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Stop Raiding the Ivory Tower

July 28, 2010

New York Times

Op-Ed by Peter D. Salins, former SUNY provost and current professor of political science at Stony Brook University

IT is not a disagreement about expenditures or taxes that is preventing the New York State Legislature from passing a 2011 budget. No, it is a piece of legislation called the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, which has the enthusiastic backing of Gov. David Paterson and grudging approval from the State Senate, but is bitterly opposed by the Assembly and its speaker, Sheldon Silver.

This bill would allow the state’s two public university systems, the City University of New York and the State University of New York, to set their own tuition rates and give them the freedom to raise additional revenue to compensate for the $840 million in budget cuts the state has imposed on them over the last three years. Such a move is long overdue, especially considering that most of the money for SUNY and CUNY no longer comes from state taxpayers.

Look at SUNY’s budget: out of a total annual system-wide expenditure of $11 billion, only $3.5 billion is from the state. The other 68 percent comes from students, research foundations, generous donors and clients of the university’s health centers and other facilities. The CUNY proportions are comparable. As a top SUNY financial official recently told me, New York is “only a minority shareholder” in its public universities.

However, state legislators treat all of this non-taxpayer money as if it were theirs to collect and disburse. Despite cutting the universities’ budgets, lawmakers have raised tuition — by $620 for the 2009-2010 semesters, and again by $100 for the coming school year — and then kept about 90 percent of the resulting revenues. They even want to control how the universities spend some of their outside grants and donations.

The higher education act would allow both CUNY and SUNY to set their tuition levels without the Legislature’s approval and keep all the resulting revenue, accept and retain all money from research grants and philanthropic gifts, more easily enter into contracts with private vendors and enterprise partners, streamline hospital operations, fast-track campus construction and lease parts of their campuses to other parties for academically appropriate purposes.

These new freedoms would be hemmed in by restrictions to maintain student affordability, prevent financial abuses and safeguard the universities’ primary academic missions. Tuition increases would be kept below the Higher Education Price Index, the most widely used gauge of national college cost inflation; all expenditures and contracts would still be subject to stringent state accounting rules; and land leases and contracts would be overseen by newly established state boards, just to mention a few of the bill’s many constraints.

These ideas are not new. During the 1980s, when Clifton Wharton was the chancellor of SUNY and Mario Cuomo was governor, a commission appointed by the SUNY trustees advocated something quite similar. In the years since, the SUNY board has repeatedly pleaded for a “rational tuition policy” that would end the tendency of the Legislature to keep tuition frozen during economic good times when parents might be able to afford increases, only to impose substantial increases during recessions, as happened this year.

Given this history, it is surprising and heartening that the public higher education act has even gotten this far. But there could be no better time: Beyond the immediate benefits for CUNY’s and SUNY’s students and managers, this legislation could help resuscitate the state’s moribund economy. After all, the education of more than 700,000 degree-earning students on 87 campuses contributes tens of billions of dollars a year to the state economy. What’s more, research at the state universities has long played a vital role in New York’s high technology industries.

The M.R.I. was invented at SUNY’s Downstate Medical Center. The bar code reader was developed at SUNY Stony Brook. SUNY Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is working on a new generation of computer chips. SUNY Buffalo’s growing life sciences center is a major engine of the local economy, which is why Buffalo’s Democratic state senator, William Stachowski, won’t sign on to a budget deal without the public higher education act.

The Assembly’s opposition, ostensibly out of concern for student affordability, is both misplaced and insincere. It is misplaced because New York’s Tuition Assistance Program underwrites, on a sliding scale tied to their level of need, low-income students’ tuition burden. And it is insincere because the state has not, over the long term, kept tuition levels below the higher education price index. As we’ve seen, not only does the Legislature increase tuition in huge leaps at the most economically inopportune times, it then retains the tuition revenue to offset losses in general tax receipts.

At the same time, the governor’s endorsement of this bill may rest as much on fiscal necessity as on its merits. CUNY and SUNY are among the few state entities whose budgets are not held hostage by politically powerful interest groups like unionized health care workers and teachers, so giving the schools the ability to raise their tuition as needed would make it easier for the state to significantly reduce its contributions to them. Whatever his motive, however, the governor is right and the Assembly is wrong.

Unless CUNY and SUNY can count on stable and predictable revenues, and have the flexibility to use them effectively to assure a high quality of instruction and research, these great universities will slowly wither, taking the state’s economy along with them.

