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Daunting situation awaits Zimpher as SUNY chancellor

Nancy L. Zimpher will have her hands full as head of the state's public higher-education system.

The University of Cincinnati president -- appointed Tuesday as chancellor of the State University of New York -- takes over during tenuous times.

The state chopped $210 million from the SUNY system this year. College presidents are frustrated by the state's overregulation and are demanding small annual tuition increases to help fund campuses.

Schools still are reeling from a deal cut last week that takes $122 million from spring and fall tuition increases to help close a state budget gap.

That's just the beginning.

More cuts are pending, as the state puts together a budget for next year, while a proposed tax on research dollars has campuses dismayed.

"I am very eager to represent the needs and aspirations of SUNY," Zimpher said Tuesday during a telephone interview with The Buffalo News. "I have a history of consultation, collaboration and decisiveness, and I don't think anything will change in that regard."

Zimpher, 62, will be paid $545,400 as chancellor of the largest university system in the United States, which has more than 439,000 students spread across 64 campuses around the state. She also will have use of SUNY-owned apartments in Albany and Manhattan, as well as a driver and car.

While her compensation -- a $490,000 base salary and $55,400 in retirement pay -- is higher than the $340,000 paid to John Ryan, the previous chancellor, it is lower than the $687,224 package she was reported to receive in the last academic year as president of the University of Cincinnati.

Carl Hayden, SUNY board chairman, said he considered the agreement "fair," given the salaries of university leaders around the nation.

"We wanted to find a 'wow' candidate," he said. "In Nancy Zimpher, we found that 'wow.' "

Zimpher became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1998 then, in October 2003, president of the University of Cincinnati.

She was the first woman to head the school of 37,000 students and is well-known for forcing out Bob Huggins, the popular men's basketball coach in 2005, after a series of incidents.

During an interview Tuesday, Zimpher -- who will be the first woman to serve as SUNY chancellor -- talked about devising a strategic plan for SUNY, raising its academic quality, boosting its image through big-time sports and making it easier for students to transfer throughout the system.

Zimpher, introduced Tuesday by Gov. David A. Paterson at a news conference, didn't comment specifically about Democratic lawmakers' sweeping the tuition increase into the state's general fund.

But she supported a tuition policy of small annual increases, rather than big jumps when deemed politically palatable at the Capitol.

"It's too early for me to speak about what has happened," Zimpher said of the tuition sweep. "But I can tell you this: [Tuition] will be a very high priority for me. These are very tough times, but we have to find a way to grow in the midst of this challenge."

After assuming the SUNY job June 1, she plans to visit all 64 campuses and is sure to get an earful.

State cuts aside, presidents had approved of a $620 tuition increase -- half this semester, half in the fall -- with the idea most of the money would go to campuses, not to help close a state budget gap.

"I consider that a tax on our students and parents," Fredonia State College President Dennis Hefner said last week. "It sets a terrible precedent, and I, for one, am not going to be quiet."

Campuses also are upset about a proposal to impose a state tax on research grants awarded to institutions. The University at Buffalo would lose an estimated $3 million.

"That helps us sustain the entire university," said Marsha Henderson, UB's vice president for external affairs. "When you take it away, we have to make it up somewhere else."

Schools are preparing students to pay more for less.

Geneseo State College, for example, will keep 52 jobs vacant next academic year, because it won't have the money to fill them, said Kenneth Levison, vice president for administration and finance.

"Which means, it's going to be very difficult to provide the courses students need to graduate in four years," Levison said.

"What scares me is we only started down this slope," said Stanley Kardonsky, vice president of finance and management for Buffalo State College. "Right now, there's no light at the end of the tunnel, or if there's a light, as the expression goes, it's an oncoming train."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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