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PSC: ‘A larger vision for CUNY’

In testimony before a joint hearing of the City Council’s higher education and finance committees, the PSC proposed a set of priorities for new investment in CUNY. These ideas represent “a larger vision for CUNY, rooted in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plans for the University,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told the March 7 hearing.

Ending Disinvestment

During last year’s election campaign, de Blasio decried the “decades of State and City disinvestment” that had “undermined CUNY’s historic role as a stepping-stone to the middle class for more than a generation of working-class youth.”

In order “to put CUNY on a more solid budgetary footing,” de Blasio called for the City to end its emphasis on tax breaks for large, well-connected corporations, and instead move to increase funding for CUNY and for small-business loans, as more effective tools for boosting employment. Such a shift, he said, would ultimately produce a $150 million increase in the City’s CUNY funding. When fully implemented, this would boost City support for CUNY by more than 50%.

Bowen discussed several strategic priorities for additional support, which she said could realize de Blasio’s vision of “restor[ing] CUNY as the central gateway to a quality education and a good job” in New York City:

  • Increase City funding for community colleges to at least the per-student level of 2008;
  • Hire 1,000 new full-time faculty and student-support staff in targeted programs to ensure that CUNY students graduate and find employment;
  • Introduce new need-based student scholarships;
  • Invest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and programs in applied arts and sciences programs, preparing students for jobs that are in high demand;
  • Support an ongoing task force on CUNY and economic inequality.

In real dollars, Bowen said, “City support for CUNY community colleges has fallen 18% since 2008-09” per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student. “We cannot allow a university with a tradition of producing Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Prize winners to become a provider of ‘good enough’ degrees that provide ‘just enough’ education,” she told councilmembers. “A priority for reinvestment in CUNY must be restoration of basic per-student funding.”

“The key to CUNY’s ability to address economic inequality is restoration of the ranks of full-time faculty and student-support staff,” Bowen continued. That, she said, is why the PSC’s proposal for 1,000 new faculty lines is crucial: “The difference between CUNY and better-funded public institutions comes down to this: students at CUNY do not have enough time with individual faculty.”

Students Gain

CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs Initiative shows why this matters, she said: “Classes are capped at 25 students. Counselors have an average caseload of just 85 students. The results have been dramatic. The program’s three-year graduation rate is 56%, well over twice the rate for a comparison group in a recent study.” This shows what investing in adequate numbers of full-time faculty and staff can do, Bowen said, and why it is something that CUNY students need.

“A substantial number of the new positions should be designated for existing part-time faculty, those most tested and experienced with CUNY students,” Bowen told council members. Hiring for these new lines should also include greater efforts by CUNY to hire people of color, she said, “especially in faculty positions.”

Creating a needs-based scholarship program for CUNY, building on past council efforts, would be a critical step for access to college education, Bowen said. “It is a myth that financial aid protects every poor student’s access when tuition increases,” she emphasized. Most part-time students, students who exceed the limit of eight semesters and undocumented students cannot receive aid from New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). While TAP reform at the State level is much needed, she said, the City also has a role to play.

Programs that prepare students for jobs in high-demand fields are important in a city with such stubborn inequalities, Bowen noted. “Such programs exist in the STEM fields and the applied science fields, such as Applied Math at City Tech, where graduates have a record of success in the marketplace,” she said. They exist in other fields as well, she noted – for example, the translation program at Hunter College prepares students for work as medical interpreters. “Our astonishingly polyglot university could develop other programs that respond to the emerging needs of this diverse city,” she suggested.

“Engine of Equality”

Finally, she said, an ongoing task force on CUNY and economic inequality, with representatives from the City Council, the mayor’s office, the CUNY administration, the PSC, CUNY student groups and faculty governance, could work to develop new ways “in which CUNY can be an engine of equality.” This, Bowen concluded, “is a goal to which the PSC is proud to contribute.”

At Clarion press time, the executive municipal budget proposal for 2014-2015 had not yet been released. Bowen told Clarion that the PSC hopes it will contain at least some first steps toward realizing this kind of larger vision for CUNY.