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Commentary & Opinion

Make 2022 the year to invest in SUNY

Take a look at Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed 2022-23 Executive Budget and you might come away thinking that SUNY fared pretty well.

The truth is that proposed state funding for SUNY is an improvement compared to just how little SUNY actually got—or didn’t get, I should say—during the dark tenure of disgraced ex-governor Andrew Cuomo. Here’s what SUNY got under Cuomo: hundreds of millions in budget cuts during the Great Recession, followed by years of flat state funding.

Consider this: SUNY is down $7.3 billion in direct funding from the state since 2008, dollars that could have been used to add instructional classes, courses and programs, hire more full-time faculty and augment SUNY’s core mission—to provide an accessible, affordable, quality education to all New Yorkers.

About $1 billion of that would have gone to SUNY’s teaching hospitals, which treat tens of thousands of patients each year and provide an important pipeline of doctors and medical professions to hospitals and health care facilities in New York City and across the state.

Now don’t get me wrong. Gov. Hochul’s funding proposal for SUNY is a step in the right direction.

There’s additional dollars to expand SUNY’s Tuition Assistance Program and close the TAP Gap. For the first time in years, the state will pay its fair share for TAP instead of foisting that responsibility onto our campuses—to the tune of nearly $70 million in 2021. There’s also more for the Excelsior Scholarship, child care and SUNY’s opportunity programs. We are grateful for these commitments.

But it just isn’t enough. SUNY deserves better than this. That’s why UUP, the union I lead, is asking for $255 million in additional state funding for SUNY and our public teaching hospitals.

Our campuses are hurting financially, after weathering more than a decade of cuts and restrictive budgets while straining to cover rising operational costs and increased operational needs. More than a few campuses are still wrestling with multimillion dollar deficits that they’ve been forced to carry over year after year, in large part because of a lack of direct state funding.

Our students have also been hurt. As our campuses have been squeezed, they have been forced to offload increased tuition costs and fees onto students and their families. Nearly two thirds of SUNY’s revenue comes from tuition and fees, with SUNY covering the rest with state dollars. Let me put it another way: students pay $2 for every $1 in direct state aid to SUNY.

We’ve already begun to see the results of years of state disinvestment in SUNY. Campuses have been forced to discontinue programs and shutter whole departments and programs. They’ve had to backfill vacant full-time positions with adjunct professors and part-time faculty. And they’ve had to cut student services as they try to shrink spending deficits.

This is no way to run a public higher education system, especially one as accomplished as SUNY. It is misguided and shortsighted not to invest in SUNY. It cheats our students out of an – and I quote – “education of the highest quality with the broadest possible access,” which is promised to them in SUNY’s mission statement. It cheats them out of the educational experiences they need as graduates entering a very competitive job market.

Gov. Hochul spotlighted SUNY in her January State of the State Address, announcing a plan to revitalize SUNY. We agree that SUNY needs to be revitalized, but just saying it won’t make it happen. It’s going to take a significant financial investment by the state to make that a reality.

Fully funding SUNY will restore opportunity to New York. It will allow our members to better serve our students, allowing them every chance to succeed and thrive in a post-pandemic world. And it will provide a needed shot in the arm to SUNY, which will help our University meet the developing needs of our students and our communities, today and into the future.

The state is in the black for the first time in years. It has the money on hand to make a strong commitment to SUNY. If now isn’t the right time for the state to invest in SUNY, when is?

We believe that time is now. We agree with the governor that SUNY can be the best public higher education system in the nation. But to get there, the state must make a long-term financial commitment to SUNY.

That can, and should, start this year.

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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