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OPINION: It's time to free SUNY from the Albany budget process

Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York.

With the state's finances at a crisis point, it's time for bold ideas that will not only get us through these difficult times, but return New York to greatness.

The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act proposed by Gov. David A. Paterson and being considered now in Albany is an idea of that magnitude. This landmark legislation would shield our students and campuses from the worst effects of the fiscal crisis while maximizing the state university system's potential as a driver of economic recovery.

Historically, tuition increases for the State University of New York have had to be approved by the State Legislature. And once approved and collected, the money generated has often been swept into the State Treasury to close budget gaps throughout the state. That has meant that tuition has gone up only during times of fiscal crisis when students and parents can least afford it.

The Empowerment Act would remove tuition from the state budget and political process. That would allow SUNY to expand enrollment, increasing access to educational opportunities. Any tuition increases would stay on campus, allowing us to raise new revenue to maintain - and improve - academic quality.

SUNY is developing a detailed tuition policy that prevents the large, sudden tuition spikes of the past. It would cap total year-to-year tuition increases, and make it easier for more people to attend college through expanded financial aid.

The act would also enable SUNY to engage in partnerships with the private sector, which means new revenue to support SUNY and the ability to create 2,000 faculty positions and a total of 10,000 jobs across the system - along with 65,000 construction jobs for capital projects - while protecting the principles of collective bargaining and union worker rights. The legislation would cut the red tape that costs SUNY time and money and stifles economic activity.

Unfortunately, some critics continue to defend an indefensible status quo, providing no alternative solutions - only criticisms. In contrast, we understand the need to be proactive and strategic about the future. If current projections are accurate, there will be even less money to go around next year. Business as usual will be nothing short of disastrous.

These reforms will not "give the state permission to cut SUNY," as some have argued. The steady erosion of support for SUNY shows that the state long ago gave itself permission to do that. Budget cuts and tuition grabs have added up to $424 million over the past two years alone.

During this fiscal hurricane, we simply cannot afford to stake everything on the hope of budget restorations. That's why we are actively seeking ways to sustain and grow a world-class system of public higher education. We have come to the table with an innovative, responsible plan, offering the state university as a partner with all who seek to create a better future for our communities.

When I was hired by the board of trustees last year, I pledged to press the reset button on SUNY's way of doing business. I believe we have succeeded in that effort, with unprecedented participation by our campuses in the budget process, a groundbreaking strategic plan and a newly energized partnership with the City University of New York.

But for SUNY to reach its potential in creating new educational and economic opportunities, we need the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act.

The road of excuses, delays and fear has reached a dead end. It is time to set out on a new path that will shore up public higher education, create jobs and begin the process of rebuilding New York.


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