In a darkened auditorium at the New York City College of Technology, PSC members and allies addressed CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken and the Board of Trustees, calling on officials to wage a public campaign for state funding of the university system. The February 16 forum at the Brooklyn campus was one in a series of public hearings conducted by the board in each of the city’s boroughs.
Milliken, in his opening remarks, made it clear that he was feeling the pressure applied by the PSC, students and New York community groups to make a concerted effort to secure adequate funding from the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget, released on January 13, cuts $485 million from the state allocation for CUNY, even as it offers $240 million for the settlement of back pay due CUNY employees, who have not seen a raise in more than six years. (CUNY’s contract with the PSC expired in 2010; contracts with DC 37 locals expired in 2009.) At present, the state legislature is hammering out a final budget, and PSC officers, members and allies are calling on lawmakers to ensure that CUNY receives the funding it needs (see “Students and PSC press lawmakers”).
“A strong CUNY is vital to the future of the state and those New Yorkers who need opportunity the most,” Milliken said. “To serve them and the state well it’s essential that the investment in CUNY be stable, secure and adequate, and that, in my mind, is the discussion we should be having today.” He noted that the majority of CUNY’s 500,000 students are people of color, half of them from low-income families.
CONTRACT A PRIORITY?
As he has in the past, Milliken named the settlement of CUNY’s contract with the PSC — now in mediation after CUNY declared an impasse in negotiations — as his highest priority, along with the settlement of contracts with other CUNY employees. He also called on the state to do its part. But PSC President Barbara Bowen is not convinced, given the chancellor’s apparent reluctance to join with the PSC in raising public awareness of disinvestment in CUNY funding by the state. When adjusted for inflation, funding is down 17 percent per full-time equivalent (FTE) student since 2008.
“We have heard over and over and over that the contract is your priority,” she said, during the public-comment session that followed Milliken’s remarks. “If it is a priority then why do we not see an all-out public campaign?”
‘STEP IT UP!’
While PSC members and officers expressed appreciation for the chancellor’s comments calling for greater state funding, in the three-minute speeches allowed members of the public, many asked whether Milliken and the board were doing enough to advocate for the university with state legislators and the governor.
“There is no question that some board members and managers are working hard to secure necessary funding for CUNY,” said PSC First Vice President Mike Fabricant during the public comment portion of the program. “Although that is necessary, it is simply not sufficient.”
As she held a graph showing the trendline of the state’s disinvestment in CUNY, PSC Treasurer Sharon Persinger called on Board members to increase their efforts to secure state funding.
“Step it up,” she said. “You have a state legislator, you have a state senator. Have you called that person? Have you written a letter? This university is your responsibility; that’s what the manual for general policy of the board says – that you are responsible to see that the university is adequately funded.”
Persinger, who earned her doctorate at the Graduate Center, noted that, for her, the battle for CUNY’s future is personal.
‘PUBLIC RELATIONS FANTASY’
As others did during the course of the hearing, Fabricant made note of CUNY’s MTA advertising campaign, widely posted in the subways, in which the university is touted as a great value (accomplished faculty and comparatively low tuition), while individual star students and boutique programs are promoted.
“This combination of willful denial and PR fantasy about the state of the university … undermines any effective public defense of the university,” Fabricant said.
In his opening statement, Milliken appeared to be speaking of PSC President Barbara Bowen when he said, “There are some who wish I would not talk about [CUNY as the] best value” among the region’s universities. Bowen has been critical of the marketing strategy in both written statements and at union events, saying that the “value” represented by CUNY comes on the backs of its faculty, staff and students. Focusing only on consumer value, Bowen has said, subtly undermines CUNY’s “intellectual ambitiousness.”
“I think that recognition is not a statement about cost, it’s a recognition of CUNY’s high quality at a reasonable price,” the chancellor said. “And our faculty are, of course, responsible for that outstanding quality.”
PUBLIC ADVOCATE WEIGHS IN
Representing New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Legislative Counsel Jason Fuhrman read a statement that expressed alarm at the governor’s proposal to cut nearly a half-billion dollars in state funding for CUNY. And while he acknowledged the $240 million the executive budget included for back pay in contract settlements with CUNY employees, what is really needed is an additional $100 million in order to make a fair settlement on that score, he said. “The real cost of wage equity is $350 million, and that’s what we should be paying,” he said. Speaking for James, he added, “I am extremely troubled by the long-term disinvestment CUNY has experienced over the last eight years.”
PSC Secretary Nivedita Majumdar highlighted the difficulties posed by CUNY’s low wages, when compared with the institutions of higher education with which it competes for talent, and how low pay affects the lives of faculty members and the students they serve. She told of a faculty member who took a roommate in her studio apartment in order to make her rent, and noted the crumbling buildings in which many teach.
“How are we as educators supposed to provide [students] with the education that is their one shot to a better life when we are struggling with uncompetitive salaries and debilitating work conditions?” she asked.
