BY HANK REICHMAN
“CUNY is for the People” read some of the signs at a highly-charged rally outside New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s midtown office in New York City yesterday. Organized by a new and broad coalition, CUNY Rising Alliance, the rally kicked off a community-based campaign to demand increased public investment in the City University of New York, CUNY. The campaign comes in the wake of Cuomo’s controversial proposal to shift a third of CUNY’s costs — about a half billion dollars — from the state to the City of New York. The CUNY Administration called the proposal a “crushing” cut that would increase tuition by 50%. CUNY’s professors and staff have not had a raise for over six years, and now its students are facing a jaw-dropping tuition hike.
CUNY as an institution is doing such obvious good, especially in an era of growing inequality and hardening class lines, that it’s hard to understand why anyone who isn’t the hardest of hard-line conservatives would want to undermine it.
CUNY has long been a powerful engine of social mobility; my father, the son of penniless immigrants, went to Brooklyn College, which gave him opportunities he could never have found otherwise. And it’s still playing that role. If you look at the student body today, you see a portrait of the American dream in action: hundreds of thousands of students, roughly 40 percent of whom are their family’s first generation in college, come from households with income less than $20,000, or both, all getting an affordable education that leaves them far less burdened by debt than all too many of their contemporaries.
We need more of this kind of thing — much more — not savage budget cuts that are driven by no fiscal imperative I can see.
Don’t do this, Mr. Governor.
I share Krugman’s concern. Not only are my colleagues in the California State University system fighting a similar battle, but my father, the son of an immigrant cigar maker, attended City College in the 1930s. My mother, whose father lost his business in the Great Depression, attended Hunter College. Without those two institutions my parents would have been unable to provide me with the education and comfortable upbringing I received and I surely would never have become a professor.
Cuomo has said he will work with the city to find efficiencies at CUNY and has promised the change “won’t cost New York City a penny.”
Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said that “the express focus of the governor’s plan is to direct additional resources to the classroom and faculty by finding ways to reduce bureaucratic costs and consolidate back office functions. There is no scenario in which this plan would adversely impact CUNY students and to suggest otherwise is simply untruthful.”
Writing in the Village Voice, Nick Pinto expressed the widely held skepticism of this explanation:
Cuomo is careful not to describe the gaping $485 million hole he’s carving out of CUNY as a cut. (CUNY chancellor James Milliken’s dance around that word in his budget testimony last month was a masterly demonstration of the dark linguistic arts.) Rather, Cuomo frames the butchery as an accounting matter, shifting greater responsibility for the university system away from the state and onto New York City. There are historical problems with Cuomo’s rationale for this shift, but the evidence of his bad faith is plain: City officials say they didn’t even learn of the plan until just before the governor announced it in his budget address. . . .
As the blowback against Cuomo’s CUNY shell game mounts, the governor has attempted to finesse his position. The cut in state funding won’t affect students at all or even affect the city budget, he argued. The savings would come instead by trimming the fat from the system’s administrative costs. (One might ask whether the governor has an analysis of these administrative inefficiencies and a plan to address them. To date, he does not.) In an especially cynical maneuver, Cuomo has suggested that some of the money the state saved with his plan could go toward covering retroactive raises owed to CUNY faculty, effectively pitting the obligation to pay educators what they deserve against adequate funding for the schools where they work.
Senate Democrats have come out against Cuomo’s proposal, although Cuomo too is a Democrat. “This conference opposes the executive budget language providing for a so-called CUNY funding shift, which places responsibility for 30% ($485 million) of Senior College funding on the City of New York,” the Senate Dems said in a letter sent to the governor and legislative leaders. They are also calling for a “substantive maintenance of effort” that prohibits the state from cutting funds for CUNY and SUNY, calling it “essential for the future of both institutions.”
And yesterday, the Democrats in the state Assembly announced their rejection of the proposal, calling instead for a two-year freeze on tuition. “The Assembly Majority has always believed that investing in our children’s academic success is the best investment we can make for the future of New York’s families and communities,” Assembly speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. “This year, we strengthen our promise to ensure that an affordable college education is within reach of every student and family in our state.”
Almost a half-million students, mostly from low-income and working families, immigrants and people of color, depend on CUNY for a quality education. But per-student State funding for CUNY has fallen under Cuomo, tuition has gone up year after year, and the State has failed to fund contracts for the University’s 35,000 professors and staff. If CUNY funding had grown at pace with the State budget, the system would have $637 million more in funding today, according to NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.
“This whole process is really worrying to us as students,” says Chika Onyejiukwa, a junior from Jamaica, Queens, studying public health at Hunter and the vice chair for legislative affairs for CUNY’s student representative body. “We feel like we’re part of a political game that Cuomo is playing with the city. The state should be investing more in our education, not threatening to cut it.”
