Saturday, April 17, 2010

Now We're Talking: An Open Letter to Joel Miller

Joel Miller
Member of the Assembly
102nd Assembly District

Dear Dr. Miller:

Thanks for your letter of April 14th. The SUNY Fredonia University Senate and I share your opposition to the privatization of the State University of New York and your dismay at the tuition roller coaster students and families have been riding for the last generation. My colleagues and I are particularly gratified to hear that you have a plan to bring more state support for SUNY. To tell you the truth, we've been under the impression that everyone outside the Western New York delegation in the Assembly has it in for SUNY.

I'd like to hear more about your plan to stabilize SUNY's funding, as your description is a little fuzzy:

My plan links [tuition] increases to no more than the CPI for the entering freshman which then stays flat for 5 years with the State annually increasing support by the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI). A percentage of these increases must go to increase the number of full-time faculty.

Are you saying that your plan calls for tuition for each entering first-year class to remain the same for 5 years? (Even if they transfer to another SUNY school? Would students transferring in from outside SUNY pay the same tuition rate as entering first-year students?) And that each year the Legislature would have to limit tuition increases for that particular entering class to a cap set by the previous year's Consumer Price Index? (Would they be required to mandate a tuition decrease if deflation occurs?) And that each year the Legislature would commit to increasing support for SUNY by the Higher Education Price Index rate? (Is that a floor or a ceiling?)

Since your letter refers to the "SUNY Fredonia College Council" in its opening paragraph--which is an entity something like a local Board of Trustees, nothing like the campus governance organization that I lead--I'll take the liberty of reminding you of the actual content of our March 29th resolution by comparing your plan to the elements we've identified, in conjunction with the Fredonia Student Assembly, UUP chapter, and administrative leadership, as key campus needs.

We all agree that a rational, equitable, and predictable tuition policy is necessary, although only the students agree with you that the Legislature should continue to control it and that increases should be capped according to a variable inflation rate. By contrast, the faculty, staff, and administrators of SUNY Fredonia believe that the Board of Trustees should be entrusted with the responsibility to manage small, incremental tuition increases under a flat percentage rate cap (on the order of 8% to 10%). Have they mismanaged the residence halls, construction, or the setting of fees? Why shouldn't they have the same authority to set their own tuition rate that community colleges in New York already have? Don't the taxpayers of NY also own the community colleges? Have they been privatized?

Putting aside the additional administrative costs of different tuition rates for different students in attendance at the same time (by date of entry in addition to resident/non-resident status), which probably would not be high enough to deter the faculty, staff, students, and administrators of SUNY from supporting this aspect of your plan, what's the real difference between yours and ours, and how big is it really? How much does it really matter if the Legislature or the Trustees are managing a rational, equitable, and predictable tuition policy? Since we both agree that tuition increases shouldn't be offset by decreases in state support, can't we come to an agreement on this last little difference between our plans?

Like your plan, our resolution also seeks to freeze the state's long-standing disinvestment in SUNY. But whereas your plan focuses only on the state covering inflationary costs, ours goes much further. (1) We seek to end the Governor's power to unilaterally "claw back" funds the Legislature has dedicated to SUNY by moving SUNY from the "state assistance" budget category to the "local assistance" category, just like community colleges and CUNY schools. (2) We seek to end the practice of cutting SUNY's operating budget by a greater amount than any tuition increase with both a formal end to the "tax on tuition" and a commitment by the state to "maintenance of effort" (which normally includes covering both mandatory and inflationary costs). (3) And we seek to protect SUNY's most financially vulnerable students from the effects of tuition increases by getting a commitment from the state and SUNY to develop new financial aid measures or enhance existing ones (like TAP).

Can we have your support on these three elements of our resolution? Without them, your plan is open to Gubernatorial sabotage and the students, faculty, staff, and administrators of SUNY Fredonia are still vulnerable to continuing disinvestment from the state of New York.

Forgive me for asking, but is your letter an individual initiative, or does your plan have support from the majority of your colleagues on the Higher Ed committee? Is yours the official plan your team is putting forward in conference committee with your counterparts in the State Senate, or are you freelancing this? (I ask because I don't understand why it didn't make it into the Assembly's budget resolution.) What do Deborah Glick and Sheldon Silver think of your plan? How about Phil Smith and Nancy Zimpher?

As you know much better than I, time is getting short. I encourage you to discuss your plan with Bill Parment and the rest of the Western NY delegation. If SUNY's supporters in the Assembly don't get organized and figure out how to act effectively, I fear the consequences for my students and colleagues. If I can help in any way, please don't hesitate to let me know.


Bruce Simon
SUNY Fredonia University Senate
[phone number]

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