A privatized SUNY? It may not be so far away

Geneseo successfully concluded the “Shaping Lives of Purpose” fundraising campaign on Sept. 27, raising $23.3 million and exceeding its goal. The campaign’s success demonstrates the generosity and dedication many feel for Geneseo. This effort, however, was conducted in response to what the college called in 2010 “significant budget challenges due to the steady erosion of support from New York State.”

Increased reliance on private donors risks the privatization of Geneseo’s education, a public good.

The fact that the college is forced to rely on charitable donations is due only to the refusal of the state legislature to sufficiently fund it. This shameful neglect of education has already caused irreparable damage. One of the most egregious examples is the administration’s removal of the college’s majors in computer science, speech-language pathology and studio art in 2010, depriving future students of focus in these fields.

But perhaps more damaging are the tuition hikes. According to the Democrat & Chronicle, tuition is set to increase $300 per year for the foreseeable future. While trivial to some, this additional fee is onerous to others, potentially putting college out of reach. This increase could provide a disincentive to working-class students, forcing them to put their higher education plans on hold or diverting them to a two-year college at first. And, of course, many of those two-year colleges are facing similar tuition increases.

There was a time when post-secondary education was a luxury for the wealthy and for the wealthy alone. The creation of publicly funded colleges – with the State University of New York system as a prime example in terms of number of alumni, quality and affordability – expanded educational access to millions of students.

With budgetary shortfalls at both the state and collegiate levels, access to education as a fundamental right is now threatened.

At this point, Geneseo is a public college in name only. For the 2012-2013 budget, a mere 28 percent of the college’s funding came from the state. Close to 70 percent came from tuition – in other words, extracted from the student body.

Private donors step triumphantly into this environment. Two alumni donated $1 million each, and Charles “Bud” VanArsdale donated $2.5 million to the campaign. With these enormous financial gifts comes leverage. It is not inconceivable that present donors have enacted some form of concession in return for their contributions or that future donors will do so.

Indeed, this is already happening with corporations in so-called “private-public partnerships.” As reported in The Lamron, on Sept. 13, U.S. Rep. Chris Collins said that he favors legislation that facilitates these partnerships at Geneseo, funding commercially viable scientific research.

This would subordinate the college’s scientific advancements to the profit motive, an incentive not renowned for its humanitarian inclination. Research that does not appear at first to be profitable would be sidelined in favor of research that would benefit the private sector but not necessarily humanity as a whole.

Had this always been the norm, advancements such as Boolean algebra, for which commercial applicability is not readily apparent, would be delayed or nonexistent. Modern computers rely on Boolean algebra to operate, illustrating the destructive capability of subordinating intellectual developments to those who are most useful to businesses.

This trend of relying on the private sector – whether extracting exorbitant tuition fees, being influenced by private donors or commercializing research – has the net effect of privatizing the college in practice, if not by law.

Threatening access to an allegedly public good, this trend is unacceptable. Education is a right for all – not a privilege for the few.