Lessons learns should help SUNY reforms
“We really needed a statewide approach.”
Lessons UB lobbyists learned during the 2009 legislative session will position the university for success this year in convincing state lawmakers to back reforms in areas ranging from tuition policy to campus land use, Ryan McPherson, associate vice president for government and community relations, told the Professional Staff Senate at its Thursday meeting.
The measures, such as allowing SUNY to charge differential tuition and enabling public-private partnerships to develop campus land, would give UB the financial flexibility it needs to transform itself into a pre-eminent public research university—the vision the UB 2020 long-range strategic plan sets forth, McPherson said.
Last year, a bill supporting such advancements for UB—UB 2020 Flexibility and Economic Growth Act—was approved by the state Senate, but tabled by the Assembly. That experience helped university officials realize that a broader bill with benefits for many parts of the state would help reforms clear the Legislature, McPherson said.
“[The 2009 legislation] became Buffalo Niagara’s No. 1 priority—very clear. Buffalo Niagara chamber, the City of Buffalo, the County of Erie—all agreed that this was their No. 1 ask. So it wasn’t just a UB thing. That was a great thing for us,” McPherson said. “The problem is, in the end, we realized that simply just was not enough. It did not have enough political power behind it; i.e., at this end of the state, to really steamroll its way through Albany and both chambers.
“We really needed a statewide approach,” McPherson said.
This year, UB set out to craft a new advocacy strategy using insight its lobbying team gleaned from last year’s legislative session.
UB administrators won the support of SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, who began her tenure last June. Discussions began with colleagues at other SUNY campuses, primarily the doctoral-granting institutions, to discuss how more financial flexibility could help these schools improve research and education.
The new coalition approach is already paying off. The SUNY Board of Trustees has backed reforms, and Gov. David Paterson included the measures in his Executive Budget, which was released on Tuesday. His proposal, The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, would:
• Authorize the SUNY trustees to implement differential tuition rates for programs and campuses, and raise tuition up to an annual cap of 2 1/2 times the five-year rolling average of the Higher Education Price Index, an inflation index that tracks costs associated with higher education.
• Move tuition outside the state budget process, allowing SUNY to receive and disburse revenues from tuition and self-supporting program activities without an appropriation.
• Authorize the lease of real property under the jurisdiction of SUNY to other entities in support of its educational purpose, and the participation in public-private partnerships in line with SUNY’s mission.
• Remove provisions of law subjecting SUNY to pre-approval of contracts by the Office of the State Comptroller, with the goal of streamlining the procurement process for goods and services. Post-auditing would continue.
The governor’s proposals mirror those UB and the Western New York legislative delegation supported last year, with a key difference: The recommendations would affect all of SUNY, and not just UB.
“This university, through its creative thinking, with its 2020 initiative, has changed the debate...The chancellor has fully embraced the idea of really getting to the potential that the system as a whole has to create—not only academic excellence, but economic growth throughout upstate,” McPherson said.
The next step, he said, is to target individual lawmakers, explaining to them how the areas they represent could benefit from the proposed legislation. McPherson encouraged PSS members to discuss UB 2020 with their colleagues and thank state legislators from Western New York for their support.
Also during Thursday’s meeting, McPherson and Michael Behun, president of the Buffalo Center Chapter of United University Professions, the union representing SUNY faculty and professional staff, exchanged differing opinions about potential effects of reforms.
Tuition was one key area of contention, with McPherson arguing that enabling SUNY to create a rational and responsible tuition policy with incremental increases would help students and families plan their finances. Instead of seeing years of flat tuition followed by a sudden and unexpected spike, the new policy would result in gradual and predictable hikes, he said.
Behun contended that a rational tuition policy could end up hurting families. He said that while the proposed policy might provide advanced warning about tuition costs, increases could end up being large, limiting access to universities. Students who do not qualify for financial aid would be hit particularly hard, he said.