Despite public support from many SUNY presidents - including President Christopher Dahl and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher - the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act has received strong opposition from members of University United Professions.
UUP is a union that represents more than 34,000 academic and professional faculty members throughout the SUNY system. In a letter to The Buffalo News, UUP President Phillip Smith called the proposed legislation "a bold step backward."
"Our top priority is to preserve the mission of SUNY to provide New Yorkers with an accessible and affordable higher education," Smith wrote. "We think state lawmakers will find the governor's proposal is at odds with that mission."
A major component of the bill is that SUNY would be allowed to set its own tuition on a campus-by-campus basis, instead of having the state legislature setting it for them.
One of UUP's most significant concerns with the bill is that it may be a step toward the privatization of the SUNY system. "Tuition escalation sets the stage for dramatic cuts in state support for SUNY," wrote William Simmons, SUNY Oneonta chapter president for UUP.
"[UUP] thinks that if the bill passes, less pressure is going to be on the state to fund us," said senior Brian Hartle, who has helped organize student advocacy campaigns at Geneseo. "But why weren't they fighting harder for the last 20 years? It's already more of a private than public system."
Smith wrote in a press release that pseudo-privatization of the SUNY system could result in decreased accessibility. "Equal access to the university would no longer be possible, because tens of thousands of students would not be able to afford the higher tuition at some campuses … standardized tuition ensures equal access to all SUNY campuses," Smith wrote.
According to Paterson's bill, all decisions made regarding tuition must be "fair, equitable and responsible." Dahl said at a Jan. 26 meeting of the College Senate that should Geneseo's tuition rise above the Tuition Assistance Program cap of $5,000, the college will pay the difference for students with demonstrated financial need.
UUP also harbors concerns over the bill's encouragement of schools to "raise revenue by leasing their property without adequate safeguards to ensure oversight and accountability," wrote Simmons. "These are publically owned properties and should not be used for private purposes without public review and legislative approval." Supporters of the bill contend that the legislative oversight required is burdensome and inefficient.
Proponents of the bill also point out that the Board of Trustees guidelines for land leases already require that the land cannot be leased in a way that would conflict with the mission of the campus.
Legislators will vote on the Empowerment Act and the New York State fiscal budget at the same time, though the bills are not tied to one another.