The 2010-11 state budget contains a major piece of good news. It’s called the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act. This historic measure would unshackle SUNY campuses from the stifling and cumbersome overregulation they have endured for decades and provide a major catalyst for economic development across Upstate New York. The proposal is an example of much-needed reform that our legislators should warmly embrace.
The SUNY/CUNY Empowerment Act would provide campuses like Geneseo with the tools they need to realize their full potential for academic excellence and better serve the people and businesses of New York. Severe state funding reductions, however, are threatening SUNY’s mission. At Geneseo, in fact, state funding now accounts for only 20.4 percent of our operational budget, down from 75 percent in 1990. With cuts to SUNY exceeding $500 million the past three years ($3.8 million at Geneseo this year alone), the Empowerment Act provides the only way for Geneseo and the State University as a whole to maintain academic excellence and fulfill our commitment to the citizens of New York. And it does so without further burdening the state budget.
The Empowerment Act contains many important provisions, but the tuition and financing reforms are perhaps most significant because they would take the tuition-setting process out of the political arena. Currently, the SUNY board of trustees sets tuition under a one-size-fits-all mandate, but tuition dollars are appropriated by the Legislature.
The Empowerment Act would end this. The money paid by students and their families for education would go into a fund administered by SUNY, and campuses would use all such revenues directly for their students and programs. In the past, these dollars often have been swept from the campuses and used to fill gaps elsewhere in the state budget. Keeping tuition revenues on campus would reduce the size of the state budget, and it would be a means of saving taxpayer dollars because the monies would be invested into SUNY campuses and their communities, instead of the general fund. This would benefit local economies throughout the state.
The legislation also would allow individual campuses to request campus-specific tuition rates, based on program mix, mission and market factors. Currently, every SUNY campus is required by law to charge the same amount for tuition, regardless of the actual costs of providing education or the specific mission of the campus. The act would provide for a base tuition and a variable factor by campus. The SUNY trustees could adjust tuition on a regular basis, but annual increases and variations among campuses would be capped.
Under the fair, equitable and responsible tuition policy proposed, students and families could plan for the cost of a college education rather than experiencing the current "tuition roulette" process, in which the cost stays the same for many years and then jumps by large amounts, usually in bad economic times. New York, by the way, is one of only four states that do not set tuition by campus on a regular basis.
In other important provisions, the Empowerment Act would provide for countless efficiencies through a more flexible procurement system. SUNY schools now are saddled with both a pre-audit and post-audit process when making purchases or doing construction projects. This duplication is inefficient and adds unnecessarily to purchasing costs because of delays.
To aid in economic development, the legislation would allow SUNY schools to enter into public-private partnerships to benefit their students and communities. For example, private firms would be able to work with campuses on retirement housing, or non-profits might partner on recreational facilities. New partnerships and enhanced flexibility would result in more jobs both in construction and new technologies. At the same time, union contracts and prevailing wages would be protected.
The Empowerment Act would let SUNY chart its own destiny as other great public universities like Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia have always done. It would truly unshackle SUNY as the single most powerful force for the revitalization of Upstate New York’s economy and the future of our state as a whole.
In my 15 years as president of Geneseo, I have not seen a more crucial piece of legislation for higher education in our state.
Christopher C. Dahl is president of SUNY College at Geneseo.