Students rally to restore the SUNY budget
Students gathered in Founders Plaza with their signs on Wednesday, some of which read "No Tuition Hikes: 0 percent," "UB 2012: The End of Public Education is Near" and "Student Debt Bails Out Wall Street." But the rally was not like the violent UB protest in 1970, the one for which the school has gained national notoriety.
Instead, it was an air of confident personal vindication in the students' peaceful assembly that got everyone's attention, as the protestors stood shoulder-to-shoulder to actively defend a cause for which they needed no self-convincing.
Students gathered to protest state budget cuts and the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA), which would give the SUNY administration blanket authority to raise tuition, without having to consult New York State legislature.
The Graduate Student Employees Union (CWA Local 1104) and UB Students Against Sweatshops spearheaded the rally, as advocates of United University Professions and the Civil Service Employees Union joined them below the administrative offices of Capen Hall.
"We are opposed to PHEEIA, as it would allow SUNY to increase tuition and open its campuses to private, profit-driven interests," said Christopher Buckman, a graduate philosophy student at UB and Chief Steward of GSEU. "State schools are intended to be accessible and affordable, and this privatization of funding would eliminate the entire point of state education by putting the responsibility of funding on students and their families."
From April of 2008 to the present day, UB has seen a state tax funding loss of $40 million, according to the GSEU. The school's worry is that PHEEIA will allow the state to further reduce funding for SUNY, and that the steady increases in tuition proposed are at risk of not covering University operational costs, but instead are making up for the state budgetary gap.
They fear that tuition increases will bail the state out of debt on the backs of student loans, as private interests in the SUNY administration will contract jobs off-campus to non-union labor, so that they can pay less for outsourced service.
"Out of everybody at UB, the administration is the only group that seems to think that PHEEIA is a good idea," said Mia Jorgensen, a graduate Anthropology student at UB and the Business Agent for the GSEU. "They can obviously see that it will grant them a lot of political clout, but what's in it for everybody else?"
"It is all part of this big UB2020 public relations machine that the administration is forcing on UB," Buckman said. "If you are somehow against UB2020, then you are invariably labeled some kind of non-progressive traitor."
"The SUNY system is often regarded as an Ivy League of public education, and all of that history will vanish with the privatization of public university" said Monazir Khan, a graduate sociology student from SUNY Binghamton. "Privatized research schools like Michigan State and University of Pittsburgh are important facilities, but SUNY must still exist in the realm of public education, because that is all that many New Yorkers can afford."
According to the GSEU, Gov. Patterson's proposed $152 million budget cut, $16 million of which will come from UB's budget, will prompt SUNY hiring freezes for faculty and staff and higher graduate student fees. At the same time, it would create larger, more impersonal classes for undergraduates, whose seminar classes are already being picked-off of the course catalog.
"UB only gets 22 percent funding from the state even now," Khan said. "So any budget cut, or privatized tuition control would thrust us further in the direction of becoming an expensive private research institution."
Protestors urged fellow students to contact legislators, the local and state congressmen and assemblymen for whom they vote, to pressure them to vote down both the budget and the Innovation Act. Additional future moves by the GSEU include planned visits to Buffalo government offices, and mass letters and "e-mail blasts" to local Senators.
"This is only the picnic… and it was a wonderful turnout" Khan said. "But we'll be back on the phone with local and state legislation tomorrow."