Originally Published on June 23, 2011.

As New York’s legislature moves to conclude this session, same sex marriage dominates the lawmakers’ and public’s attention (and will be the subject of The Weekender’s next column) and overshadows much other important business, including proposed legislation affecting the State University’s vitality and future. As every year since its founding in 1948, SUNY’s fate is being determined by the legislature instead of teachers, students and college administrators. SUNY is treated like, and de facto is, a state agency. Its budget and many of the most important details of its educational offering and agenda are determined as if SUNY were the Department of Transportation or the Department of Motor Vehicles. That model hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t work, condemning SUNY to a future of mediocrity when it has the capacity to ascend into the elite of national and world public universities.

Every time and every place that innovation and excellence threatens to rear its ugly head in the SUNY system, the legislature moves swiftly to stifle it by imposing a statewide, one-size-fits-all mandate from Albany. Nowhere is this destructive process more evident than in the tuition straight jacket imposed by the legislature and in the shadowy workings of SUNY’s Research Foundation, which administers roughly $1 billion annually in research grants to SUNY’s 64 community colleges, four-year schools and research universities. The head of the Research Foundation, John O’Connor, recently was forced to resign his position under the cloud of a highly critical independent report and three separate state investigations, which focus on a $70,000 “no-show” job O’Connor had provided for Susan Bruno (the daughter of former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno) until 2009.

While SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s statement accepting O’Connor’s resignation may have seemed odd to some when she said that “protecting SUNY and the research foundation, and sort of putting SUNY above self, was his motivation,” it made perfect sense to The Weekender and all Albany insiders. SUNY is treated like a state agency and given the way state government and Joe Bruno functioned, that $70,000 position for little work was just a rational cost of doing business and protecting SUNY interests, which Joe and his majority conference had vast influence over. None of that logic excuses O’Connor’s conduct, but certainly predicts and explains it.

The annual legislative horse trading over SUNY tuition focuses on how much SUNY’s uniform four-year college annual tuition of $4,970 will rise (if at all) and what any increase will be used for. That simple question with a seemingly simple answer actually requires deconstruction.

Of course, one might say tuition will increase, at least some. Hasn’t the price of everything else gone up? Don’t the schools buy gasoline and heat their classrooms and dorms and serve food? Isn’t SUNY tuition roughly half that in the California state university system and a third of Pennylvania’s? Well, most years, SUNY tuition just stays put, resulting in a decline in the quality of the educational offering measured in fewer courses, the decay of infrastructure and the over-reliance on part-time faculty as compared with full-time professors. Well then, if they raise tuition it will be used to address those problems, right? Wrong, virtually every time the legislature has raised tuition they have simultaneously reduced state support of SUNY by the exact amount of the added tuition income, leaving the schools to decline further. The state agency model prohibits any individual campus from raising more money by charging higher tuition.

SUNY Geneseo, for example, could double or triple its tuition and easily fill its campus with the same type of academically elite students it currently enrolls. And Geneseo and several others could use the extra tuition income to further improve the education of their world class students. But, none of that is allowed under the state agency model. To his credit, Governor Andrew Cuomo has listened to what educators have been saying for decades about SUNY and its destructive tuition policy. He has proposed a so-called “rational tuition” plan allowing for roughly 5 percent annual increases at most of SUNY’s four-year campuses for the next five years and up to 8 percent increases at SUNY’s four major research institutions — Buffalo, Stony Brook, Albany and Binghamton. The costs at research institutions, with extensive advanced degree programs, are much higher than at predominantly undergraduate institutions. Cuomo’s proposal recognizes this and understands the crucial role that research institutions can play in the economic revitalization of regions, states and entire countries. The governor has also proposed that the added tuition go to improve the schools, not to reduce the state’s investment in education, as has always previously been the case.

There are serious limitations in Cuomo’s proposals, and indeed in all of the various bills concerning SUNY, being considered in the waning legislative session. They all suffer from the fatal flaw of momentarily relieving some of the problems created by the SUNY as state agency model, while leaving that destructive model essentially untouched and ready to do more damage in the future. But at least it’s a start. We can hope that the governor and legislature take this small step toward a rational tuition plan this year and build in the future toward a SUNY no longer treated like the DOT or the DMV.