March 08, 2011

Advocates make case for higher ed funding

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT Communications

In a school year when New York's public higher education system faces an astonishing $438 million in potential funding cuts, NYSUT's higher education members refuse to be deterred or defeated in their quest to see that money restored.

And so a determined 200 NYSUT higher education members spent Tuesday (March 8) in the Legislative Office Building, spelling out for lawmakers the damage that years of sustained budget cuts have inflicted on public colleges and universities: overcrowded classrooms; underfunded critical services; and far fewer full-time faculty.

The annual Higher Education Advocacy Day drew seasoned veterans of the effort, and a number of first-timers.

"I think it was important to get involved, with all the cuts," said Mike Boecherer, an assistant professor of English at Suffolk Community College and a four-year member of the Faculty Association there. Tuesday was his first statewide advocacy effort with union colleagues from throughout SUNY, CUNY and the community colleges.

"It's really been important to connect and communicate with everyone," Boecherer said. "I think this is a tremendous opportunity to meet other people and get good ideas."

NYSUT higher education leaders spoke to members Monday night before their meetings with lawmakers and prepared them for a challenging day. The state is trying to close a $10 billion budget gap, but NYSUT leaders continually point out that public higher education has carried a disproportionate part of the austerity cuts intended to help close that gap. In the last three years, the State University of New York, the City University of New York; and the state's community colleges have lost a total of $1 billion in public funding.

"We know that all of the best teaching and learning practices that NYSUT has encouraged in our K-12 schools will be for naught if we do not place an equal value on the quality of the education in our public colleges and universities," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who oversees higher education services. "No one can make that case better to lawmakers than our higher education members."

NYSUT Vice President Andy Pallotta said members would need to be firm in their resolve as they met with lawmakers, without revealing the frustration many NYSUT higher education members feel in the face of such repeated cuts.

"The fact that we have a number of first-time advocates speaks volumes," Pallotta said. "When the situation is this grim, nothing drives home our determination to lawmakers better than members turning out in force."

Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, which represents more than 35,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY, reminded members that the State University hospitals and health science centers also face severe cuts. The executive budget proposes eliminating all direct state support for the three hospitals and health science centers – a cut of about $154 million. The state-operated campuses would be cut by nearly $100 million in the executive budget.

"The cuts to the state-supported campuses would come on top of the $585 million these colleges and universities have already lost in the last two years," Smith said. "State education law sets out the mission of the SUNY system as providing broad access and the highest-quality education, and these cuts beg the question of how this mission can be accomplished under such conditions."

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents more than 20,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York, emerged from a meeting with Assembly Member Deborah Glick, chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, to say that Glick and many of her colleagues understand the urgent situation facing public higher education.

"She's been a longtime supporter; she spoke about her support and strategies for broadening that support within the Legislature," Bowen said.

Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College and chair of NYSUT's Higher Education Council, agreed that lawmakers understand the importance of public higher education. Now, she said, the challenge is to convince them to stand firm and fight to restore the funds.

"We really have spent a lot of time talking about choices," she said as she reflected on her discussions with lawmakers. "You have to set your priorities first, then determine the revenues, and not let revenues determine the priorities."