According to the website of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY), an AAUP and AFT affiliate that represents faculty and staff at all CUNY campuses,
The CUNY Rising Alliance, which includes the Hispanic Federation and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Make the Road NY, Working Families Party, the New York City Central Labor Council and many other groups, is calling for investments in CUNY instead of cuts. Their CUNY Rising Platform for Change calls for a tuition freeze this year and a return to free tuition for CUNY in the future. It rejects the governor’s scheme to cut State funding by a half-billion dollars and shift 30% of the cost of CUNY four-year colleges on to New York City, and it calls for State funding to resolve CUNY’s long-expired union contracts, so the University can hire and keep the faculty and staff its student need. Financial aid reforms, changes to CUNY admissions policies and infrastructure fixes are also demands of CUNY Rising.
The groups delivered their platform to the Governor’s office during the rally, and then marched to the nearby Community Church of New York to discuss next steps in their campaign. The Alliance is moving quickly to mobilize its constituents. Direct pressure on the governor and legislators, social media campaigns, outreach to churches and other community groups, citizen lobbing, door-knocking and further demonstrations are all potentially part of the immediate campaign. But the coalition plans to build CUNY’s community power for the long-term. The years of State disinvestment in CUNY won’t continue, it they can help it.
The groups said:
“An investment in CUNY is an investment in the upward mobility of New Yorkers. Education is so often the key to economic mobility and stability. When a student from the lowest income bracket earns a college degree, his or her chances of reaching the highest income bracket are quadrupled. To provide this opportunity, we must ensure our CUNY colleges are fully funded, safeguarding affordability, access, and quality,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, chief executive officer, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
“CUNY is a cornerstone of education in New York City that we cannot afford to compromise. With a Latino student body that represents the largest single group of CUNY students, Governor Cuomo’s proposed cuts to the already underfunded CUNY system threatens the future of our community. It’s time for Governor Cuomo to restore and expand funding for CUNY, and honor his commitment to ensuring that New Yorkers have access to an affordable and high-quality college education,” said Jose Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation, the nation’s leading Latino nonprofit membership organization.
“Investment in CUNY is crucial to create a path to the middle class for working families across this city. The fiscal crisis is hitting working class and communities of color the hardest, families that are already struggling to meet rising tuition costs. We should not play politics with the future of families—and invest in CUNY,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director, New York Communities for Change.
“All parents dream that their children will graduate high school and go on to college, and for the vast majority of of NYC students, especially students of color, that college will be CUNY. But with the funding cuts to CUNY that Governor Cuomo is proposing, that dream will be out of reach for many NYC families. These funding cuts will not only make college unaffordable for tens of thousands of low-income and working-class families, they will also compromise the quality of professors and programs that CUNY can offer to our children. We call on the Governor and legislature to reject these funding cuts and to increase funding to CUNY, so that public school parents like those in CEJ can continue to tell our children that if they work hard and succeed, they too can go to college,” said Natasha Capers, Coalition for Educational Justice.
“AQE’s #StandUp4Kids campaign is about ensuring the New York Legislature stands with students, not hedge fund billionaires, by allotting them the proper access, resources and opportunity for educational excellence from birth through college. Three of my daughters currently attend CUNY, so I understand first-hand the financial burden caused by continuous tuition hikes and cuts. This is an economic and racial justice issue. Instead of proposing cuts, Governor Cuomo should be investing in CUNY for the long-term. That’s why we’re standing with the #CUNYRising Alliance, to protect and ensure an affordable, high quality college education that includes resolving CUNY professors’ contract so that CUNY can retain and attract the excellent professors its students need,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for Alliance for Quality Education.
“Today’s rally and march is another reminder that we have had enough. CUNY students are rising to fight for a tuition freeze, increased public state funding, a genuine maintenance of effort, and a fair contract for our faculty and staff. Our voice is loud, clear and unified; we will not let Governor Cuomo overlook us and our university. We will continue to fight back to defend our university from draconian budget cuts. But the governor still has time to do the right thing by passing a budget that prioritize CUNY and preserves a quality and affordable higher education,” said Joseph Awadjie, chairperson of CUNY University Student Senate and CUNY trustee.
“Students call on the state legislature and Governor Cuomo to reverse its policy of shifting the cost of public college from the State to students and their families. Public colleges must remain accessible and affordable. State funding cuts and more tuition hikes will only contribute to the long and harmful trend of state divestment from public higher education,” said Claire Lynch, NYPIRG Board of Directors member and City College student.
“Students like me need Governor Cuomo to invest in CUNY so that we can afford to go to college. I will be the first woman in my family to graduate high school and to attend college, and, like so many immigrants and students of color, CUNY is my chance at a good higher education. 42% of students at CUNY are the first in their family to go to college. Going to CUNY would be a dream for me, but my family can only afford to make it come true if New York State raises the maximum Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grant and stops blocking many young people, especially immigrants, from receiving aid,” said Perla Lopez, 17-year-old youth leader from Make the Road New York.
