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What is the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act?

June 29, 2010 am30 8:40 am

There is a proposal in Albany, under current consideration, that would change how public higher education, SUNY and CUNY, functions in New York State.  This proposal by Governor Paterson, S.6607–A or A. 9707–A is some sort of extension or outgrowth or cooptation of a Buffalo plan UB2020.

The act’s main effect would be to give college presidents greater funding autonomy in two areas – private partnerships and tuition. It is not clear that there would be any college democratic control… faculty senate or student voice.

  • The private partnership provisions replace public funding with private, decrease oversight, and incrementally inch away from a system of public education.
  • The tuition provisions would allow each campus, SUNY and CUNY, to set their own tuitions, up to two and a half times higher. It even allows different tuitions for different majors.

Not a surprise that many college presidents are supporting it, and the faculty unions and student associations are opposing it. It is a surprise that given its potentially dramatic impact, it has received little press.

Below the jump:  Professional Staff Congress President Barabara Bowen’s letter to members explaining the Act, urging members to advocate against it, and advising them how.

The Professional Staff Congress, AFT Local 2334, represents professors, instructors, adjuncts, lab techs, HEOs and a host of other professional titles at the City University of New York’s many campuses. Barbara Bowen is president.

Dear Members,

I’m writing to update you as negotiations over the State budget enter what may be their final 24 hours, especially because public higher education is at the center of the discussions.

As has been widely reported, Governor Paterson had planned to ram through a final budget bill on Monday unless agreement had been reached on a budget.  Now the Senate and Assembly have issued joint budget legislation of their own.  A major difference between the two bills is their approach to the governor’s Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, which would usher in sweeping changes at CUNY and SUNY.  The joint bill by the Assembly and Senate eliminates the Empowerment Act, while the governor continues to insist on it.

Spearheaded by the new SUNY chancellor and championed by Governor Paterson, the Empowerment Act would be a disaster for CUNY.  It is essentially a proposal to reduce public funding and replace it with private funding, in the form of higher tuition.  And the higher tuition could be increased still further: the Act would allow CUNY to set different tuition rates for different senior colleges and even for different majors within a college.

Chancellor Goldstein supports this proposal.  He has testified to that effect and appeared at the governor’s press conferences in support of the Empowerment Act.  Yet he has not held a single public discussion of the issue with the faculty and staff.  To embrace such a change without public discussion and without respect for the role of the faculty in determining curriculum violates the norms of an academic community.  I have called on Goldstein to rethink his support for the Empowerment Act, especially in the absence of such discussion, but he has so far refused to change his position.

The Empowerment Act is not the “CUNY Compact,” which includes a provision for matching funds by the State; it is a proposal to replace public funding with private, and replace public oversight with deregulation.  In the last two years, average public funding for higher education decreased 34 times faster in states where public colleges set their own tuition rates—as CUNY would under this Act—than in states where the tuition was set by the legislature.  This year’s State budget is a case in point: the governor’s proposal includes both the Empowerment Act and severe cuts to CUNY and SUNY.  If the Act passes, we can expect more of the same.

Its proponents pretend that the Empowerment Act is about building the kind of public university system built by California in the sixties; it’s not.  The California system was built with massive public investment; the Empowerment Act is about disinvestment.

And the disinvestment would be racialized.  The implications of charging different tuition rates at certain colleges and for certain majors are all too predictable.  Five CUNY colleges have already been identified for higher tuition in one version of the legislation, and Goldstein has spoken publicly about his desire to set higher tuition rates within individual colleges for a major such as Engineering.  Imagine what that would mean: shrinking resources at the other senior colleges; pressure on the community colleges to increase tuition to keep up with the increases at the four-year schools; and—above all—increased stratification of the University by income and race.

What can we do?  PSC members have already sent nearly 5,000 messages to Albany on the Empowerment Act.  The new joint legislation by the Senate and Assembly shows that we have been heard.  But the budget is not resolved yet, and the legislation itself could change many times between now and Monday, so it is critical that we keep the pressure on.

Here’s what you can do. 1) Everyone should send a letter to the State Senate thanking the Senators for moving on the Empowerment Act and calling on them not to retreat. 2) If you have not already done so, send a letter to the State Assembly, urging the Assembly to hold firm to its principled position.  The messages you have already sent to Albany on this issue have increased our influence.

3) Then on Monday morning, assuming the budget has still not been finalized, you can call Goldstein’s office and register your position on the importance of public discussion on a proposal that would reduce State funding, limit student access, and tier the University: 212-794-5311.  Meanwhile, the PSC leadership and our representatives in Albany have been working virtually around the clock to oppose the Empowerment Act and support restoration of funds.

During months of budget negotiations, the focus for higher education was on budget cuts, and then on the attempt to impose furloughs; it’s only in the last few weeks that the Empowerment Act has moved center stage.  The reasons for that are political and have very little to do with CUNY.  But the union will continue up to the last minute of the budget negotiations to be a forceful presence in Albany; I ask you to increase that force by sending your letters and contacting Chancellor Goldstein with your views.  We all have a stake in this proposal, which has the potential to restructure the University in ways that violate its historic mission.  I urge you not to remain silent.

In solidarity,

Barbara Bowen
President, PSC

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