FIRST IN HIS FAMILY
Eddie Tavares, a sociology student at Brooklyn College, is the first in his family to attend college. As a student in the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program, Tavares told board members that he saw the state’s disinvestment as a threat to the program, which provides students from low-income families with college preparation they may not have received in high school. He added that he saw the inadequate level of state funding as evidence of the widening gap of income and opportunity inequality.
“It is why, more than ever, we need to secure the future of these programs, reinvest – not divest – in public colleges and fairly compensate not just deans and presidents but also our talented professors and college staff,” said Tavares. Public education and programs such as SEEK “help balance the scales.”
George Emilio Sanchez, chair of the PSC chapter at the College of Staten Island, made an impassioned plea to Milliken and board members. “Please, I would do anything to have any one of you sitting in front of me, just come with me,” he said. “I invite you to come to my college; spend a day with me. I want you to come to my classroom and see where these students study. They get an unbelievable education. Why? Because of the people who are in the classrooms with them. … [W]e – you and I – all believe in the same thing. We believe in the endeavor of public education. But evidently the state doesn’t, and the city is questionable. We need to work together. How can we do this together? I’ve asked you before, Chancellor Milliken: Let’s go together. Let’s get the college presidents and let’s get the union [to appeal to Albany] together. Because we’re getting hammered by the state, and no one’s winning here.”
Iris DeLutro, a higher education officer (HEO) at the Murphy Institute and the PSC’s vice president for cross-campus chapters, described herself as a product of the CUNY system, having obtained both her graduate and undergraduate degrees at Queens College. Now entering her 32nd year of employment at CUNY, DeLutro spoke of the changes she’s seen because of dwindling budgets. In some offices that were once staffed by five HEOs, the number is down to three or fewer “because people retire and they’re not replaced.” She urged the board to wage a “very public campaign” for adequate funding from the state. Along the same lines, Lizette Colón, chair of the PSC chapter at Hostos Community College, implored the chancellor and board members to prevail especially on Governor Cuomo, noting that the state posted a surplus in the current fiscal year.
“Be bold, be courageous and don’t impose a tuition increase for our students,” Colón said. “Stop the CUNY disinvestment.”
Hercules Reid, Student Government president of City Tech, where he studies architecture and technology, also appealed to the chancellor and the board not to raise tuition yet another year, as CUNY proposed in its budget request, noting that 97 percent of City Tech students work for pay – the highest percentage of any of the CUNY colleges, he said. Following the lead of the University Student Senate, the City Tech Student Government passed a resolution that paired the call for a tuition freeze with one for a fair settlement of the PSC contract, and circulated a petition that garnered “hundreds of signatures,” Reid said. “We found that the students are vastly opposed to the increased tuition, but are also supportive of insuring a fair contract for our faculty and staff and of reforming the state’s TAP (tuition assistance program) to meet the needs of the changing student demographic at CUNY.”
Speaking for college laboratory technicians (CLTs), PSC Chapter Chair Albert Sherman reminded the board of the toll taken on his colleagues by management’s failure to make an adequate economic offer to the union. “There are CLTs throughout CUNY who cannot even pay their rent on the salaries that they are making,” Sherman said. “I’m not even talking about the adjunct salaries. They are ridiculously low.”
Susan DiRaimo, PSC’s vice president for part-time personnel, spoke on behalf of CUNY’s adjuncts, noting that because of her low pay as an adjunct, she works two jobs. “I never wanted to be rich. I always wanted to teach,” DiRaimo said, noting her 33 years of continuous teaching assignments in the CUNY system, and her own roots as a product of the City College of New York. “I come asking for a living wage for adjuncts. I shouldn’t be making only $30,000 a year.” In her remarks, DiRaimo pressed for the 14 percent increase proposed by the PSC – a proposal to which CUNY management, as of press time, had made no counteroffer. DiRaimo reiterated the union’s opposition to tuition increases, recalling her own experience of attending CUNY when it was tuition-free.
THE CUNY TEAM
Adjunct and PSC member Marcia Newfield took a direct approach, reminding Milliken that they had chatted during a PSC picket in 2015: “When the students understand that a lot of the people that teach them are really poor because they’re teaching three or four courses and make $26,000 – when the students learn that they get very upset. And in some ways it feels like a devaluation of education. And I mentioned that to you when we did our little walk together and you said you knew, you understood and that it’s as if we’re all helpless together in this. Well, are we? That’s the question.”
She noted her own history, pursuing her education during the civil rights movement. “Somehow we need to mobilize the city to say CUNY is our team,” she said. Investment in public education is critical to a fair and robust democracy, she argued.
“[Do] we want a public that doesn’t know anything and votes for what? Votes for people who insult other people, votes for people who want to perpetuate prejudice and racism? Is that what we want? That’s what we’ll get if we keep going on this path.”