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News of Gov. Cuomo's veto of the State University of New York tuition increase and of continuing struggle over the management and role of public higher education in New York has reached California. As a New Yorker temporarily teaching at Stanford University, I find the contrast between these two states in public higher education is striking.

In California, which also faces a serious fiscal shortfall, there has been no threat to the University of California system. Indeed, there is consensus that public higher education, and especially the prestigious UC system, is an integral part of the state's infrastructure and a key element of its continued economic growth. Berkeley, just across the bay from private Stanford University, ranks at the very top of America's universities. UC campuses in Los Angeles and San Diego are also nationally ranked.

California has three public higher education systems -- the UC system, the California State University system and a vast network of community colleges. There are inevitable turf battles among them and, for the past few years, the CSU campuses have faced some fiscal constraints, but in general there is agreement that each serves an important function. Overall, public higher education seems less politicized here than in New York.

UC system is elitist

Many of the state's elite are UC graduates and both UCLA and Berkeley have been, from time to time, powers in the big-time athletics. They are also top research institutions that bring millions of dollars in research funding to the state and have played a role in the state's impressive economic growth. The UC system is elitist. It admits only the top 10 percent of the state's high school graduates. While there has been some criticism of UC's admissions policies and charges that it discriminates against Asian-Americans, there is acceptance of the system's policy of being highly selective.

The situation in New York is in sharp contrast. Public higher education faces a multiplicity of problems. SUNY has no significant tradition. It was the last major public university system to be established. Few of the state's elite are SUNY grads -- Columbia, Cornell and, of course, St. John's (the governor's alma mater) have more political clout. New York provides more public money to private higher education than any other state.

A significant part of the problem is that SUNY has not established a clear image and mission. In California, public higher education is divided by function after careful study. UC is the elite research-based system. CSU provides a mass-based undergraduate education system. The community colleges offer practical courses as well as access to higher education to virtually every high school graduate.

In New York, public higher education is defined by the accident of geography. SUNY, the largest single university system in the nation, embodies everything from community colleges, maritime colleges, ceramics institutions, four-year undergraduate, and large and complex multiversities such as the campuses at Buffalo and Stony Brook.

At least two of SUNY's campuses are poised to become "world-class" universities. In 1989, Buffalo was admitted to the prestigious Association of American Universities. Stony Brook is well-regarded in many of its fields. But these institutions are not given the resources or mandate to fulfill their potential.

California has recognized the need for adequate resources and the freedom to develop. In New York, there is stop-go funding and constant interference from the governor's office. It has been said that faculty salaries are fairly good in SUNY but that support funding is terrible.

SUNY itself does not have a clearly articulated mission. It tries to survive annual budget battles. It tries to save all of its campuses. It seems unable to target institutions for growth (or retrenchment) and to keep to its plans. When fiscal problems arise, the typical response is to dole out cuts "across the board" without any priorities.

SUNY is under siege

The SUNY Central Administration, located just a stone's throw from Albany's Victorian statehouse, is in a particularly difficult situation. It has not developed a tradition of independence. It is under constant siege, both fiscal and political. In contrast, the University of California system has its headquarters in Berkeley, next to the system's flagship campus. The CSU headquarters is in far-off Los Angeles. Both are insulated in some degree by distance from the capital in Sacramento.

The proposed $200 tuition increase, at least for SUNY, is a non-issue. Studies have indicated that lower-income New Yorkers have access to state programs to make up for the increase. In California, where in-state tuition is $1,670 per year, somewhat higher than in New York, there is no sentiment for making public higher education free or for lowering tuition.

The Empire State has not fulfilled its potential in public higher education. What is needed is real commitment and understanding of how to build a university. Maybe Mario Cuomo should take a sabbatical in California to see how it is done.
PHILIP G. ALTBACH, director of the Comparative Education Center at the University at Buffalo, is a visiting professor at Stanford University and visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution. Earlier, he was at the University of California-Berkeley.

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