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Un-leashing SUNY's Power in 2011?

By Joyce Gramza


Oswego, NY – "The Power of SUNY."

"We can and should be an economic engine, if not the economic engine for New York," says Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

Zimpher says each year, the SUNY system creates hundreds of thousands of talented graduates, creating jobs and attracting more than a billion of dollars in federal funds.

Zimpher says Albany needs to relinquish some power to give SUNY campuses the autonomy they need to drive innovation and job-creation in their communities.

"We are talking with governor-elect staff about the role we can play in revitalization," she says.

"That's what the year holds at 30,000 feet and on the ground: We are going to move this economic recovery dial."

Zimpher says the strategic plan was hammered out by thousands of people, from students to campus presidents, across the system's 64 campuses, and addresses the state's biggest challenges.

"What are we going to do to be more innovative and job producing? What are we going to do to help the health-care industry really serve high need populations? What are we going to do to reduce our energy consumption and create renewable energy? What are we going to do about student dropouts of our education system and get people back to school and back to work? So with 64 campuses in 62 counties, we can do this, and that's our plan," she says.

But, she says, state regulations serve to restrict the campuses from generating the revenue they need to move ahead, while Albany keeps cutting their budgets.

Last January, with Governor David Paterson's support, SUNY tried to shake off some of Albany's control.

Paterson included SUNY's "Empowerment Act" proposal in his executive budget.

Zimpher describes the proposal as "a three-legged stool" of greater autonomy in tuition policy, procurement and public-private partnerships.

But lawmakers who took eights months to pass a budget also weren't so quick to release the reins.

In addition to union concerns, legislators and their constituents weren't necessarily willing to take SUNY campuses' word not to hike tuition every year, raising fears of risking access for low-income students.

Zimpher says educational access is of the highest priority, but that completion is a priority too. She says SUNY campuses have to deal with budget cuts that compromise their ability to deliver the courses students need to complete their degrees.

She argues that planned, predictable tuition hikes based on actual system needs are preferable to the "spikes" Albany handles delivers.

"In tuition allocations in New York, somebody last year coined the phrase that they are done perfectly wrong'," Zimpher says. "Tuitions are raised when people can least afford it in economic hardship."

When that happens "every four to five years," Zimpher says it's done in a crisis mode where the money goes into the state treasury.

On the other hand, she says, times of economic growth bring nothing extra to SUNY campuses. "We'd like to make the process more reliable," she says.

Zimpher says SUNY tuition is and will remain a very good deal.

"Our tuition right now is $4970 for a year," Zimpher says. "This is below any national average."

She believes the system can work with legislators to make full use of federal Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) aid to preserve accessibility.

You can read or flip through "Power of SUNY" report here:

The Power of SUNY