After tuition and fee hikes over the past several years, the State University of New York is poised to raise something else: the salaries of the system's chancellor and university presidents.
With no fanfare, SUNY officials have floated a plan that would set into policy a higher salary range for its top executives. The idea was immediately derided by critics, who said SUNY has not done enough to contain costs and keep a lid on student costs.
Under the plan, newly invested University at Buffalo President John B. Simpson, for example, could see his salary go from $225,000 a year now to as much as $339,000. Beyond his current state salary, Simpson earns about $400,000 in total compensation, including compensation from the UB Foundation and the use of a state residence.
SUNY Chancellor Robert King could see his current salary of $250,000 go as high as $420,000.
The salary plan has surfaced just two months after Gov. George E. Pataki vetoed tens of millions in funding in programs for lower-income SUNY students and capital construction projects to modernize and repair aging SUNY facilities.
SUNY officials cautioned that the plan does not automatically raise the salaries of its leaders, but authorizes a new salary range for future raises. Critics, however, say SUNY typically floats such plans about tuition hikes before it imposes them -- and that the same can be expected for university salaries.
The salary proposal, made public for the first time on Friday afternoon, is scheduled to be voted on Tuesday by the SUNY board of trustees. SUNY has been under fire in recent years for approving matters with little or no advance public comment period.
King said the salary changes are needed for the system to remain competitive.
"Compensation is not the only factor in attracting and retaining top-flight academic talent. But a competitive level of compensation is important and demonstrates the university values leadership," King said in a written statement.
Besides his current salary, King gets a $90,000 housing allowance -- for living in an Albany-area home he owned prior to becoming SUNY chancellor -- as well as a car and driver.
The salary plan did not sit well with one SUNY trustee. "I believe it's the wrong thing for us to be doing -- to repeatedly raise tuition and then raise the salaries of administrators who ought to be doing a better job at containing tuition costs," said Candace de Russy, a frequent critic of King's SUNY administration.
"These CEOs we're about to reward in this way have not diligently enough, by any means, pursued ways to make SUNY more cost-efficient," she said. De Russy also criticized what she called SUNY's less-than-transparent way of handling the salary issue.
Others questioned the timing, wondering how SUNY can vote on such a salary plan before it has adopted its proposed budget for next year -- which might show how any salary hikes might be funded. SUNY has not yet said whether it plans to raise tuition next year.
"Why are they doing this now? They should put it all together and release it as one budget document that will show us where all the parts are coming from, not just piecemeal," said Miriam Kramer, a lobbyist at the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The head of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee, Assemblyman Ronald Canestrari, an Albany County Democrat, noted that fights are still under way to try to restore some of Pataki's budget vetoes to SUNY. "Can't we first take care of the students?" he said.
Canestrari said there is some validity in keeping salaries competitive with other university systems around the country. "But this is neither the time nor the amounts that should even be considered, let alone approved," he said.
Speaking of SUNY board members considering the plan, he said, "How can they sleep at night?"
Under the SUNY plan, the presidents of the four university centers -- Buffalo, Binghamton, Albany and Stony Brook -- would receive a salary between $176,000 to $339,000. SUNY documents put the salaries of the four university center presidents now at an average of $227,000. At SUNY's other colleges, the new range would be between $120,000 to $247,000 annually. Currently, the average is about $160,000.
SUNY's tuition is now $4,350 at its four-year colleges; the system raised tuition by $950 per year in 2003.
To make its case for the higher salaries, SUNY released salaries of college leaders in other states, showing that the president of the Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge made $490,000 while the president of Rutgers University makes $525,000.
Salary increases for SUNY college presidents are approved by King. His salary is approved by the SUNY board of trustees. Community colleges would be unaffected by the policy change.
David Henahan, a SUNY spokesman, declined to comment on the criticisms of the plan. He said a salary range plan approved in 2000 expired last December, and that a new one was needed to replace it.
"The salary plan recognizes the accomplishments of the campus presidents in moving the State University of New York to the front rank of public higher education in America and enables the university to attract and retain top academic and administrative talent to our colleges and universities," he said.
Todd Alhart, a Pataki spokesman, said the governor's office was unaware of the SUNY proposal, but he expects the SUNY board "to act appropriately." He did not elaborate.