When Governor Cuomo presented his budget in January and made clear that he expects the city to take over $485 million of funding costs to the City University of New York, he added fuel to a longstanding movement by the school's union, which decries what it sees as a real disregard for CUNY by the governor. In the face of immediate backlash to his budget proposal, Cuomo quickly backtracked, insisting that shifts at CUNY "won't cost the city a penny," and now he appears to have made good on this promise: yesterday, a spokesperson for his office confirmed that the state will pay the full $1.6 billion to fund CUNY for the next year, so long as it's able to hire a management efficiency expert to identify areas where costs could be reduced.
— andrea ades vasquez (@avsqz) March 25, 2016
But CUNY's Professional Staff Congress union says that's not enough: it also wants to see a tuition freeze, improvements to financial aid, and significant investments in the university system.
"Of course it's good for CUNY not to face a reduction, but that is just the starting line," PSC CUNY President Barbara Bowen told Gothamist. "If all that has been accomplished in this budget season is that CUNY is back to where it started in funding, that is not enough...it's not enough just to say CUNY was saved from a gigantic, devastating cut."
Yesterday, more than 500 people demonstrated outside Cuomo's office in midtown Manhattan, demanding that the final state budget, due April 1st, include increased investment in CUNY and fund contracts for the 35,000 CUNY faculty and staff members who they say have worked for years without a raise.
Protestors were confined by police to pens across the street from the office, chanting "C-U-N-Y, don't let CUNY die," but dozens exited the pens and staged a die-in directly outside the office building. They laid down in rows, blocking the building entrance, and after police issued three warnings, 41 people were arrested, including Bowen and City Council member Inez Barron, who chairs the City Council's committee on higher education.
— Rachel Chapman (@ChapmanRachel) March 25, 2016
According to the office of city comptroller Scott Stringer, if aid to CUNY had increased proportionally to the state's operating budget over the past seven years, the university system would have an additional $637 million today. But as PSC CUNY points out, tuition has only grown since Cuomo took office, and per-student state funding at the senior colleges has gone down. Currently, tuition at CUNY's four-year colleges is $6,330 for New York residents, and that has gone up by $300 each year for the past five years, Bowen said.
"It's very demoralizing; there's sort of a drumbeat in the back of your head," David Forbes, an associate professor at Brooklyn College's School of Education, told the New York Times. "You look at NYU or Columbia, they don't have these kinds of issues."
The governor did set aside $240 million in his budget to go toward retroactive raises for CUNY employees, but it's not yet clear what will happen to that now that the state is no longer asking the city to cover a portion of the funding. And that $240 million would not be enough, Bowen said: CUNY has calculated that $325 million would be needed to cover those retroactive raises for tens of thousands of faculty and staff.
Cuomo's office has criticized the protests by PSC-CUNY and its broader alliance, saying that advocates should embrace the Governor's push to reduce what he calls "bloated" administrative costs.
"It is appalling that the faculty union and for-hire political advocacy groups are knowingly misleading their members and the public to score cheap political points," Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette. "The fact that these groups are ignoring reality is alarming, irresponsible, and a flagrant disregard for the students they claim to advocate for. Rather than using unfounded and untruthful scare tactics to lie to the public, they should support the Governor's fight to direct more funding to students instead of administrative costs."
Bowen said that while PSC CUNY does adamantly support cutting administrative costs, and is quite critical of overly high salaries for top administrators, she's not sure that the money CUNY needs can be found entirely in what Cuomo keeps calling "efficiencies."
"We have fought for years to direct more money to students, but the money has to be there in the first place," Bowen said. "Half a billion dollars is a lot to find in efficiencies."