A growing movement against austerity
Brooklyn College accounting major Fay Yanofsky was nearly a minute and a half through her allotted three minutes to testify before the CUNY Board of Trustees (BOT)during a hearing December 9 at Lehman College when she decided to yield her time to the board itself. She asked the members of the board and members of the CUNY administration to volunteer their thoughts on how CUNY students, already facing economic precarity in their daily lives, are expected to come up with the money to cover the $320 increase in tuition hikes and a new $60 wellness fee the board is proposing.
Not a word came from the officials on stage, as is their rule.
“Absolute silence,” one attendee yelled.
“The silence is deafening,” said another.
Then the final countdown of the allotted time began from the crowd.
“Three, two, one,” many chanted, punctuating the end with a buzzer sound.
Yanofsky, who serves as vice chair for fiscal affairs in the University Student Senate, joined dozens of other CUNY students, as well as PSC President Barbara Bowen and other PSC members, responding to the CUNY BOT’s budget request that once again saddles students with a $200 tuition hike and an unprecedented $60-per-semester wellness fee to cover mental health services.
As this newspaper went to press, PSC members had returned from an intense two-day lobbying trip to Albany, where members told lawmakers that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget falls far short of what CUNY needs. This spring, PSC members are taking part in a multifaceted campaign – one with campus actions, social media outreach, lobbying in Albany and building coalitions with students – to say that the state cannot continue its policy of underfunding CUNY.
Members have highlighted how the new wellness fee, while perhaps intended to meet the need for more mental health services on CUNY campuses, only added to students’ anxiety and financial problems. They are also showing lawmakers how the poverty budget for CUNY has resulted in campus buildings falling apart and cuts to essential campuses services. At senior colleges in particular, members are telling lawmakers how the tight budgets have forced administrations to make cuts that negatively affect faculty, staff and students alike.
The focus of the union at this moment is on Albany, and PSC members will visit the State Legislature throughout the month of February. Members are also reaching out to their elected officials at their Downstate offices. The next few weeks are a critical time for the PSC to make the case to the State Legislature, which in the last year made has major progress on a range of social issues, to take the next step and challenge the governor’s austerity budget proposal. At press time, the so-called annual “budget dance” at the city and state levels was just beginning. At the state level, Cuomo’s budget proposal – one he said aimed to address a “looming $6.1 billion deficit,” according to the New York Post – included $14 billion to improve and maintain both SUNY and CUNY buildings, but even that came with a catch.
As the New York Post reported, “New York’s public colleges will be required to raise millions of dollars in matching funds as a condition of obtaining state aid to renovate or build new facilities under a sweeping new proposal advanced in Cuomo’s 2021 budget plan. Cuomo’s ‘2:1 strategic capital matching program’ would require CUNY and SUNY’s four-year campuses to pay one-third of their current and future capital construction costs… The language in Cuomo’s capital spending bill would even force CUNY and SUNY colleges to pick up one-third of the cost for construction projects before the new fiscal year kicks in April 1.”
The union considers this a form of privatization that increases inequality between campuses.
And the overall increase from the state to CUNY’s senior colleges is, under the governor’s proposal, a mere 1.7%, a pittance compared to what the PSC and others say is needed.
PSC Legislative Chair Mike Fabricant said, “Public higher education in the state and particularly CUNY is suffering because of historic underfunding. This year is not different; we need to reverse course. The state and city must make investments in CUNY that are long overdue. An important beginning is to fill the ‘TAP gap’, pay for a tuition freeze and invest in mental health counselors.”
The city has already indicated a reduction in spending in the mayor’s proposed budget. As the New York Times reported, City Hall “released a $95.3 billion budget proposal that called for a 2.7% increase – the smallest percentage increase in his six years in office.” It continued, “Even though city revenues are expected to be strong, the mayor said that the state’s projected $6 billion deficit could loom large over New York City, and that the state could cut its funding to the city, or ask the city to increase its share of payments for things like the subway.”
The proposed city budget fully funds the PSC contract.
The PSC and other progressives in the state are mobilizing this spring to push for legislative changes to increase revenue to the state in order to fund higher education. One state assemblyman has proposed doubling the state beer tax to fund CUNY and SUNY. It’s a good start, advocates said, but the coalition needs to push for more to transfer wealth from the wealthiest to in-need state and city public institutions.
