SUNY students from Buffalo were among the public higher ed students who invaded the Empire State Plaza for Higher Education Lobby Day today and, as United University Professions President Fred Kowal pointed out, they brought wind, snow and winter with them.
But the weather didn’t stop hundreds of college kids from the tip of Long Island, from New York City, from central and western New York who crawled onto buses in the predawn darkness and bounded off them to roll down the Plaza concourse and tell their stories to lawmakers. The message: Boost the state’s investment in public higher education and stop relying on tuition increases to keep the lights on.
The students — joined by academic and professional faculty from SUNY and CUNY — squeezed into a large meeting room off the concourse to rally together before they broke into smaller groups for visits with legislators. It was standing room only.
“We’re running out of chairs, we’re running out of coffee,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. “What a great problem to have! This is very exciting!”
Sending a shout-out to students from Brooklyn College, his alma mater, Pallotta said, “In a few years, you may be here talking to (future) students saying this is what I was able to accomplish because of quality public higher education.”
Some of them got up at 5 a.m., some at 4 a.m. and some never went to bed last night.
“You are the spectacular ones, the ones who got up early to ride the buses to be here,” said Professional Staff Congres President Barbara Bowen. “We’ve never had so large a group here. We cannot waste this day!”
They chanted: “Who’s got the power?!” “We’ve got the power!” “What kind of power?!” “Student power!”
Kowal urged them to look to their left and their right.
“What you are seeing is a revolution, because that is what is happening in our country,” he said. “A revolution comes because 700 people come in here to speak their dreams … You are the revolution!”
Hercules Reid, CUNY University Student Senate vice chair for legislative affairs, lamented that, due to years of underfunding, “the cost of higher education is moving beyond our means. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up and fight for accessibility, affordability and equality of education … The journey may be long, but the victory will be sweet!”
“Public higher education has been consistently neglected by the state, year after year,” said Marc Cohen, president of the SUNY Student Assembly. As costs continue to rise, tuition has increased to cover the lack of state aid and faculty has been frozen. “Students have been treated like bottomless ATMs to be used by the state” to pay the bills, he said.
Today’s groups of students visited the offices of more than 100 legislators to urge them to invest more than $100 million to begin the process of restoring hundreds of millions in aid cut during the Great Recession.
They also called on lawmakers to restore funding to CUNY and SUNY to facilitate the hiring of full-time faculty to fill thousands of positions lost in the past eight years. The governor’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship free tuition program will require an investment in more full-time faculty to meet an expected influx of new students.
One busload of Suffolk County Community College students managed two special conferences with top legislative leaders: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.
It was important to bring the students to the leaders, said Kevin Peterman, president of the Suffolk CC Faculty Association. “We’ve been underfunded for way too long. We need to drive that story home.”
The Action Day was organized by NYSUT, UUP, PSC, NYSUT community colleges, the University Student Senate at CUNY and the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Alex Bornemisza, chair of the NYPIRG board, summed up the spirit of the day: “We’re here because we believe access to knowledge is essential to the human condition, and it is a right guaranteed by life.”
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