By Carol Moran

New York State leaders, lawmakers and the Governor, have continued their tradition of not passing the state’s budget on time. This puts a delay on the future of the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA). Despite the delay, the future of PHEEIA looks bright. The New York State Senate passed a budget resolution containing parts of Governor Paterson’s higher education proposals, including systematic increases in tuition and a partial deregulation of public land use.

“At the heart of PHEEIA is our desire to push Stony Brook University to the next level, to allow us to recruit talented new faculty and staff and retain the outstanding faculty and staff who work so hard today,” said President Samuel Stanley in an email sent to students and staff on March 22. “If we could maintain current levels of State support, additional revenue from PHEEIA would allow us to hire approximately 400 new faculty and more than 500 new staff over the next 8 to 10 years.”

Bad cop. Badder cop.

However, some legislatures feel differently. One opponent is Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, Chair of the Higher Education Committee. Glick, who represents the 66th district in the Lower East side of Manhattan, said in an interview that she does not support PHEEIA primarily because of differential tuition, which would allow different schools and degree programs to charge different tuitions.

“We need to have state support for the state system,” Glick said, and differentiating tuition would shift the focus from the system to individual campuses.

If enacted, PHEEIA would allow the Presidents of SUNY campuses to increase tuition at their own individual rates, with the SUNY Board of Trustees’ approval. The act would place a limit on the amount tuition can be increased, which will vary with the higher education price index, an inflation measure designed to track cost drivers in higher education.

If some campuses are more expensive than others, students may have less freedom to explore a major or area of study, Glick said. Students may be forced to pursue degrees at less expensive colleges, rather than degrees only offered at the University Centers, such as Stony Brook and Buffalo.

“We just can’t swing it,” Glick said, referring to the prospect of students “choosing to teach English rather than go to the university center.”

In order to brand SUNY as a unified system, Glick said some of the energy should be directed towards activating parents, along with engaging in on-campus protests.

Despite this opposition, local Assemblyman Steve Englebright said in an interview that he is in support of the act, but finds mid-college-experience tuition hikes to be really harmful.

Englebright said Chancellor Nancy Zimpher was open to suggestions, and was willing to modify the proposal to keep tuition stable for each graduating class.

“That proposal is not locked in stone,” Englebright said. “It’s a place to begin.”

If the state cuts funding to SUNY, and consequently to Stony Brook, Englebright argues, the university will most likely face a significant reduction in personnel. If professors are released, Englebright said, then fewer classes will be available, and students may be forced to complete an extra semester or year at the university in order to graduate.

“You will probably want to keep the professor [and pay the tuition hike], rather than stay an extra year,” he said.

Currently, tuition goes to New York State’s general fund, which supports not only SUNY campuses, but prisons, highways and public works projects, as well. PHEEIA supporters claim the bill would keep tuition from being sucked into what Englebright described as a “black hole,” and would be funneled back into the university from which it came.

These claims, that PHEEIA would stop the state of New York from moving student money to unrelated spending, are best understood with the important economic concept of fungibility as context. State money is a substantial portion of the SUNY budget, and legislators retain the power to adjust the amount of these funds at will. Even with PHEEIA’s supposed safeguards in place, legislators could simply reduce SUNY’s budget by the exact same amount of money, as schools would collect from a tuition increase.

This portion of the state budget, which had previously gone to SUNY, could then be redirected to, say, a handout from the state to some party, which has paid a hefty consulting fee to a corrupt State Senate Majority Leader, for example. Because one dollar is equal to any other, this scenario would be essentially the same as handing students tuition money directly to whatever pet projects the legislature feels like funding.

The assembly has not yet voted on PHEEIA.

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