Student Groups, Higher Ed Unions Say SUNY and CUNY Need Increased Funding to Power New York’s COVID Recovery

Updated: February 19, 2021
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Groups Release Joint CUNY & SUNY Platform for a Just Recovery From COVID-19 Pandemic

Platform

Albany— Nearly 500 college students, faculty and staff representing unions and groups, including New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), State University of New York Student Assembly (SUNY-SA), The CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD), University Student Senate of the City University of New York (USS), New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), Professional Staff Congress/CUNY (PSC) and United University Professions (UUP) met with legislators and their staff this week to demand increased taxes on the rich and new programs of investment in the State University and the City University of New York—SUNY and CUNY.

The meetings, and a Tuesday evening plenary featuring emerging leaders in the fight for fully funded public university systems, were part of a virtual Higher Education Action Week organized for the COVID era.

The groups’ joint platform, advocated during dozens of citizen lobby meetings, begins, “CUNY and SUNY are critical for a just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but New York’s public higher education institutions and financial aid programs need an influx of additional state funding to make it happen.”

"New York’s college students have made tremendous sacrifices to endure through the pandemic. Now, incredibly, Governor Cuomo’s executive budget asks students to bear the burden of the recovery instead of ending tax-breaks for the ultra-wealthy. Students are suffering from isolation while in overcrowded Zoom lectures, struggling to find adequate advisement amidst budget cuts, and grappling with tuition bills. Instead of doubling down on failed austerity politics, New York’s legislature must act boldly to respond to this crisis, and pass a budget that invests in our future and our students," said Rob Zentgraf, NYPIRG chairperson and Pratt Institute student.

Assemblymembers Khaleel Anderson (Queens), Karines Reyes (Bronx) and Jonathan Rivera (Buffalo) addressed a Zoom meeting of several hundred students and union activists Tuesday evening after the first day’s meetings. Sen. Andrew Gounardes (Brooklyn) spoke as well. Gounardes and Reyes are the prime sponsors of the New Deal for CUNY legislation, which over five years establishes minimum staff-to-student ratios for mental health counselors, academic advisors and full-time faculty at CUNY while professionalizing compensation for adjunct faculty and enacting free tuition.

Gov. Cuomo’s Executive Budget proposes tens of millions of dollars in cuts to SUNY and CUNY and allows for annual tuition hikes, while doing very little to end tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy. Even the rosier budget scenario floated by the governor, which depends on $15 billion in federal stimulus funds, would leave the state’s public university systems vastly underfunded.

The student/faculty/staff coalition and their allies in Albany argue that now is the time to make game-changing investments in SUNY and CUNY that can power the state’s COVID-19 recovery. Instead of status quo austerity, they want visionary new investments like the ones detailed in the New Deal for CUNY and the UUP’s NY HEALS agenda for Healthcare, Education, Access, Leadership, and Sustainability at SUNY.

“An investment in our students is an investment in the future of New York State. It’s what New York must do to continue as a vibrant, progressive nationwide leader. Yet, year after year, state funding for public higher education is reduced or left static. We cannot allow this status quo to continue. It is time for the rich, who have only become richer during the pandemic, to pay their fair share. Our state could be placed on solid financial footing for years to come with passage of a combination of new revenue streams, including taxes on billionaires and the ultra-rich, reinstatement of the state’s stock transfer tax and a pied-a-terre tax. We must disrupt the long-term disinvestment in public higher education in New York and address the actual needs of students who strive for opportunity and success,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, the union of faculty and staff at SUNY.

After years of underfunding and the state’s withholding of 20% of critically needed operating funds for most of the past year, New York’s public colleges and universities are in trouble and students are losing out. Staff shortages and adjunct layoffs, limited course availability, cuts to tutoring and libraries, and unmanageable caseloads for advisors and mental health counselors are undermining student success and threatening the state’s economic recovery.

“The Legislature must respond boldly to the crises of public health, economic collapse and systemic racism by embracing the proposals for new revenue and supporting major investments in CUNY and SUNY. We call on our representatives to reject the false choice between the two scenarios presented in the Executive Budget. A return to pre-COVID “normal” would be crushing for CUNY. There is an alternative: end the tax breaks for the rich. This budget year offers a once-in-a-generation chance to make visionary investments and repudiate austerity. Aim high: refuse to pass a budget that fails to include the new revenue New York needs,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union of CUNY faculty and professional staff.

The groups are calling for a tuition freeze, increased state revenue and investment across both systems, at universities, colleges, community colleges and teaching hospitals. They want an end to the TAP Gap, a $150 million hole in the SUNY and CUNY budgets caused by the state’s policy of not funding the full cost of students’ financial aid. Improvements to financial aid and opportunity programs are also on the agenda.

“We must act now to dramatically enhance the investment into quality education and student support services which are needed now more than ever. We are glad to stand alongside our student, faculty, and staff colleagues as well as our champions in government in order to strengthen academic excellence, educational opportunity, and student success in public higher education. The investment made into SUNY returns $8.17 for every one dollar invested into our system. SUNY students repay that investment made in their higher education many times over through the taxes they pay now and after they graduate. We must protect that investment in the State budget process and continue to advocate for federal aid to New York. SUNY graduates are essential to the health and well-being of New York’s economy, its workforce, and its intellectual and social fabric. ” Said Brad Hershenson, President of the SUNY Student Assembly, the student government organization representing the 64 campuses of SUNY.

“Far too long we have been waiting on our leaders to do what's right. It is time to fully invest in CUNY and make it free and accessible to all. In moments of crisis it is important for us to be innovative and committed to creating true change--and investment in higher education is a change that's long overdue. We will be holding our elected officials accountable to invest in the City University of New York, because it's the people’s University,“ said Juvanie Piquant, CUNY University Student Senate Chairperson.

“Part of funding our future is providing adequate support to help train New York’s workforce of tomorrow,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said. “Public colleges and universities have long been a pathway to the middle class for many New Yorkers, but austerity budgets that heap additional costs onto students negate work to break down the barriers that stand in the way of young people and career changers accessing quality higher education. Be it for four-year universities, community colleges or SUNY hospitals, the message is clear: Fund our future.”

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