• August 28, 2015

SUNY Chancellor Shows Her Mettle, Even as Universities Lose a Key Legislative Battle

One year into her tenure as chancellor of the State University of New York, the State Legislature handed Nancy L. Zimpher her first major political defeat, rejecting a package of regulatory changes meant to allow public universities to earn more money outside of state appropriations and operate more efficiently.

The changes Ms. Zimpher championed would have allowed both SUNY and the City University of New York to increase tuition without the Legislature's approval and to charge higher rates to students in some programs and at some campuses. Known as the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, it also would have allowed the university systems to lease property and enter into public-private partnerships without lawmakers' approval and loosened regulations on buying goods and services.

On top of excluding the empowerment act from the budget it passed late Tuesday, the Legislature cut $210-million from the state university budget without approving a tuition increase that could have helped the system offset those cuts. Over the past three budget years, the state system has lost nearly 30 percent of its state appropriations. The city university system took an $84-million cut in the 2011 budget.

While the Legislature's recent actions are a setback for SUNY and the system's chancellor, debate on the empowerment act is far from over. The process also has shown that Ms. Zimpher is a force to be reckoned with, even at the Statehouse, where the political climate has devolved in recent years to a state of near chaos.

"This reflects on her first year in a positive sense, because she has made SUNY part of the conversation," said John B. Simpson, president of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Ms. Zimpher had succeeded in persuading Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, to introduce the empowerment measures as part of his budget proposal at the beginning of the year. While the governor's political clout has been undermined by scandal and his status as a lame duck, his inclusion of the proposal in the executive budget put it on a statewide stage and helped broaden the base of support.

A year ago a similar bill that died in the Legislature would have provided the same set of regulatory freedoms only for the State University of New York at Buffalo, one of SUNY's two members of the Association of American Universities, generally considered the nation's top 60 research institutions.

Many in the state university system did not support last year's measure, said Kenneth P. O'Brien, president of the University Faculty Senate, because it would have created a split in the system by only granting freedoms to one campus. Ms. Zimpher's approach this year, he said, "was different than anything we've seen in the past."

Legislation Held Up Passage of Budget

Mr. Simpson, president of SUNY at Buffalo, said final passage of this year's budget was delayed for more than four months, in part, because some lawmakers refused to vote on the legislation unless the empowerment act was included in the bill. Mr. Simpson said this was a sign that the system had gained significantly more influence with the Legislature than it has had in the past. "This piece of legislation literally held up the budget until the very end," he said.

But the faculty and staff unions that opposed the measures were also influential. United University Professions, which represents 56 percent of the nearly 57,000 employees on SUNY's four-year campuses, was primarily concerned that the public-private partnerships allowed under the measure would result in the system supplanting union jobs with nonunion positions. The organization also warned that proposed changes in tuition policy could make the system unaffordable for some students.

"Let's hope it never passes," Phillip H. Smith, president of the union, said about the empowerment act.

Ms. Zimpher said, in principle, the union wants the same thing that the act's supporters want: "high-quality programs that are accessible and affordable."

But the union's opposition was an outlier to the broad coalition of groups that supported the measure, Ms. Zimpher said.

"We have engendered the broadest possible endorsement in SUNY's history," she said. Supporters included the system's campus presidents as well as the University Faculty Senate, the Student Assembly, and economic-development groups across the state.

A majority of the public appeared to support the empowerment act, too. Fifty-four percent of New York residents surveyed by the Siena Research Institute at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., supported the empowerment act, compared with 36 percent who opposed it, according to poll results released in mid-July.

System Will Continue to Pursue Changes

Despite being left out of the budget for the 2011 fiscal year, it's not the end of the debate over the act. There is discussion among legislators, the governor, and the university systems about a possible agreement on moving a separate bill that would include some parts of the empowerment act.

The political winds may also bode well for the empowerment act. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state's attorney general and the Democratic nominee for governor, has voiced his support for much of the empowerment act.

"I think this is just round one," said Raymond W. Cross, president of the SUNY campus at Morrisville. "My sources tell me that there will be major pieces of this bill adopted before elections. We may not get it in its entirety, but I think we'll get a lot of it."

"The word of the day is persistence," Ms. Zimpher said, adding that the system will continue to pursue the regulatory changes. "We are coming back and coming back and coming back."


1. fruupp - August 05, 2010 at 03:02 am

Hopefully, this rare act of sanity on the part of the otherwise craven legislators in Albany will send Ms. Zimpher packing.

2. amnirov - August 05, 2010 at 08:55 am

Thank god for Albany. The last thing that SUNY and CUNY need is the ability to turn into corporatized hellholes.

3. jffoster - August 05, 2010 at 09:00 am

Mr. Frupp (1), just so long as you don't send Zimpher-dee-do-dah packing back to Ohio.

4. greentara - August 05, 2010 at 11:07 am

The biggest problem with the SUNY "empowerment act" is that it will make some SUNY campuses such as Buffalo, Albany, and Stonybrook unaffordable. The legislation's title " Empowerment" is misleading since it carries a connotation that the majority of people who study and work on SUNY campuses will be empowered. Instead what this legislation does is give more power to private interests and corporate like administrators. SUNY's core mission is to provide excellent and affordable education to New Yorkers. Make no mistake if the so-called empowerment act gets passed, students from low and middle class families will not be able to attend any SUNY campus of their choosing even if they have the proper qualifications. The public polled is probably not aware of the full ramifications of this legislation and does not understand that they and their children will be paying much higher tuition.

