Archive Notes - December 2008
What follows is a slightly edited version of testimony I provided to the Democrats of the New York State Senate in an open forum on the budget, held in Oswego on December 19.
At SUNY Potsdam, our goal is to provide a quality education to students at a reasonable cost. I believe public institutions have an obligation to do this. Looking at the lives of our alumni, we have a track record of success. At the same time, there has been a rupture in a social contract. When the state university systems of the United States were created, there was a broad consensus that public higher education was a good that reaped benefits to society as a whole. The whole of the body politic supported the notion that one of the responsibilities of the state was teacher preparation and the creation of an informed electorate and skilled workforce. State colleges and universities developed within that vision.
Since the 1970s, that broad consensus has broken down. Higher education is now widely perceived as a private good, benefiting the individual more than society as a whole. As a private good (the logic goes) the costs of higher education should be borne by the individual, not society at large. While the goals of an educated electorate, well-prepared teachers and a skilled workforce are still goals, since in the end the benefits are felt to accrue to the individual, the state has slowly opted to shift more and more responsibility for the cost to the student. What we see in New York is part of a pattern that has spread throughout the United States. Indeed, we are quickly approaching a point where public institutions will be forced to become even more like private colleges, with high tuition costs for the majority of students that are used to offset scholarships for those of limited means. At present within our financial plan, which includes tuition, state support and private giving, the portion representing state support is only about 15 percent. When we include the state contribution towards our benefits package, that percentage rises to about 35 percent. Similarly, the real estate we occupy, and the buildings we maintain are owned by the state. Recently, the legislature and governor have agreed upon an aggressive program of critical maintenance after decades of neglect, so we now receive several million dollars each year to address issues like faulty water mains, crumbling sidewalks, ancient windows and doors and leaky roofs. Yet, at the end of the day, the state is increasingly walking away from supporting the operating costs of the state college and universities and shifting that burden to the students.
As a person who has dedicated his life to education, I cannot in clear conscience ask you to reduce funding to elementary or secondary education. As well, we have a moral responsibility to care for the most fragile members of our society and to provide health care for the good of the commonwealth. The infrastructure of the state is also in a critical situation. The massive system of roads and bridges has been left largely to decay, not unlike the way my own campus was left to decay. I mention all of this to highlight the difficulty facing the legislature as you try to allocate limited resources to important and needy causes.
Since April 1, 2008, the budget of SUNY has been reduced by more than $210 million. While campuses have absorbed this reduction using the tools at our disposal, all campuses are facing serious problems in delivering academic programs and support services to students as a result of the cuts. In order to partially cover this loss, the trustees have increased tuition, effective this spring. Governor Patterson proposed a similar tuition increase, requiring that the bulk of the revenue generated be returned not to SUNY but to the operating budget of the state, the general fund. The action of the board of trustees was taken to address a critical situation within the State University of New York. As opposed to the governor’s proposal, the increase in tuition revenue ordered by the trustees would remain within SUNY to benefit students.
On behalf of my campus and the other state operated SUNY campuses, we request spending authority for the full tuition increase from the legislature. Furthermore, we also request the governor and legislature not impose any further reductions on the SUNY budget, but rather allow us to keep the level of funding we have and utilize the full benefit of the tuition increase. Please do not balance the state budget on the backs of the students of SUNY. The SUNY budget has been reduced proportionally more than that of CUNY or the Bundy Aid. In fact, SUNY has given as much, if not more, proportionally than any state agency or affiliated institution.
The requested tuition increase will not allow any of us to recover the level of funding we have lost due to the budget reduction. At the same time, we earnestly request the legislature agree to allow small tuition increases each year to compensate for increases in the cost of those things we need to support the educational enterprise. This is what has been called a rational tuition plan. The rational part implies that, along with small annual tuition increases, the state will not further reduce its contribution to SUNY, thus allowing us to continue to fulfill the dream of providing a quality public education to as many of the citizens of the State of New York as we can.
As things stand now, without the funds made possible by the tuition increase, we will have to begin to reduce personnel and cut back on programs for our students. The budget numbers on my campus alone are staggering. Thus far, we have lost $2.5 million in base funding through the reductions made. Potentially, the governor’s plan includes from $1 million to $2.5 million more in cuts, depending on which parts are implemented. To accommodate cuts of this scope, we will have to dramatically reduce our workforce, since 81 percent of the funds generated by tuition and state support are used to pay wages. This would be quite simply a tragedy and a repudiation of the social compact that was forged when SUNY was first created.
Lastly, SUNY is burdened by a web of rules and regulations that limits our efficiency and competitiveness in the marketplace. We simply cannot take advantage of opportunities because of the regulatory web that restricts our every movement. To do something as simple as pave a parking lot, just to obtain the necessary permission to initiate work, normally takes as many as six weeks and nearly countless man-hours of paperwork, plus the costs of reporting during and after the project. I request that an important part of any reform package brought about by the current economic situation include regulatory reform.
The State of New York stands at a unique time in its history. There are two clearly defined paths down which we may proceed. One is to continue to manage crises through a generalized reduction in most state agencies. This merely ensures that service will decline and the agencies will become further weakened. The second path is to look boldly into the future and to plot a new course for the development of the state. It is a time to cast off the legacies of two centuries that no longer serve in the modern world. It is a time to invest in those areas that will provide the state with the best hope for future development. An important piece of the new education initiative must be to nurture and support our excellent system of public higher education, the State University of New York. I urge you to make education the cornerstone of the new compact with the citizens of the State of New York.