May 07, 2014

NYSUT's higher education affiliates take leading role in advancing national campaign

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT Communications
don't cut our future
Caption: Photo courtesy Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.

NYSUT's higher education affiliates are helping to build a strong national coalition aimed at keeping college education affordable and accessible for students and their families, and more inclusive of the contributions of dedicated faculty and staff.

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE) is expanding its membership beyond faculty and staff at the public colleges and universities that helped found the group in 2011, and that still form the campaign's core.

As it does so, NYSUT's two largest higher education affiliates - United University Professions at the SUNY state-operated campuses and the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York - along with the systems' community colleges, are helping reach out to a range of progressive groups that share their concerns about the affordability and accessibility of college. They can help the campaign bring its concerns to the lawmakers who decide public higher education funding.

The campaign is now working with student organizations, community groups, other unions and education associations that want to see a reinvestment in higher education after decades of defunding and the dismantling of faculty lines and curricula. These diverse groups, unified by common concerns about the growing inequality in American society, are participating in a campaign planning meeting hosted by UUP May 16-18 in Albany.

"It's not just a union gathering," said UUP President Fred Kowal. "It's a gathering of many groups concerned about higher education. This is literally about the future of higher education and how this nation can once again provide it to a full spectrum of Americans. Issues of access and affordability are paramount."

Next weekend's meeting will include the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the New York Public Interest Research Group, the United States Student Association, the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"We are hoping to expand the coalition outside of the academy - to student groups, to community groups - because we recognize we can't do it alone," said UUP Secretary Eileen Landy, who is coordinating the campaign's work.

The campaign's goals, which members are sharing with lawmakers, include making affordable quality higher education accessible to all, and bringing faculty, staff, students and communities into decision-making. The campaign's principles include affordability, access, adequate faculty, and the use of technology in higher education.

Cynthia Eaton, adjunct coordinator at the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College, said the campaign will be able to make convincing arguments to lawmakers about such inequities because it is "very data-driven, very focused."

The NYSUT affiliates join other higher education unions, including the California Faculty Association at California State University, in this voluntary campaign that has no offices and no staff, but that is starting to attract national attention from other progressive groups, such as United We Dream, Dream Defenders and Higher Ed not Debt. These groups are concerned about access for all students, including undocumented youth, and decades of disinvestment.

Involvement by NYSUT's higher education affiliates in CFHE prompted the union's Public Higher Education Quality Initiative, Landy noted.

NYSUT is asking lawmakers through the initiative to fully fund public higher education; to create an endowment to help restore faculty and staff levels; and to increase funding of public financial aid.

New York state's public higher education systems illustrate the campaign's urgent mission, Landy said. The operating fund increase of $7.6 million for SUNY in the new state budget follows years of flat funding. CUNY once again received flat funding in the state budget. CUNY and SUNY community colleges received the equivalent of $75 for every full-time student, when they had hoped for $150 per full-time student.

The campaign's outreach to student groups is important because student debt is so closely connected to the underfunding of public higher education, burgeoning class sizes and cutbacks in course offerings.

In short, students and their families are providing revenue the state should be providing, and tuition is being used for operating costs rather than for academic purposes, said PSC Treasurer Mike Fabricant. The national student loan debt is estimated at $1 trillion.

"We've got to get back to a public commitment and investment in public higher education," Fabricant said. "Middle-class and poor families need to be taken off the debt hook."

Kowal says those those concerns will be a theme for the upcoming gathering.

"The issues of access and affordability are a major civil rights issue today," he said.

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