5. 11134078 - August 05, 2010 at 11:20 am

Yes, yes, to much of the above. But tell me, what are the schools to do when their appropriations are so far below minimum need (no matter how defined)? What they actually do, given the power, is essentially to privatize public higher education. This has already happened with flagships in e.g. Virginia. I know for a fact that it is well advanced at the insitution I retired from, a second-line state college in New Jersey. I think this is absolutely dreadful. But I know of no alternative except decent public support of public higher eduction. And there is no sign that this in likely to come about in most states. (Yes, I know about ND, but it is a rare exception.) As for corporatization: well governance is being corporatized even where no corporations are involved because that is what the bosses (formerly the administration) want!

6. 22260556 - August 05, 2010 at 11:22 am

Zympher could really make a difference for the people of NY State if she turned her energies toward consolidation and streamlining of her vast PUBLIC system instead of trying to erase the difference between the public and private sectors of higher education. Her strategy plays right into the hands of those who do not believe in supporting higher education from tax levies and instead favor indirect public subsidies for private institutions.

7. ry1nik - August 05, 2010 at 12:11 pm

This is LONG overdue for SUNY. New Yorkers deserve the Empowerment Act!

8. 11159995 - August 05, 2010 at 01:01 pm

I guess the NY legislators are content to make higher education affordable to students in the state but, given the cuts in appropriations, at a much lower level of excellence. This is, ultimately, the path to degrading the value of a degree from public universities in the state.---Sandy Thatcher

9. davi2665 - August 05, 2010 at 02:30 pm

Part of the empowerment act is allowing the university campuses to actually keep and use what tuition is charged for the benefit of the educational mission, as opposed to the current corrupt legislature's ploy of allowing additional tuition and then commandeering the money for their own legislative pork. They are shameless in their greed and their willingness to force student tuition increases to help bring into alignment a budget that they are unwilling to control themselves. I would like to see SUNY Chancellor Zimpher tackle the hidden elephant in the room- the duplication of educational offerings in the state by having a SUNY branch campus in just about every legislative district in the state, whether it is needed or not. Consolidation could go a long way to saving money. It should be the long range goal of EVERY so-called state-supported public educational system to wean themselves from the highly unreliable and ever-decreasing revenue of the state budgets, and seek as a long range goal total autonomy from the corrupt state government. The NY state govt is every bit as dysfunctional as the federal govt when it comes to proper regulation of any important service or activity.

10. shiksha - August 05, 2010 at 05:56 pm

Well if the unions opposed the legislation, it probably was the right thing to do.

11. tee_bee - August 05, 2010 at 09:23 pm

As a former SUNY faculty member, I am pleased to see that little has changed: the legislature still steals from SUNY, and UUP stands solidly against each and every reform that would improve the system and serve the long term interests of professors. Of course, UUP is a staff union with some professors in it, which has held back the faculty for the last 15 years, and will continue ad infinitum.

12. ry1nik - August 06, 2010 at 11:21 am

Only the states of Idaho, Alaska, and North Dakota (might be South Dakota) restrict their university systems like New York does. New Yorkers deserve better than having a University of Idaho. There are so many SUNY campuses that having a few university centers charge differential tuition is not going to "deny access" to New Yorkers. I don't hear the residents of California, Virginia, North Carolina etc. claim they are being denied access to their excellent universities! If anything, the jobs that will come with the Empowerment Act will provide New Yorkers with greater resources.

13. jensoja - August 07, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Legislative funding has been responsible but, the real problem is colleges and universities have evolved into palatial educational resorts. State funding of SUNY sytem in the 1950s 60s and 70s was achievable when SUNY was a "cheverolet" - which everyone considered to be an acceptable level of quality. Today, legislatures (and the public) simply can not afford the "cadilac" offerings of many campuses.

14. fruupp - August 07, 2010 at 01:47 pm

@jensoja - ^^^ This may be true as a general proposition, but SUNY overall is hardly a "cadillac". More like a VW bus.

Where this...ahem..."Empowerment" has been imposed in other states the consequence has been a precipitous drop-off in state funding: "Need money? Raise your tuition! Don't come to us." This way, the legislature can squander the money they save by de-funding higher education on such essential things as sports stadia and "constituent service".

15. laker - August 09, 2010 at 01:39 pm

" I don't hear the residents of California, Virginia, North Carolina etc. claim they are being denied access to their excellent universities! "

I beg to differ, California in particular has problems articulating students between different levels of their "system". SUNY is retreating from its mission of access and using whatever level of state funding it receives to be more selective and less accessible. The burden on Community Colleges is enormous, and Chancellor Zimpher has done nothing to benefit the two-year sector. Why are UB, Geneseo, Oswego, and Stony Brook recruiting Internationally, when they are turning away New Yorkers? I understand the need for diversity and a broader world-view but to do so when you are unwilling to accommodate your constituents is appalling. None of this, by the way, addresses New York's other crying need, which is "brain drain" as young people relocate out of state, especially in the more economically depressed Upstate regions.

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