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Fred Kowal: An Ambitious Plan For SUNY

Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, America is inching toward the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Another deadly wave of the pandemic—caused in large part by large gatherings during the holiday season—is waning, and COVID cases are beginning to drop. The Biden Administration is distributing the vaccine as quickly as possible, and progress, while slow, is being made.

But even as things improve, we find ourselves in the worst of times. Our state is reeling from the financial devastation caused by the pandemic, an unmistakable fact in the governor’s 2021-2022 Executive Budget. He’s proposing a 5 percent state aid cut to SUNY, a proven economic engine that returns just over $8 for every $1 invested by the state.

The governor’s budget is a speculative, shortsighted document that would further deplete our already cash-poor campuses. You don’t cut your way out of a depression; you take bold steps to invest in essential public services such as SUNY to bounce back.

UUP has a better, more progressive plan, one to put New York on solid financial footing while significantly upgrading SUNY’s academic medical centers, expanding access to SUNY for underserved communities, creating new revenue streams to help fund public higher education, and establishing SUNY as a world leader in the climate crisis battle.

Earlier this month, UUP issued our vision for SUNY, New York HEALS – which stands for Healthcare, Education, Access, Leadership and Sustainability. In times of crisis, you go big, and that’s what we’ve done with New York HEALS.

The pandemic laid bare the deficiencies in New York’s health care system, exemplified by the state’s disinvestment in SUNY’s academic medical centers and teaching hospitals. At SUNY Downstate, which was designated as a COVID-19-only hospital in March 2020, at Stony Brook University Hospital and Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, our members are battling a virus that still kills thousands of Americans each day.

Because of a dangerous shortage of protective hospital gear, UUP purchased and sent tens of thousands of masks, gowns, gloves and other items to our essential workers. We will always step up to protect our members. But providing PPE to frontline workers is a function of the state. Our hospitals have been neglected for years. That needs to change.

It’s why we’re calling for a $100 million investment to support our hospitals’ critical missions: To serve all patients while also supporting the education of the next generation of health care providers.

We believe that our essential workers at SUNY’s academic medical centers deserve hazard pay for their efforts. And let’s go further. Let’s give a free SUNY education to the frontline workers who kept our state moving during the pandemic. Like the GI Bill was to our World War II heroes, a free SUNY education is the proper way to honor our heroes of the pandemic.

Further, to address the unacceptably high maternal mortality rates in African American communities, we support expanding services at SUNY Downstate to make it Brooklyn’s center of maternal and child services. To solve the problem of health care deserts across our state, we back the creation of a network of 25 SUNY-operated ambulatory care centers to bring high-quality medical care to underserved areas.

To help address economic and racial divisions, we’re calling for funding to double the size of SUNY’s successful Educational Opportunity Program, and the creation of a Medical Educational Opportunity Program. MEOP would draw students from underrepresented and under-resourced communities, who would graduate and return to those same communities to practice.

To help make SUNY the lead institution in the struggle to address the climate crisis, we propose a 25 percent reduction in SUNY’s carbon footprint by 2025. Degrees and courses for green jobs should be expanded, and the means should be made available for the SUNY College of Environmental Science to become a world leader in climate crisis research and mitigation.

To pay for our initiatives, UUP supports the swift passage of a series of revenue raises targeting the rich, who have only added to their fortunes during the pandemic. While approval of President Biden’s forward-looking COVID stimulus bill is a must for New York to regain its financial footing, it is not a long-term financial fix. It is triage, not recovery.

New York could be placed on solid financial footing for years to come with approval of a combination of new revenue streams, including taxes on billionaires and the ultra-rich, reinstatement of the state’s stock transfer tax and a pied-a-terre tax.

It comes to this: We cannot cut state services any more. Our campuses, our schools and our communities cannot sustain any more austerity.

To begin our recovery, New York must stake an aggressive stance in addressing the multiple crises we face: COVID and its impact on the economy, the climate crisis and economic and racial divisions.

SUNY must lead the way in addressing these crises. Resources that could bring billions in new revenue flooding into the state are there for this crucial task, and it is time to tap them. There is no time to waste.

Let’s get to work. 

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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