Clarion Masthead

Mobilizing against CUNY budget cuts

A major campaign for the union

At a breakfast forum on the fourth floor of the Queens College student union in late September, Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez was on a panel speaking about the role technology and business play in higher education.

David Gerwin, PSC chair for Queens College, questioned the chancellor on his school’s budget cuts.
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David Gerwin, PSC Queens College chapter chair, stood up toward the end and pointed to the dire budget cuts affecting faculty, staff and students at the college, where Matos Rodríguez had been president until becoming CUNY’s chancellor in May. Specifically, Gerwin pointed to the looming cut of 800 seats in introductory English classes out of 1,200 seats slated for the Spring semester. The way Gerwin saw it, English classes were going to be awarded to students in a lottery process where only the lucky ones could be assured access to their required courses.

“We’re out there lobbying for more investment,” Matos Rodríguez responded, alluding to the issue of state funding for CUNY. “We all know about the public good that we do… We need to be more effective at telling that story so that electeds get it.”

GETTING FUNDING

While he added that “you have my commitment to do that,” the chancellor made it clear that he wasn’t talking solely about the PSC’s key budget demand, which is that the state must address its systematic underfunding of CUNY. The chancellor underscored the need for more philanthropy, including fundraising that goes beyond the regular alumni outreach.

Gerwin was unmoved. The college’s planned budget cuts are broader than the situation in the English department, and the cuts, if enacted, would mean laying off adjuncts. He noted there are cuts scheduled for other departments, there is currently no director of counseling services, no director of the tutoring center, no registrar and no director of graduate admissions. The counseling center staff was reduced from seven full-timers to four.

After the event, speaking to Clarion, Gerwin invoked the crusade by New York City Transit Chief Andy Byford, who implored the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors to demand a specific number for a budget increase to meet the demands for the subways and buses. The CUNY chancellor, Gerwin said, wasn’t doing that.

“It falls short,” he said. “Telling us we need to be advocates? He should stand up.”

Gerwin was part of a chapter-wide demonstration at the breakfast to bring the scheduled budget cuts to the attention of the chancellor and the wider community.

Urban studies adjunct instructor Erin Lilli said her department has taken a 15-percent budget cut and cost reductions hurt the most vulnerable: part-time faculty who lose classes (which means a loss in pay and, potentially, their health coverage) and students who do not get the education they deserve. “It’s sending the message to students: The university doesn’t care about you,” Lilli said.

Julie George, an assistant professor of political science, agreed, telling chapter members, “If you have to balance the budget on adjunct salaries, you’ve gone so far that you’ve ceased to be an institution of higher education.”

In at least one extreme case, the budget for the Irish studies program, the oldest of its kind in the country, was reduced by 100 percent. The chair, Sarah Covington, said that in the past she had received a small budget to hire adjuncts, but now she must go “hat in hand” to the administration for money for new courses.

“The administration said to raise outside money, but we have no secretary, no space, nothing,” said Covington, a historian. “It’s frustrating because we’ve done a lot of innovative work. We had a program on marriage equality in Ireland, we had a conference on the abortion referendum that was covered in the press, we have a massive oral history project.”

ZERO DOLLARS

The cut does not necessarily mean the death of the program – Covington can still raise money independently to hire instructors. But she fears that this may signal the end. The program has always been small, but the cut to zero was demoralizing, she said, and the pain went beyond the school, as the program had served as a resource for the local Irish-American community.

“The administration doesn’t care,” she said. “The classes we have will fold into history and English. It’s going to die. They clearly don’t want it.”

As Queens chapter members told Clarion, the college’s administration has not replaced some professional staff who have resigned or retired, forcing HEOs in those offices to perform work they were not trained for. HEOs in these offices are often assigned to work beyond their 35-hour-per-week limit and complain that they are not fully compensated for the extra time. The members noted that when the registrar left the position, formerly a full-HEO position, the work was distributed to assistant to HEO staffers.

