Start New York’s 2017 agenda with investment in CUNY

By Barbara Bowen |  

November 30, 2016 |  

It feels as if months have passed since Donald Trump was elected president. Perhaps that’s because so many New Yorkers now live in palpable fear.

For thousands of students at the City University of New York, where 40 percent of undergraduates are immigrants and several thousand are undocumented, the fear is especially real. Three-quarters of CUNY undergraduates are people of color, more than half are women, many are Muslim, many are Jewish and there are large and active organizations of LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. Students in many of these groups have been directly targeted by President-elect Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals. All are vulnerable in a regime in which violent white nationalism is normalized as policy.

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have taken strong stands against the torrent of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia since the election. Mayor de Blasio has powerfully reaffirmed that New York will remain a sanctuary city, and Gov. Cuomo has written directly to New York’s students assuring them that the state will not tolerate hatred or racist intimidation.

Those are vitally important messages, and both the governor and mayor have begun to announce policy initiatives to reinforce their commitment to New Yorkers at risk. But few initiatives would have as profound an impact as a pledge to restore full funding to the university on which the city’s most vulnerable communities rely.

For most of its students, CUNY represents the single best chance for a life without grinding poverty. Yet state funding per CUNY student is lower than it was eight years ago and much lower than it was for previous generations. And while city funding for CUNY community colleges has risen under de Blasio, it is still far below what’s needed.

As a result, CUNY struggles to provide its students with the full and rich education they deserve. Students encounter crowded classrooms, a scarcity of needed courses and buildings in disrepair. Half of their instructors are paid by the course, not on salary; it would take 4,000 additional salaried faculty to meet the student need. If the city and state are determined to stand by its poorest and most vulnerable populations, it should not allow conditions like these to persist.

Recently, the Inspector General released a report about misspending by some CUNY college presidents and foundations associated with CUNY. I know how hard the faculty, staff and students at CUNY work with few resources. Even one penny wasted is an outrage. The union that represents the faculty and staff has long advocated for legislation that would create budget transparency at CUNY’s research foundation. Any wrongful spending should be immediately corrected and transparency legislation should be enacted this session.

But at this unprecedented moment in our history, when immigrants and students of color are under attack, New York’s elected officials must not let genuine concerns about some CUNY foundations and spending practices distract from the need for more public funding.

Trump has alluded to a frightening agenda for his first 100 days in office. He has begun to make cabinet appointments that indicate how committed to that agenda his administration will be. Its policies could rip apart CUNY students’ families and wreck the futures they are building for themselves.

Cuomo and de Blasio have a chance to make an equally bold commitment for the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. They should solidify the pledges they have already made for a safe, open and just New York by making a dramatic new commitment to investing in CUNY. There is no better way to demonstrate that New York believes in the future of all its people than to invest in an institution that makes that future possible.

Full funding will not happen all at once; years of fiscal starvation have left a $2 billion hole in CUNY’s budget. That is a big number, but it is not out of reach for a multi-year plan that can start now.

Make this the year to change the annual conversation about how much to cut CUNY funding into a conversation about what full funding would look like – without squeezing more and more tuition dollars out of New York’s poorest families.

Give CUNY the resources it needs. Show the world that New York still believes that immigrants and others who rely on CUNY are our future. Invest in hope. Repudiate racism, xenophobia and misogyny with funding where it matters.

Barbara Bowen is the president of PSC CUNY, the university system’s faculty union.


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