The campaign to pressure the state, city and CUNY officials to face the chronic problem of CUNY underfunding is already well underway. At a rally outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown Manhattan office December 5, three-dozen students and union members protested the governor’s annual practice of proposing cuts to CUNY opportunity programs like CSTEP (Collegiate Science & Technology Entry Program), ASAP (a proposed $2.5 million cut last year), SEEK (a proposed $4.68 million cut last year), College Discovery (proposed a nearly $250 thousand dollar cut last year) and others. Brooke Smith, a SEEK student at Medgar Evers College, told Clarion, “Every year we have to go to Albany to put a face [on these programs].”
These cuts were ultimately averted.
There is a coalition fighting for the fair funding of CUNY. In December, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams issued a report calling for increased funding from both the state and the city. (He said the latter should kick in an extra $108.2 million and take on a greater share of funding responsibility for the senior colleges.) Williams cited that the per-student funding at CUNY had decreased 18% between 2008 and 2017 when adjusted for inflation.
In December, Williams toured York College with student activists to inspect the disrepair on campus. He passed by a dining facility that has been closed since last Spring semester, spoke to Muslim students who didn’t have a proper prayer space, and was informed that the main performance arts facility was closed due to mold problems.
But what really shocked Williams – himself a Brooklyn College graduate – was the fact that academic departments had approached the York College student government for critical funding because their yearly allocations had fallen short of what faculty believed was needed.
“The student government is a stopgap for a lot of things,” Williams told reporters after the tour. “That really threw me for a loop.”
While calling on the city and state to kick in more funding for CUNY, he blasted the new proposed tuition hikes as well as the new $60 wellness fee. “There are always more fees upon more fees,” Williams said. “Sixty dollars is a lot of money if you don’t have it.”
PSC members around the CUNY system have engaged in similar forms of activism. At Hostos Community College, activists hung up photos showing building deterioration on campus on clotheslines, where students passing could also leave notes about problems they face at the college. Last semester, members at Queens and the College of Staten Island held town halls where faculty and staff could hear from one another about the budget cuts they were facing.
The CUNY Rising Alliance (CRA) also held a series of events with students, faculty, lawmakers and their representatives where people spoke openly about the problems facing CUNY and what to do about them.
“We learned how little pressure legislators feel about supporting CUNY,” Jennifer Gaboury, a Hunter professor of gender studies and political science, said at one such meeting at her campus December 4. “That is what needs to be changed,” she said, adding that this would require mobilizing faculty, alumni and students.
“The city and state need to know what students are dealing with daily,” said CUNY Rising Alliance organizer Jamell Henderson, an adjunct political science instructor at Brooklyn College. “There are professors now teaching classes in extremely cold places. Some are still in trailers,” he told the meeting, as well as science labs “one wind away from falling down.”
Gaboury said that the lack of mental health services was “a huge issue,” and Santana Alvarado, a Hunter senior and New York Public Interest Research Group member, quipped that between CUNY cuts and the rising costs of going to school, she was pursuing a “degree in anxiety.”
For the next few months, the union will be engaging in a variety of actions to pressure the city and state into committing to fully funding CUNY. There was a lobbying trip to Albany on February 3 and another is scheduled for February 27. The union will intensely lobby legislators with the message that the state must invest in public higher education and end the austerity regime. There will be more rallies and more opportunities to testify to the need for the full funding of CUNY.
PSC President Barbara Bowen said, “Restoration of a progressive tax structure in this rich state is the only way to generate the revenue needed to fund public schools, universities and hospitals as they should be – and could be – funded. New York could easily have well-funded public schools, colleges and hospitals; the majority of state lawmakers have consistently made the decision not to do so. One of our challenges as unionists and academics is not to allow ourselves to be mesmerized by the drumbeat of messages about how full funding is unrealistic or utopian. It’s not.”
TAX THE RICH
Bowen continued, “The only reason we have the current ‘millionaires’ tax’ in New York State is that in 2009, in the wake of a recession, coalitions like the revenue coalition this year built the power to push it through. The PSC was an active member of that 2009 coalition and we are an active member of the coalition this year. What’s different this year is that the state is facing a $6 billion deficit, and pressure for increasing revenue is growing. Changing the tax structure – and thus defeating the ruling class interests it serves – will take a combination of urgent, detailed policy work and unrelenting, disruptive public pressure. The PSC is involved in both.”
Bowen noted that the union is working closely with other advocates like CUNY Rising in order to intensely focus on building a more robust funding agenda for higher education. Union members are encouraged to keep checking with the union online about upcoming actions and other ways to participate in the campaign.
“We will also show how every PSC member can participate in the budget fight,” she said. “The planned, deliberate impoverishment of CUNY can be stopped. It will take all of us to do it.”