by Phillip H. Smith
The State University of New York is facing a critical crossroads, a choice between fulfilling its mission and failing to live up to its promise.
SUNY is the nation's largest public higher education system. Its mission is to provide "the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary program."
The mission promises that everyone who is academically qualified has the chance to earn a college degree, regardless of his or her income.
Threats to SUNY's mission
SUNY is in the midst of a crisis, which threatens its fundamental mission. In a four-year period, SUNY lost nearly $700 million in state support through a series of budget cuts. SUNY's level of support was flat in last year's budget and is flat again in the one proposed for this year, even though costs are increasing.
That loss of nearly $700 million, combined with flat funding, has left SUNY without the funding necessary to maintain or improve quality. That is unfair to students, who pay more in tuition each year under a program approved by SUNY and the Legislature.
In effect, the state has shifted the bulk of the responsibility for public higher education onto students and their families. Today, nearly 75 percent of SUNY's operating budget comes from tuition and fees, compared to a decade ago when 75 percent of its budget came from the state. As more and more funding for SUNY is coming from tuition and fees, an even greater financial burden is being placed on lower- and middle-income families.
The promise of access to a quality, affordable higher education is being compromised. Programs at many SUNY campuses have been affected, threatening academic quality and access. Many SUNY campuses have closed programs and courses and dramatically increased class sizes. These factors combined have delayed graduations, postponed students' employment earnings and increased their debts.
If SUNY's state-operated campuses do not get increased state support, they may be forced to reduce programs and courses further. That would be bad, not only for students but also for local economies. Fewer programs will eventually lead to fewer students. Declines in student populations will decrease demand for housing in SUNY communities, and reduce the number of students patronizing local businesses.
SUNY needs more state support
The state must reinvest in SUNY to help it grow and continue to fulfill its mission of ensuring access to eligible students. We urge state lawmakers to amend the 2013-14 proposed budget and increase state support for SUNY's state-operated campuses by $25 million. The state must make this investment to help SUNY keep the promise of making higher education accessible to all qualified students. It would also shift the balance of state support back to a more equitable share.
It is in all of our best interests to help the thousands of SUNY students and to protect the economic well-being of communities that house SUNY campuses.
I urge you to visit United University Professions' website at www.uupuinfo.org. There, you can send letters to your state lawmakers asking them to amend the budget and add $25 million in state support for SUNY.
The writer is president of United University Professions, the union representing 35,000 faculty and professional staff at SUNY's 29 state-operated campuses.