NYSUT’s higher education leaders and hundreds of students from around the state came together in Albany Wednesday as one powerful voice to tell lawmakers: “You must save our state’s public higher education system.”
It was a marathon day of nearly 200 meetings with members of the Assembly and Senate by the students, faculty and professional staff from the State University of New York, the City University of New York and the community colleges. NYSUT and its partners made their case that funding cuts of $2 billion in the last five years have threatened to turn these once-celebrated symbols of academic success into a shadow of what they are.
“This is about sacrifice,” NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told the students, many of whom had gotten on buses at dawn, as they prepared to hit the hallways of the Legislative Office Building. “This is an opportunity to make sure that your points, and your voice, are heard. This day is about your story.”
NYSUT leaders praised the turnout by students, as well as the compelling presence they lent to meetings with lawmakers.
“We’re presenting ourselves as a network; we’re all in this together,” said Ellen Schuler Mauk, chair of the NYSUT Higher Education Policy Council and a union board member representing community colleges.
Many NYSUT members sported buttons proclaiming NYSUT’s Quality Public Higher Education Initiative, which asks the state to create a public endowment for the hiring of more full-time faculty at public colleges and universities; to fully fund SUNY, CUNY and the community colleges; and to strenghten the state’s public financial aid and academic opportunity programs.
The cuts have made themselves felt in many painful ways. Academic advisors have caseloads of more than 200 students. Classes that should have 25 students have more than 40. Equipment and infrastructure on many campuses are antiquated and in poor repair. Tuition continues to rise through all this, the fourth year of the state’s so-called “Rational Tuition Plan,” which was supposed to use scheduled tuition increases to improve academic programs and services. Instead, cash-strapped campuses are using tuition money to pay the heating bills.
Aileen Sheel, a student at CUNY’s Queens College and chair of the board of directors at the New York State Public Interest Research Group, boiled down the effects of the budget cuts to a simple anecdote she told lawmakers Wednesday: Supplies at CUNY are in such short supply that her professors often cannot find a piece of chalk to use during class. She has gotten used to seeing them reach for an empty chalk tray, and then run from class to class looking for chalk.
Students also asked lawmakers to pass the New York State DREAM Act, so that undocumented college students can qualify for financial aid. And they asked for an overhaul of the eligibility schedules for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, so that TAP aid – which has not been adjusted since 2001 – reflects the steady rise in tuition and the steady decline of many families’ earning power in a realistic way. That has become a rallying cry for students, in an era when NYSUT notes that the number-one form of debt in the United States is student loan debt, which Forbes magazine has stated now totals more than $1 trillion nationwide.
Throughout the day, NYSUT leaders drove home the message: Lawmakers must reject Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recommendation for flat funding at the state’s public college and universities.
“This is the third straight year that SUNY’s funding is flat,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY’s state-operated campuses. He was joined by other NYSUT leaders and students at a news conference about the day of action.
Meanwhile, Kowal said, cuts to academic opportunity programs are depriving poor students of an education. Last year, 20,000 students applied for the Educational Opportunity Program, but available funding at SUNY allowed only 3,000 to be admitted to EOP.
Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and staff at CUNY, called the cuts an attack on public education and the students that the system is meant to serve.
“In a year with a (budget) surplus, this state must prioritize and reinvest in public higher education, where every one dollar invested yields $8 in reinvestment,” she said. “All of us here, whether we’re students or faculty or staff, if we’re public higher education, we are challenging inequality.”