Re-Rethinking SUNY

New York State's Public Higher Ed Deserves More Money—Not Less

In addition to technology investment, SUNY has recently announced the creation in Manhattan of the Neil D. Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce, to be headed by former newsman Garrick Utley. The new graduate school has yet to find a home or classroom space, but it is part of a highly publicized effort by SUNY to strengthen its city presence.

But such efforts are the exception, not the rule. Moreover, many of these investments are conceived with very profit-oriented motives. Biomedical research is one of the biggest moneymaking sectors—if not the biggest—of the next decade or so, and almost all of SUNY's development efforts in the field are the result of private-public partnerships designed, in part, to enrich the companies and individuals investing in them. That's not a bad thing in itself, say critics, but it leaves many other areas of the university system neglected.

The very existence of a campus, with its army of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, is a huge economic boon to the surrounding areas, argues Tom Kriger, the director of research and legislation for the United University Professions, the union that represents most of SUNY's faculty members. "SUNY used to put out economic impact statements for the whole system," he says, referring to the administrative office that published the reports until the mid 1990s. "When the current administration took over, there was an effort to downsize administration, and that was one of the places that was cut." Individual campuses have published such studies related to the impact in their individual regions in the interim, he says, and points to one done by Stony Brook stating that the school's affiliations in the area have added over 2,900 jobs. (The study also puts the school's broader regional impact at $2.5 billion.)

illustration: Ryan Sanchez

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But without those comprehensive economic impact studies, it's harder for advocates to lobby the state legislature for more money. "Since 1998, SUNY has added about 42,000 students," says Kriger, in reference to the current historic enrollment levels. "We haven't had a commensurate increase in the faculty—that's like adding a full-time campus the size of Buffalo without faculty or staff."

Investments in medical research, with their possibilities for profits generated from patented medical technologies and breakthroughs, are obviously beneficial, but less visible are the benefits derived from students, faculty, and staff spending money and bringing intellectual capital into the areas where they live, work, and study. By making it harder for students to afford college and by freezing faculty hiring, Albany is hurting the state's financial health in the long run. That's both penny-foolish and pound-foolish, especially since the evidence shows that more SUNY means more money for New York. It's an investment that, in time, could help soften the blow of future economic downturns, while helping SUNY live up to its nearly broken promise of providing affordable higher education to every New Yorker who wants it.

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