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Stony Brook hiring freeze aims to stem budget gap, officials say

The move comes after several other austerity measures did not produce the needed savings, officials said.

Members of Stony Brook University's United University Professions, a union that represents faculty and staff, marched on campus for a fair contract, on Thursday, March 1, 2018.  (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Stony Brook University will impose an indefinite hiring freeze effective immediately to address an ongoing structural budget deficit, officials announced Thursday morning.

The plan will impact nearly all positions at Long Island’s largest public research university that are funded by the state budget. The decision comes after several other austerity measures did not produce the needed savings, officials said.

SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., in an exclusive interview with Newsday, said the university faces an $18 million shortfall in its total base funding due to contractual salary increases that were negotiated at the state level and are currently unfunded in the state budget. The freeze also will impact administrators, Stanley confirmed.

“We have asked units for the last year to work to reduce their expenditures — and they did,” Stanley said. “There is a structural mismatch between our expenses and our revenue. We don’t control tuition. We don’t control the state allocation to higher education, so we have no easy way to deal with this.”

In the past, the state budget would help defray the cost of the contractual salary increases, Stanley said. Additionally, Stony Brook and other State University of New York campuses are no longer able to rely on predictable tuition increases, as was the case after the 2011 passage of SUNY2020, a comprehensive financial plan for the SUNY system that allowed member schools to raise student tuition by a maximum of $300 annually. The plan expired in 2016, though, and last year SBU used reserves to fill the budget gap. Stony Brook last imposed a wage freeze in 2009 on administrative jobs, a university spokeswoman said.

The Thursday announcement was made via an emailed letter and video shared with the campus community.

Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Budget Division, said in a statement: “Under Governor Cuomo, funding for higher education has increased $1.4 billion over the past six years. ... It is disingenuous to suggest that salary and benefit increases can’t be covered within such an increase when state agencies have been absorbing such expenses within flat budgets since 2012.”

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, a union that represents the faculty and staff at the 30-plus campuses within the State University of New York, said Thursday that he was “surprised” that Stanley ordered a hiring freeze.

“What disturbs me is blaming it on the raises from the UUP contracts,” he said. Union members have been without a contract since June 1, 2016, and are negotiating for a new one, he said.

His members “work very hard and provide quality education at Stony Brook University, and we are simply negotiating the fairest contract we can get,” Kowal said. “We are not breaking Stony Brook’s budget, and I am concerned that the president would focus so intently on hypothetical salary increases.”

An SBU spokeswoman said the raises are being negotiated but the amounts — including retroactive pay — have not been included in union employee’ salaries since there is no formal contract yet.

Mark Aronoff, a distinguished professor of linguistics, said he was concerned that “the academic sector will continue to suffer, and that spending will continue to be directed elsewhere” to “things that are not central to the academic mission.”

Stanley said he had intended to cover the deficit through the attrition of campus personnel and other cuts and consolidations of campus programs — such as a controversial cutback in three liberal arts departments announced last spring.

Four days ago, SBU’s College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sacha Kopp, tasked with carrying out many of those program changes, announced he was stepping down in a statement that mentioned the school’s budget crisis.

Stony Brook has a total operating budget of $2.9 billion. It is one of the State University of New York’s four university centers. The others are Binghamton University, the University at Albany and the University at Buffalo.

Alan Tucker, a distinguished teaching professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, said Thursday that the freeze could prevent more drastic cuts. “The alternative to all this is, of course, firing more people.”

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