By Anita Edjukaishin

SUNY has long been one of the best and most affordable systems of public higher education in the country. In the midst of a deepening NY state fiscal crisis, Governor Paterson has proposed a new bill—the “Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act,” or PHEEIA—that would ostensibly revitalize SUNY, allowing for hundreds of new faculty in the next decade.

PHEEIA in fact contains one or two potentially positive aspects, such as guaranteeing that tuition revenue would stay within the SUNY system. But rather than promoting a meaningful debate within the SUNY community and then passing the good aspects as piecemeal legislation, which could easily be done, the Governor and SUNY administrators are trying to shove a bundle of major reforms down our throats all at once. The core reforms are highly problematic. First, the promised extra revenue would come from perpetual tuition hikes of at least 6-10 percent each year, even higher tuition rates for certain campuses and certain majors, and ambiguous “public-private partnerships” involving private corporations. Second, the bill would all but eliminate legislative oversight and place the power to set tuition and make other crucial decisions in the hands of the SUNY Board of Trustees, a body that is appointed by the governor, composed largely of business executives, and completely unaccountable to SUNY students. Most importantly, the bill would open the door to the further privatization of the SUNY system by shifting more of the burden for sustaining SUNY onto students, and further relieving the state government and its wealthiest taxpayers of their obligation to fund public education. Instead of taxing the wealthy to save SUNY, the bill would essentially tax students and parents. (Historically, tuition hikes have roughly coincided with reductions in state funding for SUNY: the state has slashed SUNY’s budget repeatedly in recent years, and the percentage of the SUNY budget provided by the state has declined from 75 percent in 1990 to just 51 percent a few years ago.)

President Stanley, Chancellor Zimpher, and Provost Kaler have all been lobbying tirelessly in support of PHEEIA. The leadership boards of the Undergraduate Student Government and the Graduate Student Organization have compliantly parroted the administration’s misleading rhetoric about the bill, despite not having polled their constituencies in any meaningful way.

What about Stony Brook professors? Where do they stand? Several were quoted in the March 10 issue of the Press, in which journalist Najib Aminy had asked them to comment on the March 3 rally of several hundred Stony Brook students against impending state budget cuts, tuition hikes and the fact that the administration had been lobbying for PHEEIA without consulting students. Arie Perliger, Visiting Professor in Political Science and History, gave the following smug assessment: “These are students who protested because they are concerned about their pockets; it’s not about the violation of civil rights, human rights or any political evil…They don’t want to have to pay for these changes in the educational system.” Apparently for Perliger, the desire to maintain access to quality, affordable education immediately invalidates the protesters. Because the protesters are supposedly driven not by any noble ideals of “human rights” but instead by base and despicable self interest, they merit nothing but scorn. One of Perliger’s colleagues, Professor Albert Cover of the Political Science department, likewise suggested that since tuition hikes are not “a matter of life and death,” they are essentially a trivial issue.

We got your solidarity right here, Perliger! -- Photo by Najib Aminy

Perliger teaches in the History department, so perhaps what is most surprising is his fundamental misunderstanding or distortion of past struggles for “civil rights” and “human rights,” whose participants were driven not just by noble ideals but also by their own self-interest. Also surprising is Perliger’s dismissive sneer about how “few students” participated in the March 3 rally as he “compared the couple hundred students who came out to the more than 20,000 students at Stony Brook.” As Perliger the historian must know, all movements start small and must overcome the barriers of inertia, disinformation, and widespread feelings of futility—barriers which Perliger’s comments seem intended to reinforce.

Perliger’s arrogant statements also distort the motives of Stony Brook students, many of whom believe that their struggle is about the “human right” to education. In this regard the students’ perspective coincides with that of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 of which declares that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit [i.e., not income or wealth].” But apparently in his lifelong study of history Perliger has never stumbled upon one of the foundational documents in twentieth-century human rights discourse and practice.

Professor Cover likewise dismissed the protesters as stingy for not resigning themselves to what he called “marginal tuition hikes.” Now, the definition of “marginal” is bound to be subjective, but most working-class and middle-class students would agree that a 6 to 10 percent increase in tuition each year—meaning that tuition will double within 7 to 12 years—is not marginal. Cover, with his comfortable annual salary of nearly $72,000, according to figures from 2007, evidently has a different view. That view coincides with the view of the Stony Brook administration, the SUNY Board of Trustees and wealthy taxpayers and large corporations in New York who want to shift the burden of paying for SUNY even further onto students and parents.

Are Perliger and Cover representative of the faculty as a whole? Unfortunately some signs suggest that they are. Although the leadership of the faculty union, UUP, has presented well-researched critiques of PHEEIA, many professors seem to agree with Perliger and Cover. The Executive Committee of the University Senate, which is composed mostly of professors, just passed a resolution strongly supporting PHEEIA. At the very end of the resolution were just three suggestions about how “PHEEIA could be improved”; the primary suggestion—to include a provision in the law to “insure [sic] that the State of New York will not use the revenue stream generated by the tuition increases to reduce the State’s funding of SUNY by a comparable amount”—is naïve and completely toothless, and was probably only included to placate critics of SUNY’s privatization. Since the Governor’s proposed budget was released in January, neither the University Senate nor the Stony Brook administration has done much of anything beyond issuing token denunciations to fight the proposed cuts of $118 million to SUNY.

Many Stony Brook professors presumably took jobs at a public university at least in part out of a moral commitment to providing quality, affordable and accessible higher education to all New Yorkers regardless of wealth or income. Their support for PHEEIA is usually couched in those same terms—“this is the only way to preserve SUNY,” etc. But it’s hard to reconcile those sentiments with the sinister realities of PHEEIA. Those who support PHEEIA’s basic provisions, while doing little or nothing to resist budget cuts, are either suffering from serious delusions about what PHEEIA is or are callously promoting a bill that would hurt the population they are supposed to be serving. An administration and faculty genuinely committed to serving SUNY students would be organizing rallies, lobbying days, and acts of civil disobedience right alongside the students who protested on March 3.

Luckily PHEEIA is expected to tank in the State Assembly, at least this year, because of legislators’ opposition and the outcry from unions and students around the state. The state budget cuts, however, will probably go through, in part because the administration and faculty have refused to lead any firm resistance to them. And PHEEIA will most certainly resurface in the future, perhaps under a new name, using current or future economic crises as a justification for sweeping changes (the current bill is in fact a rebranding of past privatization schemes that have been defeated). As the pioneer “disaster capitalist” Milton Friedman knew so well, “Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Now and in the near future, there will be two options for us all, corresponding to two competing views of what higher education should be. One says that education is a privilege, and that the state has no real responsibility to fund it; the other is the view expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and shared by most of the world’s people.