potsdam) and the State University of New York at Potsdam (SUNY Potsdam) have become sister institutions and look to collaborate on several exciting initiatives.

Upon my return to New York, someone asked me how things were at the "original" University of Potsdam. From the context, I understood that my interlocutor meant the German university was the original and that the U.S. counterpart the copy or imitation. I rose to the challenge, and pointed out that in fact the roles are quite reversed. While U.S. culture can be seen as having grown out of the European experience and our colleges and universities having their forebears in Europe, in the case of these two institutions, the U.S. college was the "original" and the German one is a more recent arrival on the higher education scene.

SUNY Potsdam traces its roots to St. Lawrence Academy, a public institution for local youth and young adults, roughly equivalent to a combined modern high school and college, founded in 1816. This makes SUNY Potsdam one of America's first 50 colleges. Among public institutions, it makes Potsdam one of less than 15 of the oldest -- older, in fact, than the University of Virginia -- with all due respect to Thomas Jefferson. St. Lawrence Academy educated local students, many of whom trained to become teachers in local schools. With the development of the "new" state curriculum for teacher education, called the Normal system, the college became the State Normal School at Potsdam in 1869, and has gone through a series of name changes ever since.

The University of Potsdam, on the other hand, is a fairly new college, being founded in 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. It has grown rapidly and now occupies an important place among the leading research universities of Germany, hosting several important research centers such as three Max Planck Institutes: Colloids and Interfaces, Molecular Plant Physiology, and Gravitational Physics. As you can see, European universities are not always older than their U.S. counterparts.

Of course, we both have a lot to learn from one another. With the adoption of continent-wide guidelines for European universities as part of the Bologna Process, our degree programs are becoming more closely aligned. The European undergraduate degree is now similar to the baccalaureate here in the U.S., and in both regions, the master's is just two additional years.

SUNY Potsdam and the University of Potsdam already have a direct exchange program so our students can study abroad on the "other" Potsdam campus. They have interesting English-language programs of study for master's degrees that might appeal to our internationally minded graduates. But I think there could be other exciting opportunities for collaboration through our connection to the broader SUNY System as a whole. Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher's vision of systemness calls upon the "power of 64" to harness the potential of SUNY's 64 campuses. So I see a chance for SUNY Potsdam to facilitate research partnerships with other SUNY programs that fit with their mission.

As the State University of New York at Potsdam prepares to celebrate its 200th anniversary in just four short years, it seems only right that we look to strengthen our partnerships with the University of Potsdam, in the city that gave us our name -- and our global vision.