March 12, 2013

Union activists, students join forces to advocate for higher education

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT Communications
Caption: L-R: UUP President Phil Smith, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, PSC-CUNY President Barbara Bowen, andFaculty Association of Suffolk Community College President Ellen Schuler Mauk meet with Sen. Kenneth Lavalle, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Kate Zhukova got up at dawn Tuesday to catch a bus to Albany so she could participate in the joint NYSUT-student day of advocacy for public higher education.

Born and educated in the Ukraine, Zhukova is now a chemistry student at the City University of New York's Hunter College. She almost burst out laughing when asked if she could imagine her former Ukrainian classmates engaging in a similar day of activism. 

"They wouldn't do anything like this . It's very hard to get anybody to speak to you, like the politicians," she said.

Nearly 500 students and NYSUT members had no problem finding politicians who would listen to them Tuesday, as unionists from the State University and City University of New York and the state's community colleges joined forces with students for a first-ever joint Higher Education Advocacy Day. Many of the students started their journey to Albany yesterday and slept on the floor at overnight stopovers; others worked all night and slept for a couple of hours on their way to the event.

"We are thrilled to have you here," Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress faculty and staff union at CUNY, told the gathering. "This is your day. We have come at the perfect time."

As Bowen explained, lawmakers' caucuses on the House and Assembly budget bills were expected to begin Tuesday, and the clock was ticking toward a likely vote on a state budget by next week.

Among the coalition's top issues:

  • SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which houses one of New York's four public medical schools and which the state has threatened to privatize or close. One positive update on Downstate: 86 of the 360 UUP members who had received non-renewal notices have learned that their jobs will be saved. UUP Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud credited that news to the strong advocacy by UUP and its constituent coalition of Brooklyn clergy and community activists, and said UUP and its Downstate supporters will press for an additional review of non-renewal notices.
  • securing a greater infusion of state money into the State University and City University systems, which have, along with the community colleges, lost $1.7 billion in public funding in the last five years;
  • attaining an additional $110 per full-time student in state funding for the SUNY community colleges, on top of the $150 per-student increase that the Assembly and the Senate recommended. The community colleges have carried the burden of re-educating and retraining hundreds of thousands of displaced workers during the Great Recession with inadequate funding and full-time faculty.

NYSUT's higher education leaders joined students from a variety of advocacy groups, including the New York Public Interest Research Group, at a news conference after their meetings with lawmakers. The unionists and students used the news conference to further press their case for a strong, vibrant public education system and for education-related bills that NYSUT has backed, including the so-called New York Dream Act. The Dream Act would open up a variety of tuition-assistance and college-level educational opportunity programs to undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta was joined at the news conference by Phil Smith, president of United University Professions at SUNY; Bowen of the Professional Staff Congress; and Ellen Schuler Mauk of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College, who is a NYSUT board member and chair of the NYSUT Higher Education Policy Council and who speaks to community college issues for NYSUT along with Erie Community College local president Andy Sako.