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Impoverishment by design

PSC President Barbara Bowen rallied with students before a Board of Trustees hearing at Lehman College in December.
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The PSC’s intense campaign to increase public funding for CUNY before the New York State budget is finalized on April 1 combines mass action with advocacy and policy analysis. PSC president Barbara Bowen was invited to testify before the State Legislature on February 4 about the union’s position on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget allocation for CUNY for the 2021 fiscal year. What follows is an edited version of her testimony; the full text can be found at the union website.


CUNY cannot withstand another year of New York State’s current funding policy. New York’s policy on CUNY funding is planned poverty, impoverishment by design. State budgets that consistently fail to cover even mandatory costs and collective bargaining increases amount to a policy of sabotaging CUNY and CUNY students. To make up for missing State funding, CUNY either cuts resources or increases tuition, or both. Neither approach is acceptable, or sustainable.

CUT AFTER CUT

Incremental cuts and flat budgets may look innocuous, but repeated year after year they add up to a policy of destroying the University. Here is a statistic you will not hear from others who testify today: on a per-student basis, State funding for CUNY senior colleges has been cut by 21 percent in the last decade.

How is a university supposed to continue to educate students when operating funds have been cut by more than a fifth? If one in five students cannot get into a class needed for graduation, if college libraries have to close one day out of five, if one in five full-time faculty positions is cut, if every advisor is responsible for hundreds more students, if buildings are dilapidated, roofs leak, rats and mold endanger the classrooms, and students have to navigate around buckets catching rainwater as they try to make their way to class?

That any state would allow – or even cause – such shortfalls is shameful, but it is especially so in New York. This state prides itself on leading the nation in progressive policy. And in many areas, it does. We celebrate the legislature’s landmark policy achievements last year. But in fiscal support for public higher education, New York is far from a progressive leader. New York is failing CUNY students.

The consequences are heaviest for those least able to bear them, and that, too, is by design. CUNY undergraduates are overwhelmingly from poor communities of color. They are 80 percent Black, Latinx or Asian. They have average family incomes of less than $30,000. They work at low-wage jobs. They raise children and support parents. They have survived under-resourced public schools, immigration, refugee status and poverty. Why does New York erect barriers to their success? That many of them manage to stay in college, thrive and graduate is testimony to their own determination and the support they receive from the faculty and staff. Whether we as a state support their college education is a measure of our policy and of our humanity. We can and we must do better.

As the PSC calls on Albany to meet its obligation to public college students, we are also calling on New York City to shoulder a higher share of the costs of CUNY’s senior colleges and on the federal government, to create a Title I appropriation for high-needs public colleges, akin to the Title I funding for public schools.

The PSC believes that New York can change its CUNY funding policy, just as you in the Legislature have led changes in other seemingly intractable policies. The 30,000 CUNY faculty and staff call on you to make this the year you reject New York’s policy of impoverishing CUNY and pass a budget that covers CUNY’s basic costs. Doing so will take new revenue and political will, but the legislature demonstrated last year that this state can overcome resistance and achieve major progressive change.

Make sure that full funding for CUNY’s essential needs is a priority in your legislative agendas and that the leaders of each house take a stand in favor of the new revenue that will be needed to achieve it. Refuse to pass a budget unless it includes new revenue from progressive taxation and covers CUNY’s basic operating costs – without raising tuition.

CUNY FUNDING NEEDS IN FISCAL YEAR 2021

The PSC is requesting $208 million more for CUNY senior colleges and $24.6 million more for CUNY community colleges in next year’s State budget. The funding is needed to cover mandatory cost increases, including collective bargaining increases, to close the TAP Gap, to add vitally needed full-time faculty and counselor positions, and to increase community college base aid.

The current funding model for the senior colleges is not sustainable. Before 2011, State funding cuts to CUNY and SUNY were sporadic and deep and were accompanied by large tuition increases. Now the tuition hikes come every year, and the underfunding is normalized, built into the funding model. The disinvestment may be less obvious, but it is no less intense.

CUNY senior colleges face shortages of supplies and equipment, reduced course offerings, limited hours for writing and tutoring centers, reduced hours for libraries. Faculty and staff positions are being left unfilled. Adjunct budgets have been reduced for academic departments throughout CUNY, department chairs in some departments have been asked to increase class size, and fully enrolled course sections have been cancelled. Students are directly affected.

CUNY needs to accelerate its hiring, not freeze it. There is only one mental health counselor at CUNY for every 2,700 students. The nationally recommended ratio is 1: 1,000. There are 4,000 fewer full-time faculty today than when CUNY served fewer students. In 1975, CUNY had 11,500 full-time faculty and 250,000 students. Today, it has 7,500 full-time faculty and 274,000 students. Without its reliance on underpaid adjuncts, CUNY would have had to close more than a third of its colleges.

Closing colleges has been averted, but the crisis has not. There are a thousand silent crises at CUNY every day.

Increasing tuition is not the solution. A recent analysis from NYPIRG estimated that CUNY and SUNY students have paid $2.5 billion in increased tuition since the enactment of SUNY/CUNY 2020 in 2011. That figure excludes tuition costs that were paid by the State through TAP.

FAIR AND PROGRESSIVE TAXATION

The only real solution, especially in a year with a $6.1 billion budget deficit, is progressive taxation. It is absurd that working-class New Yorkers pay a higher effective tax rate than billionaires.

New York needs a new approach to CUNY funding. There is money in this rich state for free, high-quality public higher education for all who need and desire it. There is money for a New Deal for CUNY – and for universally great schools, quality health care, better public services and an expanded, well-maintained stock of public housing, too – if we make the progressive political choice to redistribute a fair measure of resources from those who have the most to those whose labor creates their wealth in New York State.

Increasing funding for CUNY would be an investment in racial justice, in educational justice, and in redistributive economic justice for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who attend CUNY seeking to remake their lives. Investment has to start this year.