ALBANY - Not only has Gov. David Paterson proposed substantial cuts to public schools, but he has promoted deep financial cuts to the State University system - $90 million worth.
In response, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said recently that Paterson's reductions carry major economic ramifications.
"People will see a change in quality," she said. "And we can't afford that academically - To say these cuts don't have a profound impact would be wrong."
Phillip Smith, president of United University Professions, testified before a joint legislative committee, stating that the SUNY system is already being forced to turn away thousands of qualified students.
Smith said Paterson's cuts would eliminate about a quarter of SUNY's total operating budget. "Funding for SUNY, if this is allowed to go forward, would be 80 million dollars less than it was in 1990," he said. "And yet we have 40,000 more students in our institution."
Paterson has acknowledged the cuts are deep - but he's also reiterated that he will not budge. The Governor has repeatedly stated that if legislators refuse to make the tough decisions, he'll do it for them.
But Smith said the SUNY system is taking a disproportionate hit. According to his math, Paterson's proposed cuts slash about $500 million from SUNY operations over the next two years.
"This would be a 25 percent cut to the budgets of all agencies combined," Smith said. "It just begs the question: why is public higher education being targeted in this manner?"
Carol Brown, president of North Country Community College said that Paterson's budget, if passed, would have a dramatic effect on the region. She said she was more optimistic than Smith, however. because of several other proposals being discussed by the state legislature.
Paterson has proposed to allow each individual SUNY school to set its own tuition and he also wants to let institutions enter into more public-private endeavors. Brown says that will also prompt colleges to become more fiscally creative.
"With the proposed prison closures and the recent shuttering of Pfizer, allowing an institution like North Country to work closely with private industry is going to be important, moving forward," she said.
But Smith said allowing SUNY to set tuition on a school-by-school basis isn't all it's cracked up to be. He thinks it will force low-income students away from their schools of choice.
"The feedback that I got was that there wasn't a lot of support for the Governor's plan," Smith said. "I think that there's going to be some difficulty in getting this through. And for SUNY's sake, I hope that's the case."
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey agreed that reaction to Paterson's SUNY tuition proposal has been mixed, but she thinks if the legislation is detailed correctly, it could work.
"Many of the administrators are enthused about it," she said. "There are some courses that are more expensive to operate and they could flex what they do and how many courses are offered and be able to increase their revenue accordingly so that those who are taking the less expensive courses are paying less."
Duprey acknowledged the concern that Paterson's proposal will shut out some students from some schools; but she said nothing is set in stone yet.
"We have to start thinking outside of the box," Duprey said. "I think this is going to be a good discussion - If it hurts out colleges, we don't want to do it; but funding is being cut so we're all being forced to look at alternative ways to fund what we do."
Duprey will sit down with educators and lawmakers next week to discuss the details of Paterson's cuts and the initiatives he's offered to offset them.