New York State Senate
Phillip H. Smith, Ph.D.
September 24, 2010
Senator Stavisky, distinguished members and staff of the Senate Higher Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to present our concerns regarding SUNY's recent round of executive compensation.
I am Phillip H. Smith, president of United University Professions (UUP). We represent the academic faculty and professional staff of the State University's state-operated campuses.
Under normal circumstances, UUP does not comment on SUNY's executive compensation policies and practices. However, the SUNY Board of Trustees' recent decision to provide huge raises and special perks to a handful of executives, coupled with similar troubling actions taken by SUNY's administration and Board of Trustees in recent months compel me to speak out.
Here's why we're concerned. Stony Brook University, despite having significant reserves, closed the Southampton campus without public discussion or advanced warning.
Also at Stony Brook, that University's campus foundation, which exists for the benefit of the University's academic mission, subsidizes the state salary paid to its campus president.
At the University of Buffalo, where retrenchments and layoffs are being threatened and where courses are being cancelled, the campus foundation managed to find sufficient funding to pursue the purchase of a $15 million low-income housing complex off campus and to supplement the President's state salary by over $480,000 annually. Moreover, the top five Buffalo staff members also benefit from these non-transparent subsidies.
Here in Albany, the SUNY System Administration closed the NYLINK program, an indispensible library support system. Yet SUNY System has access to significant system reserves.
Now we see the SUNY Board of Trustees approving extraordinary salary increases and housing allowances for a few top administrators. The Board materials provided before that meeting somehow neglected to provide advance notice that such increases would be a topic for the agenda.
Is it appropriate for SUNY public officials to receive large salary increases without full advanced public disclosure? Absolutely not.
Is it appropriate for these increases to be granted when, simultaneously, SUNY officials have seen fit to furlough hundreds of lower salaried system administration employees and to lay off dozens of others? Of course not. This is unconscionable.
Should SUNY be doling out such benefits while at the same time seeking unlimited differential tuition and other increased charges to students and families? Absolutely not.
And what is the rationale for spending millions of dollars to reconstruct executive offices, including private showers and other amenities? The current executive offices at SUNY Plaza were deemed adequate by previous chancellors from Cliff Wharton right on through to Admiral Ryan. In view of the worst fiscal crisis facing NY and the University in decades, what is the rationale for an executive "perk" at this time?
Now we hear that top SUNY officials are contemplating the construction of an executive parking lot to be located at the front entrance of SUNY Plaza.
Not only will this deface the historic building, but it raises serious questions regarding why they can not enter through the back entrance as did all of their predecessors.
As you know, Governor Paterson, through Executive Budgets and mid-year reductions has cut SUNY's operating budget by $562 million over just the past two years.
This represents over 25% of SUNY's operating budget and has led to an institutional crisis.
Class sizes are increasing and courses and programs are being canceled while demand is at an all-time high. As a result, students are unable to take the courses they need to graduate on time.
Thousands of qualified applicants were denied admission this year and we can only expect this trend to continue and perhaps worsen.
Yet, SUNY currently has in reserve about one half billion dollars in available funds, capitalized primarily through student fees. And, despite the severity of state funding reductions, the University has permitted these reserves to actually increase rather than employ them to mitigate the dire consequences of state funding shortfalls.
We can not understand why SUNY is not using its reserves to remedy these issues.
Let me be clear, despite claims to the contrary, these are not committed resources. In fact, these reserves have increased year after year.
Further, at last year's fiscal committee hearing the SUNY Chancellor promised to release $147 million of those reserves. Unfortunately, we have no indication that this has been accomplished.
Senators, this is why we at UUP continue to be so concerned with and opposed to some provisions of the Chancellor's so-called "Empowerment Act."
That Act would remove any remaining oversight over SUNY executive decision making.
That Act would remove any real remaining transparency of University operations. These recent actions by SUNY's administration show us, in no uncertain terms, that those who wish to privatize our State University may not have the interests of our students and taxpayers in mind.
We need to remind the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees that this is not their University. This University belongs to its students and to the people of the State of New York who expect the priority of the University to be the education of their children.
New York State's hard working families deserve nothing less.
To ensure that education is the priority, I suggest that SUNY needs more oversight, not less and more transparency, not less. We must remove the veil of secrecy from SUNY's research and campus foundations. We must return SUNY to the institution that was created 60 years ago for the sole purpose of providing accessible and affordable quality education for all New Yorkers.
Just as you have acted to ensure that state public authorities be made more transparent and accountable to the public for their actions – so too, should we act to hold the State University to the same standards.
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