Saturday, September 24, 2011

Where to Begin?

Apologies for the radio silence the last several months here at CoSE.  Obviously there's been a lot going on, but between the end-of-last-semester rush, the lure of summer in a new town, and my new responsibilities on campus (I ran for and was elected Vice Chair of the SUNY Fredonia University Senate in the spring, effective July 1st), blogging here fell off my personal radar.  So here's a quick rundown of issues I haven't been commenting on but will try to be more diligent about doing so here in the coming months.

Et Tu, SUNY?

As my regular readers may know, I've been concerned about the possibility of retrenchment (layoffs of tenured faculty members by shutting down their department) at SUNY Fredonia for several years, and as Chair of our University Senate from 2009-2010, I took several steps to begin serious dialogues well in advance of any number of worse-, worser-, and worst-case budget scenarios that might face our campus.  Because my successor Dale Tuggy, the Executive Committee of the Senate, and the Planning and Budget Advisory Committee were doing such a good job last year continuing down that path, I basically decided to sit on the sidelines for the most part but also work behind the scenes on helping to improve the funding of public higher education in New York state.  Rather than simply update my older posts here, I wrote and spoke to state legislators and their staffers in both Chautauqua and Erie counties on many of the topics raised in them, sometimes by myself and sometimes with colleagues like Ziya Arnavut and Junaid Zubairi (to name just a couple).

To make a long story short, it's looking like all our collective efforts across the state have helped avert a worst-case scenario for SUNY Fredonia.  It appears that Governor Cuomo is not looking to cut SUNY any further (barring a future fiscal emergency that he and both houses of the legislature agree exists), that the fair, rational, and predictable tuition reform that was passed as part of NYSUNY 2020 legislation will help SUNY campuses begin to become healthy enough to get off life support, and hence that the worst of the crisis may well be behind us.  But--and didn't you know that word was coming?--that doesn't mean we're even close to getting out of the woods.  I'll talk about the Governor's war on public employee unions in a moment, but for now I want to focus on how SUNY turned this small victory into an even larger structural deficit for SUNY Fredonia this current academic year.  Here's what the Chancellor's Office came up with:

  • Confiscate the reduction on the state's tax on tuition.  Yup,  we didn't see a penny of our students' tuition dollars that by every right should be helping to improve the quality of their education at our campus.  SUNY System Administration took them and redistributed them to other parts of the system.
  • Divert state dollars we otherwise would have received to University Centers and Health Science Centers.  That's right--what we gained via our tuition increase for in-state undergraduates was more than wiped out by the nearly $1M we should have gotten but didn't because Chancellor Zimpher and CFO Monica Rimai believe other campuses needed to be cushioned from the 10% cut imposed by Governor Cuomo on all state agencies.
  • In short, we were penalized for the very fiscal prudence, foresight, and planning that enabled us to ride out the worst of the crisis while minimizing pain to our students and faculty.  It seems almost like it was because we have well-run a Residence Halls program, a strong Faculty-Student Association, and have taken so many measures to cut spending and find cost savings wherever possible that we were singled out to bear this extra burden.
Fortunately, it looks like we'll be able to weather SUNY doing to us almost exactly what the state has been doing to SUNY--well, for this year.  But unless SUNY looks hard at how they treat the four-year campuses, we may yet face retrenchments at SUNY Fredonia.

