Sunday, March 07, 2010

Truth in Advertising; Or, Don't Send Out a Paper Airplane that Can Be Shot Down by a Spitball or Four


Looks like the Full Metal Archivist and I can't even take onechan, imoto, and their friend out to brunch at the local diner after a sleepover party without having our stomachs assaulted by a "Paid Political/Advocacy Advertisement" with UUP and NYSUT logos on it, "Paid for by United University Professions," in today's Buffalo News. The stick to Jonathan Epstein's well-researched carrot on the economic impact of state investments in SUNY's medical schools like Buffalo HSC, this UUP ad directs readers to go to and "Tell NY lawmakers to keep SUNY public." Unfortunately, rather than presenting a hard-hitting case outlining the danger to SUNY's future posed by the Governor's cuts and persuading taxpayers to pressure their representatives to keep investing in SUNY, the rest of the ad repeats the same tired talking points, leavened this time with even more misleading rhetoric and strangely out-of-date content. It's even more in need of a rewrite than the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act itself.

So let's go "FACT" by fact on UUP's critique of the PHEE&IA, starting with:

FACT: The Act would not produce additional revenue for SUNY. The state would pay less; students and parents would pay a lot more.

Here's how this one should read:

EDUCATED GUESS: We're pretty sure that with state revenues declining, we can't count on state legislators to restore the Governor's cuts. Since in this economy we're afraid to appeal directly to the citizens and taxpayers of NY to stand up for SUNY, nor do we trust them to be moved by arguments in favor of finding efficiencies elsewhere in the state budget and making NY's tax system more progressive, let's pass over our effectively conceding the point that the state is likely to cut SUNY this budget year no matter what. It's been doing that for a generation and more and none of our lobbying has done much of anything to stop or even slow it, so why should this year be any different? OK, then, how do we get the attention of students and parents? How about scaring them into believing the PHEE&IA will lead to immediate and massive tuition increases? Great, let's run with that!

How is this a winning strategy? All this talking point does is put UUP in a position to say, "We told you so" if the PHEE&IA passes and tuition increases are offset by state cuts. That's useful--not! What students, parents, and SUNY need are good reasons from UUP that the state should invest in public higher education, irrespective of whether the PHEE&IA passes. They need to understand that continued state support--in the form of salaries and benefits for SUNY employees to help keep SUNY affordable, as well as improved financial aid for students (including both grants and fairer access to cheaper credit) to help keep SUNY accessible--are necessary if the system is to avoid massive layoffs and/or the selling, closing, and merging of campuses. And that these investments in the mission of SUNY bring large and varied returns to the people and places of New York.

OK, next:

FACT: The legislation would eliminate state appropriations for tuition and other revenues, so there is no guarantee that student tuition and fees would be used to benefit students or the academic mission of the campus. Quality would suffer.

What is UUP really claiming here?

RED HERRING: Never mind that New York state already has used tuition dollars for non-educational purposes (i.e., to help close its massive budget deficits via the "tuition tax"), so that the current system, where student tuition is counted as state money, provides no guarantee of anything. Never mind that in the current system, where students and families pay the state rather than an individual campus, the state could find itself "forced" at any time by fiscal "necessities" to deny SUNY any or all of those dollars. And certainly never mind that specific language in both the bill and the comprehensive tuition policy draft circulated by SUNY System Administration four months before the PHEE&IA'S June 15th deadline to campuses, legislators, and the Board of Trustees for comment and improvement tie the use of tuition, fees, and other revenues directly to SUNY's mission. No, no, no--whatever you do, never assume that there's competent and responsible leadership at any level of the SUNY system. Actually, the only thing stopping SUNY from misusing your money are UUP and its friends in the legislature. So take our word that not only would the PHEE&IA end SUNY's affordability, it would also undermine SUNY's quality.

As I've already shown, this claim is based upon a tendentious misreading of language that's already in place and in effect in New York state education law and unchanged in the current bill. Don't take my word for it: go to S. 6607/A. 9707, Subpart A, Section 8, page 57, lines 12-24. Whatever the funding source, SUNY is obligated to create a budget in line with "its objects and purposes" and "under regulations prescribed by the state university trustees." The horror! The horror!!

