SUNY’s Painful Rightsizing Starts At Potsdam

Editor's Corner

The State University of New York at Potsdam has seen enrollment decrease 44% over 10 years.

Some insight into looming decisions at the State University of New York at Fredonia may come from a financial stability plan that was announced this week at a north country location. Similar to the campus here in northern Chautauqua County, SUNY Potsdam — about an hour south of the Canadian border — has been dealing with annual deficits and declining enrollment that has created a crisis in higher education.

In announcing its “framework for fiscal health,” Potsdam indicates there will be reductions in staffing as well as the potential discontinuance of 14 academic programs. The plan, the university says, includes data-informed recommendations to set and meet goals “directly tying future resource allocation to division/department performance and growth.”

Over the last decade, the institution has seen student numbers decrease from 4,413 in fall 2012 to 2,515 today. That 44% decrease has contributed to the $9 million in annual losses that can no longer be absorbed.

“This iterative plan is based on the hard reality that SUNY Potsdam, like other campuses in crisis across the country, cannot afford–either literally or figuratively–to wait to address our challenges,” the report notes. “We cannot sustain this level of spending on programming that is undersubscribed, based on our current enrollment and levels of both state support and philanthropic giving. At the same time, we would further limit our potential to rebuild by simply making cuts through attrition–based on opportunity or timing alone–without a strategic prioritization of resources.”

Simply put, there will be pain.

In response, the United University Professions — the union that represents more than 37,000 employees at the State University at New York — called on Albany to fix the shortfalls across the higher-educational system. “This is a manufactured crisis,” said union President Frederick E. Kowal. “There would be no need for such drastic steps if SUNY’s Board of Trustees distributed the $163 million in new state funding to reduce multimillion-dollar deficits at Potsdam and 16 other financially strapped SUNY campuses.”

If it were only that easy.

New York state has consistently proven its generosity with public schools. Each year, no one questions the increase in aid from the capital to area districts, which also have a tradition of passing on higher property taxes annually. This fiscal year, $34.1 billion was allocated for education — a 10% hike from last year.

SUNY does not have the same luxury. Albany, with the full understanding that campuses are already struggling with the bottom line, decided against raising tuition while offering $3.16 billion in operating funds. That was $152 million more than the previous year, but it does little to fix the fiscal mess that plagues many of the 64 universities and colleges.

According to an Economic Profile study done by Camoin Associates, SUNY Fredonia is one of four county employers with more than 1,000 positions. Its health is one of the engines of the region’s economy.

Through previous administrations and this one, SUNY Fredonia has been slow to react to the crisis in front of its face. Over the last decade, enrollment has decreased 34.5% from 4,941 to the current number of 3,236. That is a key factor in a $16 million deficit for the operation.

Hours after the United University Professions announced a new four-year contract that included raises of 14% over that span on Aug. 24, a memo from university President Stephen Kolison soured the mood. “I will propose a plan to decrease our annual expenses by $10 million over the next five years, underpinning our commitment to fiscal responsibility,” he said “Our goal is to make this endeavor a collaborative one, involving critical inputs from stakeholders and our SUNY partners.”

This did not need to fall on Kolison. In 2018 under the leadership of Virginia Horvath, Fredonia was undertaking a Procedures for Emergency Program Reduction/Elimination effort. At that time, 20 undergraduate and graduate degree programs were being considered for elimination or reduction.

Unsurprisingly, the plan — that would have at least slowed the bleeding — was met with great resistance from students and faculty. Three months later, in February 2019, that was enough to make Horvath change course.

“Cutting the academic programs was not going to have an impact right now,” she said in canceling the reductions. “We still have to do that budget work, and we are still looking to see what happens at the state level.”

Horvath always wanted to be optimistic. More than four years later, that lack of action was the easy path that allowed for the current consequences.

Potsdam has been transparent in announcing its transformation plan. Here, we still are not sure about what is next for Fredonia.

John D’Agostino is the editor of The Post-Journal, OBSERVER and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.


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