• U.S.

Education: Suny Red Tape

2 minute read

A major university engages a study group to evaluate its operations. The result? Something earnest but tepid, un- likely to startle anyone, right? Not if it is the State University of New York. Last week a 15-member commission, appointed by Chancellor Clifton R. Wharton Jr. to examine the largest U.S. public university system (370,000 students), issued a report that called SUNY “an extreme example of what not to do in the management of public higher education.” The report declared that SUNY is “the most overregulated university in the nation.” The commission blamed the university’s charter, which set up SUNY 36 years ago to function as a state agency, like New York’s prisons, rather than as a quasi-independent entity, the status of institutions like the University of California.

Largely as a consequence, SUNY’s trustees and the heads of its 64 campuses have lacked the authority to build a first-class university. Even Chancellor Wharton cannot shift a secretarial position or substantially expand a department without permission from the state division of the budget. Tuition money is bled away to pay off old construction debts. And there is not enough new money to lure crack faculty or beef up the graduate curriculum. Under the dead hand of such regulations, continues the report, SUNY is “well behind” other major public universities in research and graduate education.

To move the university into the front rank, the commission, whose co- chairmen are Ralph Davidson, chairman of the board of Time Inc., and Harold Enarson, president emeritus of Ohio State University, makes 29 recommendations. The key one is “to restructure SUNY as a public benefit corporation.” By this concept SUNY would become a semi-independent state body, with funds allocated in block grants, under control of the trustees. New construction would be paid for by additional state revenues. Thus SUNY’s administrators would presumably have their hands free and enough money to run the store.

First reactions from Albany legislators were supportive. Mark Siegel, chairman of the assembly’s higher education committee, agreed that SUNY should no longer be subject to “Mickey Mouse red-tape controls.” Although he was not sure the only solution was a new structure, Siegel added, “if it takes a public benefit corporation to achieve decentralization and flexibility, then that is what we’ll do.”

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