SUNY student reps unhappy with Legislature's performance
August 10, 2010
|SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, seen here testifying before lawmakers, is unhappy the Legislature approved a $210 million cut from SUNY’s budget without passing the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act. Photo by Gazette file photo.|
Leaders of the Student Assembly of the State University of New York say they have been let down by state lawmakers who cut $210 million from the SUNY budget and failed to pass the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act.
The controversial legislation would give SUNY and City University of New York campuses more autonomy in setting tuition rates and partnering with private entities for development purposes. Under existing law, the state Legislature has final say on both.
"We are disappointed with the Legislature's decisions. We are not interested in the political power struggles posed by opponents to the Empowerment Act. We want reform and look forward to continue working toward that goal in the fall," said Kyle Hill, Student Assembly director of government relations.
The SUNY legislation became intertwined with last week's budget vote when Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Buffalo, threatened to stall the budget vote if the SUNY act was not addressed. Stachowski eventually relented after he and other supporters were promised the issue would be taken up again soon.
Eventually, lawmakers agreed on a "framework" for a SUNY-CUNY Empowerment Act and promised to discuss it again in the near future. "The leadership of the Senate, Assembly, and the executive will continue to negotiate the details of this critical legislation, and we will return to Albany to pass empowerment into law with bipartisan and bicameral support," said Senate Democratic Conference Leader John L. Sampson, D-Brooklyn.
But leaders of the Student Assembly are skeptical.
"The Legislature has made a mistake," said Julie Gondar, president of the SUNY Student Assembly and voting member on the SUNY Board of Trustees. "The latest round of cuts that were made are going to be detrimental to the students.
"SUNY has been pushed to the brink and this undoubtedly will lead to numerous academic programs to be shut down across the SUNY system. Eliminating these programs because of lack of funds will degenerate access to quality and affordable higher education for college students throughout the state," Gondar said.
Sen. Neil D. Breslin, D-Bethlehem, whose Senate district includes the University at Albany, said last week the SUNY Empowerment Act has a "very bright future" and if an agreement is reached, it will "do much to enhance the university system."
According to Breslin, the Senate and Assembly are in the talking stages of a deal that would grant universities the ability to generate capital, improve infrastructure and increase educational technology without sacrificing accessibility and affordability.
The details of their plan have yet to be worked out, but legislators are examining ways to balance the protection of equal opportunity of education and universities' autonomy.
Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Toby Ann Stavisky, D-Queens, who supports the empowerment plan, says more work needs to be done to protect students.
Some who oppose allowing campuses to set their own tuition rates, including varying tuition for different academic programs, argue such measures could price low-income students out of a specific area of study or out of a college education altogether.
However, lawmakers supporting the Empowerment Act have said any tuition hikes would be accompanied by increases in state student financial assistance. Because no vote was taken by lawmakers on the empowerment plan and negotiations are ongoing, it remains unclear whether an increase in the Tuition Assistance Program would be included in a final bill.
Stavisky pointed to a recent cut to the Tuition Assistance Program by $75 a year per student as a concern that may negatively affect lower income students.
Stavisky says she remains "hopeful" legislators will be able to reach a compromise that enhances education, and at the same time, protects all students.
Sen. Brian Foley, D-Blue Point, who represents the district in which Stony Brook University is located, said students will not be negatively affected by the Empowerment Act because tuition would be increased incrementally to avoid any drastic yearly jumps that would be difficult for students and the state to adjust to. Foley says the plan is "more rational and predictable with moderate increases" than the current system where tuition can jump dramatically in any given year.
Other lawmakers are frustrated by the pace at which the negotiations are taking place. Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Deborah J. Glick, D-Manhattan, said the attempt to come to a three-way agreement among the governor, Assembly and Senate has "been a very long process of discussions."
Glick said while she hopes an agreement will come soon, she is losing confidence in legislators' willingness to cooperate. According to Glick, there have been "reasonable compromises before us that people haven't agreed to, and that is very disappointing."
The deal's hindrance, in her opinion, is a result of people wanting the entire multi-faceted act without finding the middle ground. "There are principles involved and people are right to be guided by the principles they believe in and those are affordability and accessibility," said Glick.
As negotiations drag on, policymakers are unsure if an agreement will be reached before the fall elections. "If you would have asked me if it would take four months to come to a budget agreement I would have said no. So I have no idea when this will work out," said Glick.
United University Professions, a union representing 34,000 academic and professional faculty on 29 SUNY campuses, opposes several components of the Empowerment Act, especially the ability for campuses to lease land and enter into private partnerships.
UUP President Phillip Smith said since SUNY doesn't own the campus property, it shouldn't be allowed to enter into lease contracts. According to Smith, the land is owned by the taxpayers, so leasing should only be approved by the Legislature.
Smith also said he fears a repeat of the "bad history" SUNY campuses have had with private contracts. Smith points to a partnership between SUNY Farmingdale and a pharmaceutical research company that left the campus responsible for maintaining a building after it was vacated by the research company.
Smith also said if a private company constructs a building on a SUNY campus, the building is considered a private entity. This means the workers might not be covered by a union, thus taking jobs away from UUP members.
UUP leaders also say they doubt Empowerment Act supporters' argument that SUNY schools will remain affordable and accessible for all without a "uniform tuition."
SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher said state campuses need financial support through tuition increases because the 2010-2011 state budget cut more than $210 million to SUNYm bringing the three-year total in budget cuts to a 30 percent reduction in the university system's operating budget.
"Not passing the Empowerment Act this budget cycle is a missed opportunity for the state of New York," Zimpher said. "Above all, we are concerned for SUNY's students and the state's economy. The combination of severe cuts now exceeding more than $634 million and no regulatory relief nor enhanced entrepreneurial flexibility will seriously compromise New York's ability to harness SUNY's 64 campuses as its greatest educational and economic asset."
The act could have the biggest effect on SUNY's four university centers — Albany, Stony Brook, Binghamton and Buffalo. Breslin said lawmakers are still working on ways for the legislation to have a positive impact on the other smaller schools.
Gov. David A. Paterson said he will continue to fight for the Empowerment Act until the end of his term.
The state university system contains 64 campuses that educate 465,000 students in 7,351 degree and certificate programs.
"New Yorkers needs a public university system that is affordable, accessible and provides a quality education, and that's what the Empowerment act would have fostered," said Gondar, who is continuing to urge the Legislature to pass the Empowerment Act. "Albany must choose to either act upon proposed reform or restore SUNY funding; otherwise the access to higher education they have been fighting to protect will provide access to an underfunded public university system."