March 27, 2011

Higher ed programs, services eroding under weight of cuts

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: "We will be tireless in our pursuit of a strong, adequately funded public higher education system," NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Courtney Leadley was a freshman engineering student at the University of Buffalo in 2007. But her hopes for earning a degree were dashed.

"She couldn't get into the lower engineering classes, because upper engineering students were filling them," said Courtney's mother, Dawn, who is a member and delegate of the United University Professions chapter at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

Without enough faculty to teach the number of classes offered, the same thing happened with Courtney's required math courses.

Frustrated, Courtney gave up on engineering after three years at Buffalo and transferred to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry as an environmental biology major. All was going well until she tried to get into a required field research course, which is offered only in the summer and requires students to register in person.

"There were hundreds of people in the room trying to get into this class and it was filled in five minutes," Dawn Leadley said. Though Courtney will participate in her graduation ceremony next year, her degree will be held up until she completes the field course the summer after she "graduates."

It will take Courtney five years to earn her bachelor's degree. That's an extra year's worth of tuition, fees, books and housing. The "five-year plan" for a college education throughout the State University of New York system is becoming commonplace — more than 60 percent of students now need five years to earn a degree — even as the U.S. Department of Education becomes more insistent that colleges demonstrate "success" in terms of a four-year graduation rate.

This is how more than a billion dollars of cuts to New York's public colleges and universities in the last three years are playing out for faculty, students and parents.
One billion dollars is a figure most of us so rarely write that we have to stop and remember how many zeros it contains. (Nine, in case anyone's counting: $1,000,000,000.)

If lawmakers adopt the executive budget proposal for public higher education, SUNY, the City University of New York and the SUNY Community Colleges will have collectively lost more than a billion dollars in state funding in just the last three years, at a time when enrollment is surging.

Neither the Assembly nor the Senate budget proposals, released mid-March, restored the funding cuts recommended for the senior colleges at SUNY and CUNY in the executive budget. The one-house bills did restore aid to SUNY teaching hospitals. The Senate would restore $115 million; the Assembly, $64.3 million. Both houses recommend restoring 50 percent of the executive's cut to community college aid.

The effects of the budget cuts are often described in the broadest terms, but when you break them down to their real-life results for students, faculty, staff and campuses, the picture is downright grim.

Some examples:

  • At SUNY New Paltz, the well-known Language Immersion Institute closed three years ago. The program was a resource for executives and travelers who needed expert instruction in a range of languages — including Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Flemish, Spanish and French — at several locations in the New York City metropolitan area. But when its director retired, the program soon folded.

    New Paltz's Women's Studies Program is struggling under greatly reduced funding. The program used to host performances, guest lectures, and two or three conferences a year attracting nationally known feminist scholars. Conferences now occur once a year, and other programming has almost disappeared.

    The university's nursing program, so critical to answering the need for more nurses, was eliminated two years ago.
  • At SUNY Potsdam, the Employment Relations major — which prepared students for careers in labor relations — has been deactivated and is likely to fold. "We only have one faculty member officially in this program, and the last student major will be graduating in May," said Laura Rhoads, the UUP chapter president at Potsdam.

    Rhoads can recall when dozens of students were enrolled. But the numbers dropped as the faculty dwindled through attrition and the administration did not fill the vacancies.

    Rhoads said several of the courses offered through Employment Relations had applications to careers in economics and business administration.
  • The City University of New York has lost its historic policy of open admissions with the imposition of its first-ever waiting list this year. CUNY's tradition of assuring students who applied a place in a CUNY college dates to the late 1960s. Steve London, first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 20,000 faculty and staff at CUNY, said the waiting list will pull CUNY away from its mission as a university serving the working class of New York City.

    "This has to do with the longterm trends of disinvestment by the state," London said. "As enrollment has increased, the ability of CUNY to absorb these students has decreased."
  • Community colleges throughout SUNY have lost full-time faculty, to the point where "we have students who have never seen a full-time faculty member; they have only had adjunct faculty members for their entire college career," said Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College. Schuler Mauk is chair of the NYSUT Higher Education Counsel and one of two NYSUT board members who speaks to community college issues.

    The ratio of part-time to full-time faculty at some community colleges is now 3-to-1. Erie Community College used to have almost 80 percent full-time faculty; that figure is now about 45 percent. Adjunct faculty are often impassioned, dedicated, knowledgeable and talented teachers, but they can't be on campus as often as their full-time colleagues, said Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College and a NYSUT board member. "And that definitely affects advisement and retention," he said.

    "Not having appropriate dollars is really having an impact on student learning."
  • The elimination of five majors at SUNY's University at Albany — French, Russian, Italian, Classics and Theater — became international news when newspapers in France published op-eds criticizing the decision.

    The cutback in custodial services on the UAlbany campus has received far less attention, but this quality of life issue is visible in many unpleasant ways. Trash in campus offices is now collected two or three times a week, instead of every day. Faculty and staff have reported an increase of mice. Furniture that needs to be moved to a different office or building sits for days in hallways, sometimes blocking easy access to doors.
  • n At Herkimer Community College, opportunities for professional development have all but disappeared. "There's no longer any expectations for travel," said Robert Gassmann, an associate professor of radio and TV broadcasting. "Our current administration has made it very clear that sabbaticals are very expensive and hard to justify."

The loss in state support to SUNY, CUNY and the community colleges is tangible; educators remain deeply concerned about what additional cuts might mean.

"When a service or program is lost at a public college or university, it is usually gone forever," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who oversees higher education services. "This is why we ask lawmakers to take a courageous stand and not just stop the bleeding at our public campuses, but to demand the restoration of the funds that have been cut in the last three years. If we cannot do this, the legacy of this period will be a lost generation of young adults who either never go to college, or are forced to study, live and work outside of New York."