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Gov's education act gets warm reception from SUNY presidents


College presidents and administrators say the governorís plan for SUNY would bring more predictable and manageable tuition increases. Photo by SUNY New Paltz.
January 25, 2010
State and city universities in New York could be granted more autonomy to set tuition prices if Gov. David A. Paterson's Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act were passed.

Paterson proposed changes to state and city university regulations in his budget address on Jan. 19, that would grant greater autonomy to the boards of trustees at individual SUNY and CUNY schools to: decide their own tuition increases, lease properties for public and private partnerships, and approve contracts for construction and buying goods and services without prior authorization from the state comptroller and attorney general.

"Currently, Albany micromanages everything from the chalk campuses purchase to the cost of tuition that students pay. This burdensome overregulation threatens the ability of our public higher education systems to promote economic development and successfully adapt to changing educational and fiscal circumstances," said Paterson.

"I commend Gov. Paterson for his leadership in bringing forward the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act. This legislation harnesses high-impact, zero-cost solutions that will create jobs, build the foundation for tomorrow's economy and strengthen public higher education — while saving millions of taxpayer dollars," said SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher in a statement she released praising the governor's proposals.

In addition to the higher education reforms being proposed by Paterson in his Executive Budget, he wants the Legislature to approve reductions in support for SUNY and CUNY senior colleges he said would save New York $142.7 million in 2010-2011. Following those and other related reductions, SUNY senior colleges would get $946 million and CUNY senior college would receive $577 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

The governor also proposed reducing support for SUNY statutory colleges at Cornell and Alfred universities to save $14.9 million; a reduction in base aid for SUNY and CUNY community colleges to save $56.7 million; and using Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment ACT funds to support community colleges, which are expected to save the state $50.1 million in 2010-2011.

Paterson's proposal would provide universities with the discretion to raise tuition with an annual cap of 2 1/2 times the five-year rolling average of the Higher Education Price Index, an inflation index designed to track the main cost drivers in higher education.

The proposed policy, known as rational tuition, is supposed to address a problem in the current system commonly referred to as tuition roulette in which there are extended periods of time between tuition rate changes, resulting in some students completing degree programs without experiencing a tuition increase while those attending during fiscal downturns experiencing rate hikes.

SUNY tuition is now set by the Legislature.

According to the 2010-2011 Executive Budget summary, the average tuition and fees at SUNY's university research centers were 55 percent of the average charged by public schools in other states in 2008-2009, the lowest in the Northeast.

The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act would also stop the practice of funneling tuition revenues into the state General Fund. In the recent past, tuition increases imposed by the state were used to offset budget deficits. The act would let SUNY and CUNY schools implement different tuitions rates for individual programs and campuses and disperse money from tuition revenues within their own schools.

David K. Belsky, special assistant for strategic communications for SUNY, said that even if SUNY presidents gained the ability to set their own tuition prices, the SUNY Board of Trustees would ensure that new tuition policies benefit the system and the student.

The higher education act met with approval from SUNY college presidents, who voiced support for a policy that would place decisions about tuition in the hands of individual schools and give them the sovereignty to lease land with less bureaucracy.

Christopher Dahl, president of SUNY Geneseo said he has supported differential tuition since 1995. He said the proposed flexibility for universities would place SUNY institutions in line with schools such as Berkeley, Michigan State and Virginia Tech.

"Because of the insuperable economy and problems in the state, it's advantageous for schools to be unshackled to provide quality education to their students," said Dahl.

Dahl said that even if tuition were raised; that money would be used at Geneseo to help those who might need it to afford to pay for school. He says that the tuition hike in 2009 of $620 was unfair to students and the schools.

"The money was hijacked last year by the governor," Dahl said. "If tuition were allowed to go up, we would be obliged to use that to pay for those [students] who need that money," he continued. Dahl also said that if universities were allowed to lease parcels of land, the new review board being proposed in the act would safeguard against any "unsavory partnerships."

Kenneth H. Levinson, vice president for finance and administration at Geneseo, said that they would use the ability to lease land to benefit their school.

"Here at Geneseo, it's very difficult to have a conference during the end of terms. A conference hall could potentially solve that and bring revenue into the university," said Levinson.

SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry President Neil Murphy fully supports the new act as well, saying that the ability to have private-public partnerships could become an incubation space for start-up companies.

Candace Vancko, SUNY Delhi president, said the governor's proposed legislation "is a light at the end of a tunnel." Vancko said only 10 percent of the 2009 tuition increase went back to the schools, leaving students to pay for 90 percent of the state's budget shortfall.

"This is taking politics out of students paying tuition," said Vancko.

She also said the ability for a university to lease land could be a win-win situation for the community and the school. She gave an example of leasing land to build a small business center that could provide a natural partnership for students with "endless possibilities."

Eric Gullickson, spokesman for the State University of New York at New Paltz, said the act would solve the "unfair and lumpy tuition increases that students have been affected with in the past."

"This is a great, new, sensible and timely initiative. Clearly, reason, creative thinking and good prevailed to create and propose it," said Alan Davis, president of Empire State College.

"I believe the cuts will be manageable in light of the ability to run our businesses more independently, creatively and strategically," said SUNY Canton President Joseph L. Kennedy.

Alfred State College President John M. Anderson said that "the new act, if passed, will put SUNY's fate in its own hands."

"Removing that extra layer of bureaucracy will allow Alfred State College, and all SUNY campuses, to move forward with their respective strategic plans," said Anderson.

Juliette Price, director of communications of the SUNY Student Assembly, said that in general, the Student Assembly is in support of the act.

Price said the Student Assembly officially endorsed a rational tuition policy during its fall 2008 conference. She said the Student Assembly is withholding its final endorsement of the governor's tuition plan until all the details are available.

United University Professions President Phil Smith, a union representing SUNY faculty, professionals and administration, was hesitant to fully support the new act. Smith said he doesn't want to see more charges placed onto the shoulders of students and parents.

Smith said that flexibility for universities to set their own tuitions could endanger equal access to those students who can't afford the higher tuitions. "We're very disturbed by that," said Smith. "[The act] gives the state an opportunity to abandon higher education."

Smith said UUP does support changes to the purchasing procedures at SUNY.

Currently, most procurement procedures must get pre-approved by both the state comptroller and attorney general before any purchases can proceed. Smith said that these procedures are a waste of money and that changing to a post-approval procedure would save taxpayer dollars.

The budget proposal says contracts could be written so they become void if impropriety is found during a post-audit process.

Smith also said he had mixed feelings about the proposal to give SUNY universities the ability to lease their properties with the approval of a newly created State University Asset Maximization Review Board. The board would consist of three members appointed by the governor, the Senate temporary president and the Assembly speaker.

Smith said he is worried that leases created to raise additional revenues for the schools might not always mesh with their academic missions. He also said the new board would not provide enough oversight because projects would automatically move forward if the board doesn't make a decision within 45 days.

"SUNY is being naÔve of being supportive of this approval," said Smith.

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