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The Accidental Giant of Higher Education

July 26, 2010

New York Times

July 24, 2010

NANCY L. ZIMPHER, the new chancellor of the State University of New York, is a woman with a plan. From 1998 to 2003, when she was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, it was “The Milwaukee Idea.” From 2003 to May 2009, when she was president of the University of Cincinnati, it was “UC/21.”

And for much of this year, Dr. Zimpher has been crisscrossing New York State, PowerPoint engaged, promoting “The Power of SUNY,” with its pragmatic and somewhat buzzy bullet points — “SUNY and the Entrepreneurial Century,” “SUNY and the Seamless Education Pipeline,” “SUNY and the World” — about the university as economic and community-building engine for tough times. Dr. Zimpher is somewhat famous in higher education as a tireless and creative marketer.

“I have to say that if you planted me on Mars, this is what I would try to do,” she said a few weeks back, after spending the morning touting “The Power of SUNY” to the staff of the Research Foundation, which administers more than $1 billion in university research funds. She then swore in a new student representative to SUNY’s board of trustees, positively beaming when, without prodding, the student put her hand on the “Power of SUNY” brochure, in lieu of a Bible, in reciting her oath.

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SUNY must be saved: State's public colleges have to be pried from Albany's grip

Daily News Editorial

July 25, 2010

There's a bright spot in the paralytic shambles of Albany: Some brave state Senate Democrats are insisting on reforms that could start public higher education in New York toward a markedly brighter future.

They must hold fast. They must prevail.

The State University of New York must be freed from the dominance of a Legislature that insists on micromanaging the 64-campus system from afar; sets tuition based on political considerations rather than need, and siphons tuition hikes into the state treasury to close budget gaps, in effect imposing huge stealth taxes on SUNY families.

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SUNY Chancellor Explains Push to Raise Tuition

July 22, 2010

WNYC

The state’s budget is now more than 3.5 months late and there's no new progress to report this week.

One major obstacle is the Senate and Assembly's inability to agree on Gov. David Paterson’s Higher Education Empowerment Act. The bill would allow the state and city university systems to raise their tuitions without legislative approval. Opponents claim the bill could make college unaffordable for too many students. But supporters say the long delay over the budget illustrates why public universities need more independence from Albany.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has been a champion of the legislation all along. She spoke with WNYC’s Beth Fertig about why it’s necessary and said one reason is what she considers the state's irrational system of raising tuition.

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Obstinate Senator Helps Fix Albany

July 20, 2010

Crain's New York Business Editorial

The state legislature can't complete work on the now 110-day-late budget because a Democratic senator from Buffalo won't vote for a bill raising new revenues unless the other Democrats agree to deregulate tuition at the State University of New York system. Is this another example of Albany dysfunction? No, it's one of the most hopeful signs that legislators might actually begin representing the interests of their constituents.

The issue is an important one. The sprawling university and college system has been hamstrung by micromanaging from the Legislature, which has decreed that every school charge identical tuition and follow state-mandated procedures on everything from purchasing to hiring. Since this is New York, ridiculous things happen. Tuition remains unchanged in economically good years because the state has money, and it is raised sharply in bad times when students can afford it the least. In recent years, the actual tuition increases have been funneled to the state treasury, which takes a cut for other programs before passing the money back to the universities. Think something needs to be done?

Gov. David Paterson, at the urging of SUNY's new chancellor (and following in the footsteps of Eliot Spitzer), proposed giving SUNY universities the right to set their own tuition and keep what they generate. It would result in higher revenue for the centers most in demand. With the state unable to offer new money, this is the only way SUNY's top centers can compete with rivals across the nation.

Assembly Democrats have said no way. They argue this would be unfair to students, who should be able to pick a school without financial considerations. What legislators won't face up to is the fact that their approach has led to mediocrity. Fewer New Yorkers attend state schools than in such places as California, Michigan, Illinois or North Carolina. The top students in those states vie to go to Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Champaign or Chapel Hill even if they can afford to go elsewhere. Top New York students go to private schools unless they just can't pay for them.

Assembly Democrats, heavily dominated by New York City liberals, are also engaged in a war on upstate. The city has Columbia and NYU to spur its higher-education sector. Buffalo has only its university to remake its entire economy. In fact, SUNY is the one option for reviving upstate that stands any chance of success.

Those are the policy fundamentals. Here are the politics. Once the leadership has decided an issue, legislators fall in line. What Bill Stachowski of Buffalo is accomplishing—with an assist from Neil Breslin and Brian Foley—is to make it clear that what his constituents want matters most. And that's a very promising development.

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