By Albert Samaha
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Customer satisfaction. Strategic alliances. Cost efficiency. Market forces. Such concepts are usually more synonymous with the mechanisms of corporate America than with the day-to-day functions of a college that is, unless you're referring to the State University of New York.
The '90s has been a rough decade for the state's 34-campus system. With funding slashed, tuition skyrocketing, and financial aid dwindling, administrators have scrambled to maintain both SUNY's vision and integrity. Yet some believe such drastic austerity measures will help make the schools increasingly viable and competitive, eventually launching them into the echelons of the elite. Among the staunchest supporters of the makeover are members of SUNY's conservative board of trustees the institution's governing body who have promised to deliver a reformed public university that is "more self-sufficient and entrepreneurial, more focused and more creative."
An integral part of the board's streamlining agenda is its newly implemented Resource Allocation Methodology, or RAM. Viewed by critics as a divide-and-conquer strategy, RAM not only aggressively utilizes corporate sponsorship and board-approved performance reviews, but also penalizes schools that aren't able to meet enrollment quotas by withholding some state funds. In addition, each campus must now rely solely on the money it collects in tuition to defray three-quarters of its expenses. According to Mary Ann Swain, provost of SUNY Binghamton and a member of the panel that helped create the method, "RAM takes the responsibility off the state."
Prior to RAM, SUNY's entire operating budget which included tuition, state dollars, and financial aid was pooled and then distributed in proportion to campus costs. Budget reductions were viewed as an attack on the whole system, with each school shouldering a fair share of the economic setbacks. Now, campuses must battle for the same state and corporate capital and students to make fiscal ends meet. "It's Darwinism gone ape," says William Scheuerman, president of the faculty union, United University Professions,"with students viewed as revenue generators."
Critics fear such competition will foster the implementation of a differential tuition scale which would allow schools to charge as much as they want based on their own game plan for survival. Some SUNY schools have already begun to impose mandatory fees to make up for lost state dollars. At SUNY Buffalo, an obligatory $1040 has been tacked on to the $3300 tuition. Such moves, opponents assert, are eroding the cornerstone of SUNY's mission providing an affordable, accessible, and quality education.
The board-mandated alterations to SUNY's financial landscape come after a decade-long $615 million reduction in state funding to the state university and CUNY. In 1986, state dollars accounted for more than 90 percent of SUNY's budget; last year, that number hovered at 58 percent.
And it is students who have been forced to bear the brunt of such cuts. Since George Pataki has been in office, tuition has risen $750 the largest increase in the history of SUNY and financial aid has been slashed by $294 million. According to a report issued last month by the Justice Policy Institute, current fees at SUNY represent 25 percent of the median income for white families, but more than 40 percent for African American and Latino families.
Just as worrisome to critics is the fact that the unilateral decision to push RAM which steamrolled its way across campuses last summer with no public debate can only be reversed by the legislature. Representatives from the state senate and the assembly have voiced support for a "RAM Buster" bill that would attempt to roll back some of the drastic changes and hope to introduce it in the spring.
"RAM allows the board to make decisions without taking the responsibility," says Ed Sullivan, a state assemblyman and chair of higher education. "But if you're going to try and kill a college, you're going to stand up and take the heat."
The most telling signs of the board's blueprint for restructuring date back to 1995 when they released a report entitled "Rethinking SUNY." Reading more like a prospectus than an educational plan, it recommended that "market forces, interpreted by the individual campuses, be a determining factor for tuition rates" and demanded that faculty become more productive. According to critics, these strategies stem from the popular '80s economic theory of "Total Quality Management."
"Year after year vital decisions on higher education are made based on nothing more than the short-term fiscal possibilities and political needs," said State Comptroller H. Carl McCall last fall. And at SUNY Binghamton, often touted as the "Public Ivy," recent developments in administrative policy illustrate the challenges facing schools in the age of for-profit education.
With divisive policies such as RAM fracturing an already weakened SUNY network, corporate courtship is increasingly considered the weapon for survival. At SUNY Binghamton whose substantial coffer benefited from RAM by upwards of $1.4 million this academic year aggressive enrollment-bolstering tactics and strike-it-rich schemes are under way.
Currently, Binghamton enjoys the largest applicant pool in the SUNY system more than 19,000 high school seniors compete for less than 2000 slots and it is determined to maintain its cachet. Key to its radical new strategy for success is the Disney Institute, which school officials are banking on for some of Mickey's money-making magic.