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Home » PSC First Vice President Steve London’s Remarks at Somos El Futuro Higher Education Panel

PSC First Vice President Steve London’s Remarks at Somos El Futuro Higher Education Panel

Albany, NY
April 2, 2011

I want to begin by responding to something President Fernandez said. (In arguing for the CUNY Compact, he said, “tuition will go up, it is only a question of when and how much. That is why we need a predictable and rational tuition policy.”) For 125 years, tuition was free at CUNY. Given its longevity, that policy was both “predictable and rational.” The imposition of tuition and the consequent increases come about once an austerity model was imposed in 1975. It is because of austerity and the withdrawal of state support that tuition increases happen…. And, as I will explain, austerity is a choice and not inevitable. Tuition increases are not a force of nature, but policy choices. So let me go to the austerity policies of this state budget.

Prepared Remarks:

The English song-writer and singer, Richard Thompson, has a line in one of his songs that came to mind as the State budget was passed: “maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse.”

This line came to mind because very few in New York State’s political class were willing to pay a price to break the chains of power that bound them to passing an austerity budget that will especially hurt Hispanic and Black youth and adults who are seeking opportunity. It will be our students who pay the price in real dollars and lost opportunity for the choices made in the recently adopted State austerity budget.

A choice was made in this budget to protect the wealthy and powerful and to cut services to the poor, middle income, and working-class New Yorkers. That choice will further concentrate wealth in the hands of the few and deprive our students of the needed resources to get a quality education.

Furthermore, this choice was made at a time of great inequality. Not since 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression, has our society been so unequal. New York City is the most unequal city in the most unequal state in the most unequal nation in the industrialized world. Nationally, 1% of wage earners control 23% of all income, in New York State it is 35% of all income, and in New York City it is 44% of all income. 400 families have as much wealth as the bottom half of US families.

A budget that reinforces this concentration of wealth is anti-democratic, because it increases economic and political power in the hands of the few. The choices made in this budget make little economic sense, because it fails to make the needed investment in the State’s future. And, it is immoral to impose austerity on poor and middle-income New Yorkers when there are record profits on Wall Street and trillions of dollars sitting on the balance sheets of corporations and banks.

We need to have our leaders at every level of society exert clear moral leadership (and be willing to pay a price) to change the austerity policies that dominate public policy.

Let’s look at what happened to CUNY in this austerity budget and what its impact will be on our Hispanic students.

Who are CUNY students?

  • 74% are students of color
  • 29% are Hispanic
  • 44% of CUNY’s freshman class are Hispanic
  • 43% have a native language other than English
  • 38% come from households making less than $20,000 per year (46% for CCs)
  • 44% are the first generation in college

Our students have a tough row to hoe when they attend college. Most work or have family responsibilities. Many are not well prepared for college work and have to take remedial courses. Hispanic students, in particular, are likely to meet additional hurdles while attending CUNY. They are more likely to enter CUNY at the community college level where there are fewer full-time faculty for each student (1:47). They are also more likely to need developmental courses, including instruction in English as a Second Language, to make up for deficits in their pre-college education before beginning credit-bearing college courses.
Given these obstacles, it is not surprising that Hispanic students take longer than white students to graduate with either an associate or baccalaureate degree. (AA After 6 years: white @ 32.2%; Hispanic @ 22.9%)

The good news is that we know how to close this achievement gap. A resource-rich curriculum with more full-time faculty and counselors and financial support has shown success.

The bad news is that the State Austerity Budget makes closing the achievement gap more difficult:

This year’s state budget-cut of $95 million to CUNY Senior Colleges and $12.3 million to CUNY community colleges will only compound the damage of the last two years of cuts. Taken together, over a three year period, CUNY senior and community colleges will be cut a total of $350 million. Need I say what impact this will have on our ability to serve Hispanic students?

  • Fewer full-time faculty and counselors
  • Increased class size
  • Fewer course offerings
  • Less chance to mentor students and provide the needed individualized attention in course work
  • A lower quality education

This austerity budget pushes us exactly in the wrong direction.

My union is issuing a call for a newly committed leadership to overturn this austerity budget. We need elected leaders, labor leaders, college and university leaders, and community leaders:

  • Who will challenge the dominant austerity policy model, a model adopted by the governor and a segment of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
  • Who will, at every opportunity, challenge the false narrative that “we are broke” and we cannot increase taxes on the millionaires and billionaires.
  • Who will work in coalition and build a broad popular movement for justice, equality and public service.
  • Who will take risks and speak truth to power.
  • Who are willing to pay a price and refuse to be chained to an unjust, anti-democratic, and immoral power structure.

To truly advance the Hispanic population of New York, we must confront and change Governor Cuomo’s austerity policy model. In Wisconsin and Ohio, a popular movement is being built to overturn the anti-labor actions of governors Walker and Kasich. In New York, we need to build a movement to reopen Governor Cuomo’s austerity budget with a supplemental budget measure that will increase the marginal tax rates of the wealthy and invest needed resources in New York’s future.

There really is a choice.

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