Re-Rethinking SUNY


There are critics who say that the State University of New York is too big and costly to subsidize the way Albany once did. But the claim that the state doesn’t have the money to adequately fund public education is the result of skewed budgetary priorities. The assertion that there are costly redundancies in the programs offered within the 64-campus system is a smoke screen for downsizing efforts. The argument that SUNY is a drain on state coffers, and that students and their parents should pick up the budgetary slack, is a privatization agenda in fiscal-hardship clothing. And all these contentions are a product of the subversion of the traditional thinking about the state university and its role in the state’s economy. They gain mainstream acceptance through the steady drumbeat of the fiscally conservative groupthink coming out of Albany. So public support is reduced, aid is cut, tuition raised.

But there is another conception of SUNY—one that sees the university not as an economic drain, but a needed and neglected engine. A healthy and properly funded state university system can meet its historic mission of making college affordable, while also creating jobs and providing a steady stream of educated graduates who will ensure New York’s future economic health. The Economic Policy Institute’s Timothy Bartik found in 1996 that boosting the funding for public higher education led to more manufacturing output. There are many fiscal observers, economists, academics, and politicians who understand this, but their voices have been drowned out. They all agree that a paradigm shift is way overdue.

But it won’t come easily, and it is unlikely to come under the current administration. Since Governor George Pataki took office in 1994, he has pushed for record tuition hikes coupled with large cuts in aid funding. Tuition was raised an unprecedented 28 percent last year, from $3,400 to $4,350, and Chancellor Robert King has again signaled this year that tuition hikes are expected. Far from easing the tax burden on New York’s families, such raises shift the onus onto students and their parents.

“State funding for SUNY and CUNY has essentially flatlined in the past number of years,” says NYPIRG’s higher-ed coordinator, Miriam Kramer. “The state has to increase support, not force students to pay more to get the status quo.”

State legislators agree. Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, who chairs the higher-education committee, said that King’s proposal to institute yearly, automatic tuition increases is the wrong way to meet SUNY’s budgetary needs. “I don’t like it,” Canestrari says. “The details have not been fleshed out.”

While members on both sides of the aisle of the New York State legislature have repeatedly restored or reduced Pataki’s proposed cuts to the SUNY budget, Pataki has been steadfast in his efforts to shrink the state’s support, hinting that his SUNY policy has more to do with ideology than politics. In his State of the State address on January 7, Pataki proposed “a new capital initiative that includes our independent colleges and universities—a critical part of our state’s higher- education system.” But what that soft language glosses over is the fact that the state will now help private universities construct new buildings on their campuses—this at a time when he also argues that New York does not have enough money to meet its public-university needs.

“The ideology of privatization—that’s what’s really going on here,” says recently retired SUNY-Buffalo professor Lionel S. Lewis, who specializes in higher-education issues. He sees the current shift away from subsidizing public education as part of a 30-year change in the way state schools are funded. “The golden age of public higher education was between 1945 and 1975,” he says, attributing the growth to the federal largesse stemming from the Cold War and its research needs. Since then, the Soviet threat has ended, along with the money the federal and state governments poured into the competition for science advancements.

Lewis refutes the criticism, put forth by smaller-SUNY advocates such as trustee Candace de Russy, that campus program redundancies (that is, the number of campuses that offer similar or identical courses of study) are wasteful, and need to be fiscally justified or eliminated. “The life of the mind is a good in itself,” Lewis says. “It doesn’t need a justification.” Offering duplicate programs at a variety of state campuses allows students to get a broader education, and opens the door for academic exploration.

But eliminating courses because they are offered on other campuses is only one of the proposals outlined by de Russy in her now infamous 1995 manifesto, “Rethinking SUNY.” Along with advocating the elimination of “unnecessarily duplicative programs,” it proposes allowing market forces to shape the university and its offerings, increased public-private partnerships, the adoption of differential tuition, and a gradual system of tuition increases. In recent years, SUNY has partnered with the private sector in the establishment of facilities such as a nanotechnology research center in Albany. Is the systematic paring down of course offerings far behind?

That’s not to say that SUNY hasn’t experienced any growth at all. The nation’s science and research needs are reflected in the kinds of programs added to SUNY’s curriculum, and in the state government’s choices in capital development projects. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is one project that SUNY, in conjunction with four other regional organizations, has pursued for its potential to act as an economic booster. Located on a 100-acre campus in a struggling city whose lifeblood was once manufacturing, the project has already brought in $300 million a year to the Buffalo area, and is hoped to bring in more in the future, according to Amy Schmit, the campus’s associate director. “It’s a top priority for the city,” she says, adding that city officials, in a recent economic plan, named the campus as one of five target investment areas.

In addition to technology investment, SUNY has recently announced the creation in Manhattan of the Neil D. Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce, to be headed by former newsman Garrick Utley. The new graduate school has yet to find a home or classroom space, but it is part of a highly publicized effort by SUNY to strengthen its city presence.

But such efforts are the exception, not the rule. Moreover, many of these investments are conceived with very profit-oriented motives. Biomedical research is one of the biggest moneymaking sectors—if not the biggest—of the next decade or so, and almost all of SUNY’s development efforts in the field are the result of private-public partnerships designed, in part, to enrich the companies and individuals investing in them. That’s not a bad thing in itself, say critics, but it leaves many other areas of the university system neglected.

The very existence of a campus, with its army of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, is a huge economic boon to the surrounding areas, argues Tom Kriger, the director of research and legislation for the United University Professions, the union that represents most of SUNY’s faculty members. “SUNY used to put out economic impact statements for the whole system,” he says, referring to the administrative office that published the reports until the mid 1990s. “When the current administration took over, there was an effort to downsize administration, and that was one of the places that was cut.” Individual campuses have published such studies related to the impact in their individual regions in the interim, he says, and points to one done by Stony Brook stating that the school’s affiliations in the area have added over 2,900 jobs. (The study also puts the school’s broader regional impact at $2.5 billion.)

But without those comprehensive economic impact studies, it’s harder for advocates to lobby the state legislature for more money. “Since 1998, SUNY has added about 42,000 students,” says Kriger, in reference to the current historic enrollment levels. “We haven’t had a commensurate increase in the faculty—that’s like adding a full-time campus the size of Buffalo without faculty or staff.”

Investments in medical research, with their possibilities for profits generated from patented medical technologies and breakthroughs, are obviously beneficial, but less visible are the benefits derived from students, faculty, and staff spending money and bringing intellectual capital into the areas where they live, work, and study. By making it harder for students to afford college and by freezing faculty hiring, Albany is hurting the state’s financial health in the long run. That’s both penny-foolish and pound-foolish, especially since the evidence shows that more SUNY means more money for New York. It’s an investment that, in time, could help soften the blow of future economic downturns, while helping SUNY live up to its nearly broken promise of providing affordable higher education to every New Yorker who wants it.