The ceiling is so decrepit inside Boylan Hall at Brooklyn College that one professor wears a bike helmet in case tiles fall down.
The deterioration of Brooklyn College and the other buildings in the CUNY system can be seen in the black mold in classrooms, flooded libraries, and leaks that destroyed valuable lab equipment, faculty and staff say. The crumbling infrastructure is documented in multiple Instagram accounts – like Brokelyn College, Shity College of New York and Hunter Cursed Images – featuring photos of broken toilets, glue traps covered in mice, and even a raccoon crawling out of a duct into a classroom.
CUNY staffers said the infrastructure problems deter prospective students. Total enrollment in the CUNY system has declined from 274,000 in fiscal year 2018 to 243,000 for fiscal year 2022, according to the Mayor’s Management Report released last week.
Peter Lipke, a biology professor at Brooklyn College, said he has trouble recruiting graduate students due to outdated equipment and poorly maintained labs. He recalled a steam pipe leak in 2020 that destroyed a $500,000 electron microscope.
“It's extraordinarily difficult to train students in state-of-the-art techniques where they would get jobs in laboratories,” Lipke said.
James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress that represents faculty and some staff, said repairs would help convince students to return to campuses.
The conditions send “a strong signal to students about how much their education is valued and how much they’re valued. So I think that it’s certainly not the only panacea to the question of bringing students back to CUNY, but the physical safety and appearance of the campus is really critical,” Davis said.
The Department of Buildings has cited numerous violations at CUNY facilities.
At Brooklyn College, Boylan Hall has 173 open Department of Buildings violations, many of which are elevator-related. Ingersoll Hall has 62 open violations. At City Tech, there are 144 open violations at the NAMM building, many construction-related. At Medgar Evers College, there are 70 open violations at the Bedford Building, and at Hunter, the crown jewel of the CUNY system, there are 92 open complaints at one building on the 68th Street campus.
CUNY administrators acknowledge the system’s 300 buildings across its 25 campuses need billions of dollars for deferred maintenance and repairs.
“CUNY colleges have had to defer routine maintenance for years because of fiscal pressures. The result is facility deterioration in the near term and significantly increased facility operating and routine maintenance expenses,” the school system wrote in its latest budget request.
The average age of the university’s buildings is more than 50 years old. Some newer buildings also have problems, including the library at Medgar Evers, built in 1987, which has had flooding issues. The school says the leaks have been fixed.
“CUNY regularly conducts infrastructure repairs throughout the University, as the safety of our students, faculty and staff is of paramount importance,” university spokesman Joseph Tirella said in a statement. He noted Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration has provided $344 million for critical maintenance as part of a $927 million funding package.
CUNY, however, puts the cost of deferred maintenance at $4.3 billion. Administrators had requested $1.247 billion for repairs this year.
CUNY officials said they take Department of Buildings violations seriously and seek to repair them as quickly as possible. Elevator repairs at Brooklyn College have been complicated by supply chain issues, the school said. More than 100 DOB violations listed in public records are out of date, according to City Tech.
Nevertheless, some CUNY faculty say they don’t feel safe at work.
“I walk into my office, and I feel that I am in a dangerous space,” said Brooklyn College English professor Julie Agoos, whose officemate donned the bike helmet.
“A tile fell with so much force, it broke on my computer monitor and it sent my computer across the desk and to the floor,” Agoos said.
Tirella, the CUNY spokesman, said Brooklyn College has received reports of “some instances of individual ceiling tiles falling. However, surveys were performed, and selective removal has taken place and a plan is in development to secure or replace ceiling tiles for areas at risk.”
City Tech staffers said they found mold on the campus in Downtown Brooklyn after the buildings were closed during the pandemic.
“No one had informed us before returning to work,” said Nora Almeida, an associate library professor at City Tech. She said staff had to discard institutional records that were covered in mold.
“There was mold found in classrooms, the offices … A colleague of mine who had remote accommodations because of underlying health issues, she came back and had mold in our office.”
Tirella said a leak was reported at one City Tech building and that repairs were done with no mold found afterwards.
Joseph Entin, an English professor at Brooklyn College, said even simple requests are complicated by the old buildings. Getting duplicate office keys for colleagues is impossible because door locks are nearly a century old, he said.
“When you have this kind of systemic deferred maintenance, every small thing becomes a big crisis,” Entin said.
Morale is also suffering, judging by Instagram.
Alejandro Gomez, a Hunter College senior, created the Hunter Cursed Images account to catalog the disrepair he and his classmates have encountered. Recent photos show what appears to be mold, broken old air conditioners, and a dingy stairwell.
“This is a commuter school and nobody really wants to stick around unless they really have to,” Gomez said. “What I'm doing is documenting the reasons everybody is miserable here and hates their school – in addition to a long-ass commute, you’ve got to deal with a building that's falling apart and not pretty.”
The CUNY system is mostly funded by the state, with some additional funding from the city and federal grants.
Tuition makes up less than 20% of CUNY's funding. University leaders tout affordability for the majority lower-income, non-white student body. Full-time undergraduate tuition is $7,000 a year for New York residents.
Hochul has pledged to increase funding for CUNY over the next five years.
“This substantial support builds on $3.4 billion in state capital support for CUNY over the past decade,” said Katy Zielinski, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. “Governor Hochul has a proven commitment to investing in our higher educational facilities and will continue this important work with CUNY leadership to address their capital needs going forward."
The city has committed $764 million to the CUNY 10-year capital plan, including HVAC rehabilitation and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a spokesperson for City Hall said.
Mayor Eric Adams, a CUNY alum, has hailed it as a treasure, saying in August “I am who I am because of CUNY.”