By Raina Bedford
Undergraduate Student Government President Jasper Wilson, on behalf of the USG Senate, endorsed the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA) at a March 1 University Senate meeting. PHEEIA would raise tuition and would allow the University to hire more faculty, reduce class sizes and supply the university with more money for ongoing and planned construction projects, according to SBU administration officials who are in favor of the act.
“Honestly—tuition increases—you can’t expect students to be happy about that, but I believe they’re a necessity if we want to continue on with the integrity of our school,” said Wilson at the University Senate Meeting.
The Stony Brook administration has not decided how much tuition will increase if PHEEIA passes with the governor’s proposed budget plan. The current PHEEIA proposal allows for a two-tiered tuition increase. On one level, the university could raise tuition by a projected maximum of 10 percent per year, which will vary based on the Higher Education Price Index, a measure of inflation specific to higher education. On top of that, the university could submit a request to increase tuition further if they demonstrate need through the proposed differential tuition included in the bill. The SUNY Board of Trustees would have to approve any tuition increases proposed by University Presidents and the SUNY Chancellor.
According to Provost Dr. Eric W. Kaler, the university currently plans to increase tuition by 6 percent if PHEEIA passes. If PHEEIA is enacted, students can expect a $300 increase for the first year. According to Kaler, a six percent increase over several years would allow Stony Brook to create 10,000 new jobs, provide $8.5 billion for ongoing and planned construction projects, and hire 400 new faculty members and 600 new staff members. This would decrease the student–to-faculty ratio, which currently stands at 5.6-to-1, and is one of the highest among the universities in the Association of American Universities, an organization of leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada.
Though Kaler said that the university probably wouldn’t seek a tuition increase higher than six percent, as PHEEIA is currently written, he said that there is no legal mechanism stopping the administration from raising tuition by 10 percent.
While most USG Senators support PHEEIA, there is at least one senator who stood out.
“I felt that his estimates were overly optimistic and misleading,” said Senator Deborah Machalow. “In fact, I feel the entire PHEEIA pitch is at times misleading.”
Machalow formed an ad hoc committee to investigate and make sense of PHEEIA. The committee issued a preliminary report on Tuesday that outlined some major points of the legislation. In its full report, the committee will conduct a poll of the student body to determine whether SBU students support PHEEIA.
The committee found that SBU could charge for student government and student activities, and that these funds would be held by the SUNY Board of Trustees who would be free to use that money as they see fit. PHEEIA doesn’t make clear how much of student activity fees could be held by the state. PHEEIA would also place a limit on the number of out of state students that could be admitted to the university. President Wilson said that this was an area that caused him concern. Because SBU is a Division-I school, it’s possible that athletic considerations will trump academics for out of state admissions, he said.
Other senators feel that a tuition increase could benefit Stony Brook University.
“The act will give us more options for our money,” said Senator Jordan Cushner. “Students complain about the facilities here but they don’t want to pay to have them fixed. There’s not just a pit where money flies around and we can grab it, it has to come from somewhere.”
“The only negative I see is that a lot of students on campus would be affected by tuition hikes,” said Senator Tahir Ahmad. “But just because they can raise tuition by 10 percent doesn’t mean that they will and we need to expand our university.”
If PHEEIA passes, it would certainly mean a literal expansion for SBU because PHEEIA would also change the way SUNY schools handle their public lands. If passed, PHEEIA would allow SUNY schools to enter into public-private partnerships with contractors to build on campus housing, food facilities, stores and other buildings without approval by the New York State Senate.
“It’s in some sense revolutionary because it removes control from the state legislature,” Kaler said.
Which is exactly why PHEEIA will remain the cause of much debate in the USG, the Stony Brook administration and up in Albany.