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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Should We Destroy SUNY in Order to Save It?

It may be time to begin breaking up the State University of New York system. The university centers at Stonybrook, Binghamton, Buffalo and Albany and the colleges at Geneseo, New Paltz, Purchase and maybe others could probably do well on their own after an orderly transition period. Tuition and fee increases will close access for thousands, but the state can invest its resources in 57 campuses instead of 64. These are the kind of ugly choices we’re being left with by our leaders, and we may as well make them while there are still any options open.

I would rather see some of the state colleges and universities survive and thrive in a modified form rather than die the Death of a Thousand Cuts. SUNY campuses only receive 30 percent of their revenue from state assistance, and Governor Cuomo proposes to reduce that by about another third, from $3.3 to $2.2 billion.

The economic impact of SUNY campuses across the state is estimated to exceed $27 billion. Stonybrook University alone generates directly or indirectly about 4 percent of all economic activity in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Public higher education is one of the highest paying investment our society knows how to make. But it’s a fragile investment. You have to feed it and water it.

Not long ago, I mentioned here that my alma mater, the state-supported University at Albany, has begun phasing out its undergraduate degree programs in French, Russian, Italian, theater and classical civilizations, plus some graduate degree programs in languages. Thanks to unprecedented bad publicity within national academic circles, UA is now a poster child for what many consider to be a slow-motion privatization of public universities. In the predatory business world, that which doesn’t directly or indirectly generate revenue is of questionable value.

This is precisely the message many are gleaning from recent statements by the governor and by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. A large part of her plan is to integrate SUNY’s research, resources and young people directly into businesses, funneling battalions of interns and potential billions in patents directly into the private sector. Corporate sponsorships, in the form of Public-Private Partnerships and doubling of alumni contributions will replace lost public sector dollars. Schools which do not pull their investment-worthy weight will serve as feeder campuses for those that do, or for the mall. So it seems.

Parts of the plan are not bad, in and of themselves. But the overall approach, combined with the realities of the budget bloodbath now starting to play out on the ground, point to a public withdrawal from the philosophy that inspired New Yorkers to build an extensive higher education system in the first place. SUNY has been one of the great post-war middle class gateways into circles that were historically not available to most New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, as the carnage and cannibalism begins, something has been largely lost in all the churning media praise of the governor for his toughness and his pointing finger as he lectures about sacrifice. He is refusing to extend the two temporary tax brackets that kick in at the $200,000 and $500,000 income levels, adopted two years ago to help ease the budget crisis. This means that those earning seven-figure salaries will receive a 23.6 percent tax cut, down to the same tax rate paid by those earning $20,000. New Yorkers in the middle and below already pay a higher percentage of their income in total state and local taxes than those near the top, but significant restructuring of income and property taxes is now a forbidden subject.

We have so many decisions to make as a group. We have to go back to square one: What do we need or want from collective local and regional action and what is the best way to pay for it? What are our real priorities as a society, or as a state, or as a community? Just winging it the way we are won’t cut it much longer.

 

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net