Can you spare $500 million? Unions want more for SUNY, CUNY

Despite N.Y. governor's quest to uplift higher education in state, organizations backing faculty aren't satisfied.

Two unions, including United University Professors, say new Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to invigorate higher education in state is welcome but doesn’t go far enough to offset what they call “chronic underfunding” in its two signature public institutions – the State University of New York and the City University of New York.

Buoyed by the support of a pair of political leaders, unions want state officials to look much closer at their proposed budget and come up with an additional $500 million that they say will help build diversity among high-ranking faculty, enhance student support services and revitalize academic programs at CUNY and SUNY institutions.

“Investing in our public education is investing in our state’s growth, and it is crucial that our budget treats fully funding CUNY and SUNY with the urgency it deserves,” said State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who represents areas around Brooklyn. “We need a New Deal for CUNY and game-changing investments in SUNY, and we need them now.”

Hochul last month released plans to overhaul SUNY and make it the top public system in the United States through global expansion, research and innovation. She wants what the unions want – increased mobility for students, stronger career paths, flexible credentials and an affordable education for all.

“New York must have a statewide world-class public university system that can change lives for the next generation of students,” Hochul said. “We must seize this moment to revitalize SUNY, lifting up students from a broad and diverse range of backgrounds while at the same time transforming the institution into a global, 21st century educational leader.”

Her plans for SUNY include turning universities at Stony Brook and Buffalo into global research institutions, along with creating “Labs for the Future” across the state and having each institution forge its own identify to boost enrollments. She also wants to developing a Jobs Accelerator program throughout the system.

The state has allocated $7.5 billion toward higher education in its 2022 budget, with $1.5 billion targeted to achieve those goals at CUNY and SUNY. That figure sounds robust, but the dollars go quickly across 84 campuses and nearly 700,000 students, including 200,000 that have Excelsior scholarships that allows for free tuition. Even those have limitations, unions say, because students must cover costs of room, board and fees. In addition to boosting its stature nationally and globally, Hochul also wants to see the pool of students increase at SUNY to more than 500,000.

“SUNY is down $7 billion in state funding since the Great Recession,” said UUP President Frederick Kowal. “And here we are, in the second year of a pandemic, and there are zero dollars budgeted—zero—for critical mission funding for SUNY’s public teaching hospitals. For SUNY to meet the governor’s goal of being the best public higher education system in the nation, the state needs to make a long-term investment in SUNY. That must start this year.”

To get there, unions say there needs to be $150 million direct operating assistance given to SUNY, where they say a years-long leveling of funding from the state has led to campuses having to “deactivate programs, backfill positions with adjunct and part-time faculty, and cut student services.” The Professional Staff Congress union meanwhile wants to see an additional $253 million allocated at CUNY, including the hiring of 170 mental health counselors, 370 more academic advisors and nearly 1,400 new full-time, diverse faculty members. Another goal of PSC is to have them free to attend, although that would require significantly more capital.

“CUNY and SUNY are New York’s principal economic mobility engines,” said Cory Provost, Chair of the CUNY University Student Senate. “CUNY alone propels six times more people from the lowest income bracket to middle-class or higher incomes than all the schools in the Ivy League combined. After decades of disinvestment, state budget cuts, and fiscal austerity, this is the year to make game-changing investments in creating a true affordable pathway that uplifts students and communities.”

Though the unions are asking for more, one of the parties most affected by budgets, the SUNY system, was thrilled at the investment from the state.

“From Governor Kathy Hochul’s first State of the State to the executive budget proposal, the Governor has set ambitious goals for our comprehensive system and has followed through with substantial funding to achieve her vision,” said SUNY’s interim Chancellor Deborah Stanley, who replaced Jim Malatras, (he resigned in the wake of the Gov. Andrew Cuomo scandal) in December. “The Governor is providing fiscal stability for our colleges and universities by investing in our faculty, and also eliminating the gaps in the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) at our state-operated campuses and providing a 100 percent funding floor for our community colleges.”

The two unions did laud the Governor’s budgets on several line items. The PSC said the $284 million toward infrastructure for CUNY is much needed, given the age of many buildings. And the UUP, saying it was ready to work with the governor, state and SUNY leaders, said Hochul’s proposal to end Tuition Assistance Program gaps and a five-year capital plan to address maintenance, is also welcome. One critical area of need they say, is a deep investment in SUNY’s academic medical centers.

“This year’s budget is a great starting point for our higher education system. However, we must go further,” Senior Rachel May said. “In my district, SUNY Upstate Hospital employees, from nurses to administrators to custodial staff and security, have long provided critical support to our community, and have stepped up and made immense sacrifices throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, they have seen a decrease in investment from New York State for the past two decades. It is time for New York to step up and show we recognize the great value all SUNY campuses contain for students across the state.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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