Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Destruction and Resistance at SUNY

Destruction and Resistance at SUNY
by Ali Zaidi

THE STATE UNIVERSITY of New York turned fifty in 1998, but its mission-to provide New Yorkers with quality education at low cost-is endangered. Earlier this spring, SUNY faculty finally responded by revolting and issuing an unprecedented demand for the removal of the state-appointed university trustees.

New York public college tuition increased at three times the national average-from $1,350 a year in 1989-90 to $3,400 in `95-96. This hike is particularly glaring because the income gap between the rich and poor in New York now surpasses that of any other state. (See note 1) In a recent study, the New York Public Interest Research Group noted that the percentage of average family income needed to pay college tuition at New York public universities more than doubled from 4.6% in `89-90 to 11.25% in `95-96. (See note 2) Consequently, between 1995 and 1997, there was a 20% drop in freshmen enrollment from families earning between $21,000 and $45,000 a year, and a 14% drop from those earning between $45,000 and $85,000. Meanwhile, 14% more freshmen enrolled whose families earned more than $105,000.

SUNY's crisis began in the 1980s when Governor Mario Cuomo and the state legislature enacted tax cuts, particularly for corporations and the wealthy. Together with a recession, these tax cuts led to New York State budget shortfalls. New York public college tuition more than doubled between 1990 and 1992 for SUNY students, 73% of whom receive financial aid. (See note 3) Cuomo's Republican successor, George Pataki, immediately enacted for the `95-96 school year the largest tuition increase in SUNY history-a $750 hike accompanied by a $200 million cut in SUNY's operating budget. That year, SUNY student enrollment dropped by 10,000. (See note 4)

By 1995, most SUNY trustees were Pataki appointees, including E. E. Kailbourne, chair of Fleet Bank, Edward Cox, son-in-law of Richard Nixon, and Candace DeRussy, co-founder of Change New York, a powerful anti-tax organization. In January 1996, the new trustees forced Frederick Salerno, a Cuomo appointee, to resign as board chair. Afterwards, they denied SUNY Chancellor Thomas Bartlett the authority to appoint his own staff. Bartlett had disagreed with the governor's plans to cap Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, saying "We cannot turn our backs on those who need our help the most." (See note 5) Deprived of decision-making power, Bartlett resigned in June 1996.

State support to SUNY's operating budget dropped from 90% in 1988 to 45% in 1996. (See note 6) In "Rethinking SUNY," a plan submitted to the New York State legislature in December 1995, the new trustees called for SUNY to become "more self-sufficient, more entrepreneurial, more focused and more creative." In a statement issued together with the heads of other New York State universities, SUNY's new chancellor John Ryan explained: "Just as the businesses and industries we support must be flexible to meet the constantly changing demands of the economic and academic marketplace, so must our own institutions be given the managerial and financial flexibility to operate effectively and efficiently." (See note 7)

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