Public hearing addresses Rethinking SUNY issues


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CONCERNS ABOUT coping with further budget cuts while continuing to provide quality education took center stage as leaders from SUNY institutions throughout Western New York and members of the State Senate gathered at UB Jan. 31 for a public hearing on Rethinking SUNY.

It was the fourth such hearing conducted by State Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, who was joined by Sen. Mary Lou Rath and Sen. Dale Volker in the Center for Tomorrow.

"We have reached the point where thinking and rethinking must be translated into action," LaValle said.

The Trustees' report, he noted, "has been described as a work in progress," a document that is "intended to help the policy makers of New York State decide what the State University of the next millennium will be. It represents a framework to guide our thinking, but it is up to the Legislature and the Executive Chamber to put substance on that framework."

LaValle called on the legislature, the governor, the SUNY trustees and the campuses themselves all to work together "to resolve the issues before us."

While some may consider the measures proposed under Rethinking SUNY to be severe, they're not completely unexpected given the history of the past 10 years, said UB President William R. Greiner.

"The Rethinking SUNY process has been said by some to be radical and extreme," said Greiner, who was first to present testimony at the hearing. "I think it is not when you put it in the historical context of our 1984-85 efforts."

A decade ago, a document titled The Challenge and the Choice led to greater institutional flexibility in the State University system. But those changes did not go far enough, Greiner said. "I think we missed some opportunities in 1985 to do more with the SUNY system. And, frankly, had we done them, we might not find ourselves in some of the difficulties that we face today."

Greiner continued his testimony by citing specific Rethinking SUNY issues now before the Legislature that he said need to be addressed.

High on his list was the Management Effectiveness Bill and measures contained in it that could lead to better campus financial management. "Senator, I urge you and your colleagues: adopt legislation that would give us the Academic Quality Fund," legislation that Greiner called "a step toward creating a proper 'bank account' for the SUNY system," which would allow the campuses to manage all resources "more wisely, effectively and flexibly." The Academic Quality Fund would be "a necessary first step toward a rational tuition revenue policy."

If passed, the Management Effectiveness Bill also would allow campuses to benefit from leasing their grounds and facilities. Greiner gave as an example a measure that would allow UB to lease the land to developers, who then could build affordable, apartment-style housing on campus.

Greiner also again voiced his support of differentiated, campus-based tuition. New York State, he said, already has a form of differentiated, campus-based tuition: among the state's 30 community colleges there are 19 different tuition levels, ranging from $1,900 to $2,400. "And, frankly, we haven't seen one community college consume another community college," as a result of those different tuition levels.

He noted that "40 other states do not have a one-size-fits-all tuition policy," and SUNY already charges differential tuition at the graduate level and at the statutory colleges.

Monies from differential, campus-based tuition must remain on the campus generating those tuition dollars, Greiner emphasized. "Every revenue dollar that is earned at a campus should stay at the campus," he said.

Asked by LaValle how UB would benefit from keeping revenues, Greiner responded it would "allow us to continue the quality of program that our students want and expect....What would we do with the money? We would plow it right back into programs with a substantial amount being reserved for financial aid."

Greiner also urged LaValle to maintain funding for the Tuition Assistance Program. Calling the suggestion that TAP be tied to Pell grants a "precipitous change," Greiner asked LaValle and the legislature "to give absolute highest priority to restoration of funds for the Tuition Assistance Program." LaValle responded that TAP will be given a lot of attention in the finance committee.

Noting that suggestions for greater management flexibility in SUNY raise concerns that such flexibility would be abused, Greiner said, "The empirical record suggests that the greater flexibility which was given to State University in 1985 has been very wisely used," and that UB has received "high marks" on the way that increased flexibility has been utilized.

A 1991 Rutgers study of AAU public research universities showed UB to be leanest, or next to leanest in terms of administrative staff among leading public research universities in the U.S. "We have squeezed our administrative side very, very hard and we take pride in that," Greiner said. "We have squeezed so hard that our deans have now told us we probably should put some more back into administrative support because we have made it too lean."

The proposed allocation for capital funding for the SUNY also is too lean, Greiner said, and that lack of funding could hurt UB's ability to develop learning technologies. The budgetary impact on Graduate Research Initiative, alone, could mean a $3 million loss to UB. Technology is the "key to the effectiveness of higher education in the future," Greiner said.

Changes to SUNY, Greiner said, mean the role of SUNY's central office will need to be redefined as more of a leadership institution than a management and processing institution.

The implications of Rethinking SUNY apparently have not gone unnoticed by state residents, Greiner said. "Applications are down by 10-15 percent across the system, and it isn't because the cadre of first-time, full-time freshmen is going down," he said. "Bad news travels fast, and people around the state may be concerned about the future of the SUNY system as a whole. I think this is a warning sign."

According to Greiner, SUNY cannot so quickly absorb the cuts suggested by Rethinking SUNY. "Over the long haul, restructuring the hospitals and undertaking some of the other efforts proposed by the Board of Trustees should lead to a savings. But to think they will be delivered and in place by July-that will be very, very difficult," he said.

A member of the SUNY Board of Trustees also voiced concerns that while change is necessary, the measures contained in Rethinking SUNY may be too much too soon.

"Some of us have been anxious to see change in the State University for some time," noted Arnold Gardner. But, he cautioned, change is not neutral or positive when it serves a predetermined agenda or program.

A great deal of work went into Rethinking SUNY, Gardner said, but that report is an inventory of ideas, none of which were tested, completely thought out or ready for implementation. "Our report is not intended to be a scholarly work product," but suggestions that need further consideration, he said.

"Rethinking SUNY has largely been a fiscal exercise....It's been used as a document only to cut money" and to justify cutting state support of higher education, Gardner said.

Gardner also noted that the board's work is made more difficult by discord that exists among members. "It's a mistake to think the totality of the board is pulling in tandem or easy rhythm," he said. "Philosophic and other tensions are not helpful in resolving the issues before us."

Joan Sulewski, president of the Health Sciences Chapter of United University Professions at UB also presented testimony, noting that "The report cites 'cost' 19 times and 'education' 12 times. Undefined in the report is how the cost of educating a student is determined....Unclear in the report are the problems for which solutions are proposed."

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