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Area SUNY leaders, faculty and students testify about the cost of higher education

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Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
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From left to right, student government leaders Georgia Hulbert (UB), Gaelle Jean-Baptiste (SUNY Buffalo State) and Yousouf Amolegbe (UB) testify before the New York State Senate Higher Education Committee Wednesday.

The New York State Senate Higher Education Committee visited Buffalo Wednesday as part of a statewide listening tour about the cost of public higher education.

Local elected officials Assemblymember Karen McMahon (D-Amherst/Pendleton) and State Senator Tim Kennedy (D-Buffalo) heard testimony for several hours at The University at Buffalo along with State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Queens), chair of the higher education committee, who told WBFO her reasoning for holding a series of public hearings across the state.

“I think higher education is at a fiscal crisis right now,” she said. “It’s underfunded, and we want to see how we can provide additional funding—whether there are ways we can cut costs but at the same time make sure that it remains affordable, that it remains accessible and high quality.”

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From left to right, Sen. Tim Kennedy, Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky and Assemblymember Karen McMahon hear testimony.

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, the union that represents faculty and staff across most of the State University of New York system, agreed that SUNY is underfunded.

“Starting with the Great Recession and the accompanying budget cuts that took place, what’s happened to SUNY is that SUNY was cut the deepest and has never recovered from those cuts,” Kowal said. “Budgets have been basically flat and so we’re starting to see real burdens on the campuses,” in terms of maintaining course offerings, supporting faculty research and hiring new professors.

Kowal also said more and more costs are increasingly borne by students.

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United University Professions (UUP), which represents faculty and staff across most of the SUNY system, is the largest higher education union in the country.

“Right now, it’s close to 70% of the cost of public higher education is falling on students, whereas prior to 2008 it was about 30%, and so we’re seeing this dramatic shift. And if we’re going to be a public higher education system, this state needs to invest.”

Testimony from the student government leaders at UB and SUNY Buffalo State College reflected Kowal’s assertion. Gaelle Jean-Baptiste, president of United Students Government at SUNY Buffalo State, said she works four part-time jobs in addition to her student government responsibilities and full-time studies. Georgia Hulbert, vice president of UB’s Student Association, said she works two.

Hulbert added that she’s spoken to hundreds of students who worry about paying for non-tuition costs like housing, healthcare, transportation, food and more.

“While tuition is expensive, tuition costs are funded,” she said. “We also need those other services to be able to get us through those four years and so we’re not constantly worrying about the next pay check or whether we can afford our bills and such, but we can actually concentrate on our degrees and making sure that we’re taking up opportunities to be able to be competitive once we graduate college.”

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President of SUNY Erie Community College Dr. Dan Hocoy testifies.

Another concern raised during the hearing was the state of infrastructure on public university and college campuses in the region.

“Just a few weeks ago, we had a HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] unit fall through the ceiling and onto the corridor, which could have killed someone,” President of SUNY Erie Community College Dr. Dan Hocoy said during his testimony. “Gone are the days where people used chalk boards and sit in seats that faced the front, and our facilities are very outdated and no longer relevant.”

Senators Kennedy and Stavisky said the committee will hold two more public meetings in Syracuse and on Long Island before taking their findings back to Albany and determining how the New York State Legislature can better support public higher education.

“We’re going to listen to what people have to say, synthesize it, study it, discuss it, discuss it with the governor’s office and the assembly,” Stavisky said, “and see what we can do to perhaps tweak the system a little bit.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.