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Make SUNY whole again

As the president of United University Professions, the nation’s largest higher education union, a lot of papers with a lot of statistics land on my desk during a typical work day. But recently, I came across some data that was startling.

Fifteen of SUNY’s state-operated campuses and two SUNY public teaching hospitals are in counties with poverty rates higher than New York’s overall 12.7 percent poverty rate. That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That’s not all. Twenty-one campuses, plus two public teaching hospitals, are in counties where the median household incomes are lower than the living wage for a family of four. And 14 campuses, including one SUNY hospital, are in counties with per capita incomes lower than the living wage in New York state.

That got me thinking. Our campuses are economic lifelines to so many communities across the state, and those communities depend on a strong, vibrant SUNY. Our communities need a strong SUNY, because a strong SUNY means stronger communities.

Here’s proof: SUNY campuses provide hundreds—if not thousands—of jobs and pumping millions into the local economy. In smaller places, like Cobleskill, home to my home campus of SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY colleges and universities are keystones of the community. They foster community pride while acting as prolific economic engines, locally, regionally and statewide.

Every tax dollar invested in SUNY campuses goes right back into the community—and then some. SUNY campuses return over $8 to their communities for every dollar invested by the state—a return on investment of over 700%.

At SUNY Oswego, for example, the college injected over $61 million into the Upstate economy over the past 5 years, through campus renovations and construction projects alone. In 2018, Upstate Medical University contributed $2.5 billion to the state and local economy and supported more than 18,000 jobs.

After two years of weathering a deadly pandemic, our campuses offer a solid path to recovery to our students, our patients and our communities—today and into the future.

Yet, our campuses and public teaching hospitals are weakened after decades of disinvestment by the state—and that impact has been felt in communities large and small. Severe budget cuts and years of stagnant state funding for SUNY have taken their toll.

In fact, had the state maintained its 2007 funding level for SUNY, our university system would have had $7 billion more to spend on new faculty, student services and academic programs. Seven billion more! Certainly, our students, our patients and our communities would have benefitted from those dollars.

Imagine the impact those dollars could have had on places like Delaware County, home to SUNY Delhi, where the poverty level is higher than the state’s average and the median household income and per capita income are lower than the living wage in New York?

Or in Chautauqua and St. Lawrence counties, where SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Plattsburgh are located, respectively. The median household income in those counties is more than $20,000 lower than the Census Bureau’s 2020 median household income for New York, which was $71,700.

Little has come of the former governor’s vaunted “Buffalo Billion” plan, which had grand plans pump $1 billion into the Buffalo economy and revitalize the region with new businesses and jobs. And let’s not talk about the corruption the Buffalo Billion managed to generate.

Now, imagine the impact that “SUNY $7 Billion” would have had on our campuses and communities across the state! You get the picture.

New York has a budget surplus for the first time in years. The money is there. It’s time for the state to make a significant investment in SUNY to help it continue providing a world-class, affordable and accessible education for all New Yorkers.

We are encouraged by what we’re seeing in one-house budget resolutions from the Senate and Assembly, which, along with the governor’s proposed Executive Budget, focus on crucial initiatives for SUNY. But it’s not enough. SUNY needs more to properly fund its campuses and teaching hospitals, which played a major role in the state’s COVID-19 response.

These houses of healing haven’t received a dime of direct state support since 2018, when the state cut millions in critical mission funding to these life-saving facilities.

Our hospitals, which educate New York’s future doctors and medical professionals, also pay for their own debt service. They are the only state entities required to cover these costs.

We need change and we need it now. It’s time for action, not excuses.

It’s time to make SUNY whole again.

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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