Friday, April 9, 2010

Thiele Should Look In Mirror, Not Blame Others About Stony Brook Southampton Closing

Sad news this week as Stony Brook University announced that they would be reducing service to their Southampton Campus, effectively ending student residences on campus and destroying the fragile community that faculty, students and administrators have worked so hard to build over the past three years. I know of what I speak firsthand as Southampton hired me for my first real teaching gig, teaching a class called “Environmental Problems and Solutions” in the Spring of 2008. There has been a lot of coverage of the issue via the New York Times, and the Sag Harbor Times.

Unfortunately this is a story that is repeating itself over and over again over the entire country as the economy suffers. State and local officials grappling with tough decisions about which worthwhile and valuable services to cut, to avoid crippling budget deficits and states and municipalities going bankrupt. The only problem is, in this case that this campus closure is not forced by a crumbling economy, but by extremely poor government policy in Albany.

The State University of New York (SUNY) is one of a very few institutions of higher learning in the United States to have their tuition set not by the University Trustees or Administrators but rather by a legislative body. Traditionally every 5 or so years when the state legislature bothers to think about it, lawmakers review tuition and vote to increase it as a function of inflation or other economic pressures. This occurred last year during the academic year, the legislature voted to increase tuition midway through the year. This caused students who had budgeted for tuition some duress – but this was not the real crime of the bill. Instead the real crime of the bill was that the increase in tuition did NOT go to the SUNY system, but instead went to the state’s general fund. Students were not paying for education, they were paying to cover other expenses the state had incurred.

Let me say this again. The legislature increased tuition to pay for other programs. The legislature taxed students to pay for their pork. Why? Because lawmakers are terrified to increase taxes to pay for the programs they fund. Instead they increase fees at state agencies (e.g. vehicle registration, recreational fishing permits) and pocket the money to pay for other projects. Brilliant!

So SUNY came up with a plan that they hope to convince lawmakers and the governor of. Allow SUNY trustees to set tuition and keep the tuition inside of SUNY for distribution. Some campuses could have a higher tuition, and some campuses could have a lower tuition based on what services they provide and the level of education granted. What do lawmakers like State Assemblyman Fred Thiele think of this plan?

The second problem is that the campus is caught in what Thiele called “Albany politics.”

The state university system, he said, wants to offer different tuition rates at different schools, and it wants to set those rates without any oversight.

“The legislature is leery of that,” said Thiele.

Of course the legislature is leery of that! How else will they continue to pass along their increased spending to taxpayers without actually doing the politically unpopular, but responsible action of raising taxes. Responsibility, that is something the legislature is truly leery of. Instead they just pass the expense onto college students.

The closure of Southampton Campus is expected to save Stony Brook $6 million annually. If SUNY had been able to use the funds generated by increasing tuition, would this closure be necessary? Enrollment at Southampton is up – way up – perhaps with the funds from the tuition increase the State could have kept Southampton open long enough to build up a program that could break even. Instead $55 million that has been spent improving the campus is going to waste.

So Fred Thiele, instead of blaming others, take action. Vote to keep all tuition money paid by students in the SUNY system. Then vote to make sure in the future lawmakers can’t steal from the SUNY cookie jar again, allow trustees to set tuition levels. Lastly, take responsibility to the fact that it is policy enacted under your watch that caused Southampton to be closed. Don’t pass the buck.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why So Hot, So Soon?

It happens every spring. Early in the season, before the trees have grown leaves and the flowers in bloom, there is always a hot dry day. Temperatures push 90 in the New York Metro region, perhaps a week or two after a cool, damp day where the temperatures don’t get out of the 40’s. For us this year, it was yesterday Wednesday April 7. The map below shows temperatures at 4pm yesterday:

Newark and Hartford have exceeded 90 and unofficial reports from Orange County suggested temperatures of 94! But why and how? Well it has to do with trees, or in this case a lack there of.

Trees do two things that tend to reduce surface temperatures, first they reflect radiation and shade the surface and secondly they are a driver in evapo-transpiration. Let me explain.

Trees, when they have leaves and are photosynthesizing, draw moisture out of the soil and release it to the atmosphere when their stomata are open and they are pulling in CO2 (go-go introduction to biology!). In effect they act to moisten atmosphere when the sun is up. In much of the solar radiation (sunlight) that would go into heating the surface instead heats the water in the atmosphere. This is the same reason that the deserts in northern Africa are hotter than the rainforests at the equator, even though the rainforests receive more sunlight. Overall trees keep temperatures down, and increase the humidity.

So if we had had Tuesday’s weather, sometime in May when the trees were fully deployed – temperatures would have been much milder, perhaps with highs in the lower 80’s - even the sun being higher and stronger in the sky!

Another interesting effect to note on the above temperature map is the influence of the cold ocean on air temperatures. With water temperatures still below 50 in many places, when the wind blows off the ocean it acts to cool costal locations. That is why Long Island showed temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s while Newark burned up in the 90’s.

Interesting weather day in the New York Metro Region.