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March / April 2009
From David Skorton
Why Strong Public Higher Education Should Be Our Concern
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David SkortonThe current worldwide financial dilemma is affecting higher education in substantial ways. Elsewhere in this issue, CAM editor and publisher Jim Roberts '71 reports on a conversation we had about Cornell's financial challenges in view of the reductions in many revenue streams precipitated by the global economic crisis.

In this column, I want to make the case that—in addition to righting our own ship and safeguarding Cornell's academic excellence and commitment to broad student access—we need to advocate for robust, high-quality public colleges and universities, which are essential elements in any long-term effort to address the economic crisis. As New York State Governor David Paterson said in his January 2009 State of the State address, "The road to economic development runs right through our schools, so if we can't spend more, we have to spend more effectively."

Public higher education increases competitiveness and promotes economic development by extending education to more people who can create, innovate, and bring new processes and technologies to the state's economy. It prepares the workforce to function effectively in an economy that puts a premium on higher-level skills. It improves the quality of life for state residents from all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, and cultures, and it empowers people to make positive changes in their lives and communities. And it can help address an increasingly broad range of complex societal and scientific issues—from health care to climate change to the need to reduce global inequalities and build human and institutional capacity in the developing world.

Cornell contributes in all these areas through its contract colleges and Cooperative Extension, as well as through efforts that span our campuses and the world. But the scope and impact of our contributions depend on realistic levels of public support. Equally important to realizing the benefits of public higher education, for those of us who live, work, and raise our families in New York State, is a commitment to strengthening the State University of New York and the City University of New York.

SUNY is the nation's largest comprehensive system of public higher education. Its sixty-four campuses include the four contract colleges at Cornell along with community colleges, specialized technology colleges, comprehensive undergraduate institutions, university research centers, and academic health centers. CUNY, based in New York City, is the country's largest urban public university, comprising twenty-three institutions including community colleges, senior colleges, and graduate and professional schools. Together, SUNY and CUNY enroll a majority of New York's college-bound high school graduates (more than 680,000 full-and part-time students) including 61 percent of all minority college students in the state. They also enroll more than 1.4 million adult and continuing education students.

'The road to economic development runs right through our schools.'
David Paterson, Governor of New York
The current economic crisis poses challenges for all of higher education, public and private alike. To survive and succeed, colleges and universities will need to make hard choices, set priorities, defer projects, focus on their own distinctive missions, and clarify goals. The times call for creative approaches, in the face of resource constraints, in order to seize new opportunities, but also the resolve to phase out programs and initiatives that have served their purpose and to redirect those resources elsewhere. And they will require a greater degree of transparency and accountability than has often been the case.

Today, as individuals and families feel the pinch of the economic crisis—which is hitting New York State especially hard because of our dependence on Wall Street—it is more important than ever to keep SUNY and CUNY strong. The 2008 New York State Commission on Higher Education, chaired by President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings, advocated strongly for measures that would build excellence across public and private institutions of higher education in the state, including enhanced funding and regulatory relief for SUNY and CUNY to improve their ability to adapt quickly and promote quality. But since April 2008, SUNY and CUNY have absorbed nearly $254 million in state support reductions, along with an additional $40 million in state support and Medicaid reductions to the three SUNY hospitals.

As the legislature struggles with the budget for the next fiscal year, we must realize that all New Yorkers need to share the sacrifices required to restore fiscal equilibrium. Nonetheless we need to be sure that public higher education is not unduly disadvantaged by short-term budget cuts that will ultimately undermine the state's ability to recover from the difficult economic circumstances we face. Whether you live in New York State or elsewhere, I hope you will be an advocate for strong and robust public colleges and universities, even as you continue to act upon your commitment to Cornell.

— President David Skorton
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