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Simpson pushes plan despite setbacks

University at Buffalo President John B. Simpson appealed Wednesday to the community's frustration over the status quo and asked supporters to continue their commitment to a bold vision for UB and the region.

Simpson, during his fourth annual community address, tried to keep up momentum for UB 2020 -- the university's ambitious plan to grow and revitalize the local economy -- after some setbacks in the game plan since his speech to the public last year:

The economy tanked; state colleges and universities are losing funding; a bill that would give UB more autonomy to grow is stalled in Albany.

"We have reached a crossroads," Simpson said. "Two roads lie ahead of us. One will lead to a bright future. The other will not. One road is the path we call UB 2020. The other road is the path of business as usual."

"If we do nothing and continue business as usual, we in Western New York are headed for much more serious trouble," he said. "If we keep the status quo, we won't just stand still -- we will continue our decline, and we will fall far, far behind."

Simpson assured the community that UB will continue to do all it can to grow into a top-tier research university by adding 10,000 more students and 2,300 more staff and faculty, and by expanding its campuses.

But he asked the community to continue its "financial, political and moral" support for the university's long-term strategy, which would nearly double UB's annual economic impact on the region to $3.6 billion.

"Right now, our nation needs its universities more than ever," Simpson said. "These institutions are the economic engines of the 21st century -- much like the steel mills were to the manufacturing economy of the 20th century."

UB's 14th president also called on Albany to do its part. Simpson said he sees no evidence yet that New York State has a coherent strategy for higher education. "We must invest in our universities," he said, "not cut them."

Simpson got no arguments from the crowd of a few hundred people in Babeville at Asbury Hall on Delaware Avenue.

One of the proposals for funding UB 2020 is legislation, now stalled in Albany, that would give UB the ability to raise its own tuition in capped annual increments and use the extra revenue to help fund the ambitious strategic plan.

The State Senate already has passed the bill, State Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Lake View, said.

"We're waiting for the Assembly," Stachowski said. "They have all this year to pass the same bill as we did last year. If we need to make some changes in the bill, we can do that."

But one of the fears from state lawmakers outside Western New York is that tuition would be dictated by UB -- rather than the state -- and potentially price families out of the largest school in the State University of New York system.

"Either we can choose to maintain the status quo, or we can choose to change our path," Simpson said.

"Maintaining the status quo is neither reasonable, nor practical, nor safe," he said. "It's what got us into this mess, and it surely will not get us out of it."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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