Major overhaul in store for SUNY?

A major overhaul may be in the works for the State University of New York, after a panel appointed by the governor proposed significant changes to the nation's largest system of public colleges and universities.

On Dec. 17, the New York State Commission on Higher Education, which was established by Governor Eliot Spitzer in May 2007, presented its preliminary report to Spitzer. The report was comprised of suggestions and concerns regarding the long-term issues facing higher education institutions throughout the state.

Among the proposals, the Commission suggested creating a $3 billion Empire State Innovation fund to finance primarily undergraduate research, a state-run loan program for New York State college students, a rebuilding of the SUNY and CUNY system through the hiring of 2,000 full-time faculty members, funding for critical maintenance projects and backlog and an increase in research.

The report also proposed allowing SUNY campuses to set their own tuition, rather than make all schools adhere to the base $4,350 per year tuition.

In the report's cover letter, commission chairman and Cornell University and University of Iowa President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings said, "The Commission believes strongly that such changes are needed if New York is to remain competitive in the 21st century."

The report has received the support of Interim SUNY Chancellor John Clark.

"The Commission understands the educational needs of New Yorkers and has outlined an aggressive approach to meet them," Clark said. "We look forward to working with Governor Spitzer, the senate and the state assembly on the agenda set forth by the commission."

In his State of the State address delivered on Jan. 9, Spitzer did not state his position on all the Commission's suggestions. However, he did explicitly support the hiring of additional faculty members for both SUNY and CUNY, an improvement of the transfer procedure from community to senior colleges, as well as the establishment of the Empire State Innovation Fund to finance academic research.

In addition, Spitzer suggested the creation of a Higher Education Endowment to provide higher-education institutions with monetary support to confront long-term issues. The endowment is expected to consist of at least $4 billion and was suggested to be funded in part by the New York State Lottery.

Reaction from Geneseo's chief financial administrator was mixed.

"Parts of the [commission's] report would be great for Geneseo, but I would have liked to see more of an emphasis on undergraduate research," said Geneseo Vice President of Administration and Finance Dr. Ken Levison. "Differential tuition would be key to helping us realize our vision of providing an even better education for our students."

According to Levison, it is not clear how the issue of differential tuition would be decided, if the proposal is approved by the state legislature. Levison said that Geneseo's administration would critically assess the needs of the college as well as current and future students, while complying with potential limits, in order to make such a decision.

"In essence, if many of these suggestions are approved, they provide the potential to allow Geneseo to be an absolutely top notch institution, and that's what we've been striving for," he said.

The commission's final report is expected to be published by June 1, following input from the public and other interested parties.