Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dr. Smith Comes to Fredonia, Part I: The Bright Side

Sorry to disappoint anyone who expected fireworks between United University Professions President Phil Smith and me during his visit to Fredonia today. He knows very well that as the month has gone on, I've grown more and more convinced that SUNY System Administration needs to address the legitimate UUP objections to specific provisions of the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act--in fact I've gone further than any public positions UUP has taken in calling for specific changes to the bill and to the SUNY draft policies on tuition and asset management. We both know that the resolution the state-wide University Faculty Senate is preparing supports every part of the PHEE&IA except those portions that UUP has most strenuously and rigorously objected to. We both know that it's very likely that the State Assembly is going to kill the bill. And most important, he knows that I know that his own rhetoric and logic have moved much closer to mine over the course of the month.

Case in point: Phil's emphasis that we all need to work together to keep the Governor and legislature's feet to the fire when it comes to state support for the state university. He identified two strategic miscalculations by the new SUNY administration in their late-January budget testimony: first, failing to join UUP in advocating for restorations to the Governor's cuts and for a commitment from the state to "maintenance of effort" in the language of the PHEE&IA; second, volunteering $147M in 1-time reserves to help keep SUNY afloat should the PHEE&IA not pass. He stated directly that the Assembly Ways and Means Committee allowed the Governor's cuts to stand because of SUNY's positions. While some of this came off as finger-pointing and derriere-covering (on which more in a second), it is possible that the Chancellor's office came to see the importance of presenting a united front on the indispensability of state support only very belatedly, reluctantly, and mainly rhetorically, and that Smith's accusation that the Chancellor's notion of negotiation is you coming over to her side has merit. I'm more willing to keep an open mind on these points than I was before Phil came to campus, even if at best it means that there's plenty of blame to go around in Albany for the sorry state SUNY might be left in at the end of this year's budget process.

Case in point: Phil's repeated assertion that UUP supports specific provisions of and principles underlying the PHEE&IA. This may be revisionist history and it may be retroactive PR, but it's possible that behind closed doors UUP leadership has all along been as reasonable as Phil sounded today.

For instance, Phil's support of post-audit oversight being quite enough for purchasing goods on the open market is welcome. His example from Upstate of an expensive piece of medical equipment almost doubling in price while his campus waited for pre-audit approval was very telling.

Even more important, Phil's assertion that "UUP supports a rational, reliable, sustainable, and predictable tuition policy" is quite welcome. His point that HEPI fluctuations in part based on the inflation rate mean that at times its 5-year rolling average (at any multiplier) would be close to 0% and at times could be 20% or more is well-taken. In fact, that lack of reliability and predictability is a big part of the reason why both my campus president and I have been advocating for a clear upper limit on both general and special tuition, not to mention why the state-wide Student Assembly specifically called for a firm 6% cap--precisely to guard against swings in the multiplied rolling HEPI average on the high side and to close the gap in the cap that UUP warned against. What all of us recognize is that small, incremental increases are the only way to ensure that the state doesn't take advantage of a rational tuition policy to engineer massive cuts to taxpayer support for SUNY, not to mention drive away prospective students who would no longer be able to afford a SUNY education. We're not sure that UB or Stony Brook understand this or care, nor do we know which way SUNY System Administration is leaning. This was one of the key reasons why the sector representative from the comprehensives spoke so strongly against the PHEE&IA at the UFS winter plenary and why there was so much confusion and uncertainty during the state-wide conference call among UFS leaders on differential tuition. So the ball really is in SUNY's court at this point: when the Senate and Assembly try to reconcile their budget bills, will SUNY make serious concessions on tuition policy?

Finally, his detailed explanation of why UUP opposes granting SUNY wide-open flexibility to form public-private partnerships--solidarity with non-academic/professional unions; uncertainly of how the NLRB would rule on new employees' right to organize; fear of unit erosion should a department be moved into a non-union building run by a private organization, particularly as UUP members move or retire; the fact that in the current system campuses have an incentive to seek UUP support for any public-private partnerships, so that UUP can offer guidance, troubleshoot, and if necessary refuse to offer support to a project that doesn't look promising, for whatever reason; and the fact that several projects that didn't do this turned out to be boondoggles (at Farmingdale, Stony Brook, and Morrisville)--was quite welcome, particularly with his examples of projects at Purchase and Stony Brook for which UUP helped write the contract language. Why? Because he stated publicly the conditions under which UUP would support greater SUNY flexibility to form public-private partnerships. He treated the membership like adults, laying out his reasoning and seeking to persuade us, rather than delivering marching orders from on high. He tried to make the case that in the absence of serious money coming in from other revenue streams, SUNY would be forced to rely on tuition increases alone to try to compensate for declining state fund. Given that the UFS Executive Committee resolution addresses some of these concerns and I have addressed others, once again the ball is squarely in SUNY's court.

Case in point: Phil gave a very specific example of why he is convinced that augmenting existing SUNY revenue streams and developing new ones won't result in net gains for SUNY. He pointed out that when he arrived at Upstate in 1978, state support was around 47%--and now it's down around 10%. The state saw an opportunity to take advantage of the income the health science centers were generating: first they forced hospitals to pay for their own debt service, then their own fringe benefits, then the cost of collective bargaining increases, and finally this year they asked for over $20M to make up for retirement fund losses. If that opportunism is extended to the entire system, and the doctorals see state support drop from around 50% to around 10%, the comprehensives see state support drop from around 35% to around 10%, and so on, then eventually the question will arise of whether UUP should be negotiating with the state or with the entering freshman class and their families. Furthermore, if even UB and Stony Brook see state support drop faster than they can raise tuition, it's likely that the imbalances caused by SUNY's own formulae for distributing state funds to campuses--where Stony Brook has 57% state support and UB has near 50%--are going to be exacerbated even further, as more state money is sent to them than to the comprehensives.

So am I saying there aren't any problems left with UUP's positions and strategies? No way! But it's time to pick up my girls from day care and my wife from the airport. Stay tuned for Part II!

No comments: