By Najib Aminy

Billionaire Warren Buffet called Wall Street’s market turmoil an economic Pearl Harbor. With twenty percent of New York State’s budget cemented on the rollercoaster ups and downs of Wall Street, Dan Melucci, Stony Brook University Associate Vice President for Strategy and Analysis, has called the SUNY budget cuts “lunacy.”

Due to the Wall Street economic disaster, New York Governor David Paterson has called upon statewide agency cuts to remedy the projected loss of revenue. In early April, SUNY was cut a total of $50 million, or roughly 3%. Taking its share, Stony Brook was to cut $7.4 million from its operating budget of the fiscal 2008-2009 year. Following the April decision, a second round of cuts will be underway, of which SUNY will suffer a total of $96.3 million. At that point, SUNY would have a net cut of 146.3 million. Stony Brook University, along with the other sixty-three SUNY institutions, are still waiting for their share in the $96.3 cut. Melucci predicts that Stony Brook may be looking at a budget cut in the ballpark of $9.5 million.

About a week ago, Carl McCall, Chair of the finance and administration committee of SUNY trustees, said that SUNY will absorb anywhere from $20 to $50 million of the $96.3 million cut leaving the rest to be dispersed among campuses. However, Melucci said that he believes SUNY will take a $20 million cut leaving $70-plus million to be distributed among the campuses. 

Now with both the national and global economy taking a turn for the worst, Governor Paterson has called for the NYS legislature to convene after the upcoming elections on November 18 to discuss the financial crisis looming over the NYS’ budget and economy. It is highly anticipated that this special meeting will result in further cuts. According to Melucci, the Governor is faced with a $1.2 billion shortfall in revenue. In order to assess this financial dilemma, the Governor is looking to propose another state-agency cut to the tune of $2 billion.

In this proposed $2 billion cut, SUNY anticipates a third round of cuts as well as a possible tuition hike. Stony Brook has had only one tuition hike in the past thirteen years, which was five years ago. The latest tuition hike spiked to 28%, a number that may seem alarming to current Stony Brook students. A 28% increase of today’s tuition would result in an in-state student paying $5,568 from the original $4,350, and $13,580 from the original $10,610 for out of state.

A proposed alternative to a dramatic hike in tuition, supported by Melucci and Stony Brook distinguished Sociology professor Norman Goodman, is a rationalized tuition that increases steadily and allows students to predict how much they would have to pay for their education. Goodman, also the Vice President Secretary of the SUNY-wide Faculty Senate, is a supporter of free tuition, but deems it as “politically infeasible.” According to the 45-year Stony Brook Sociology professor, “the most intelligent and politically wise thing to do is raise tuition to a reasonable level and tie that to a commitment to a rational policy in the future.”

It seems that the question regarding the tuition hike is no longer “if” but rather “when?” “It would be crazy if it doesn’t happen,” said Goodman. Melucci, who would also be surprised if a tuition hike did not occur, is worried about students who rely on the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). This program funds up to $5,000 for students who are the most financially needy. Melucci is worried that an unreasonable tuition hike may force students to chip in the amount of tuition not covered by TAP.

In terms of total cuts, SUNY projects to subtract a total of $210 million by the end of the year, according to SUNY spokesperson David Henehan. Under this projection, SUNY is looking to receive a $64 million cut in the November emergency meeting. According to Henehan, SUNY is looking into long-term solutions to the chronic problem of under-funding. Solutions mentioned by Henehan include the proposition of a rational tuition plan and the revision of personnel classification allowing SUNY to hire with flexibility. This would permit SUNY to lease or sell property to generate revenue, and allow SUNY to relieve its regulatory restrictions, such as pre-audit approval of contracts.

Currently advocating for additional flexibility and a tuition plan, Henehan said about SUNY, “[it] provides tremendous benefits to New York in the form of an educated citizenry, economic development, cultural enrichment and social mobility and therefore merits investment by the state.” New York State Assemblyman Michael J. Fitzpatrick (R) of Smithtown stressed the severity of the current economic crisis. “The dust has yet to settle,” Fitzpatrick said, “[this is] the end of a consumption culture and living beyond our means.” When discussing the SUNY cuts, Fitzpatrick said that higher education was of top priority, but sees the “state has been spending beyond its means for so long.” As a result, cuts across the board are going to be seen, including SUNY.

The Bundy Aid, untouched by any of the cuts, aids independent and privatized universities in New York and financially supports 105 private institutions. When asked, Fitzpatrick said that the mere pointing of fingers and questioning why one group receives more than another is expected, also stating that “private institutions are equally important as state.” Yet, Fitzpatrick mentioned numerous times, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Fitzpatrick believes that such a crisis can result in legitimate oversight and reduce unnecessary expenditure and create a successful economy in the long-term picture.

In terms of investing in higher education, the majority of State Assemblyman and Senators interviewed relayed the message that, due to troubling times, SUNY, along with all other State Agencies, are to feel some pain. State Assemblyman John McEneny (D) of Albany said that neither SUNY nor any other agency is “a sacred cow” that can be protected from cuts. When it comes to tuition, “judgment comes in a vacuum,” meaning that it would be hard to vote against a tuition hike if, alongside the bill, there is a proposition ensuring heat to a New York town over the winter, as McEneny put it.

One of the few State politicians that was clear in voicing his opposition against a proposed hike in tuition was Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D) of Port Jefferson Station. A former Stony Brook graduate himself, Assemblyman Englebright emphasized the importance of public higher education, saying “state universities should be given preferred status with cuts in other agencies.” Referring to the domino effect, Englebright explained that investing into public higher education would create a long-lasting stability and build up the economy. “[Protecting SUNY] would pull us out of the recession and give confidence back to Wall Street.” With a strong belief in preserving both TAP and the SUNY tuition, Englebright sees higher education as a platform worthy of investment and amidst these cuts sees a so-called “millionaire’s tax” as a probable solution.

Marissa Shorenstein, spokeswoman of Governor Paterson’s office, said that Governor Paterson is not looking to raise taxes, but rather to cut spending and invest wisely. Shorenstein mentioned that the November meeting was called on such a date not because of the elections but because, “it was simply the first date that made sense given all of the recent holidays, etc.” Shorenstein added, “while the Governor’s commitment to higher education remains strong, difficult choices will need to be made across state spending to protect the state’s fiscal integrity, and every area of state spending will need to find ways to operate more efficiently.”

As a result of the latest cuts, Stony Brook has recently enacted a hiring freeze. “We had to do something to slow down expenditures and to get people’s attention that this is a serious issue. It makes no sense to be hiring new people now,” said Melucci. He added, “we don’t believe the failure of the state should be put on the back of the students in large dollar amounts. I am really worried about the health, financial health of this institution.” Further cuts could result in significant and highly visible changes for both Stony Brook and SUNY students alike. According to Goodman, the number of classes would dwindle due to a decreased number in professional staff. This would mean larger class sizes, which would result in a longer time to graduate and further raise student expenses.

“When Wall Street catches a cold, the NYS budget gets pneumonia,” said Assemblyman Englebright. As a result, SUNY and its students end up being affected. An increased tuition hike can remedy only so much. With potentially more cuts on the way, it leaves administrators like Melucci crunching the remaining numbers, hoping for the best. “We run some numbers that scare the hell out of us very honestly,” said Melucci, “the numbers are so scary that they are absurd.”