May 2011
April 21, 2011

Fighting on for higher ed

Author: DarrylMcGrath
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: UUP President Phil Smith joins faculty and students at a rally at the state Capitol. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Thousands of union advocates made their voices heard in rallies and lobby days, pressing lawmakers to support New York's colleges and universities. In a dire budget season dominated by cuts, the relentless efforts made some headway although both the SUNY and CUNY systems continue to be painfully underfunded.

NYSUT and its higher ed affiliates convinced lawmakers to restore $60 million to the three State University of New York public hospitals.

They also restored to community colleges 40 percent of the money originally cut in the Executive Budget — $13 million for the 30 SUNY community colleges and $5.2 million to the six City University of New York community colleges.

With a state budget trying to close a $10 billion deficit, higher education was just one of a few areas that received any restorations.

"Our solidarity and activism mitigated, but did not reverse, the erosion of resources for higher education," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, who oversees the union's legislative program. "We must continue to fight for the full funding our campuses deserve."

The budget "shortchanges SUNY by cutting its operating budget by $100 million," said Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, which represents more than 34,000 academic and professional faculty in SUNY. "Our non-stop activism — on the ground and on the airwaves — was and continues to be essential in defending public higher education."

The City University of New York, was not spared, either. The system will lose $95.1 million for senior colleges, and $12.3 million for its community colleges.

"After three years of budget reductions totaling $205 million, our classrooms are packed elbow to elbow, our students are graduating late and paying higher tuition, and our campuses are falling into disrepair," said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents more than 20,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York.

The SUNY community colleges, several of which have seen double-digit increases in enrollments, are holding their own, but it's not easy.

"The community colleges have a long, proud 'can-do' history of rising to the challenge," said Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College, chair of the NYSUT Higher Education Council and a NYSUT board member.

"That does not mean that such conditions deliver what our students deserve, but we will do our best for them," she said.

When state aid is cut, Schuler Mauk said, much of the burden falls on community college students who face higher tuition, reduced services, limited programs and restricted enrollment.

Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College who represents community colleges on the NYSUT board, agreed that NYSUT members always rise to the challenge, but part of that challenge is to remind lawmakers of the vital role of community colleges.

"There is a reason that President Obama has highlighted community colleges as key to the recovery," Sako said. "We are working very hard, and we need smaller classes and more full-time faculty."

NYSUT and its higher education affiliates will continue to work with a coalition of groups affected by the cuts — students, parents and communities that depend on the economic engine of a public college campus — to convince lawmakers to reinvest in higher education.

"I love SUNY," said 20-year-old John Lopez, an accounting major at the University at Albany who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with UUP members during a rally at the Capitol. "The campus is gorgeous, the teachers are amazing, but the classes are sometimes too big."

Said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who oversees higher education services: "We will continue to advocate for more faculty and greater funding. For us, every day is budget season."