Advocates seek tuition plan; Lt. Gov. talks economic development
By Katie Ellis
A busload of Binghamton University advocates made the rounds in Albany on March 1, meeting with legislators, aides and the lieutenant governor to talk about a rational tuition plan, support for SUNY and economic development.
Interim President C. Peter Magrath, accompanied by Interim Vice President for Research Bahgat Sammakia, Interim UUP Chapter President and Associate Professor of Chemistry James Dix, CSEA Chapter Vice President Marty Honeychuck and Director of State and Community Relations Terrence Kane, carried the same message to their meetings as did members of 13 other teams: Binghamton University and SUNY need a rational tuition policy.
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the Assembly's Committee on Higher Education, said Binghamton is an anchor for the region and state. "We can't continue to talk about the university as a means to improve the economy if we continue to cut it off at the knees," she said. "Our conference has had numerous discussions about the need to ensure state support doesn't erode. We have to stop the bleeding and make the commitment."
While meeting with Glick, and throughout the day, Magrath reiterated the need for access to quality, not simply access. "Binghamton University is a powerhouse," he said. "But at some point, we will do less with less and pay the price in terms of economic development and a better life for the men and women of New York state. We can't run on credit cards. There must be an investment in SUNY."
"Binghamton is a world-class facility," said Sammakia. "We will not stay that way and will end up providing access to mediocrity. Access has to go hand-in-hand with investment or we'll see a sudden migration of faculty and it will take years to reverse it."
Magrath and his team also met with aides to Sen. Kenneth Lavalle, chair of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Nicole Burckard, aide to Lavalle, praised Binghamton for presenting a united front with a solid message. "Not many realize that UUP is now in favor of a tuition increase," she said. "That's very important and we'll need everyone on board to get the Assembly to come along.
"Sen. Lavalle has traditionally been in support of a rational tuition policy and has repeatedly said he would try to do whatever he can in support of all of the SUNY initiatives," she added. "He's very sensitive to all of the issues you're facing."
"As far as a rational tuition policy is concerned, our students support it, the SUNY University Faculty Senate supports it and we're all of the same mind," Sammakia told lawmakers. "Research is growing at Binghamton, but it costs money and it can't be sustained without a rational tuition policy."
"Binghamton University is high quality," Dix said. "I'm constantly amazed at the quality of our students and the key hires we've made over the years. We just keep improving, but we're at the end of our rope and unless we stop the continual drain of state support or increase tuition and get to keep it, we'll go downhill. We're at a critical point here."
Silver's aides said that past tuition increases have been accompanied by cuts in funding and it's vital that there be a "maintenance of balance."
Dix said that SUNY has carried more than its fair share of the pain through budget cuts. "We're willing to share the sacrifice, but it's a lot."
"We've tried to prevent tuition increases at all," said Silver's aide Mark Cassalini, "but with the fiscal reality, it's time for creative ideas. It's a bit concerning and the SUNY System is being assaulted as is all of state government. We're looking at things comprehensively and it's still the early stages of the budget discussion. It's helpful that you clearly have a united front."
Economic development was also a major focus in all of the meetings. "The impact that the University has on our community is significant to say the least," said Kane. "Any investment made on campus has an impact, and cuts have an impact not only on campus, but also on the community."
Magrath also met for nearly an hour with Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who said he is looking at ways to partner with SUNY and Binghamton University in the regional economic councils proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The councils will follow the Empire State Development regional map for the most part, Duffy said, adding that higher education will play a strong role.
"We see higher education and business as co-conveners for these councils," Duffy said. "No politicians will be voting members, so we're listening to people who are driving it."
Duffy said SUNY will provide research and data. "We need metrics and performance measures," he said. "We want you to help us develop a system of managing this process. You'll be the drivers, so I'm planting a seed for you to start thinking through your role and the opportunities needed to take advantage of."
When asked what specifically could be done to facilitate the councils, Duffy said, "What you and higher education can bring to the table is research capabilities and staffing. We need to do a great analysis, region by region, of what the state looks like. There are many roles you'll play.
"One challenge for us," Duffy added, "is the mapping of college grads. It's like a shotgun out of New York state. How do we keep them? Upstate is a wasteland compared to what it once was and we have a chance to turn it around with jobs and opportunities."
"We're ready to go, to lead and to contribute," said Kane. "We're trying to consolidate economic development initiatives and have tried to make it more comprehensive with STEP, the Southern Tier Economic Partnership that Binghamton University is part of."
"We're hoping the governor’s councils will be the same," said Duffy. "A one-stop shop so you can take it and run with it and get it done. We have to speed things up because everybody is competing – New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania…"
Duffy said he expects to be traveling around the state soon to help get the regional councils up and running. He hopes all of the meetings with be at SUNY schools. "Binghamton University should host the meeting," he said. "We're removing the politics. It's neutral."