EDITORIAL: Legislature should let SUNY power up

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Now that the State University of New York has an ambitious strategic plan - six big, blue-sky ideas for its future - all it needs is the tuition and governing flexibility to bring the plan to life. In New York, of course, that's the hard part.

The new SUNY chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, uses this analogy: The strategic plan is the road map. The flexibility legislation proposed by Gov. David A. Paterson is the driver's license. To carry her analogy one step further: SUNY faces a huge obstacle to getting its license: the cold-eyed, tough-marking driving-test examiner known as the State Legislature.

On Tuesday, Zimpher joined the governor for a press conference-rally for the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, which he introduced as part of his 2010-2011 budget. The budget is still in deficit limbo. So the legislation - a bigger, bolder version of flexibility legislation that SUNY has long sought - is stuck in the swimming-in-molasses inertia of Albany.

The proposed law would give SUNY greater control over tuition, purchasing, land leases and other dimensions of governance. With some caveats, it has the support of the SUNY Student Assembly and the University Faculty Senate. In its budget resolution, the State Senate adopted some elements of it. But the Assembly fears that its loss of control over tuition could make it tougher for students to afford SUNY. So it's balking.

At a time when parents and high school students are making college choices, and we need some clarity about future tuition policy, we're not getting it. But we do have a plan that gives us an idea of what SUNY can be, once it gets past the budget mess.

 

The Power of SUNY

From the moment Zimpher arrived last June, she made it clear that she wanted SUNY to think broadly and boldly about its future. In a burst of frenetic activity, she visited all 64 campuses and held 10 gatherings around the state, including here on Long Island, to talk about the plan.

Its title is "The Power of SUNY," a phrase echoed like a football cheer at the Long Island launch of the plan in April at the College at Old Westbury.

Given the diversity of programs and resources in the system, the power theme has many dimensions. But Zimpher has placed an especially heavy emphasis on SUNY as an economic development engine - not a bad idea in these tough times. The goal is "to revitalize New York's economy and enhance the quality of life for all its citizens."

 

Thinking big

To get there, the plan offers six big ideas, each with three specific initiatives. The ideas include encouraging entrepreneurship; closing gaps in the educational system to create a seamless education pipeline; more fully integrating the system's health care assets for better public health; making SUNY a key player in an energy-smart New York; becoming a more "enriching presence" in our communities; and improving global presence and competitiveness.

There's a lot to like in the details. One appealing proposal is a SUNY Urban-Rural Teacher Corps, to give teachers the kind of clinical training that medical professionals get. Another is a SUNY Wellness Network, to use the system's health care expertise to set statewide health goals.

But we'll be able to judge the plan more fairly in the fall, when SUNY attaches to these ideas some metrics to help measure its progress every year. The only metric in the plan now is a promise to cut energy use by 30 percent over the next decade.

Is this lean period, when SUNY's state funding keeps getting cut, the right time for such an ambitious plan? Yes. First, it can bring economic development to revive the state. And if SUNY can't think big when it finally has a forceful new chancellor, after almost two years of temporary leadership and drift, when can it?

For now, SUNY can begin to accomplish some of what's in the plan by better coordinating what it already has, by setting priorities and moving resources around. But it will also need help from the state.

In the past, the legislature has agreed to tuition increases, but it's all a game, in which the state grabs the increased revenue for other uses. Now SUNY wants to set its tuition rates - and keep the money. Legislators loathe giving up their control.

But the legislators - and the governor - have subjected SUNY to the budget machete in recent years. Now, lawmakers can tinker with the proposed act - by imposing caps on some tuition levels, for example - and SUNY has already given ground on the potential size of annual increases. But the legislature should pass it and let SUNY see what it can do with real independence, on tuition and on flexibility to take advantage of fast-breaking opportunities for SUNY entrepreneurship. If it doesn't work, the legislature can curtail the independence later.

What we really need is to get people excited about the potential that SUNY offers. The plan is a first step. But unless the legislature lets SUNY soar, all that potential will remain tragically untapped. hN

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