Academic Retrenchment and Political Strategies in New York


After several years of decreasing state support, UAlbany (the State University of New York at Albany, whose logo is “the world within reach”) announced it was deactivating (no more majors) its language programs (French, Russian, Italian, classics – all but Spanish). Faculty in these programs, both tenured and non-tenured, will lose their jobs in two years. All programs being eliminated are in the College of Arts and Sciences. None of the graduate schools (social welfare, public administration, criminal justice) are losing faculty except through retirements.

The faculty slated for dismissal doubtless includes some leftists obsessed with race, class, and sex issues. But courses in which students learn to speak and read a foreign language are generally the least politicized courses in the humanities. These dismissals are a major blow to the liberal arts, not a minor setback for the academic left.

Local Albany newspapers, the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education have all reported UAlbany’s program retrenchments. Harvard’s president responded by reassuring her faculty that Harvard still values the humanities. But neither candidate for governor of New York has reacted.

Democrat Andrew Cuomo, New York’s attorney general and son of former governor Mario Cuomo faces Carl Paladino, who decisively defeated the Republican establishment candidate in the primary. Paladino is a self-made Buffalo multimillionaire who is financing his own campaign. His condemnation of New York’s dysfunctional politics struck a responsive chord, especially with upstate voters. But he has been losing support since he lost his temper on camera and made unsubstantiated personal attacks on his opponent.

Neither candidate’s website gives any indication that either of them values higher education except as an economic engine. Cuomo’s father stressed “access” above quality. Both candidates favor cutting the state budget, which would fall harder on Cuomo’s supporters than on Paladino’s.

Cuomo might be aware of the academic culture wars revolving about such issues as postmodernism, relativism, deconstructionism and, more recently, sustainability. He is probably not a true believer, but he also knows the academic left will be voting for him.

Paladino’s platform calls for the resignation of the entire New York Board of Regents. The Regents play a relatively small role in higher education and a much larger role in setting K-12 standards and policy. Regent’s exams (required for high school graduation) have been dumbed down in recent years. Paladino’s likely nominees would be an improvement over current ones. But it is not clear he could force the resignations of current Regents or gain confirmation of those he would nominate.

Paladino would have an easier time replacing members of the Board of Trustees of the 64-campus SUNY system. If Paladino is concerned about an increasingly politicized curriculum, he might see it as a reason to appoint academic traditionalists to the SUNY Board of Trustees and to the Board of Regents. But he might also see it as one more reason to favor job training over general education. Paladino presumably understands that many academic types and Manhattan liberals look down on plainspoken people, especially upstaters. Such resentments might be a reason to favor four-year and community colleges over the SUNY university centers. Paladino’s construction firm brags about its “green” buildings. There is no indication he is aware of the ideological underpinnings of “sustainability.”

SUNY’s problems, while mostly due to several years of state budget shortfalls, were exacerbated by leadership failures. Nancy Zimpher, who has been chancellor of the 64-campus SUNY system for less than two years, spent all her political capitol in an unsuccessful effort to get the legislature to pass a bill called PHEEIA, the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act. Among other provisions, PHEEIA would have allowed the university centers to set their own tuition (within limits), retain the money and lease lands and buildings they own to private companies without legislative approval. (Tuition payments at present go to the state treasury and are available to individual campuses only if reallocated by the legislature. Last year’s tuition increase was retained by the state.)

While faculty generally supported the bill, the politically influential faculty union opposed it and Zimpher refused to compromise. While all this was going on Zimpher convinced the Board of Trustees to approve $30,000 raises for each of her three senior vice-chancellors. These raises came to light after PHEEIA’s defeat, but served to undermine the argument that SUNY Trustees could be trusted with more authority. Everyone expected the state budget (adopted four months late) to include a tuition increase, most of which would be retained by SUNY. But in the last-minute rush to pass a budget and with all the university's efforts going into PHEEIA, SUNY got a huge cut in state support with no corresponding authority to raise tuition.

Neither candidate seems to have taken a stand on PHEEIA. But both apparently support a similar earlier proposal, Buffalo 2020, that would have applied only to the university center at Buffalo and, it was argued, would have led to extensive new construction (an “economic revival”) in and around Buffalo. But it would also have anointed UBuffalo as the flagship campus of the SUNY system and for that reason was opposed by the other three university centers.

To end this sad story with questions: should NAS members (acting as individuals, of course) try to contact either or both campaigns before the election? Cuomo seems to have a safe lead, but the academic left would have much more influence in a Cuomo administration than we could hope to have. Paladino is a long shot, but his education advisors might at least listen sympathetically. Does anyone have any insight into Paladino’s educational views?

Publius is the pseudonym of of a professor at SUNY Albany.

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