April 2013
March 27, 2013

Voices get louder in fight for higher education

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, second from left, heads a contingent of union leaders, from left, UUP President Phil Smith, PSC President Barbara Bowen and Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College President Ellen Schuler Mauk, to press state lawmakers, including Sen. Ken LaValle, right, to properly fund public higher education. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

NYSUT's higher education leaders are determined to continue their relentless push for comprehensive funding of the state's public colleges and hospitals.

As NYSUT United went to press, lawmakers were set to approve a budget that injects some desperately needed money into the community colleges but leaves the public colleges and universities with flat funding for another year. The budget also appears to extend the lifespan of SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

The deal restores $28 million to the SUNY hospitals that had been cut, bringing their total funding for the year to $88 million. There could be more layoffs of United University Professions members at Downstate, and some services will be cut, but the hospital will remain open.

"Considering what we faced, our members should be proud of their efforts," NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said. "We could have lost this hospital completely. These effects will still be felt by the community, patients and staff, but we have a functioning hospital to work with as we continue the fight to revive Downstate."

Hundreds of community residents and dozens of clergy joined NYSUT in demanding that Downstate remain open, public and accessible. More than 400 students from SUNY, CUNY and the community colleges converged on the Legislative Office Building last month on Higher Education Advocacy Day in solidarity with NYSUT activists.

This groundswell of support affirms the tireless efforts of NYSUT members who continue to advocate for more funding to offset the 2008-10 cuts to the State and City university systems, community colleges and SUNY hospitals in Brooklyn, Long Island and Syracuse. NYSUT members turned out for advocacy days in Albany, visited lawmakers in their home districts through the summer and marched in the streets of Albany.

"We're in a better place than we were last year or the year before," Pallotta said. "We won't be in a great place until the state gets on track with adequate funding for senior colleges."

The financial picture of public higher education in New York state has been bleak through the Great Recession, and New York's colleges and universities reflect what NYSUT higher education leaders call a "starvation diet."

At CUNY, according to the Professional Staff Congress, the NYSUT local that represents CUNY faculty and staff, full-time faculty teach fewer than half the classes. Yet CUNY's enrollment has increased by 40 percent since 1990-91 to near-record levels, with 172,618 students in senior

colleges and 94,909 in community colleges. The PSC says 42 percent of CUNY students report not being able to register for a class because there are no seats, and 26 percent report not being able to register for a class needed for graduation.

The SUNY system is faring no better. Student tuition is carrying the bulk of the operating budget at the senior and community colleges, while state spending has steadily declined. The portion of the operating budget funded by tuition and campus revenues such as fees has increased to 55 percent of the total budget at the SUNY senior colleges in the last five years; for the community colleges, the increase has been nearly 40 percent.

The budget plan includes a funding increase of $150 per full-time student for the community colleges, in contrast to Governor Cuomo's recommendation of flat state funding.

"We thank them for providing an income of $150 per full-time student. This is the second year in a row they have provided this increase, which shows their commitment to getting us back on track to 2008-09 funding levels," said Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College and chair of NYSUT's Higher Education Policy Council who — with Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie CC — speaks for community colleges on the NYSUT Board.

The senior SUNY and CUNY colleges have endured more than $1 billion in state cuts since 2008.

"Our campuses will need additional money," said Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, which represents the academic and professional faculty at SUNY. UUP was asking lawmakers to provide $25 million more.

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, said Albany has failed to keep its promise that tuition increases would go toward faculty and educational programs and services. Instead, CUNY has used tuition increases to pay a $35 million increase in maintenance costs — a move Bowen called deeply unfair "when our students really sweat blood to pay additional tuition money."

Morale at Downstate remains strong for the several thousand United University Professions employees there, but "it really has been tough for them," said Downstate UUP Chapter President Rowena Blackman-Stroud. "The coalition of faith-based leaders and community leaders has helped."

One positive update: 86 of the 360 UUP members who had received non-renewal notices have learned their jobs will be saved. Blackman-Stroud credited the strong advocacy by UUP and its constituent coalition of Brooklyn clergy and community activists, and said UUP and its Downstate supporters are pressing for an additional review of all non-renewal notices.

The state AFL-CIO also has made the plight of Downstate a pressing cause. "What's happening at Downstate is just the latest example of the troubling movement away from public hospitals and nursing homes. We cannot in good conscience turn our back on the 400,000 people in Brooklyn who rely on Downstate each year and the dedicated professionals who provide their care," said union President Mario Cilento.

SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse continues to face pressing challenges, said Upstate UUP Chapter President Carol Braund. Upstate serves a mostly poor, rural population and, as a Level I Trauma Center, provides services not readily available elsewhere in the region. "Because of the population we serve, we lose money," Braund said.

"Fifty percent of the people we see in our emergency room are self-pay or on Medicaid. The reimbursement rate for a Medicaid patient is less than $10 a visit."