Dismantling SUNY, America's Largest Public University System

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Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

In January 2010, when New York Governor David Paterson unveiled plans for the enactment of a "Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act," it set the stage for dismantling America's largest public university system.

That system is the State University of New York (SUNY).  Housed on 64 campuses and offering a broad range of degrees, SUNY currently enrolls nearly 465,000 students from all 50 states and 170 nations.

The Empowerment and Innovation Act, which soon will be voted on by the New York State legislature, is not only enthusiastically supported by Governor Paterson, but by the SUNY administration.  According to SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, the Act "harnesses high-impact, zero-cost solutions that will create jobs, build the foundations for tomorrow's economy and strengthen public higher education . . . while saving millions of taxpayer dollars."

Doubtless, tax dollars will be saved under this plan for, as Phil Smith (president of United University Professions, SUNY's faculty-staff union) has observed, it "would allow New York State to further abandon its obligation to provide an affordable and accessible system of public higher education." 

For decades, in line with conservative demands to slash public services, New York's government has paid an ever-smaller percentage of SUNY's operating costs.  Governor Paterson has been particularly adept at this, and his proposed budget for next year will once again have a devastating impact on the SUNY system.  Indeed, if it is adopted, SUNY's income will have been slashed by some $562 million in two years—leaving it with $85 million less in state funding than it received twenty years ago.  But the Empowerment and Innovation Act takes things a giant step further, for it grants authority to the SUNY administration to raise tuition on SUNY campuses to any level it pleases.  This will enable campuses to recoup losses in state revenue by charging much higher tuition than in the past.  In short, the cost of public higher education will be shifted from the state to students and their parents.

Yes, the Empowerment and Innovation Act contains features other than tuition increases that, allegedly, will help SUNY cope with reduced public funding.  For example, it would allow SUNY to enter into public/private partnerships with almost no oversight.  But, as past ventures authorized along these lines have resulted in multi-million dollar losses, there is no reason to assume that future ventures will prove any more remunerative.  Furthermore, the act authorizes SUNY to deposit its revenues outside the State Treasury and eliminates any approval of contracts for services by the State Comptroller and Attorney General, thus opening up immense possibilities for misuse of funds.  The legislation even contains a provision that allows private developers to build on SUNY property for purposes unrelated to the university's academic mission.  These kinds of public/private partnerships might prove lucrative to business interests.  But their value to a public university remains dubious.

Furthermore, by cutting individual campuses loose to strike private business deals and charge different tuition rates, the Empowerment and Innovation Act would concentrate income at some more powerful, appealing SUNY colleges, while leaving other campuses to wither and die.

Overall, then, the act would enable New York State to walk away from its obligation to fund public higher education and usher in a struggle for survival among individual campuses.

And what would the effect of this legislation be upon students?  For hundreds of thousands, it would put a college education beyond reach.  Currently, yearly undergraduate tuition at private colleges in New York State and elsewhere is running in the $38,000 to $41,000 range.  At SUNY, undergraduates are paying $4,970 a year in tuition.  Most of them cannot afford an increase to the private school rate, especially when one considers that another $14,000 or so must be added to the annual bill at a private or public college to cover room, board, and fees.  How many families can afford paying over $200,000 to send each of their children to a four-year college?  And how many, after that, can afford to send their children on to graduate or professional school? 

Do we really want our population deprived of education, knowledge, and skills?

Of course, there is an alternative -- and better -- means of funding public higher education.  And that is to pay for it through a revised tax structure.  Over the past three decades, in an attempt to create a "business-friendly" environment, taxes on New Yorkers with the highest incomes were cut from over 15 percent to less than half that rate.  Why not restore some progressivity to the tax structure?  According to the highly-respected Fiscal Policy Institute, raising taxes by only 1 percent on New York's millionaires would yield $1 billion or more in state revenues.

Another way to fund public higher education lies in collecting the sales tax that already exists on stock transfers.  Currently, New York State rebates the entire sales tax to Wall Street firms.  Reducing that rebate from 100 percent to 80 percent would yield about $3.2 billion a year in state revenue.  Given the fact that, in 2009, Wall Street profits were $58 billion -- three times the previous posted record -- paying a small portion of the sales tax on stock transfers should not be an onerous burden.

Only a short time ago, Chancellor Zimpher issued a statement declaring that "SUNY was born . . . of a movement . . . to provide equal educational opportunities to all; this mandate to offer high quality, accessible, affordable higher education . . . remains central to SUNY's mission today."

If that mandate is to remain central in the future, it will be necessary to reject this latest attack on public higher education and to institute a more equitable system of funding it.

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Jack M Hayes - 3/16/2010

Other state universities have attempted to tie their tuition to price indexes like the HEPI with dismal results. In other states it has only translated to high tuition increases for students because nothing stops schools from increasing tuition above and beyond the HEPI.

For example in 2004-05, tuition and fees increased by 6% ($232) at Mississippi State University and by 9% ($354) at the University of Utah. These increases are greater than the CPI and HEPI, at times double or triple the HEPI with NOTHING protecting students and their families from annual tuition hikes above and beyond HEPI.

The main problem with this act is that it changes the process of how tuition hikes are decided. There is less oversight, less accountability, and fewer mechanisms for students and the public to challenge increases and I see that as the biggest problem.

Bryan Mullinax - 3/10/2010

New York has a Democrat controlled Legislature and Executive - yet this screed to demand more blood from the peasants blithely blames "conservative demands to slash public services". You might want to look at who's been running the insane asylum of New York before making such a false claim.

Tess Tess Tess - 3/9/2010

You said "past ventures authorized along these lines have resulted in multi-million dollar losses". I was wondering if you have any examples of this. I'm inclined to agree with your point of view, as I've seen them make deals with Coca-Cola even after dozens of student demonstrations and thousands of students protesting with their signatures, and also after watching tuition increase by nearly 14% last year after being promised more money for school. But I'd just like to know what exactly you mean.

omar ibrahim baker - 3/8/2010

American avarice towards essential public services(public health care, public higher education etc ) is more of a reflection of an essentially "establishment" general anti public attitude than by any dictates of sound financial management in , for and by the, presumably, public sector.

That avarice contrasts amazingly with the open handedness and boundless generosity in, for and by the private sector as far its own establishment is concerned as demonstrated most recently by the profane bonuses received from BANKRUPT enterprises.

That such a state of affairs exists and is sustained in a democracy casts serious doubts about it’s genuinety as a system devised and publicly adopted to serve the greater number of a community.
Possibly the American brand of democracy is the most effective anti Democracy tool its, and the US's, opponents can line up!

J. David Hacker - 3/8/2010

Professor Wittner implies that the proposed Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act would immediately increase public school tuition to private school levels. In its current form, however, the act caps tuition increases to the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI). Given current HEPI estimates (averaging ~4% per year), it would take about 25 years before tuition reached $40,000, even if SUNY voted to increase tuition the maximum amount allowed each and every year. Assuming the same inflation schedule, private universities will be charging almost $100,000.

With our without the act--which given union opposition seems likely to fail--public tuition will increase. Although I wouldn't want to underestimate New York's ability to tax its residents and businesses--it is currently ranked with California as one of the least business-friendly states in the nation--in the long run some form of regulatory reform seems likely.