Mar 17, 2010

President Sam Stanley’s university police zealously held students behind barricades. The barricades were placed so the demonstrators were forced off the CEWIT building’s comfortable concrete walkway and were made to stand in a wet, muddy field on the cold winter day. Water seeped through their shoes and socks as they carefully complied with police demands.

They marched in a circle and repeated a variety of blunt chants to express their opposition to Insidious, Creeping Tuition Hikes (or PHEEIA) as well as the University’s refusal to award Research Assistants a decent contract after three long years of negotiation. When President Stanley emerged from his research planning symposium, he passed by the demonstration and accepted a letter addressed to both him and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, before hustling to his chauffeured car.

The demonstrators have the right idea; PHEEIA, a tuition-increasing monster, would be a disaster for SUNY students and the State of New York. President Stanley, who is on the record as being “tremendously excited” about the proposal, and Chancellor Zimpher, who clumsily defends it in a recent op-ed in the Albany Times Union, neglect their responsibilities to SUNY and betray the students by endorsing PHEEIA. Perhaps most disappointingly, student “leaders” like USG President Jasper Wilson and GSO President Dylan Selterman are failing their constituencies with their ill-considered support.

PHEEIA, a complex 36-page legislative proposal originating from Governor David Patterson, has many implications. One element of the bill, which PHEEIA supporters love to mention, is hard to argue with. Currently, the State of New York can raise tuition at SUNY and then take that money from schools to fund any state project, worthwhile or corrupt, out of the wallets of students. PHEEIA would keep the money SUNY collects available for SUNY expenditures. If that was all the bill did, it might be worthwhile.

Unfortunately, PHEEIA’s main purpose is to continue a half century-long attack on public institutions in America. Among other attacks on the heart and soul of SUNY, PHEEIA is a perpetual tuition increase engine. Tuition increase after tuition increase isn’t just bad for Stony Brook students’ personal interests; by undermining SUNY’s mission to provide accessible higher education to those priced out of private universities, PHEEIA interferes with SUNY’s function to create a more just society. An inequitable New York threatens all of us. It deprives us of both the accomplishments of those who won’t be able maximize their potential to contribute in our society, and the meaningful social order that only comes from a foundation of fairness.

Many of PHEEIA’s other measures are also troubling: the privatization of public property through 50-year leases, the loss of transparency and accountability that goes with moving important decision making from elected legislators to appointed trustees, the implications of the bill’s purchasing mandates on the ethics of SUNY contracting, the continuing erosion of student government autonomy. But the bottom line is that PHEEIA is about using a manufactured state budget crisis to shift the burden of funding SUNY from the state to the students through a combination of budget cuts and tuition increases. President Stanley says it is a “zero cost solution” when students, many of whom attend Stony Brook because they cannot afford a private university education, are asked to carry the weight for the many tangible benefits SUNY provides the community.

New York and the United States have suffered a generation of misrule by people of ill-will who talk about “starving the beast” and “shrinking it until you can drown it in the bathtub” as they schemed to manufacture a scenario where institutions like SUNY could be defunded. Three generations of indulgent and reversible tax cuts for the rich, institutionalized corruption and atrocious misprioritization of spending by Democrats and Republicans alike have set the stage for the illusory state budget “crisis”. The recent economic downturn was dramatic, but we are still a wealthy state in one of the wealthiest nations human history has known, and New York can be expected to dramatically increase its contribution to SUNY’s budget, starting now and increasing in the future. Our University’s leadership can be expected to be vocal advocates for reduced tuition contributing a smaller proportion to an increasing budget, even now—now, more than ever in fact. Both the increased hardship for some students and SUNY’s significant—if overemphasized—long term economic utility argue for genuine SUNY advocacy.

Armed with basic familiarity with the history of SUNY and of the dangerous and discredited ideology of privatization, the arguments for PHEEIA put forth by administrators come apart like tissue. The ossified mentality of aggressively cutting and wasting state revenue sources with the deliberate goal of creating a crisis to justify attacks on public institutions is a status quo none of us should tolerate any further. Chancellor Zimpher, meanwhile, scribbles out her appalling claims to be against some other, more imaginary status quo while she leads the charge to resign in despair. Budget restorations are not a feeble hope; they are necessary and nonnegotiable. Zimpher’s claim, like so much of the arguments coming from administrators, is nakedly ridiculous to any informed reader, and is plainly designed to play on ignorance.

Her further claim that genuine SUNY advocates propose no alternatives similarly assumes her readers are uninformed. Vocal supporters of SUNY, and state social spending more generally, have been offering countless creative and practical solutions to restore useful state spending for decades. We wouldn’t be the first to call for reversing Cuomo and Pataki tax cuts, or imposing a modest stock transaction tax, eliminating the failed draconian antidrug laws that necessitate outrageous prison spending or prohibiting legislators from regulating their personal economic interests.

When Hugh Carey (who was elected Governor of New York in 1975) was courting the organized student vote, he voiced the clear moral position that, allowing for the competing needs of New York State’s other social spending priorities, SUNY tuition should be regularly reduced until it was eliminated. Of course, student leadership was very different in 1975. Today we have the likes of Jasper Wilson and Dylan Selterman, who don’t think you’re taking on enough debt.

A world-class education free to all serious, academically qualified in-state students is a reasonable medium-term goal for today’s SUNY, as well. For administrators, the first step towards that goal is joining the people who are standing tall on SUNY, rather than lying about them in the Times Union.

No to PHEEIA. Zero tuition.