November 2010 Issue
October 26, 2010

Activists mobilize to fight for higher ed

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Albany Common Council member Leah Golby, a UAlbany alumna, rallies to support arts and humanities programs targeted for elimination. Photo by Don Feldstein.

Higher education faculty are working with NYSUT to call public attention to what they see as the dismantling of New York's historic system of public universities and colleges.

The pressures have been plentiful and painful:

  • Skyrocketing increases in enrollment at community colleges throughout the CUNY and SUNY systems;
  • Budget cutbacks of $250 million in the last three years at the City University of New York, where many of the buildings are decrepit and crowded, and students at some campuses have been in "temporary" classrooms for years;
  • The recent announcement at SUNY's Albany campus that 160 jobs may be cut; that five majors — French, Italian, Russian, theater and the classics — may be eliminated; and the journalism program may be cut in half.

But NYSUT's higher education leaders and locals are fighting back. NYSUT and its two major higher ed locals — United University Professions at SUNY and the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY — stopped the governor's Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act by pointing out that it would have created a system of "haves and have-nots," in which students would have faced varying tuition among programs and campuses.

NYSUT also worked with community college locals at SUNY and CUNY for the restoration of $75 million in aid to community colleges that Gov. Paterson had cut in his budget proposal.

And through it all, NYSUT and its higher ed locals continue to remind working families that higher education administrators have not responded to rising costs, crowded classes and diminished programs.

"The state stresses the importance of a strong public education from early childhood through graduate school, an idea that NYSUT has long endorsed," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "But a public education cannot be complete if public colleges and universites cut programs and services."

At last month's meeting of NYSUT's Higher Education Council, members said they will work closely with NYSUT leaders to keep higher education at the top of the Legislature's agenda.

"This is a collective body that can speak to New York's higher education, and I think we should take advantage of that — externally and internally," said council chair Ellen Schuler Mauk, a NYSUT Board member who heads the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College.

Council members are already putting that plan into action: Phil Smith, president of UUP — which represents 32,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY — has repeatedly called on SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher to tap $595 million in campus reserves.

Smith is also reminding lawmakers that the state has cut SUNY's operating aid by $562 million in two years, even as jobs, programs and services fold.

"We cannot understand why SUNY is not using its reserves to remedy this crisis," Smith told the state Senate Higher Education Committee at a recent hearing.

Lawmakers do hear such sound arguments, as higher education leaders know. The New York City Council restored $32.3 million to CUNY that Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to cut from the current budget, including $21.4 million in community college operating aid.

Steve London, first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress — which represents more than 20,000 faculty and staff at CUNY — credited the election of PSC-backed city council candidates a year ago.

"The council's budget votes in support of CUNY are a reminder that elections matter," London said.

Locals are also taking action. The Jefferson Community College Educational Services Professionals Association, headed by Tina Kimmis — a member of the Higher Education Council — has worked with administrators in Watertown to address overcrowding. The college is planning its first residence hall, and additional classrooms opened in a new "Extended Learning Center."

The UUP chapter at UAlbany organized two forums and a rally last month in defense of public education.

The rally came three days after UAlbany administrators announced the proposed cuts, and drew hundreds of students and faculty.

Students in the targeted majors can still graduate, and classes in the targeted areas would still be offered.

But the proposed cuts to humanities struck a nerve, and faculty are striking back. A Web petition has been set up to protest the cuts, and two open letters written by faculty deploring the losses are circulating at UAlbany.

"If we aspire to be a first-rate undergraduate university, as well as a university with excellent professional schools, this is not the way to go about it," philosophy professor and UUP member Bonnie Steinbeck, says in her letter.

The second letter, by UUP member Jean-Francois Briere — a French professor who chairs Languages, Literature and Cultures — questions the meaning of UAlbany's slogan, "A World Within Reach," if majors in global languages are cut.

Briere urges her colleagues to press for a campus-wide discussion about "how to balance the budget without eliminating entire degree programs."