Queens College is not alone. Budget cuts are a problem throughout CUNY, especially at the senior colleges, which receive funding from the state. PSC activists have noted all fall that senior college administrations were instructed to look for cuts of at least 2 percent to their budgets this year. PSC leaders challenged the assertion by some CUNY presidents that the budget cuts were necessary to fund the anticipated raises in the PSC contract. “The root problem is the policy decision by Albany not to fund normal annual cost increases at CUNY – inflationary increases, rent and electricity increases, collective bargaining,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen.

At Brooklyn College, James Davis, the PSC chapter chair, told Clarion, “Adjunct budgets have been reduced for academic departments, chairs in some departments have been asked to ‘increase class size’ and sections that show low enrollment as the semester approaches have been cancelled, combined with another section of the same course or ‘converted’ into an independent study, sometimes within a week of the semester’s start.”

Davis, who also serves as a senior college officer on the PSC executive council, added, “The pace at which full-timers are leaving or retiring continues to surpass the rate at which new full-time faculty are hired” and “despite steady undergraduate enrollment, key student support offices – academic advisement, bursar, financial aid, registrar – are understaffed.”

SAFETY ISSUES

Albert Sherman, chair of the PSC College Laboratory Technician chapter, reported that at his home campus, City Tech, part-time CLT hours have been cut dramatically. Sherman noted these cuts were also a student safety issue: complicated, dangerous machinery is not getting the required worker attention.

At the College of Staten Island, Carol Hartman, a biology lecturer, paints an equally dire picture: broken microscopes not being replaced or fixed, printers without paper and six full-time faculty members have left in the last few years and not one has been replaced.

“We’re not getting supplies for the students: in biology we need reagents, we need live material and we’re not getting it,” she said. “I’ve been here 21 years and it’s worse than it’s ever been.”

City College’s administration also promised its workforce a fair degree of belt tightening in a briefing delivered to its faculty senate this fall. At the main campus the ongoing deficit will “require additional reductions.” And “continued cost control measures must remain in place” and the report said that a “hiring freeze must continue.”

CUNY faculty and staff have been long acquainted with inadequate public funding, and they are used to being told to “do more with less”. But the consensus among PSC activists around the four-year colleges is that the intensity of the budget cuts is more severe than it has been in years past. “This is crossing a line,” Gerwin said right after his interaction with the chancellor, saying that the cuts dramatically alter the pedagogical experiences future students will have as compared to their predecessors. “It really changes what it means to be a student here.”

President Barbara Bowen has told members that the fight for a fair budget will be a major focus for the union in this academic year. She wrote in a message to members: “The claim made by some college presidents that tuition must be raised to cover contractual increases is divisive and false. The reason for budget shortfalls at CUNY is systemic underfunding, not our contractual increases.” She added that the newly ratified contract, particularly the provision for paid office hours by adjuncts, will drive tens of millions of dollars in additional funding into the colleges from both the city and the state. Bowen told Clarion that she believes the union can build on the momentum of the additional public investment represented by the contract to tackle the biggest problems of underfunding.

A NEW DEAL

The union’s first vice president, Andrea Vásquez, pressed the case for more funding to the State Senate’s Higher Education Committee during a hearing at Brooklyn College in September.

“There is money to support the vision of a New Deal for CUNY,” she said in her testimony. “It would take a small portion of the state’s $175 billion budget. There is money to be had by passing tax reforms that make the rich and corporations pay higher taxes. The governor has the power to set spending and revenue limits in the budget, but the legislature can and has negotiated for more progressive taxation and critical investments.”

She continued, “The legislature showed last year that laws once thought impossible to change can be rewritten, that provisions once assumed outside of New York’s reach can now become law. In the Senate, you passed progressive legislation last year with the alacrity of a new majority. The PSC urges you to attack the funding crisis at CUNY this year with the same urgency. We ask you to approach the problems of affordability and access with the same ambition and imagination. And we urge you to get started today.”