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The State University of New York, deflecting criticism that it is balancing its budget on the backs of students and faculty, approved a plan Tuesday to sharply hike the salaries of 29 college presidents.

The new salary package, which could raise the pay of some college presidents by more than $100,000 above their current levels, was approved by the SUNY board of trustees, just three days after the plan was made public. It provides a new, higher salary range that officials said replaces an outdated salary scale that expired last year.

University officials defended the new formula as necessary to attract and retain campus presidents, but critics called it a case of poor timing coming after a tuition hike last year and recent budget vetoes by Gov. George E. Pataki of programs for low-income students.

"We must compensate them well," SUNY trustee Aminy Audi said of the SUNY presidents, whose salaries have fallen below national averages for public university leaders.

The salary decision came shortly before SUNY Chancellor Robert King, in a brief interview with reporters, did not rule out the need for another tuition increase next year throughout the 413,000-student system. He said SUNY continues to look at a "rational" tuition plan that would raise tuition each year at some sort of inflation-based index. King called such an idea, rejected this year by the State Legislature "reasonable."

At a board meeting in Albany Monday, the board approved a salary range of between $176,000 to $339,000 for presidents at the four SUNY centers at Buffalo, Binghamton, Albany and Stony Brook; the four presidents now make an average of $227,000 annually. UB President John B. Simpson makes $225,000 a year, though his total compensation package, when housing and other payments are included, reaches about $400,000 annually; Simpson gets $4,690 a month for housing, the most of any SUNY president.

At SUNY's other universities, the new range allows salaries for presidents of between $120,000 and $247,000; annual pay now averages about $160,000. King, using the salary range, approves the pay of campus presidents. The plan does not affect community college presidents.

"We compete in a national marketplace. We have to be able to meet the market," King said.

The final plan did not include, as proposed last week, a measure that could increase King's salary from $250,000 to as high as $420,000; King also gets a $90,000 housing allowance for his home outside Albany.

King, in an apparent bow to criticism that surfaced last week, said he "thought it would be better" if his salary issue was deferred and not tied to the college presidents' pay plan. King said he has not had a pay raise in five years.

Assemblyman Ronald Canestrari, an Albany County Democrat who chairs the Assembly's higher education committee, criticized the timing of the salary package, coming just two months after Pataki vetoed a series of funding hikes for low-income student programs at SUNY and hundreds of millions in construction programs at the campuses.

"When all the students and faculty are shouldering more of the burden, it's unconscionable to justify salary increases in this range," he said.

Thomas Egan, the board chairman, said SUNY will be trying to find more resources to raise the pay levels of faculty members; he did not elaborate.

SUNY trustee Candace de Russy, who clashed several times with King during the board meeting, called the salary hike "unacceptable" because it comes amid a rise last year in tuition of $950 a year. She said SUNY should be doing more to cut costs. SUNY's tuition at four-year colleges is $4,350 a year. De Russy also questioned what she characterized as a less-than-open process for considering the raises; she noted that trustees only got the plan last Thursday.

De Russy said pay hikes for individual campus presidents should be a decision of the full board, not King.

King lashed out at de Russy for what he said was a pattern of being "berated" by her. He called de Russy's criticisms of the work done in developing the salary plan "just ludicrous". He said her comments had "no reality" to SUNY's operations.

"It is my duty to ask these questions and your duty to answer them," de Russy retorted.


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