BY MARCELLA BENCIVENNI
This is a guest post by Marcella Bencivenni, associate professor of history at CUNY Hostos Community College.
The City University of New York (CUNY), the nation’s largest public urban university, has been recently the subject of several articles exposing its growing challenges: steep budget cuts, climbing enrollment and class sizes, infrastructure decay, stalling salaries for faculty and staff, increased reliance on, and exploitation of, contingent labor, diminished quality of teaching and learning, and what Benjamin Ginsberg, a Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, has polemically called “administrative blight.”
Most recently, CUNY has also been accused of ineffective management, misuse of funds, and lack of transparency and accountability, prompting William Thompson, the newly appointed Chairperson of the CUNY Board of Trustees and the former New York City comptroller, to request a comprehensive investigation of the university’s foundation funds and its financial oversights. Preliminary findings cite several examples of improper or wasteful expenditures, including use of college funds to provide executive staff members with personal benefits or bonuses, such as housing allowances of between $60,000 and $90,000 per year for college presidents, in addition to a car and driver. The report also noted that CUNY spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside lobbying firms every year, totaling since January 2013 alone over 1.6 million dollars, and that it has also spent considerable money on outside counsel for internal investigations, instead of reporting information about alleged misconduct to the Inspector General as required by state law.
As I discuss in my article “CUNY and the Erosion of Public Higher Education” published in the January–February issue of Academe, the challenges facing CUNY are far from unique. What is happening at CUNY is fairly representative of a general national crisis that has been building at public universities across the country in recent years. This crisis is not accidental: rather, it is the result of decades-long period of states’ disinvestment in public universities under neoliberal efforts to transform higher education from a system grounded in the liberal arts and intellectual inquiry—the founding ideals of the world’s great public universities—to a system modeled after corporations, focused on career paths, vocational education, and fiscal conservatism. In other words, higher education is being increasingly commodified to the benefit of a privileged few.
Universities of course are not static nor fixed. Like everything else, they evolve along with the societies they serve. Technology, for instance, is clearly transforming teaching and learning in radical ways. The student population in public higher education today is much more diverse and their needs too are as a result more diverse, requiring different pedagogical approaches and types of services. Universities are definitively becoming more complex, difficult-to-manage institutions, especially under mounting demands of quantifiable data from government and accreditors. Regulatory burdens have indeed increased exponentially, leaving schools often with no choice but to spend enormous time, energy and money on strategic planning, which in reality does little to improve either the quality of education or graduation rates.
But while there is no doubt that universities need to adjust to changing economic, social, and political realities it seems obvious that the current path of public disinvestment in public education and mounting corporatization of public universities will only lead to academic destruction, as well as increased economic and racial stratification.
Interestingly enough, since I wrote my article, both New York State Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor De Blasio have begun to announce policy initiatives to counter austerity policies and economic inequality. On January 3, 2017, in a surprising reversal of his earlier positions towards CUNY—such as his proposal to shift some $485 million in CUNY’s cost from the state to the city, his refusal to maintain basic costs for CUNY, and his reluctance to support the recently won contractual raises for CUNY Faculty and Staff—Governor Cuomo, with Senator Bernie Sanders on his side, unveiled a plan to make CUNY and SUNY colleges free to all students with a family income below $125,000.
Governor Cuomo’s change of heart clearly shows how pressure from the bottom up can help redefine the debate over public higher education. As Barbara Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s Union, put it: “At a moment when college costs are rising, student debt is out of control and Americans are wary of what the future holds, New York State can re-set the national agenda for college education by enacting a fully funded investment in free public college education for low- and middle-income students.”
The current political scenario makes it even more imperative that we renew our struggle for high quality and free education, and that we reassert universities’ historic founding mission: the pursuit of knowledge, the promotion of general education, and the dissemination of research meant to increase the well-being of all people, strengthen democracy, and produce a well-rounded, well-educated citizenry.