School Finance
February 07, 2014

Higher ed leaders tell lawmakers: Support CUNY, SUNY

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT Communications
higher education leaders
Caption: L-R: Steve London, First Vice President, PSC-CUNY; Barbara Bowen, President, PSC-CUNY; Fred Kowal, President, UUP; Steve Allinger, Director of Legislation, NYSUT. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

NYSUT's higher education leaders made an impassioned plea Thursday for more state support and the establishment of an endowment for the state's public colleges and universities, during testimony before a panel of receptive and interested lawmakers who will play key roles in developing the state's budget.

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions - NYSUT's affiliate that represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York's state-operated campuses - joined with Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York. The two leaders described public higher education systems with overcrowded classes, a growing percentage of overworked adjunct faculty and outdated physical plants so tight on space that CUNY is leasing classrooms and office space in off-campus buildings not even owned by the CUNY system.

The NYSUT leaders asked lawmakers to support the three tenets of NYSUT's Public Higher Education Quality Initiative: a publicly funded endowment to add full-time faculty and strengthen academic programs and services; an increase in operating aid; and a stronger investment in student financial aid and opportunity programs. They also asked lawmakers to support the New York State Dream Act so that undocumented college students can qualify for publicly funded financial aid.

In his testimony, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told the lawmakers "SUNY and CUNY are literally the only options for hundreds of thousands of college students to obtain a college education. Yet, we continually underfund these institutions. Over the last five years, our public higher education institutions have been cut by nearly $2 billion."

Yet at this time of desperate need, both systems and their community colleges face flat funding in the governor's proposed budget. The union leaders set their case Thursday before a joint hearing of the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees, whose members clearly signaled dismay about the conditions that the union leaders described.

"The 2014-2-15 executive budget continues a trend begun two years ago to shift more and more of the university's costs from the state to SUNY's operating budget - or, more precisely, moving the responsibility of funding SUNY from the state to SUNY students through tuition," Kowal testified.

"Since 1990, the state funding for CUNY senior colleges has decreased by 30 percent," Bowen told lawmakers. "Tuition has quadrupled. That tuition revenue has gone to fill the hole created by disinvestment."

The SUNY hospitals, which have served the historic dual role in New York of serving low-income rural and urban populations, and training dedicated new doctors who tend to stay and practice in the state's high-need regions, would receive $69 million through the executive budget. That's a little more than half the amount they received just three years ago.

NYSUT and UUP urged the state to resolve the issue of Long Island College Hospital, which was merged into the SUNY Downstate Medical Center system several years ago but is now barely functional, is draining millions of dollars a year from the overall Downstate system and - combined with the state's budget cutbacks for all of the hospitals - is part of the reason the Downstate Medical Center's hospital in Brooklyn is financially struggling.

"Our public teaching hospitals, medical schools and health sciences centers must remain public," Kowal said. "It is the right thing to do. Millions of state residents depend on these facilities for health care, and our public hospitals turn no one away, regardless of their ability to pay."

Meanwhile, in her testimony, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher endorsed the creation of a publicly funded endowment for the hiring of full-time faculty and the strengthening of academic programs and services - a major tenet of NYSUT's public higher ed initiative.

The endowment plan figures strongly in the union's call for rebuilding the State University of New York, the City University of New York and the SUNY community colleges to their pre-recession levels of funding, staffing of faculty and academic professionals, and financial aid and opportunity programs for students.

"We will work with you and our other stakeholders to develop the best vehicle to get these faculty hired, including the endowment program for full-time faculty forwarded by UUP (NYSUT's largest higher education affiliate) and others," Zimpher told lawmakers.

NYSUT and all of its higher education affiliates will continue to advocate for a strong public higher education budget through a series of advocacy efforts during the legislative session. Please watch for updates at www.nysut.org; www.uupinfo.org and www.psc-cuny.org.