PSC briefs lawmakers
The way State Assembly Higher Education Chair Deborah Glick described it, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s opposition to signing the “maintenance of effort” bill for public higher education was a form of bureaucratic redirection – he has refused to sign this funding stream for CUNY and SUNY each time it’s passed and then continued to underfund the systems in the general budget. “The governor says, ‘This should be taken up during the budget,’ but then he doesn’t discuss it in the budget,” she said.
Glick, a Manhattan Democrat, was speaking to several of her fellow state lawmakers – some new to Albany, some not – as well as aides during a meeting at the PSC in December to discuss priorities for funding CUNY. PSC President Barbara Bowen painted a bleak picture in her urgent appeal for legislative action to fund CUNY. Overcrowded classrooms with not enough seats. Students unable to enroll in the classes they need to graduate. Low-wage adjunct instructors replacing full-time staff. Rising tuition as CUNY buildings deteriorate. And all this happens while CUNY goes relatively unnoticed in the plethora of priorities in Albany.
“Funding for higher education should be on the list of ‘must-haves,’” Bowen said. “CUNY is often overlooked in the city. We’re letting CUNY spiral into a deficit budget and that’s not fair.”
The problem is especially dire at the senior colleges. While the two-year campuses are funded by the city, the senior colleges have fallen victim to decades of underfunding by Albany, Bowen said. She added that more funding was necessary for CUNY just to keep up with its day-to-day responsibilities, saying, “This isn’t about growth or repair. This is just about the steady state. Students’ tuition increases are being used just to keep the lights on.”
CUNY student enrollment has ballooned since 2000, Bowen told lawmakers and aides, but this has come at the expense of rising tuition and a proliferation of underpaid labor, an austerity regime for a university that serves mostly working-class communities and communities of color.
A BRIGHT YEAR
The PSC hopes that 2019 brings a chance to make some improvements. The Democrats took majority control of the State Senate this year, with the help of PSC members across the city in the elections last year, giving the Democrats complete control of the state legislature. And with new progressive Democrats coming into both houses, there’s hope of forcing Albany to address austerity at CUNY. “This is a year in which the structural problem needs to change,” Bowen said.
Part of that change in the Senate means a new set of progressives chairing committees that are important for advancing PSC’s interest. Long-time PSC ally State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, whose district includes Queens College, now chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. At the helm of the Senate’s Labor Committee is State Senator Jessica Ramos, whose previous labor experience comes from jobs with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ and Social Service Employees Union Local 371 (District Council 37/AFSCME). On the topic of pushing for a state budget that includes increased funding for the next PSC-CUNY contract, Ramos said in an interview that access to college needs to be treated as an inalienable right.
“As the incoming majority we definitely feel that higher education is a right and not a privilege, and that will hopefully manifest in a budget that is reflective of our values,” Ramos said. “CUNY and SUNY have been largely defunded for a very long time, just like the MTA…. Traditionally, governors see these institutions as places you can penny-pinch, but in reality, public education and transportation, these are things that every New Yorker has an inherent right to access. So I think that’ll be something we’ll be conveying to the governor in a very rowdy way.”
And in only the first month of a new Democratic-controlled state legislature, there have already been victories for CUNY advocates’ agenda. Albany lawmakers passed the state version of the DREAM Act, which frees up tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants in New York who were brought to the country as children. The law will allow those immigrants to attain college tuition aid if they attended a high school in New York State.
“Passage of the DREAM Act, at the same moment when the administration in Washington is doing its utmost to criminalize young immigrants and violate international law on asylum, sends a strong message about how New York values immigrants and public higher education,” Bowen said in a statement.
Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, whose district includes Brooklyn College, said during the event at the PSC that CUNY advocates could point to the enormous subsidies the state and city have offered to Amazon for putting its next headquarters in Queens and use that as rationale to fund underfunded public institutions like CUNY.
“Look at the billions we’re spending, CUNY is a drop in the bucket,” she said. “We can build this narrative.”
Also in attendance at the PSC meeting were State Senators Robert Jackson and John Liu, both of whom defeated Democrats who caucused with Senate Republicans – thereby robbing the Democrats of majority control of the upper chamber – in their respective primaries last year.
The PSC is one of many advocates around the state who need more funding for their respective institutions. But the union believes that the injustice of underfunding at CUNY will attract special attention.
“There’s an expectation that our students will pick up the difference,” PSC Legislative Chair Mike Fabricant. “[Tuition increases] create a unique situation and differentiates CUNY from other public agencies.”
The PSC will be campaigning for the best budget possible through the state’s April 1 deadline. On February 12 the PSC and its state-level affiliate, the New York State United Teachers, will lead a higher education lobby day in Albany. As there will be no CUNY classes that day – it is Lincoln’s Birthday – faculty will be free to attend and staff will not have to use leave time to participate. More than 60 union members will be meeting with legislators. A large rally of CUNY and SUNY advocates is also planned.