SUNY, Inc.

The Decline of Higher Ed Under Pataki

The new Charles B. Wang Center rises impressively at the threshold to SUNY's flagship campus in Stony Brook. It's a sprawling, brown-bricked neo-castle, distinguished by modernist "Asian" flourishes—oversized, frosted shoji-screen windows and a looming central tower that's supposed to resemble a pagoda. When the $40 million facility finally opens October 22, after five years of construction, it will realize donor and Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang's vision to provide a venue for the appreciation of Asian American culture. The product of the biggest private donation to a public university in history, it's also a vivid symbol of the growing ties between private enterprise and the nation's largest public university system.

In the eight years since Governor George Pataki took office, the State University of New York has undergone a dramatic shift in mission and tone. A Republican elected on a small-government platform, Pataki has slowly but markedly moved the university away from its stated mission of access and affordability and shaped it along the lines of his free-market, lower-taxes philosophy. Its deepening relationship with the corporate sector is only one example of the changes afoot. Under rules introduced in 1998, campuses now keep the tuition they bring in, rather than sending it to SUNY's general fund, making them compete for students and funding. Enrollment and class sizes have grown without the funding to match. Housing shortages at schools like Buffalo and Stony Brook are a perennial concern. And the SUNY system, which was once practically free, is now one of the least affordable public universities in the nation. According to the New York Public Interest Research Group, while tuition has remained stagnant for the past six years, "New York's public college tuition has risen by a staggering 155 percent over the past decade, the fourth largest increase in the nation."

These drastic changes were made possible in part because of a sustained effort by Pataki to politicize public higher education as never before. He has placed cronies, aides, and pawns in a dizzying array of SUNY positions, from chancellor to some of the lower-rung administrative spots that were typically left alone by the governor. But his most valued pieces, the trustees, are the key to controlling the mammoth university.

Pataki:  Moving toward a free-market SUNY
photo: Office of the Governor
Pataki: Moving toward a free-market SUNY

Upon their appointment, Pataki's first few choices for the board of trustees—including Edward Cox, a corporate lawyer married to Richard Nixon's daughter Patricia, and Candace de Russy, an arch-conservative anti-tax activist who later achieved national notoriety for her controversial stances [see "Toy Story," Village Voice, June 12]—went straight to work deciding how they wanted to rearrange the university system they had just joined. A few months into their appointment, they produced a document—more polemic than study—titled "Rethinking SUNY," a 17-page wish list of ways to make the expansive and expensive system hew more closely to conservative fiscal principles. Among the proposals were letting market forces determine tuition, the elimination of "unnecessarily duplicative" programs, the privatization of SUNY's teaching hospitals, and increased tuition for students who take more than four years to complete their degrees (more than two-thirds of all college students, according to the Department of Education). Virtually none of the proposals were adopted.

By 1997, the governor was attracting media attention for the frequency with which he made his appointments to SUNY from the ranks of his employees, campaign workers, and sympathetic ideologues. That May, the trustees quietly met and approved the appointment of Pataki's deputy director of operations Michael Clemente as general manager of the SUNY construction fund; first deputy secretary to Pataki, Donald Dunn, was given the job of executive vice chancellor; and David Farren, the husband of the governor's then state health commissioner, Barbara DeBuono, was named associate vice chancellor for marketing and enrollment management. These are but a few of his dozens of political appointments.

When SUNY officials did not play ball, Pataki had them ejected. One early casualty of conscience was then chancellor Thomas Bartlett, who in 1996 had the temerity to protest the governor's attempts to slash SUNY's budget and was pushed out for his efforts. Upon leaving, he criticized the Pataki-appointed trustees for "not understanding the role of public higher education and their responsibility for sheltering it from politics."

Even SUNY campus presidents weren't safe. After an academic discussion on sexuality took place on the New Paltz campus in late 1997, then president Roger Bowen found himself under attack by Pataki and the board for allowing it, and for backing, on grounds of academic freedom, the students and faculty members who sponsored the event. After a chancellor's committee found nothing improper about the conference, the trustees, led by de Russy, continued to criticize Bowen for his principled stance, all but forcing his resignation less than three years later.

Such actions discourage not only current professors and administrators, but prospective ones as well. "Good professors are lost, good administrators are lost, because they do not want to get into a political mud-wrestling contest," says Manhattan assemblyman Edward Sullivan, chair of the Higher Education Committee and a frequent Pataki critic.

Having stacked the trustee deck, Pataki could be sure that his appointees would not only back him, but also implement his broad guidelines for change. That's what happened when in 1999 he played his trump card and appointed as chancellor Robert King, his former budget director, who had no prior experience in higher education. Many critics pointed to his mostly political background as evidence that he was unfit for the job, but King dismissed such concerns at the time, telling The Chronicle of Higher Education, "I don't think the nature of the work, being chancellor, necessarily requires an academic degree."

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