OK, next:

FACT: SUNY could place a surcharge on tuition (differential tuition) that would vary by campus and program without limitation. Student access would be denied.

Sorry, Charlie! Try to keep up with the facts on the ground:

EX-FACT, FOR ALL PRACTICAL PURPOSES: Let's pretend that SUNY has not responded to UUP's and others' critiques in its comprehensive tuition policy draft by giving up on program-specific differential tuition, closing the gap in the cap, changing the cap to a (still-to-be-determined) fixed annual percentage rate rather than a multiplier of the HEPI, clarifying the procedures and criteria for a campus to request a "special tuition rate," and incorporating specific language and policies to ensure student access. Conceding that would confuse students and families. Until the language of the PHEE&IA itself has been changed to prevent SUNY from arbitrarily changing its policy once the spotlight moves away, better to hit our one good talking point over and over and over, even if it's only technically possible for the worst to happen.

Actually, I can't blame UUP too much on this one. I want the language of the PHEE&IA changed to (a) take away the possibility of any of this coming back down the road and (b) require legislative approval of SUNY BOT tuition policy, including any future changes to it. While I believe it's better to acknowledge SUNY's improvements and directly call for language that would further improve the bill, I can understand that UUP wouldn't want to let its one effective talking point go to waste, simply because the facts on the ground have changed. I guess.

OK, next:

FACT: There's no evidence that public/private partnerships--especially those created without government oversight--raise revenue. In fact, SUNY's previous joint ventures have cost taxpayers millions.

Really? More like:

BACKPEDAL VIA WILD GUESS: Our original talking points expressing "serious reservations" due to "insufficient oversight" were too wishy-washy and wonky. So let's pretend that Phil Smith never wrote that "SUNY's previous experiences with joint ventures" were the result of "special bills enacted by the Legislature" (22 February 2010 letter to UUP members). Wouldn't be good to remind New Yorkers that even legislative oversight sometimes isn't enough, now, would it? No, no, better to imply that the "lost revenue" Smith wrote about in his letter to the membership is really wasted taxpayer dollars (rather than, say, private investments that didn't pan out). And pretend that past results guarantee future outcomes--"failure once, failure forever" is our motto. Let's call the whole thing off.

Yes, there have been problems with public/private partnerships in the past. The key question, then, is how to avoid them in the future. Minimizing the amount of and risk to taxpayer dollars is one obvious strategy. But instead of contributing further ideas, UUP hints that there is no solution, and can be none.

In short, the only thing UUP's ad convinces me of is that they either haven't seen SUNY's comprehensive tuition policy draft or wish they hadn't seen it. How could they have approved their ad in light of the following language from it?

Purpose of a Comprehensive Tuition Policy

The purpose of this policy is to ensure that tuition pricing for the State University of New York is fair, equitable and responsible by: 1. maintaining affordable access to the institution through a supplemental grant program, funded in part by a portion of tuition revenues; 2. tying tuition increases, if any, to predictable and incremental economic indicators, thus allowing students and their families to better manage the cost of pursuing a SUNY education; and 3. ensuring that SUNY fulfills its potential and responsibility as a driver of the State's economic growth through the reinvestment of all tuition revenues in the execution of SUNY's mission based strategic plan.

PHEE&IA is specifically designed to complement but not relieve the State of New York of its responsibility to support accessible and affordable public higher education. Appropriate levels of state funding, and SUNY's ability to control its own tuition policy, is the only method of ensuring that SUNY can reinvest all of its traditional tuition resources in the growth and development of its campuses, the development of SUNY Aid...and in terms of growing private philanthropic support.

Yeah, the language is rough, but it doesn't hurt my appetite or my digestion the way UUP's bad ad did. If there are any truth in advertising requirements for political ads, UUP is in a lot of trouble. In any case, floating a paper airplane that can be taken down by a few spitballs does little to bolster UUP's standing with the public or with legislators.

[Update 1 (3/8/10, 12:00 am): Where in Nancy Zimpher's latest op ed is the call to privatize SUNY? And why can't UUP's leadership sound more like the University of California at Berkeley's Wendy Brown?]

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