PSC President James Davis speaks at the union’s December 2 demonstration. (Credit: Erik McGregor)
We need a fundamental shift in how New York funds public higher education. Governor Kathy Hochul seemed to recognize this when she took office. Announcing her first executive budget nearly two years ago, she pledged $1.5 billion in new state operating aid to SUNY and CUNY over the next five years. She committed to reforming TAP, the Tuition Assistance Program. Why did she do that? It was because you, the members of this union, along with students and alumni and allies, had been agitating and educating the public and the legislature for years.
This union, our students, alumni and allies have been calling out the failure of public funding, the practice of racialized austerity, and the policy of planned starvation of an institution that serves New York’s working class, communities of color and immigrant communities, many students the first in their families to attend college. You named that problem – that systemic insult – and made it vivid and inescapable. And you said another way is possible.
You saw an opportunity when the previous governor left office, disgraced, to usher in a new vision for CUNY and the students we serve. A CUNY without falling ceiling tiles and busted drinking fountains, where the library and the food pantry stay open, where the offices supporting our students are fully staffed, where the faculty have job security and decent wages. Together you pushed into that moment, and our legislators felt your groundswell of support, and they pushed too, further than the executive budget.
The result was hundreds of millions of dollars in new operating aid to CUNY, more than $1 billion in capital funding, expansion of TAP for part-time students and, finally, the money to close the TAP gap, which had decimated college budgets. Yes, New York State did that, but you made it happen.
But last year, CUNY didn’t fare quite as well in the state budget. There was talk of a recession; there were other urgent needs. This year we know that we cannot allow our elected officials to let up, so we cannot let up. The state and city are projecting major budget deficits ahead. That cannot become an excuse not to pass the New Deal for CUNY. That cannot become an excuse not to fully fund a great contract for the PSC members who make this university run. We cannot let up because letting up means letting our students down. Letting up means letting their children and our children down, the CUNY students of tomorrow.
That could mean making some people uncomfortable. The governor has said she doesn’t want to raise taxes. Well, that’s not acceptable. Not in a state with 135 billionaires (who are not leaving New York as it turns out), and with Wall Street taking in huge profits. Not when The New York Times is running headlines that say “New York Is Rebounding for the Rich. Nearly Everyone Else Is Struggling”; that’s a testament to massive inequality. The island we’re standing on has the awful distinction of having the largest income gap of any large county in the nation. How is it that this city has recovered nearly all the jobs lost during the pandemic, but so many New Yorkers, including CUNY workers, barely make ends meet? Our city and our state are riven by extreme, racialized inequality.
So how about this? Instead of prioritizing the desires of large corporations, the ultra-rich, and the real-estate developers; instead of blaming asylum seekers; instead of pitting working-class people against one another, isn’t it time to raise revenue by making everyone pay their fair share?
THE REAL QUESTION
The question can no longer be: How can we afford to fund CUNY? How can we afford a strong and just labor contract for CUNY workers? The real question is: How can we afford to forgo a capital gains tax that yields $12 billion in annual revenue, $7 billion in annual revenue from corporate tax reform or the inheritance tax and the billionaire’s tax? These are not figments of our imagination – each proposal has a bill number in the legislature today. How can we afford to continue letting two of the largest real-estate holders in the city – Columbia University and New York University – use their non-profit status to avoid paying property taxes? That too should be on the table. The answer is we cannot afford this level of punishing inequality and concentration of wealth, and we certainly can afford to fund CUNY.
Defunding CUNY has long been the goal of the right wing, because of who students are, and what they think this population deserves or doesn’t deserve. CUNY is an extraordinary institution that supports everyone. Our alumni are in every community and career across the state, including legislative leaders – public advocate, assembly members and senators, even the attorney general and mayor. But the right wing has sought to defund CUNY for as long as most of us can remember.
They decry waste, inefficiency or overpaid intellectual elites. And now the same “culture warriors” that have placed a right-wing target on the backs of our K-12 colleagues are threatening public higher education, too. The same scare tactics about Critical Race Theory, “indoctrination,” “anti-parent” and “anti-American” teaching are being used to come after university funding, looking to discredit what we do.
While we seek to open up discussion and debate, they seek to close it down. While we seek to foster critical thinking and to allow the unrivaled diversity of our student body and the intellectual diversity of our faculty to challenge received wisdom, they seek to curtail our academic freedom, the lifeblood of a public university in a free society. This is why we need the New Deal for CUNY. We need a transformative investment that puts the full funding of the nation’s largest public urban university beyond reproach and beyond doubt.
Together, we have made strides toward the New Deal for CUNY, but much is left to do. We have not prevailed yet on adding the thousands of new full-time faculty that our students need, but our efforts led to over 500 such hires in the past two years alone, many of them from the ranks of our adjunct faculty. We have not yet won a return to free tuition, but our efforts succeeded in blocking tuition hikes at CUNY last year, even as they were imposed at SUNY. We have not yet prevailed on hiring all of the academic advisors and mental health counselors that our students deserve, or the full funding packages that our doctoral students need, or the resources to repair and maintain our facilities. But together we have made progress toward the New Deal for CUNY.
The union has also been engaged at the bargaining table. What are we fighting for? Real raises and equity for our lowest-paid titles. Support for research, professional development and promotional opportunities. Flexible schedules and remote work options. Badly needed health and safety protections. Paths to job security instead of radical contingency.
CUNY management has a different vision: a stripped-down, hollowed-out university. A university with more insecurity and precariousness, more opportunities for exploiting a staff that is already overworked and a faculty that is already underpaid.
Their approach is a betrayal of the values expressed in the administration’s own “strategic road map.” They claim to be “creating a student-centered, equity-driven university,” but management’s demands undermine that goal. They claim to be “catalyzing upward mobility and prosperity,” but management’s demands impede the upward mobility and prosperity of their own employees. They claim to be “nurturing and renewing the academic core of the university,” but we are the academic core. Do you feel nurtured and renewed by management’s contract demands? Neither do I.
CUNY: PSC members pulled this university through the pandemic. Now our programs and departments are being cut to the bone. It’s time to make good on your end: Put an economic offer on the table. Go to the governor, go to the mayor, and get us the funding we need for the university – and the funding and contract that we deserve.
A version of these remarks was delivered at the December 2 demonstration in Midtown Manhattan.
Published: December 21, 2023