March 07, 2012

Lawmakers urged to increase higher education funding

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT Communications

Priscilla Pratt has been an adjunct librarian at Suffolk Community College for 14 years, but she joined her union sisters and brothers from the college's Faculty Association for NYSUT's Higher Education Advocacy Day Tuesday for the first time.

This year, as Pratt put it, the need is especially urgent. There's a glimmer of hope that lawmakers are finally beginning to realize how desperately the state's public colleges and universities need more state funding, and Pratt wanted to be part of the effort that turned the tide.

"I felt I really needed to do something this time," she said as paused in a hallway of the Legislative Office Building.

Pratt was one of several hundred NYSUT higher education members - ranging from seasoned advocates to first-time unionists - who spent a day appealing to lawmakers to do better than the executive budget's proposal of flat funding for the state's public colleges and universities. The Assembly and Senate budget resolutions are expected to be released next week.

The State University, City University and SUNY Community Colleges have lost more than $1.7 billion in state funding since 2008. Of particular concern this year are the community colleges, which have lost nearly $1,500 per pupil in state funding, adjusted for inflation, since 1971.

"Community colleges have been in the spotlight nationally, and in the state," said Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College and chair of the NYSUT Higher Education Council who, along with Andy Sako of Erie Community College, represents community college issues on the NYSUT Board of Directors. "I think we need to show [lawmakers] that there needs to be a sustained increase over the next several years - a minimum of $205 per student for each of the next five years."

NYSUT leaders met privately Monday with legislative leaders and representatives of the governor to press the case for greater funding, before members fanned out throughout the Legislative Office Building Tuesday in a bipartisan outreach to senators and members of the Assembly.

The fact that public higher education funding is expected to at least hold steady over last year allows NYSUT members to make a vigorous argument for examining a long-range view of New York's public colleges and universities.

"This is an opportunity for us to start rebuilding what we've lost in the last five years," said Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, which represents academic and professional faculty at the state-operated SUNY campuses. Another priority for UUP is the restoration of funds to the three SUNY teaching hospitals, in Syracuse, Brooklyn and Stony Brook. The hospital in Brooklyn still faces the threat of closure by the state; all three hospitals are operating on a 50 percent cut in state funding from just a year ago.

The City University system has always served a high-need student population, with a number of students from low-income or immigrant families in New York City. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress that represents CUNY faculty and staff, praised the outstanding effort of PSC members to serve their students in the face of ongoing budget cuts. YSUT's advocacy, coupled with similar efforts of students, make for a powerful voice best able to speak for CUNY, she said.

"We are determined that lawmakers will hear us, and hear the students we are there to serve," she said.

NYSUT members in their meetings Tuesday also asked lawmakers to opposed a Tier 6 for the state retirement system, and to provide relief from the public transportation tax imposed on the community colleges in the New York City metropolitan region.