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.


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."

Not all of Pataki's appointments have acted in SUNY's best interests, and a small number of them have been charged with improprieties and illegal actions. Earlier this year, for example, State Inspector General Roslynn Mauskopf quietly released a report that found two Pataki appointees guilty of violating state law by awarding the governor's next-door neighbor a choice construction contract at SUNY Old Westbury [see Wayne Barrett's "An Albany Whitewash," Village Voice, April 9]. Pataki appointees Michael Clemente and Ellen Biggane—who admitted fabricating a memo to cover up the scheme—were fired as a result. Clemente claimed that SUNY chair Thomas Egan and trustee Randy Daniels had urged him to grant the construction job to the neophyte contractor.


While Pataki was assembling the team that would help him "revolutionize" SUNY, he was also pursuing his financial goals for the university. In his first budget, his proposed cuts to the system were historic in scope. He sought to slash its $1.5 billion budget in 1995 by $290 million, more than 31 percent. The proposed cuts sparked a mini-revolt at SUNY, with busloads of students, faculty members, and administrators pouring into Albany and protesting the cuts. Then-chancellor Bartlett threatened that the governor's proposals might force a $1600 tuition hike (which would have made it the nation's most expensive public university), along with the elimination of 120 campus programs and the shrinking of another 600 statewide. But the system's sprawling 64-campus structure ensured that many state officials had something to lose if the SUNY campus in their district were to be hurt by Pataki's cuts. A budget battle ensued, and the legislature finally acquiesced to a smaller package of cuts, which entailed a $750 tuition increase and a $4 million cut to the state's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).

There were more proposals for cuts in future budgets—in 1996, he proposed raising tuition by another $250, and the next year he proposed a $400 tuition hike—but the legislature always restored them. To be fair, the trend toward higher tuition and fees was well under way during the latter part of Governor Mario Cuomo's tenure as well. In fact, since that first hike by Pataki in 1995, SUNY's tuition has remained constant at $3400 a year, although fees have steadily risen. "Fees are sort of a backdoor, apolitical way to raise the costs," says NYPIRG's higher-education coordinator Miriam Kramer. In a statement faxed to the Voice, SUNY spokesman Dave Henahan touts the affordability of SUNY as compared to a select group of surrounding states, placing SUNY's tuition-and-fees bill at the bottom of the list, but recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Education show that New York's public college tuition ranks as the 14th most expensive in the country. Repeated phone calls to Henahan, the chancellor's office, campus presidents' offices, and Pataki's campaign were not returned.

The steady cuts and lack of significant increases beyond inflationary requirements have had an impact. "Since the mid 1990s we've lost more than 1000 full-time faculty lines," says Frank Maurizio, a spokesman for the United University Professions, the union that represents 27,000 of SUNY's faculty and staff members. "We've lost hundreds of classes and courses throughout the system."

Pataki has had TAP in his crosshairs since the get-go. During his first year in office, he cut $4 million from the program, and slashed one-quarter of the budget for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which funds mostly lower-income students who can least afford SUNY. In 1997, he proposed a $175 million cut; in 1999, he proposed a $133 million cut; and this year, he sought to slash the $693 million TAP program by one-third. The legislature stopped each attempt.

Many critics see Pataki's attacks on TAP and EOP as veiled attacks on the state's minority students, who disproportionately rely on such programs to be able to afford college. "We've had to halve the number of students accepted into that program this year because of budget cuts," says Joshua Shapiro, vice president of the student association at Binghamton.

Pataki's appointees focused on more than just budgets. Echoing a nationwide conservative push for "educational standards," trustee de Russy began to beat the drum in 1998 for a system-wide core curriculum—including math, science, and humanities—that would standardize SUNY's graduation requirements. Faculty members, who consider curriculum design their turf, demanded to have a say in the new guidelines, but the trustees went ahead the next year and adopted two requirements—American history and Western civilization—that the faculty didn't approve, and which reflected the conservative philosophies of de Russy, Randy Daniels, and other trustees.

With the failure of early attempts to privatize SUNY's hospitals, Pataki and his appointees—especially King—have turned to what they term "public-private partnerships" in moving SUNY's costs to the private sector. "My left eyebrow involuntarily rises when I hear the word 'partnerships,' " says Assemblyman Sullivan. "Companies don't give millions of dollars for nothing. They want something. Is that something compatible with the academic purpose of the university, or is this just going to become a training ground for these companies?"

SUNY campuses statewide have scaled new heights in the amount of private dollars secured for such public-private projects. Coca-Cola, Symbol technologies, Reuters, and IBM have all given large sums of money—some in the multimillion-dollar range—to fund research and individual projects all over the university system. "The university is faced with ever larger reductions in state funding and is forced to depend on the private sector," says Stony Brook economics professor Michael Zweig. "The university and its resources are tied to the corporate sector and the corporate sector's need to make money."

Perhaps SUNY's largest private benefactor is Computer Associates and its CEO, Wang, who in addition to funding Stony Brook's Asian American cultural center has invested millions of dollars on Long Island's SUNY campuses. Stony Brook, with two CA-funded business incubators, has undoubtedly benefited most from the relationship. In fact, Stony Brook president Shirley Strum Kenny served for years on CA's board of directors until this past July, when she resigned her seat, but kept the 14,000 shares of CA stock she owned as of the company's June quarterly report. And why wouldn't she? Fellow CA board member and Pataki kingmaker Alfonse D'Amato has been quietly buying up more than $1 million of CA stock since it was announced in February that the federal government was conducting two separate investigations into the company's pro forma accounting practices, prompting observers to wonder whether D'Amato's close ties with the Bush administration allow him to invest with unusual confidence.

Kenny's relationship with Wang is just the sort of partnership that Chancellor King is advocating. Besides, even if it turns out that CA acquired and reported its earnings in a somewhat less than honest manner, at least Stony Brook has a huge new temple to the marriage of capitalism and public higher education. Of course, the building will not house classrooms or academic departments of any kind—only cultural activities and events—but in a tight-fisted fiscal environment, where each SUNY campus fights the others for funding spoils and enrollment dollars, every little $40 million helps.

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