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SUNY seeks more state aid in order to freeze tuition

ALBANY – The head of the state university system wants to make a trade: give the colleges more state money and students won’t get a tuition hike.

H. Carl McCall’s unusually blunt offer came Wednesday at a time when critical, final details of a new 2016 state budget deal are being put together at the Capitol.

It also came after students have faced five straight years of tuition increases – up 25 percent during the period – under a plan Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and SUNY call a “rational” tuition policy program.

“We don’t want a tuition increase. … We’re proposing to the Legislature that they give us $73 million. With $73 million, there’ll be no tuition increase,” said McCall, chairman of the State University of New York board of trustees.

He gathered up several other trustees and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher to make the pitch not to Cuomo or the Legislature, but to members of the Albany press corps.

McCall, who turned back Cuomo in a nasty 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary contest, directed his words at legislators.

Cuomo in 2011 tapped McCall, a former state comptroller, to head the SUNY board.

“We need real investment and commitment from the Legislature,” McCall said.

If the $73 million doesn’t come, McCall would not commit to what students might face in the coming year.

He was asked if the last-minute appeal through media illustrates SUNY is having a hard time selling its $73 million plea to state officials.

“I don’t think we’re having a hard time,” McCall responded.

He said the news conference was timed to coincide with a day when other SUNY trustees were in town for a board meeting.

Several SUNY student groups oppose a tuition hike. The State University of New York Student Assembly has backed the continuation of the SUNY 2020 program, but wants to see a tuition freeze this year.

SUNY 2020 is the program created five years ago that included the tuition policy program.

In return for getting tuition-authorizing power, SUNY officials pledged to drive more money to campuses to deal with class availability problems students faced trying to graduate in four years. They also promised to increase the number of full-time professors.

Zimpher put the number of full-time faculty positions added since the start of SUNY 2020 at 919 with 350 new academic program offerings across the system.

McCall said SUNY did not want to increase tuition the past five years, but said “we’d been neglected for so long” by the state with inadequate funding levels.

SUNY Board member Henrik Dullea, a former top aide in the administration of the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the governor’s father, said New York also has fallen behind others in support for community colleges.

He said the per-student state aid to those schools is 20 percent lower than the national average.

The tuition freeze idea received conditional support from a key lawmaker.

“Both houses are at a place where we said no tuition (hike),” said Sen. Kenneth LaValle, a Long Island Republican, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

LaValle said SUNY at first asked for the $73 million in additional state aid requested by McCall, but that officials later lowered the number to $60 million.