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Commentary & Opinion

Fred Kowal: Can We Make SUNY Matter?

Over the past two weeks, Sen. Toby Stavisky, chairperson of the Senate Standing Committee on Higher Education, has presided over public hearings on the cost of public higher education in New York. The cost of a SUNY education, as well as the underfunding of SUNY, its medical schools and public teaching hospitals were also discussed.

Sen. Stavisky was joined by state senators and Assembly members from across New York, indicating the prominence of the issues being raised to our legislators. As President of UUP, I testified at each of the five hearings, joined by members of our union who detailed the impacts of a decade of underfunding by the state of New York to its university system. It was an excellent opportunity to bring UUP’s perspective on the issues facing SUNY and public higher education to the fore. I thank Senator Stavisky and her colleagues from the Senate and Assembly for holding the hearings.

During the hearings, my UUP colleagues and I raised issues of staff shortages and an overreliance on adjunct faculty – who work for terribly low salaries – throughout SUNY. We talked about the desperate need for the state to invest in SUNY’s teaching hospitals in Syracuse, Brooklyn, and Stony Brook. We also focused on the need to expand SUNY’s incredibly successful opportunity programs, and to pursue an aggressive expansion of SUNY’s green initiatives.

What was alarming was the lack of urgency expressed by SUNY’s leadership. Even though SUNY budgets have been flat for a decade, there was no strong call for the state to take up its responsibility to the SUNY system.

Campuses statewide are cash-strapped, and remedies being considered by administrators could well impact the quality of education and services these colleges provide. Still, I hold onto the hope that when the SUNY Board of Trustees makes its budget request this month, there will be an emphatic call for funding to address these long-term problems.

Additionally, I heard almost nothing from SUNY leadership about SUNY’s hospitals. These safety net hospitals—which see all patients even if they can’t pay for care—have been ignored for too long. Though the Legislature has tried to assist them, the facts are stark.

SUNY’s hospitals are the only state agencies that finance fringe benefit costs for employees—a huge cost typically borne by the state. A deal was struck early in the 21st century that gave the hospitals a so-called “subsidy” in exchange for taking on these costs. Last year, the subsidy was eliminated. Will SUNY push for a reinstatement of this crucial funding? And will the governor include it in his budget?

These hospitals, which provide life-saving care, cutting edge medical education and important research, are the People’s Hospitals. They belong to all of us because they treat all of us. And they train thousands of future health care professionals yearly. At a time when New York is suffering from a physician shortage, the state must invest more in these teaching hospitals, not less.

What’s sorely needed is a vision for SUNY, one that reflects its potential role in creating a humane, sustainable and just future for our state. Such a vision is imperative if SUNY is to truly be the state’s university system, if it’s to be an institution which leads the way – aggressively – in the green transformation of New York, and the means by which our society combats the triple threat of authoritarianism, ignorance and racism.

The union I lead is finalizing a document that articulates just such a vision. We will bring it to the public and to policy makers in a few short weeks. Our intent is to start a dialog that is long overdue, one that challenges the state and our university system to aspire, to seek to create institutions that enable New York to once again be the progressive champion our nation needs. A champion with big dreams, with its feet firmly fixed on the reality of today’s world.

I look forward to working with SUNY, with the governor and the Legislature in creating this necessary vision for the nation’s largest public university system. The times demand it. And UUP is ready for the work required to make it happen.

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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