When SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher gave the first-ever State of the University address last week, she did not equivocate about SUNY’s economic condition.
“Higher education … stands at a crossroads,” she said from Albany on Jan. 19. “Less public investment, more demands and rapidly shifting economic sands require us to be increasingly agile.”
State support for SUNY has dropped off drastically over the past three years, and the state has increased tuition. Most of that increase in tuition goes back to state coffers for other state agencies, rather than directly back to campuses.
But though Zimpher presented the fiscal reality in stark terms, the solutions she presented are still a matter of discussion.
In addition to a renewed push for a package of reforms introduced last year, Zimpher used the address as an opportunity to draw attention to some ideas that were not part of the package.
Both Binghamton University Interim President C. Peter Magrath and Student Association President Jared Kirschenbaum were largely supportive of the Chancellor’s overall goals.
Among these were demands that the state loosen regulations to allow SUNY campuses to enter into public-private partnerships and to procure goods and services with less oversight from the state.
The Chancellor also called for support for a five-year tuition plan that would allow for moderate increases in tuition, rather than less frequent and less predictable but larger spikes that are more subject to larger economic fluctuations.
Both Magrath and Kirschenbaum voiced strong support for these measures.
“It would’ve been awesome if PHEEIA could have been passed,” Kirschenbaum said, referring to the package of reforms introduced last year, known as the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act. “I’m hopeful that something will get passed this year.”
Magrath called the tuition proposal “a slam dunk” and strongly allied himself with Zimpher’s proposals overall. There were, however, areas of dispute for both the president of the University and the president of its students.
For both Magrath and Kirschenbaum, the problem of allocating scarce budget dollars was at the core of SUNY’s tight situation.
There are several other priorities “governors and legislators think they’ve got to fund,” Magrath said. Medicaid, the prison system, primary and secondary education are “very compelling competitors for these resources,” he said.
Kirschenbaum bluntly criticized the way the state spends its money. He said the state should shift its emphasis from what he called “investing in the jail industry” to strengthen investment in higher education, which he said provides jobs, research and new industries for the state.
“These are guaranteed,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you put more money in the pot in order to support them?”
In 2008, at a per-prisoner cost of $55,670, New York spent more on each inmate than did any other state, according to statistics from the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. With nearly 60,000 prisoners in 2009, the cost exceeded $3 billion. In the 2008-09 state budget, the state allocated about $2.4 billion for SUNY and $1.8 billion to CUNY.
Among Zimpher’s other ideas was a theoretical proposal to guarantee successful transfer between SUNY schools for any student who meets the General Education requirements.
For Magrath this was the cause for some tentative support.
“We will cooperate [with the transfer system],” Magrath said. But he noted that similarly-titled courses can cover different material and that complications with transferring those courses would have to be worked out.
Kirschenbaum, however, was more direct in his opposition. He said he was “not too crazy” about it, as it might “change the academic nature and the background of the school.”
Kirschenbaum was particularly strongly opposed to the state’s current practice of keeping 90 percent of the most recent tuition increase of $310 in 2008. More generally, he was displeased with continued cuts to SUNY.
According to BU spokeswoman Gail Glover, SUNY has faced about $1.1 billion in cuts over the past three years alone. That figure includes the failure to cover increases in mandatory costs. This accounts for a 30 percent decrease over that time period, she said.
“It’s time for us to be informed, to unite as one and to take action against these cuts,” Kirschenbaum said.
One way of doing so, he said, is to join the SA for BU Advocacy Day, when they will charter a bus to Albany for students to lobby on behalf of BU. He also encouraged students to contact their state legislators and voice their opinions. The date for Advocacy Day has not yet been announced, but it will take place sometime during the spring semester.
“We need to be informed about what’s going on with our own education,” he said. “It’s so ironic because we sit in a classroom but we’re not really being taught about what’s going on with our education.”