January 28, 2010

Higher ed leaders speak out on proposed budget cuts

Source: NYSUT News Wire
Caption: United University Professions President Phil Smith testifies before a joint legislative committee considering Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget cuts to public colleges and universities. From left are Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, and Smith. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

NYSUT's higher education leaders found a largely sympathetic reception at a hearing Wednesday of a joint legislative committee considering Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget cuts to public colleges and universities.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta opened the presentation, telling committee members that if they approve the governor's proposal, "this will be the fifth round of cuts in two years."

NYSUT leaders at the State University of New York and the City University of New York echoed Pallotta's urgent message. United University Professions represents more than 35,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY; the Professional Staff Congress represents more than 20,000 faculty and staff at CUNY.

UUP President Phil Smith told the committee that the governor's latest proposal for a $118 million cut in the upcoming state budget would bring total budget cuts in the last two years to $528 million.

"This represents 25 percent of SUNY's operating budget, and this cannot be sustained," Smith said. "This would be less than the operating budget of 1990 — with almost 40,000 more students."

SUNY has 464,981 students this fall, which is 25,000 more than last year, according to testimony Wednesday by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

At CUNY, the situation is no better.

"What we are saying collectively is that SUNY and CUNY have been cut disproportionately in the last 20 years,"Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, testified. "We call on you very urgently to say 'No' to this latest round of cuts."

Lawmakers asked NYSUT leaders several questions about the long-term effects of years of budget cuts, including the effect on the student body. Bowen said the effect at CUNY appears to be quite noticeable, where instructors report anecdotally that fewer inner-city, low-income students and fewer students of color are enrolling as classes become more crowded and tuition increases. UUP members routinely see students taking five years or more to graduate, because it's become so difficult to enroll in overcrowded classes.

The two unions have both singled out issues that stand out as especially critical amid the governor's shockingly severe proposal. For UUP, it's the survival of the New York State Theatre Institute, a state-funded professional theater group whose productions are often incorporated into the history and social studies curricula of schools around the state. The governor's proposal would cut NYSTI's $3 million budget in half, with the recommendation that all state funding be cut in the near future.

"I will tell you quite frankly that NYSTI will not survive solely on ticket sales," Smith told the committee.

The PSC is seeking passage of a bill that would make it easier for adjunct faculty to collect unemployment between semesters. PSC leaders note that the bill is especially important during the recession, when adjunct faculty may find out just before a semester starts that their job has been eliminated.

"We think it's very important to do it this year," Bowen said.