Why Differential Tuition Isn't the End of the World

This leads me to my next point, a pragmatic argument for allowing the University Centers to charge more in tuition than other campuses in the system--provided that SUNY provides the legislature and Governor with a plan to gradually rebalance the distribution of state dollars away from the University Centers and toward those other campuses.  Because the doctoral programs and their research needs do cost more than the master's programs and their research needs at campuses like mine, SUNY has for a long time diverted more state dollars to the more expensive campuses and programs than to places like SUNY Fredonia.  But if by the next time NYSUNY 2020 comes up for revision and renewal more of the responsibility for funding research were to be covered by the federal government (which is better able to invest in basic research than cash-strapped states), I wouldn't be opposed to undergraduates at UB, Binghamton, Albany, and Stony Brook paying more for their educations than those at places like Fredonia, Brockport, Geneseo, Cortland, and New Paltz, provided they and other non-University Centers in the system were to get more of their fair share of state dollars.  The better able the University Centers are to support themselves via student and federal dollars, the more state dollars should be able to go to the rest of the system.  And if they happen to overshoot and price talented students out, then all the better for the rest of us who can provide them with a high-quality education at much lower prices.

What about UUP?

Now, let me be clear that probably nobody in my faculty and professionals' union, United University Professions, is very likely to agree with me on this.

There's a strong contingent in UUP who believe SUNY higher education should be tuition-free and 100% publicly-funded. There's an even larger number of my brothers and sisters who want to see tuition remain as low as possible, so as to ensure that SUNY continues to fulfill its mission of providing access to higher education for all NY's citizens. Most delegates look with great suspicion at the claims of high-tuition/high-aid advocates in SUNY's doctoral-granting institutions and across the country that the way to a great public university is to follow the lead of the University of Michigan and the University of California's state-wide administration.  In fact, virtually everyoneat every DA I've been to believes that differential tuition is a trojan horse for privatizing SUNY, helping richer campuses get richer, helping bigger ones get bigger, and putting the poorer ones in Darwinian competition against each other for their very survival. 

Certainly the two rivals for leadership of UUP, President Phil Smith and Vice President for Academics Fred Floss, have other plans and priorities.  While Smith has gone on record as saying that "UUP supports a rational, reliable, sustainable, and predictable tuition policy," he pledged at the spring Delegate Assembly that he won't put UUP's weight behind the current bills before the Senate and Assembly unless the legislature commits to raising the TAP limit to match tuition increases and SUNY leadership stops using language about the state taxing tuition.  At the fall DA I just left, he simply noted that UUP ended up supporting rational tuition.  Meanwhile, Floss, who narrowly lost in his bid to unseat Smith last spring, argued to me back then that UUP shouldn't even enter into the tuition debates, since they distract from the core problem of convincing legislators to commit state funding to SUNY and ensuring that the state continues to sustain labor protections.

In response, I would argue that once the legislature commits to maintenance of effort, stops reducing state funding every time they pass a tuition increase, and commits to supporting SUNY's mission, there'll be no need to criticize the way they have been systematically defunding SUNY over the past few decades, because they'll have stopped doing so.  If we can get a similar pledge from SUNY not to grow the University Centers at the expense of the rest of the system, I just don't see why differential tuition is such a dirty word.

In any case, right now every officer, negotiations team member, and delegate is united behind the common goal of fighting off efforts by the Governor's Office of Employee Relations to bully UUP into accepting massive cuts in our benefits during the current negotiations for a new contract.  And the DA just approved a vitally-important series of constitutional amendments that bring our union into the 21st century when it comes to ensuring representation of colleagues who are neither on the tenure track nor on the path to permanent appointment as professionals.  We created new subcategories of membership, "Contingent Academic" and "Contingent Professional," ensured that every chapter would have an elected Officer for Contingents, converted the statewide standing Part-Time Concerns Committee into the Contingent Employee Committee, and guaranteed at least one seat on the state-wide Executive Board to a contingent academic or professional.  It's all about making sure that the 40% of our members who are contingent employees have a seat at the table during the decision-making process of their and our union.

Speaking of which, I'm proud to report that our own Vice President for Professionals, Idalia Torres-Medina, will have seat at that very same table.  She won the seat on the Executive Board vacated by now no-longer-acting Vice President for Professionals J. Philippe Abraham, winning a 3-round election against three other worthy candidates.  More on this when I get back to Fredonia.  Time to get ready to hit the road again and leave Clinton!