Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What the State University of New York Needs from the State of New York

As the 2010-2011 budget process in New York State enters its endgame, those concerned about the future of SUNY must necessarily play the art of the possible. But we shouldn't lose sight of what the State University of New York needs from the State of New York. It's not so different from what any system of public higher education needs from its state government.  Here are some of those things:


A general understanding that funding SUNY is an investment with both tangible/measureable returns and real but less quantifiable effects on the quality of life and culture in the regions surrounding each campus. Public higher education is a foundation for democracy, engine of economic development, magnet for population growth, key to the middle class, generator for creativity and innovation, and so much more. This understanding should inform every funding decision that affects SUNY.

A general commitment to footing the bill for the actual costs of SUNY's mission. This wouldn't prevent NY from seeking augmented federal baseline support for SUNY's research mission (even if only for certain campuses that could be designated "national research centers"). And it wouldn't prevent NY from demanding better accounting of the real costs of teaching, research, and service, not to mention less waste and more efficiency and innovation, from SUNY.

A statutory commitment to set a floor beyond which SUNY won't be cut, according to 5 standard measures. Here's hoping the floors in SUNY shares of the general fund and of per capita personal income in NY would be set above 0%. And that the minimum level of state support for SUNY per capita, per $1000 of personal income, and per student would be somewhere near national means. Tracking these stats from SUNY's formation to the present and comparing them to national and even international trends might even help the state find a sustainable equilibrium. But what SUNY needs at the very least is a legally-binding commitment to some level of maintenance of effort from New York state government, irrespective of any other means or levels of support.

A statutory commitment that the state government will stop using SUNY as a cash cow. At this point, I'm agnostic on the means: redefining SUNY campuses as local, not state, agencies; defining SUNY not as a state agency but as either a "public benefit corporation," "public-interest non-profit corporation," "educational NGO," or some other category everyone agrees is an improvement; ending appropriation of tuition dollars or, in other words, recognizing that tuition dollars are user fees paid to an individual campus rather than the equivalent of taxes paid to the state; preventing the Governor from unilaterally mandating cuts to SUNY or taxing tuition; committing the state to "maintenance of effort"; or some combination of the above.  But, to switch metaphors in mid-stream, the bottom line is that the state needs to put down the chainsaw if it wants to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden egg.


A general understanding that New York government ought to limit its role to consulting with SUNY on how to define and execute its mission, insulating SUNY from the worst dysfunctions of the New York state political process, and demanding transparency, accountability, and results from SUNY in return. The state should focus more on working with SUNY's various constituencies to rewrite SUNY's mission and vision statements than on micromanaging SUNY. As much as possible, it should use reporting and auditing rather than regulations and pre-approvals as its oversight tool of SUNY management. If it conceives of its role as helping to set up a system of checks and balances within SUNY that assures each constituency has a real voice and seat at the table in goal-setting and decision-making at both system and campus levels, then it should step back and let them hash out how to make SUNY a great state university system. As I've argued before, this involves specific concessions from both the Governor and the state legislature. But it could also involve setting broad performance expectations for SUNY.

A general commitment to helping SUNY combine the greatest access with the highest quality. Part of this involves baseline funding and state financial aid via TAP and low-cost loans direct from the federal and/or state government; part of this involves giving SUNY some flexibility to determine its own tuition and asset management policies; and part of this involves setting up a SUNY-wide endowment in which each campus's non-restricted funds are pooled, augmented by state-level fund-raising, and managed by Ivy-League-quality money managers so that each campus receives a portion of the returns each year according to an agreed-upon formula that's larger than what they could have generated if they had managed them on their own.

A statutory commitment to ensuring that the SUNY Board of Trustees is made up of nationally-recognized higher education leaders with a real commitment to excellence in public higher education. I've argued before for the creation of "a non-partisan panel of state- and nationally-recognized higher education leaders to recommend new appointments to the SUNY BOT" and the lodging of appointment authority in "a 7-person board consisting of the Governor and the majority and minority leaders and the chairs of the committees in charge of higher ed in the state Senate and Assembly." But I'm agnostic as to how this goal ought best to be accomplished.

A statutory commitment to a data- and mission-driven funding process for SUNY at the earliest stages of the state budgeting process. I've argued before for the formation of a "working group on the SUNY component of the state budget consisting of representatives from DOB, SUNY System Administration, UUP, UFS, and campus presidents and business officers from each of SUNY's sectors" that is empowered to make recommendations to "a 7-person board consisting of the Governor and the majority and minority leaders and the chairs of the committees in charge of finance in the state Senate and Assembly" with the authority to "revise the working group's recommendations and insert them directly into the Governor's budget bill." But again I'm agnostic on the forms/means here. What I'm really after is the front-loading and depoliticizing the real work of setting a SUNY budget from June to January rather than back-loading and politicizing it from January to June. This would entail setting up some system of consultation/negotiation among representatives from all relevant SUNY constituencies and state government bodies that focuses on analyzing the kind of data I discuss above and determining mission-critical needs during this front-loaded period. I'm open to good ideas on what kind of system and who participates at what stage.

A statutory commitment to vesting authority to determine tuition and asset management policy in the SUNY BOT, within certain limits, under certain conditions, and following certain principles and procedures. As I've argued before at great length, the key provisions of the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act are worth supporting and improving. I'm not going to reiterate those arguments here. The basic idea is that SUNY needs to be a responsible partner to state government; if it commits to transparency, accountability, and results, and if it is provided the kind of infrastructure and framework laid out in this post, then SUNY should be able to augment existing revenue streams and generate new ones. So long as their forms, goals, uses are consistent with its mission, in the best interests of and agreed upon by each of its various constituencies, and aimed at making SUNY as sustainable and as self-supporting as possible over the very long run, what's to worry about?


I'm sure I'm missing many pieces of the puzzle here.  I'm hoping my readers will help me find them--and assemble them!

[Update 1 (4:44 am): Here's what the state-wide SUNY Student Assembly wants to see with regard to tuition policy.]

[Update 2 (5:45 am): Interested in tracking the UC Commission on the Future's activities and recommendations.]

[Update 3 (5:50 am): Chris Newfield is not that impressed.]

[Update 4 (5:55 am): Neither is Bob Samuels.]

[Update 5 (2:05 pm): Neither is Rei Terada.]

[Update 6 (3:33 pm): Check out UC Regent Live(Blog)--nice play-by-play from the UC student regent.]

[Update 7 (3/26/10, 2:48 am): Nice op-ed by former UC state-wide Planning and Budget Committee chair and UC San Francisco professor Stanton Glantz.]

[Update 8 (3:11 am): Chris Bray piles on the UCOF. His satire convinces me that Nancy Zimpher's SUNY-wide strategic planning initiative is a lot better way to generate ideas than what UC's chancellor came up with. For a systems-theory-influenced take on the difficulty of system-wide strafegic planning and crisis management, check out Viviane Michel.]

[Update 9 (3/31/10, 5:00 pm): Dean Dad makes a strong case that community colleges need to be funded according to a "we will pay you x dollars per student/credit/graduate" model. He adds, "If the 'x' is high enough, then the college could combine it with tuition/fees and more than cover the costs of growth; it would have every reason to grow to meet demand. (Ideally, 'x' would be indexed to some relevant measure, so its value wouldn't get inflated away over time.)"]

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