While not perfect, SUNY deal needed to get done

You’ve really got to hand it to State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. She stuck to her guns and got at least some of what she and the SUNY system needed. She bargained and got a tuition raise. In fact, SUNY still has a very low tuition compared to the costs for a college education at a private (or as they like to be called, “independent”) institution.

With costs at the private schools now often exceeding the $50,000 per year mark, SUNY remains one of the greatest bargains in the world. Under a deal worked out between Chancellor Zimpher, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature, there will be a rational, predictable rise in tuition for the next several years. Nobody is more committed to the SUNY system than Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, who sees it as a way for the state’s least well off to get a college education, and even he understands that this time, the wolf really is at the door. Silver was the major obstacle to the new tuition plan but he had to see that the slash and burn policy toward the state and city universities had taken too much away from the public colleges.

Zimpher never bargained for the devastation that greeted her when she became chancellor and she’s learned a lot more about the art of negotiation. Even with that enforced education, she got lucky when Governor Cuomo was elected. Everyone knows that Cuomo’s fortunes are tied to his ability to deliver jobs and to lead New York into an economic renaissance. With SUNY campuses in virtually every part of the state, Cuomo had an ideal place to focus his jobs effort. Cuomo’s plan is to make the State University campuses into natural partners with business. The Legislature knows that and has to go along with a healthy SUNY. Since SUNY has received less and less state aid over the past several years, Cuomo had both the University and the Legislature in a strategic headlock.

Naturally, this new model of SUNY campuses being open for business has disturbed some faculty types who believe in education for education’s sake. This egghead model has prevailed for quite some time among some faculty. The truth is that most students who attend university care most about their ability to find productive work after they leave. There should be room for those who want to philosophize about the state of their navels, God bless them. We need such people, but a university should be able to mix learning and doing without corrupting our kids. After all, the students and their parents are the consumers. As a forty-year member of the SUNY faculty who ran very popular internship programs, I can tell you that it is possible to do both; educate and help vocational aspirations.

Andrew Cuomo had the Legislature in a headlock. Legislators know that the economic health of the state is the number one concern of voters here and across the nation. In fact, we know that the Legislature is afraid of Cuomo and so the deal was cut. The Legislature would let SUNY raise tuition and, more importantly, keep that tuition money to help keep the place going. The University would marry itself to business. The kids and their parents would get what they wanted. The governor would have an important plank in his economic development (jobs) program.

The speaker and his Assembly insisted that our poorest students would continue to get Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) aid. To be sure, there will be some casualties among poor students. When you raise tuition it becomes a disincentive to apply. Just a few dollars can stand in the way of a college education. Nevertheless, Zimpher, the governor and the Legislature did what they had to do to save the University. While not perfect, this is one deal that needed to get done.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/6/11

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