April 2012
March 19, 2012

Students, faculty roar: Higher ed can suffer no more

Author: DarrylMcGrath
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Union leaders meet with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, right. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Once again, NYSUT's higher education locals joined forces with students to make a powerful, loud and visible demand in Albany for realistic funding to the state's public colleges, universities and hospitals. Now, that demand is finally being heard.

Lawmakers are saying "No" to Gov. Cuomo's call for flat funding and "No" to cuts at the three SUNY teaching hospitals that would compromise patient care.

The budget was not finalized as NYSUT United went to press, but the state Senate and Assembly had released their budget bills. Both recommendations provided additional funding to community colleges and SUNY's hospitals, which is a positive shift from the deep budget cuts of recent years. However, negotiations were ongoing as the April 1 fiscal deadline approached.

The three systems have lost $1.7 billion in state funding since 2008. For the last year, NYSUT has pressed a sustained advocacy effort that never really rested after the end of the last budget session. In response, lawmakers finally began to recognize that New York's reputation as a leader in quality affordable higher education was at risk. Collectively, the Senate and Assembly recommendations:

• Set aside $25 million of the SUNY operating budget for the hiring of full-time faculty. SUNY has lost some 2,000 full-time faculty members through attrition and retirement in the last 10 years.

• Increase state base aid for both the SUNY and CUNY community colleges — $14.6 million for the SUNY schools in the Senate version; $30 million in the Assembly version, and $3.8 million for the CUNY community colleges in the Senate version, with $12.5 million in the Assembly version.

• Increase state funding to the SUNY hospitals by $55 million in the Senate plan, and $27.8 million in the Assembly version. The hospitals lost $68 million in state funding last year.

Budget negotiations for higher education followed an unprecedented day of advocacy last month by NYSUT's higher education leaders and coalition members. More than 500 CUNY and SUNY students marched and visited lawmakers on a day when NYSUT and its coalition partner, the Alliance for Quality Education, brought 2,000 K-12 teachers and parents to Albany.

"When you have nearly 3,000 students, teachers and faculty members unite to peacefully but loudly publicize their desperate plight, people tend to sit up and listen," NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said.

Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, which represents the academic and professional faculty at SUNY, and Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty and staff at CUNY, led students and their members through a day of activism. Both leaders noted that budget cuts affect students, not just faculty and staff. "In 1990, the state provided more funding than it does today," Smith told hundreds of students before they marched. "Now you, the students, are making up that gap. Public education is supposed to be supported by the state."

Bowen reinforced the message that the state has failed its public college students. "This is the richest state in the country, in the richest country in the world," she said. "But we're not supporting public education."

NYSUT joined forces three years ago with a coalition of student advocacy organizations, including the Public Interest Research Group, to make a unified demand for increased funding to public higher education. That effort has resonated with students as, each year, hundreds of SUNY and CUNY students turn out for the joint advocacy day.

Marlon Kitenge, a student at the New York City College of Technology, was a first-time attendee at the NYSUT advocacy day. He was stunned by the turnout, and by the effort it took for so many hundreds of students to get to Albany for the day.

"I know we're all fighting for the same cause, but I didn't expect so many from so many different colleges," he said. "We're losing financial aid, we're getting our financial aid late, tuition is rising."

Fitzgerald Saint Hubert, a student at Queensborough Community College, rose at 3:30 a.m. to catch a bus from New York City to Albany, and gave up a day's pay at his job as a security guard so he could join the march and rally. It was also his first time at such an event.

"That shows how serious this cause is to me," he said.