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Unions call for CUNY, SUNY 'New Deal' investments

Legislation includes $3 billion to eliminate tuition


The state and city university systems are facing “desperate financial conditions” and need additional funding for operating expenses, better faculty-to-student ratios and other proposals in the New Deal for Higher Education bill, advocates urged during a March 9 rally in Albany.

The coalition of labor unions, students and elected officials are pressing Governor Kathy Hochul to increase funding for higher education in the state’s final budget, citing decades of disinvestment in public higher education. 

The proposed legislation calls for a $1.44 billion increase in operating support for CUNY and SUNY universities and community colleges and SUNY hospitals, $267.2 million to hire additional mental health counselors, and $3 billion to eliminate tuition at both CUNY and SUNY schools. 

James Davis, who represents 30,000 faculty and staff at CUNY as president of the Professional Staff Congress, noted that funding at CUNY decreased by 18 percent during former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tenure, adjusted for inflation.

CUNY is now facing further cuts, with the university ordering each of its 25 campuses to slash their budgets by 5-to-6 percent and implementing a hiring freeze. 

“That will be catastrophic. We must prevent it from happening,” Davis said during the rally at the state Capitol building. “We are all here because we all understand the transformative power of our higher education institutions and because we understand how deeply those institutions are woven into the fabric of our communities.”

Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions, which represents 42,000 employees at SUNY, said the state university system has lost $8 billion in funding since 2008.“There’s nothing public about that, except that it is a total abandonment of the obligation by the leaders of this state, specifically Andrew Cuomo,” he said.

Kowal also pushed for increased funding for SUNY’s three teaching hospitals, highlighting the fact that during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn served as a Covid-only facility —but did not receive additional funding. “Funding is desperately needed for these hospitals so they can teach the students who will be the professionals of tomorrow while also treating the patients of today,” he said.

More than six dozen legislators support the bill, which aims to improve class sizes by hiring additional full-time faculty. It also includes funding for advisors and one mental health counselor for every 1,000 students.

“My first semester, I almost failed out because I didn’t have the mental-health services provided for me at SUNY Cortland. There’s only two mental-health counselors for all 6,000 of us,” said Sonya Concepcion, a SUNY Cortland senior majoring in political science who backs the measure.

Rip 3-percent tuition hike

Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos believes fully funding CUNY and SUNY is essential since they "are responsible for real economic mobility for working families."

Senator John Liu, who also represents portions of Queens, said the bill would not only improve learning conditions for students but working conditions for faculty. The legislation includes increased pay for adjuncts. 

“The New Deal … is also about making sure that our faculty members are taken care of, that we have more full-time faculty, that adjuncts are treated the right way, with the respect and recognition” they deserve, he said.

The coalition also slammed a proposed 3-percent tuition increase for CUNY and SUNY students that’s included in Hochul’s preliminary budget. CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez previously defended the tuition bump, noting that about 80 percent of students who receive state financial aid would not see increases.

But Salimatou Doumbouya, chairperson of CUNY’s Student Senate, argued that “when they say that the tuition hikes will only impact the students who are not receiving financial aid or tuition assistance, they mean that international students don’t matter, they mean that undocumented students don’t matter. … So we do not want tuition hikes at any level.”

Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes, the lead sponsor of the bill, noted that “there is so much going on in the budget this year, but not enough for public higher education. Don’t say you support public higher education and then underfund our institutions of public higher education. Don’t say you support working families and then ask them to pay more tuition to go to school.”


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