“At City College we suffer the consequences of underfunding every day in our failing infrastructure, inadequate student services, and underpaid professors. Education is a human right, and it’s New York State’s responsibility to make a high quality, affordable education accessible to all of us,” said Riley Tinney, a member of Students for Educational Rights, Local 7 of United Students Against Sweatshops, a group fighting for educational justice at City College.
“Gov Cuomo cutting State funding for CUNY by $485 million despite a $1 billion State budget surplus is an act of violence on NYC youth,” said Daniellia “Danni” Hazell, a student at Brooklyn High School for Leadership & Community Service. Brooklyn High School for Leadership & Community Service is a transfer high school that empowers over-aged and under-credited high school students by partnering with NYC Department of Education and community organizations to provide individualized intensive academic support services.
“CUNY has been the embodiment of hope and opportunity for scores of New Yorkers. Without reasonable tuition, many of Henry Street’s young adults would be unable to afford college. Decreasing funding is nothing short of paralyzing for thousands of students—both young and old—who rely on CUNY to escape poverty and become valuable contributors to society. Governor Cuomo must unequivocally reaffirm his support of the City University of New York—an investment in CUNY is vital to the future of this great city,” said Matthew Phifer, director of education services, Henry Street Settlement.
“Governor Cuomo’s CUNY plan puts New York’s most vulnerable students on the chopping block. CUNY has served as the pathway of opportunity for millions of women and men of color. Cutting funding to an institution that has been so vital to the communities we serve is counterproductive and strips away the right to an education from thousands of people while perpetuating the growth of wealth inequality. Instead of additional cuts, New York State should increase its investments to CUNY to reverse years of underfunding and tuition hikes,” said Mindy Rosier, a member of Citizen Action.
“The 27,000 members of the PSC, the union of faculty and academic staff at CUNY, are proud to join students and community advocates in the CUNY Rising Alliance. In a cruelly unequal economy and a society still shaped by structural racism, CUNY offers the one shot at a stable life, a good life, for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. We call on Albany not to take that opportunity away. The PSC’s five-year fight for a contract is part of the fight for investment in CUNY. Failing to invest in our contract is failing to invest in CUNY students. There is no educational justice in New York, no racial justice, and no economic justice without a strong City University,” said Barbara Bowen, president, Professional Staff Congress/CUNY.
“For tens of thousands of New Yorkers, the quality of education and affordability offered by the City University of New York is a path to upward mobility. That path is now being blocked by a proposed budget that would raise CUNY tuition by $300 a year and shifts $485 million of the State’s share of CUNY funding to the City, while excluding monies for ongoing university operations. It also denies CUNY employees the $15-an-hour minimum wage hike the governor has proposed for all other public employees. This proposed budget must be amended to reverse those cuts while the governor calls on CUNY officials to negotiate a fair contract for the more than 10,000 DC 37 members who have been without a raise for close to seven years,” said DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido.
“Historically, CUNY has played a crucial role in helping to prepare New York City’s students for workplace success. Significant funding cuts threaten students’ ability to take the classes they need to prepare for the future, and these cuts also threaten the ability of faculty and staff to provide for themselves and their families. By investing in CUNY, the State would be helping to ensure that these schools are able to continue to provide excellent educational opportunities for our students. Now is the time to recommit to investing in CUNY,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
“Generations of working families in New York have relied on the educational opportunities that CUNY provides. Low- and middle-income New Yorkers are counting on Gov. Cuomo to make sure they continue to have those opportunities. We’re proud to stand with the CUNY Rising Alliance in calling on Gov. Cuomo to invest in fair funding for CUNY students and a fair contract for CUNY faculty and staff,” said Bill Lipton, state director, New York Working Families Party.
“The religious community has an important stake in protecting CUNY—giving it all the resources it needs to survive and flourish. All of our faith traditions hold education of the youth of society to be a sacred trust, a covenant with future generations. For us it is a matter of religious ethics, of social and economic justice, of a belief in the ultimate worth of every human being created in the Divine Image,” said Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg, executive director, Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition.
“Another five years of tuition increases is a back-door tax hike on low-and-middle income New Yorkers that we simply can’t afford. It’s time for a new higher education agenda in New York that prioritizes open college access and makes real investments in our university system, not a $1,500 tuition increase and a $485 million cut to CUNY,” said Kevin Stump, northeast director of Young Invincibles, a millennial advocacy and grassroots research group.
“The governor’s proposal for this year’s state budget puts CUNY in the crosshairs as never before. We should be improving quality and accessibility at CUNY and encouraging students to take advantage of our university system, not looking to cut a half billion dollars from the budget, or shift it from a state to a city responsibility, “ said David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow, Fiscal Policy Institute.