We’re sure you’ve heard plenty about UB2020, the ambitious plan to overhaul the university. What is UB2020, really, and who is behind the plan? A look at its history should help us begin to answer this question.
A good place to start is the arrival, in early 2004, of former UB President John B. Simpson. He was chosen for his proven track reckrd: as a dean at the University of Washington from 1994-98, he oversaw the gutting of the budget at UW’s College of Arts and Sciences. His next post was provost at UC Santa Cruz, where Simpson helped direct plans to increase revenue through privatization, tuition increases, and the reckless bloating of the student body. Despite the fact that such “reforms” later helped precipitate the public education crisis in California and that the number of students served at UCSC is now being painfully reduced to pre-Simpson levels, Simpson’s ideas appealed to UB’s presidential search committee in 2004. He was given the job and encouraged to pursue his neoliberal goals of unsustainable growth and the transfer of university functions to the private sector. As Simpson infamously told a reporter, he was leading UB away from “socialism” and towards “social Darwinism.” While the pseudoscientific reactionary import of the term seemed to be lost on Simpson, it was borne out in his policy.
First came the creation of “areas of excellence.” The administration identified the departments that had the greatest potential for luring in cash through grants and corporate funding. These programs would be injected with resources while less lucrative programs would be left to wither. Unlucky programs were swallowed up into other departments, or cut altogether. This, in turn, put pressure on departments to reorient goals towards renumerative projects like corporate research and careerist journal-padding at the expense of less-profitable pursuits, including providing a high-quality, affordable education.
Another aspect of the original UB2020 was a transformative physical plan. It should be noted that the construction of a new downtown medical campus was actually mandated and funded directly by New York State, and did not originate with UB2020. Though the UB administration claims it needs complete freedom from “Albany bureaucrats” to grow the university, Albany seems just as interested in growing it as they do.
In 2007-08, Governor Spitzer added support to SUNY, including Buffalo’s development plan. UB committed to various expansions, and when Spitzer was ousted and replaced by Governor Paterson, who was comparatively hostile to public education, it was too late to pull back. The state funding dissolved and Simpson’s circle looked elsewhere for money. The solution seemed obvious: why not gouge students for tuition? To set the tuition rate, the administration had to lobby for a change in New York law. Under the previous system, the state funded to SUNY and students paid a low tuition rate to the state. The rate was deter-mined democratically by a vote of the legislature. Business-controlled Western New York representatives introduced a bill to remove UB tuition rates from democratic control and give it to the administration and SUNY Trustees. Tuition would more than double by 2020, and funds set up to assist students would not save a large segment of the middle class from being priced out.
Other provisions of the 2009 bill (AS2020) were even more disturbing. They show what is at the core of UB2020: privatization, or the transfer of public assets and services to the private sector, where they can be regulated by a profit motive instead of the needs of the people of New York. UB would be allowed to sell or lease campus land and assets without oversight from the state. This would allow projects like the construction of a hotel on North Campus by a private company and the surrender of university functions to contractors. Among other side effects, these maneuvers would effectively kill the presence of unions like the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) that protect the rights of state employees. Most of the money raised by these projects would be taken out of the university and often out of the region. These and other “public-private partnerships” would open the university to unregulated capitalist endeavors.
It became apparent at this point that the driving force behind UB2020 was in fact an alliance of business interests, planning to cash in on selling off UB. Many of them have been involved in public higher education for years: the UB Council, “primary oversight and advisory body to the University at Buffalo andits president and senior officers,” consists almost exclusively of business leaders. Its chairman is Jeremy Jacobs, food concession magnate and Boston Bruins owner. Forbes Magazine listed Jacobs as the 488th richest billionare in the world in 2010. Also on the council are the chairman of M&T Bank and the CEO of Moog, Inc., which manufactures high-tech gizmos, including military equipment.
At this time community resistance began to coalesce. Several student groups opposed the priva tization schemes and tuition increases. These in cluded UB Students Against Sweatshops, United Socialist Movement of the Americas, and Buffalo State Students for Peace. Labor unions at UB also opposed UB2020, including United University Professions (faculty), CSEA, and CWA 1104, the Graduate Student Employees Union. Many of these groups united under the banner of the Defend Our Education Coalition, and between 2009 and 2011, they staged a series of informational sessions and demonstrations against the administration’s plans. Legislatively, WNY Senator Antoine Thompson was the sole voice of reason questioning the wisdom of UB2020 lacking worker protections and guarantees. Thompson was narrowly defeated in the 2010 election after a smear campaign sponsored by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a business group whose board of directors overlaps the UB Council membership, and includes the UB President – first Simpson, and now Satish Tripathi.
The bill passed the Senate but never saw the floor of the Assembly, thanks to the brave efforts of Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan. The WNY delegation chalked up their failure to downstate jealousy, and created a 2010 bill that extended UB2020 to the other SUNY univerrsity centers. The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA) would have allowed all the campuses to raise tuition and privatize key functions. This bill was also defeated following a struggle between business groups on one side and labor and education activists on the other. Simpson resigned from the UB presidency in defeat.
A bill identical to the 2009 bill was introduced in 2011, but stalled in the legislature. In March, Artvoice published a cover story called “The Great UB Heist.” Reporter Buck Quigley shared the views of the opposition to a wide audience, as well as revealed additional scandal, like the fact that Frank Ciminelli of LPCiminelli, Inc., sat on the UB properties committe and UB Foundation board while UB awarded his family’s non-union construction company the contract to build the management building on North. Mr. Ciminelli’s son is a director of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership; their involvement in UB2020 continues.
The Cuomo administration, over the summer, introduced a new bill, called NYSUNY2020. This bill implements the so-called “rational” tuition policy for all SUNY schools, hiking tuition by 5% a year for the next 5 years. The university centers, including UB, are allowed to petition for up to an 8% increase, though the power to set the tuition rate is not given solely to the SUNY Trustees and campus administration. The bill also commits $80 million in state funding over the next 5 years. University centers can win a “challenge grant” for building and growth projects. A nod to the Artvoice story includes protections against conflicts of interest, though public-private partnerships are encouraged but will remain state-regulated.
In some ways, NYSUNY2020 is a compromise, though the 8% annual tuition hikes will hit UB students hard. It might still be the case that business interests will push their agenda through the legislature piecemeal, breaking up the opposing coalition. Continuing to stand together on these issues, and pushing back against the privatization already taken root, is of vital importance to ensure UB is affordable and democratically governed for years to come.