The State of New York enacted a new law known as NYSUNY 20/20 late last year for the governance of SUNY and CUNY. By amending several extant laws, the law in question lays down the foundation for the corporatization of the two public universities in the state. To capture the true essence of the law, I prefer to use the term corporatization over privatization because while the latter in the context of an educational institution could still mean “not-for-profit,” the former is bereft of any such considerations. Its purpose is not the creation another private university in the state, which will be largely redundant and New Yorkers don’t need. Its purpose is to abrogate the state’s responsibility for public higher education and to open up these institutions for profit-making by the private corporations.
NYSUNY 20/20 is not the first attempt to corporatize public universities in the state. A far more ambitious and high sounding legislation – Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA) – was proposed by Gov. Paterson, who followed in a cavalier way the report of the New York Higher Education Commission appointed by his predecessor Gov. Spitzer. PHEEIA died in the New York Assembly, thanks to the concerted opposition mounted by student groups and labor unions. For understandable reasons, SUNY and CUNY administrators are the only vocal protagonists of such legislations.
Even before any legislation was proposed or passed to put the public universities on the path of corporatization, SUNY has been undergoing subtle but visible metamorphoses for years. From the State University of New York, it became a “state-supported” university in the 90s and then a “state-assisted” university in the following decade. With such changing nomenclatures were associated not just progressive cuts in budgets but also the change in the very name and identity of campuses. “State University of New York” is now only the secondary name of these campuses and is always written in less noticeable ways.
The two most conspicuous elements of NYSUNY 20/20 are: (a) campuses are authorized to raise tuition by $300 per year for five years in a row, while the four university centers of Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook are also entitled to raise tuition by “additional” 3%; and (b) the so-called “public-private partnership.” We see four pernicious effects of this law on members of GSEU.
First, the state negotiates only the minimum salary and, that too, only for the four university centers. That salary for our latest 2007-2009 contract is $8,583 annually, leaving the university centers to pay almost as much in order to remain competitive. In the wake of continued budget cuts from the time of Gov. Mario Cuomo, the recourse of campuses has been to ask for raising tuition and fees. By meeting their demands NYSUNY 20/20 has provided a substitute for cuts in state funding. By the same token, it has legitimized the state’s practice to negotiate and pay the minimum salary.
Second, with ever increasing tuition even after the five years (a provision that was included in PHEEIA and can be easily inserted in NYSUNY 20/20 in the name of rational tuition), there is a strong likelihood that campuses will not provide full tuition to all members of GSEU. SUNY campuses don’t provide full tuition to all members even now and that number will increase as tuition sky-rockets. Similarly, even prior to NYSUNY 20/20 GSEU members paid up to 10% of their salary in university fees. It is now certain that university fees will multiply both in number and dollar amounts.
Third, NYSUNY 20/20 hinges upon higher and higher student enrollment. While student enrolment continues to rise, most campuses have put a freeze on hiring tenured faculty, resulting in more and more burden of teaching undergrads falling on the shoulder of grad student employees. According to the New York Higher Education Commission Report, even in 2008 the percentage of courses taught by tenured faculty in the state was 52.3, the lowest among the peer states. This puts in jeopardy the 20 hours work-week that GSEU members are entitled to by way of past practice.
Lastly, we all know that SUNY and CUNY campuses have in their possession thousands of acres of state lands. These are, truly speaking, a prime and prized real estate property. The stipulation of public-private partnership in NYSUNY 20/20, which has been copied from PHEEIA, means the private corporations would be able to lease, auction or purchase these public lands. With corporations becoming partners in provisions of higher education, the number of public employees of the state will shrink as more and more services will be provided by employees of such corporations. We can easily imagine how SUNY and CUNY bureaucrats are salivating at the new-found power, prestige and clout, not to mention myriad corruptions that would come in the train of dispensing public properties without the oversight of elected representatives.
As the most important and affected constituency, students are well-placed to arrest the new template for the governance of SUNY and CUNY and to demand full restoration of state funding. It is therefore not fortuitous that the New York Students Rising (NYSR) is on the forefront this struggle. Members of GSEU, who are also students, have a credible partner in NYSR and GSEU will do well to forge a symbiotic relationship with it.