Higher Education, Empowerment, & Innovation Act

Gov. David Paterson announced on Jan. 15 that alongside his 2010-11 executive budget, he will propose significant reform to the SUNY system with the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act.

"This is the most important and significant systemic reform for SUNY in 25 years," said President Christopher Dahl. "The bill comprises, at least in the area of tuition, all of the proposals that Geneseo's been making, and so we support this very strongly."

The proposed legislation would improve financial flexibility for SUNY institutions by allowing them to control their own tuition. The bill will also streamline the bureaucratic process, give SUNY trustees more power and, according to an estimate from SUNY, "Create more than 2,200 faculty positions, 7,000 staff positions [and] 43,000 construction jobs on SUNY university and medical centers."

Kenneth Levison, vice president for administration and finance at Geneseo, said he agreed with Dahl that increased control over tuition is the most important part of the bill. Essentially, the bill will give the SUNY Board of Trustees the power to allow different colleges and programs to charge differential tuition based on recommendations from each institution. Presently, the state legislature controls SUNY tuition, which is uniform across campuses.

"Any money we spend [currently] has to be appropriated by the legislature," Levison said. "As of now, we don't have the flexibility to fulfill our mission. But this legislation would unshackle us so we could become the institution that we aspire to be."

The bill may also allow SUNY schools to be operated more efficiently. "Right now, all of our actions are reviewed in a way that they don't really need to be," Dahl said. "There are all these crazy bureaucratic restrictions now that this [legislation] would get rid of."

According to Paterson's Web site, the bill will additionally "authorize the lease of real property under the jurisdiction of SUNY to other entities in support of its educational purpose; remove provision of law subjecting SUNY and CUNY to pre-approval of contracts by the Office of the State Comptroller; [and] allow post-audit in lieu of pre-audit requirements for Attorney General approval of leases between SUNY and its alumni associations in support of dormitory projects."

Levison said that should the bill pass, SUNY colleges would still be held accountable through "increased reporting to the legislature on a semi-annual basis, post-audits by the state comptroller, a cap on the Board of Trustees' power, and the addition of the practice of consulting with college councils, student organizations, and other constituents while determining tuition changes."

According to the SUNY Web site, the bill sets an annual cap for base tuition increases at 2.5 times the five-year rolling average of the Higher Education Price Index rate. HEPI is an annually issued inflation index designed to identify and track the major cost drivers of higher education.

Though Levison said the legislation will make Geneseo "closer to the best universities in the country," Dahl cautioned that Paterson could still potentially cut funding to SUNY without going through the legislature.

"We are [presently] maintaining a high level of quality in lieu of bad budget scenarios because we're spending down money in reserve accounts," Dahl said.

Although the legislation is promising, it comes alongside a potential $150 million in further cuts to SUNY proposed in Paterson's upcoming fiscal year budget. "We can deal with these reductions with the flexibilities in this bill," Levison said.

Should the bill pass, Dahl said that students may expect a tuition hike in order for the college to keep up with the governor's proposed cuts. "The hike will be moderated and will not bump us all the way to where we need to be," he said. "We will also try to factor in additional financial aid for students." Levison noted that tuition will likely increase regardless of the bill's passage because of the problematic financial situation Geneseo and many other state agencies find themselves in.

"Access to mediocrity is not access at all," Dahl said, acknowledging concerns about the college's affordability. "We want to provide you with what $50,000-a-year schools provide, for less than half of that."

The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act will be voted on at the same time that legislators cast votes for or against Paterson's state budget, which is expected to be completed by March 31.