Contract negotiations between SUNY and United University Professions (UUP) have left Binghamton University in a budgetary crisis.
A new, six-year contract was signed over the summer by New York state and UUP, a higher education union for faculty, professional staff, contingent employees and retirees of the SUNY system. It gives faculty and staff across the SUNY system a 2 percent pay increase for the next four years, and stipulates they will receive two years of back pay. Because the contract was negotiated between SUNY and UUP, BU did not get a say in the raise. The state has now refused to pay for the raises, deflecting the costs onto BU and other universities in the SUNY system, meaning BU will have to find $8 million to reimburse faculty for back pay, as well as $4 million to cover raises for this year and each subsequent year under the contract.
UUP and SUNY negotiated in good faith, and UUP was just as blindsided as SUNY campuses were by the last-minute decision that the state would not be supplying the money to cover the raises. While the state sometimes chooses to cover raises resulting from contract negotiations with UUP, it is not obligated to do so. In the case of the previous UUP contract, which was in place from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2016, the state declined to cover the pay increases. Although SUNY campuses aren’t guaranteed certain funds from the state, it isn’t fair to just spring the bill on SUNY universities, especially when the universities themselves had no negotiation power. The bottom line is that the state should care enough about the students it purports to educate to pay their professors.
Nevertheless, the decision has been made, and now, the University faces the challenge of finding ways to cover the back pay and gaining additional revenue to cover each year of the contract in the future.
BU knew that negotiations were taking place, but it did not know for sure that the state would decline to cover its contract again. Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations, indicated that University administrators knew it would be a possibility given the precedent of the previous contract, but they did not know for sure until June. The $12 million due this year, which includes the back pay, is the hardest blow, and BU’s reserves will cover it. Going forward, however, the University will have to find $4 million each year.
One of the ways it will do this is by implementing a hiring freeze. Another strategy will be to increase graduate program enrollment. These two strategies seem to clash — how can BU attract more graduate students and expand its graduate programs with the same number of professors? Class sizes will grow and professors will be stretched thin. A recent Dateline statement indicated that BU’s administration was implementing a process to apply for exemptions to the hiring freeze, but it raises a question of priority — which departments will be granted exemptions, and which will be left out to dry? Though this is a step in the right direction, if there are only a few exemptions then it will be virtually the same as if there hadn’t been any at all, and ultimately, the University should not attempt to raise enrollments while freezing hiring.
Some departments are already feeling the effects of the budget cuts and hiring freezes. Recently, the graphic design minor was temporarily suspended. Additionally, the library budget was slashed by 4 percent, forcing University Libraries to cut several titles and subscriptions. This crisis will have far-reaching impacts, and will continue to directly impact the students who pay to come to BU. If the University is not upholding the high status of the academic programs it is touting as the “premier public ivy,” then what does it have to offer as an academic institution?
BU will also be pausing certain initiatives, such as those outlined in University President Harvey Stenger’s Roadmap plans. Other constructions projects, however, whose funding has already been allocated or comes from the state rather than BU, will continue. Though some of the funds toward these projects have already been earmarked by SUNY, these extra initiatives should be second to the basic academic necessities of the University.
Students will also have to foot some of these costs. Student tuition costs are predicted to rise by around $200 next year. The University wants to put much of these increases on our out-of-state and international students, which not only isn’t fair, but will also repel them.
The Editorial Board also has concerns about the University’s transparency in regard to its finances. Although the University released a “Frequently Asked Questions” page, which was somewhat helpful, it is too little, too late. Administrators should have announced this news, which affects everyone in the campus community, much sooner, not when it couldn’t be kept secret any longer. The State of the University address would have been an opportune moment to announce such a change, but instead, Stenger glossed over the faculty raises and said nothing about the other budgetary issues.
Though no one person or institution can be blamed for the financial crisis BU must now deal with, both the state and the University had a part in it. Students and faculty will be feeling the effects of these changes for years to come. We can only hope that BU will work to protect students from the bulk of the costs and prioritize vital resources to maintain its high level of academic achievement.