Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Future of SUNY: Downsize, Reconfigure, or Grow?

A couple of days ago I expressed and explained my qualified support of the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act and summarized counterarguments offered by my colleagues and friends in the Fredonia University Senate. Even though I was actually incorporating into my argument critiques of key aspects of the bill by my faculty-professionals union, United University Professions, and essentially laying out a case for amending the bill so that it might gain their support, my colleagues worried about my focusing my rhetorical attacks on UUP President Phil Smith's position in my rationale for the resolution. Fair enough. Today, then, I'll take a look at SUNY's options going forward.

After all, there's no point in blaming SUNY's new administration for missing the "reset" button when it comes to labor-management relations. Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and her team have managed to hit it with every other major constituency within SUNY and across NY, but they must have listened to some truly awful advice when it comes to UUP. Instead of reaching out to UUP as partners in SUNY-wide strategic planning and potential co-authors of the Empowerment and Innovation Act (along with CUNY's Professional Staff Caucus)--which obviously would entail giving up control to gain legitimacy and a greater likelihood of achieving their goals--their strategy seems to have been to attempt to lobby UUP, and, when that failed, to attempt to neutralize them via a carrot-and-stick approach with their membership. If it doesn't work, they're in big trouble, having ended up pushing SUNY's faculty and professionals to embrace even the weak and short-sighted leadership of UUP and setting the stage for further and expanded opposition to any options they propose for dealing with the coming catastrophic cuts to SUNY in 2011-2012. But even if they end up winning this battle, they may end up losing the larger war.

This is because the Empowerment and Innovation Act is at best a delaying tactic and at worst a hedge against disaster. As Christopher Newfield has shown in Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, market substitutes for general development don't offer a long-term solution to the long-term and accelerating erosion of state support for public higher education--particularly in New York, with its long history of favoring private colleges and universities, as documented by the collection co-edited by SUNY University Faculty Senate Chair Ken O'Brien, SUNY at 60: The Promise of the State University of New York. Now, Newfield's analysis is largely based on what's been going on in California, so although it does have national implications, there's always the chance that SUNY can learn from the University of California's mistakes. But even in that best-case scenario, it's going to take some time for new revenue streams for campuses to really start flowing. But the massive cuts to SUNY that seem unavoidable in the absence of new federal aid or renewed state support are a ticking time bomb set to explode so soon that any revenue flows from the Empowerment Act will be vaporized.

So what to do? Whether or not SUNY gets the Empowerment Act, it's going to have to act if it wants any kind of sustainable future. The SUNY Strategic Plan shows some promise of convincing New York's citizens and taxpayers that they will get immediate and long-lasting returns from even modest investments in the SUNY system, but it takes time to persuade the people, much less get a thoroughly dysfunctional state political system to act for the general good, even with a clear mandate from the people. Most likely, then, SUNY is going to have to do something dramatic--and soon--to get the attention and win the trust of New York's citizens, taxpayers, and politicians. Let's consider the options:


Zimpher, Rimai, and company could follow the lead of corporations in a downturn: force each campus in the SUNY system to lay lots of people off. If they're enlightened managers, they'll do everything they can to streamline administration, eliminate waste, and cut non-instructional staff. But the cuts are likely to be of such a large magnitude that each campus will have to put everything on the table, including retrenchments: the closing and merging of departments and the firing of tenured faculty that this makes possible.

Obviously this strategy has huge costs and long-term repercussions, most notably in the uprising this will start among faculty and staff, the battles with their unions, and the ill-will all this will engender. But it's conceivable that the campuses could emerge from this in a better, stronger position than when they started it. It's more likely, though, that downsizing would be but a prelude to the selling, closing, or merging of a good number of campuses within SUNY.


So why not cut to the chase and seriously rethink SUNY's size and configuration from the start? Is New York well-served by a 64-campus state university? Why not shift to 4 doctorals, 4 specialized colleges, 8 university colleges, and 16 community colleges? Why not confront the state with the consequences of its long-term disinvestment in SUNY and propose a more rational, sustainable configuration for SUNY in the 21st century?

