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Lawmakers debate letting SUNY schools set tuition

As the presidents of Long Island's five SUNY colleges anxiously work phones to Albany, the State Legislature is debating Gov. David A. Paterson's proposal to allow public campuses to set their own tuitions and keep more of that money.

The legislation would allow Stony Brook University and other large research campuses to break free from the state's one-size-fits-all tuition and charge more than smaller schools lacking major research facilities.

The State Senate appears close to passing the measure as part of the budget package, while the Assembly appears reluctant, Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said Monday. LaValle, who spent 30 years chairing the Senate Higher Education Committee and is now the ranking Republican, opposes the bill.

Paterson and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher say the initiative would allow SUNY to compete better with other leading state systems such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The legislation has divided local campuses, with top administrators ardently supporting the changes while some student leaders and professional unions object.

"I'm hoping the Assembly can see how vital this is for Long Island and the state," said Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, president of Stony Brook University. Saying he has called legislators to enlist their support, Stanley said increasing tuition and being allowed to keep more of it would let the campus hire hundreds more faculty members and staff.

At the same time, he said, the legislation would allow Stony Brook to follow the lead of research universities around the country and form partnerships with businesses without going through the state bureaucracy.

At Farmingdale State College, president W. Hubert Keen called the legislation "a bold step that will give SUNY the tools to be a powerful economic engine."

But at SUNY Old Westbury, Candelario Franco, president of the United University Professions union, said he expects Stony Brook to charge three times more than the state's lesser-known public colleges, and that will limit the selections of working-class students.

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