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Commentary & Opinion

Fred Kowal: Legislative Agenda For Higher Education

It’s budget season in Albany and higher education issues are getting lots of attention.  It’s about time. 

You’ve probably heard about the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship program. It would provide free tuition to SUNY students whose families earn up to $125,000, after deducting other forms of financial aid.  

UUP has supported the concept of free tuition since President Barack Obama announced his College Promise Campaign in 2015.

Yet, there are questions about the governor’s proposal, especially how will SUNY deal with an expected enrollment surge caused by the tuition plan?

Years of state underfunding has caused a severe shortage of full-time faculty, causing campuses to rely on underpaid, overworked adjuncts. The numbers don’t lie. Twenty years ago, SUNY had over 10,300 full-time faculty to teach 185,000 students. Now, SUNY has just 8,700 full-time faculty for more than 220,000 students.

SUNY needs more full-time faculty to teach more students, provide course offerings necessary for on-time graduations, and maintain a high-quality education.

That’s why we’re asking the Legislature for $30 million in the 2017-18 state budget to hire more full-time faculty. The funding would be part of a five-year plan to bring on 1,500 new full-time faculty.

But that’s just one part of our legislative proposal.

SUNY is still reeling from massive—and I mean massive—Great Recession budget cuts. SUNY’s operating budget has been cut by half since 2008, with comprehensive and technical colleges taking the biggest hits.

It’s time to turn things around. UUP is seeking a $50 million investment in SUNY, the first step in a multi-year plan to restore at least half of the funding cut nearly a decade ago. This investment in SUNY is crucial to the future viability of the entire system.

Then there are SUNY’s teaching hospitals in Brooklyn, Stony Brook and Syracuse, which have been a lifeline for thousands of patients who rely on these facilities for health care. Our state-operated hospitals turn no one away, whether or not they can pay.

But these chronically underfunded facilities could become overrun with new patients if the Affordable Care Act is repealed without a suitable replacement. We’re urging legislators to restore the state hospital subsidy to its 2009 level of $153 million.

Opening the doors of education to low-income and non-traditional students is also a focus for our union. UUP is calling for increased funding for SUNY’s successful opportunity programs, and the creation of a teacher education pilot program to boost diversity in New York’s teaching ranks.

We also support transparency legislation for the SUNY Research Foundation and SUNY’s campus foundations. Needless to say, recent events involving the Research Foundation and nonprofit groups created and managed by the foundation shows a clear need for greater accountability.

Our budget proposals represent an investment not only in SUNY, but in the future of New York state. We look forward to working with state lawmakers to make these initiatives a reality.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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