EDITORIAL: SUNY autonomy bill deserves another look

State lawmakers who refused to give up some control over the State University of New York said they were standing up for the middle class. They couldn't be more wrong.

The plan that died this week in the State Legislature would have permitted SUNY to raise tuition annually, keep the funds for its own operations and enter into partnerships with private companies. In short, the plan would have blocked state government from robbing SUNY's coffers and made the schools nimble enough to form promising business ventures. The frustrated talks to expand OSI Pharmaceuticals at Farmingdale State College are an example of what can happen when lawmakers control such decisions.

A fully funded, improved higher education system would contribute to a strong local economy and provide jobs for graduates. What could be better for the middle class?

While lawmakers defend their actions as protective, they actually cut $210 million from SUNY in the state budget. Over the past three years, SUNY has lost nearly 30 percent of its state support. The result will be more program cuts.

The state university system was intended to be affordable to middle-class families, and it is, at $4,970 in tuition annually. In the hands of the legislature, tuition has risen 6 percent on an annual basis over the past three decades. SUNY is discussing annual increases of 2 percent to 4 percent for the next five years. The real issue isn't pricing out students, but removing legislative control over tuition decisions - as well as over jobs, contracts and salaries.

SUNY's new chancellor, Nancy L. Zimpher, did well to move this debate onto center stage in one short year. Lawmakers should reconsider SUNY autonomy at the next opportunity.

Excellence on campus, well-funded programs, a growing economy - those are meaningful assets to New York's middle class. Lawmakers shouldn't presume to know better. hN

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