Well, the political firestorm this strategy would set off, within SUNY and across the state, would make the previous strategy's controversies look like a molehill. Morever, each campus in the SUNY system represents decades of investment. It's doubtful that buyers could be found to take over all the campuses that would be kicked off the SUNY island. New York state would lose a lot of educational capacity, not to mention infrastructure. But what's the alternative?


New York needs more higher education capacity, not less. Even with a declining population, the state could actually see a greater demand for higher education this century--all it takes is for the school system to do a better job of preparing more kids for college, the financial system to find better ways to help them pay for it, and the jobs system to find better ways to use their talents and skills. Sure, those are big ifs, but pretty soon the state and the nation are going to have to decide if we want to return to the first half of the twentieth century, when college was a luxury for the wealthy and privileged few, or whether we want to move forward and prepare the next generations to tackle the problems of this century.

Let's say we make the right call. What does SUNY need to do to lay the groundwork for expansion? I suggest that every decision from here on out be made in light of that question.

Start with taking advantage of economies of scale and system-wide efficiencies.

  • Let's get serious about a SUNY-wide library and technological infrastructure. Every SUNY student and faculty member should have the same access to the same set of books, journals, and databases.
  • Same goes for textbook purchases. SUNY could use the power of bulk purchasing to drive down the costs of textbooks for its students.
  • We need a SUNY-wide endowment. Let campuses continue to ramp up their fundraising efforts, but have them deposit their accounts into a SUNY-wide fund, run by a single set of top-notch money managers. Develop a formula for sending back to the campuses more than they would have earned by managing their own funds.
That's just a preliminary list, of course. The other side of the coin is campus-level flexibility. The billion-dollar question here is: how do we run the system so that private colleges and universities would want to join it? The point is to first bring in struggling private universities, then good ones, and finally great ones. With each new campus added to the system, the overall SUNY-wide endowment grows--and grows faster. The state can focus on supporting infrastructure, enhancing student financial aid, and making modest contributions to campus operating budgets. Even $1000/student would offer big returns to the state--not least in revenues from a progressive taxation system that would require those who have benefitted the most from their higher education to give back to their fellow citizens who didn't choose to enter it but who helped make their own education possible. If this is handled right, why wouldn't every college or university in the state eventually clamor to become part of the SUNY system?

[Update 1 (6:04 pm): A friend and colleague sent me the following via email:
Am I reading your blog correctly?

"If they're enlightened managers, they'll do everything they can to streamline administration, eliminate waste, and cut non-instructional staff."

I am truly saddened to read the end of this sentence--the Fredonia non-instructional staff keeps the buildings in good order, offers services to students, helps to promote the university and raise funds for programs that the state doesn’t provide for, keeps the residence halls in good order and provides student programming, handles purchasing and creates paychecks, etc. In fact, the university could not operate without its non-instructional staff. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood--if that’s the case, then please clarify.

The perils of writing quickly. Obviously, any university needs non-instructional staff. No enlightened manager should take the position that "no member of the teaching faculty should be let go while a single non-instructional staff member remains on the payroll." So I should have written "cut non-essential non-instructional staff." But to put that line in context, keep in mind I was arguing that once a campus deficit gets large enough, everyone's position is potentially on the chopping block, even those of tenured faculty. And I was making that point to suggest that "downsizing" was a bad option, step one of my larger argument that growing SUNY via bringing privates (and their endowments) into the fold is the best short- and long-term solution to making public higher education sustainable in the 21st century.]


James said...


This Future piece and your Dear Phil blogpost from Monday are thought provoking. We are organizing a forum to disccus problems with PHEEIA here at Albany. Your arguments will be part of our ongoing conversations.


Jim Collins

The Constructivist said...

Hey Jim, glad to hear it!