We couldn’t disagree more with the misleading name of the new proposal by Governor Paterson for the SUNY system. The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act is being touted as the saving grace of the ailing SUNY. The act, however, is neither empowering nor innovative. In fact, this is just another chapter in a decades-long history of movement toward the privatization and reduction of funding for SUNY.
In a Feb. 1 University Senate meeting, the primary focus was the new legislation, which, if enacted, would guarantee steady rises in tuition over the next several years or more. Stony Brook’s representative in Albany, Abe Lackman, presented a summary of Stony Brook’s financial woes, and the potential impact of PHEEIA. Claiming that it would increase student enrollment by 3,000 students, and faculty and staff by 1,000 new positions, Lackman asserted that PHEEIA will revitalize Stony Brook.
The fact that a number of SUNY administrators—including SUNY chancellor Nancy Zimpher and Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley—support the legislation is indicative of two things. First, the SUNY administration, along with many in the state government, subscribes to the same wrong idea that the state can’t or shouldn’t adequately fund SUNY. Also, as bureaucracies are accustomed to do, the administration wants to be able to exercise greater control over SUNY, at the cost of imposing an even greater burden on students, and further increasing the inaccessibility of a state provided education. Furthermore, their support for the act is based on misleading facts at best, and outright lies at worst.
Historically, tuition hikes have followed, or been followed by, commensurate budget cuts. Throughout the Senate meeting’s presentation pushing for PHEEIA, Lackman kept mentioning the “Big If”, that is, that their entire plan depends on the state’s steady and continued support. But what history tells us is that these tuition hikes won’t go to bolstering the school’s operating budget, but to filling in the budgetary gap left by dried up state funding. Indeed, there is an additional $90 million in cuts projected to come SUNY’s way. The only difference is that this time the budget cuts will happen more regularly, with full knowledge that the students can be made to pick up the slack. As NYPIRG Board of Directors Chairperson Patrick Krug said in a release to the Senate Finance Committee:
“Even if the law were changed so that new monies generated by local tuition hikes would be held exclusively for SUNY and CUNY, those new tuition dollars would still be mounted atop a base of state funding—a base that will erode quickly when state budgets get tight because tuition hikes will have become a first option rather than a last resort.”
In the end, we can expect the same quality of education that we’re getting now, only more expensive. In ten years, with a steady increase of 6-7 percent (as the administration predicts there will be), students will be paying over $7,000 for an equivalent education. If the administration claims that there will be continued state support, they’re either lying to you or deluding themselves.
Additionally, the University Senate meeting demonstrated some of the many benefits of a well funded SUNY. According to Lackman’s presentation:
“PHEEIA will create jobs, build the foundations for tomorrow’s economy and strengthen public higher education—while saving millions of taxpayers’ dollars. SUNY estimates that over the next ten years, its campuses will create more than 10,000 new jobs and invest $8.5 billion in capital construction which will support more than 43,700 direct and 21,800 indirect construction jobs.”
It’s absolute bullshit that the task of funding thousands of new jobs and investing billions of dollars to reinvigorate New York’s economy should fall on the shoulders of the students.
Aside from this hypocrisy that proponents of this plan are force feeding us, there is the half-truth that SUNY’s poorest students will be held harmless. A quarter of all funds generated by these tuition hikes will be held over for grants and scholarships for the needier students. This additional burden to subsidize the poorer students’ educations is being pawned off on students who are “better off”. According to The Project on Student Debt, the average debt for Stony Brook graduates in 2008 was $17,375. Is that an acceptable amount of debt for the average student? Is increasing that by hundreds of dollars more a year alright, as well? We’d also like to point out that president Stanley’s original plan—he’s supported the idea of tuition hikes since the beginning of his presidency—was for the state to fund additional support for the poorest students. Now that it’s become obvious that this isn’t going to happen, is it alright to push that burden onto average students as well? Keeping tuition increases from affecting the neediest students isn’t going to prevent them from affecting the struggling middle class students. In a response to Lackman’s Senate meeting presentation, United University Professions President Arthur Shertzer said, “It’s that group in the middle that most of us are in. That’s the group that’s gonna get hit the hardest.”
If you’re as upset about these proceedings as we are, here are things we urge you to do. Write your state legislators, or call them, and urge them to restore the funding eliminated by budget cuts Paterson has proposed, and to oppose PHEEIA. At Stony Brook, many student groups are mobilizing to fight tuition hikes, with actions that include a rally on campus on March 4. In addition, NYPIRG is mobilizing students across the state on March 9 up in Albany for a Higher Education Lobby Day. There will be meetings with legislators, and rallying for adequate funding for SUNY. To find out more, visit NYPIRG’s office, in the basement of the Union, room 079.