Why We Must #SaveCUNY and Fight Back!
This past weekend, Angry Millennials joined hundreds of CUNY students, faculty, and supporters at the #SaveCUNY rally outside City Hall, followed by a loud, energetic march over the Brooklyn Bridge. We took over the pedestrian walkway, marching the 5,989 feet across the span, then continued through Brooklyn, ending in front of Borough Hall. While some tourists seemed a bit confused as to why we were interrupting their weekend sightseeing with chants of “They say cut back, we say fight back” and “education is a right, fight, fight, fight fight”, the cars honking on both sides of the bridge’s roadways signified that New Yorkers were well aware of struggle that CUNY faces.
The City University of New York system was created in 1961, and was originally comprised of Brooklyn College, Queens College, the Female Normal and High School, and the oldest of the schools, the Free Academy. The Academy, founded by Townsend Harris, represents the ideological roots of the CUNY system. This quote from Dr. Horace Webster, the first President, is still displayed on the history section of the City College website:
“The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”
The City University of New York system was free to all students until 1975, when in the midst of New York City’s budget crisis, President Ford promised to veto any bailout unless CUNY started charging tuition. After decades of gradual increases, CUNY Board of Trustees approved a five-year tuition increase of $300 annually in 2011, despite a series of major protests. Now the board has proposed another five-year extension of the tuition hikes for all CUNY senior colleges, further jeopardizing one of the few affordable options in the very expensive American higher education system. This chart, which includes the proposed hike extensions through 2021, demonstrates how steep these increases have been in the context of the system’s history:
If this wasn’t enough, students entering CUNY today have to contend with textbook prices which have soared 82% in the past ten years in a city whose cost of living has increased 23% from 2009 to 2014. As the tuition continues to rise for a system where 75% of the students are people of color, and 42% are first-generation college students, Governor Cuomo has cut $1.5 billion of CUNY’s state funding since 2008, while maximum salaries for top CUNY executives have increased dramatically.
PSC-CUNY which represents 5,000 faculty and staff, have also felt the effects of the state-sanctioned de-funding of public education. Their members have been working without a contract for five years, and have not had a pay raise since 2009, even as New York City’s cost of living continues to rise.
Last winter, the union fought back, authorizing a strike vote, and staging a disruptive protest where 53 faculty and staff were arrested while blocking the doors to CUNY’s administrative offices. These actions finally prompted the state to enter negotiations with PSC-CUNY. Earlier this year, the faculty union reached an impasse with the State, as a six-year contract was offered with a total 6% increase, much less than the 14% proposed by PSC-CUNY. Despite the punitive sanctions of the Taylor Law, which prevents public sector unions from striking, union President Barbara Bowen has indicated that it might be their only option, due to the complete lack of cooperation from the state:
“We’ve done everything necessary to settle this without a strike. We’ve held rallies, press conferences, written letters, worked with legislators, conducted sit-ins. We’ve done everything we can think of and having found that those things have not fully succeeded, we’ve had to consider a strike. We’re well aware of the penalties and hope that we, that none of our members, have to face them. That’s not something we look forward to.”
Many faculty members are also hired as adjuncts, leaving them drastically underpaid, with no benefits or job security.
The 2011 tuition increase included “maintenance of effort” legislation, first passed in 1993, which has enabled the state to fund the increasing facility and operation costs, even if they contributed nothing directly to the millennials of New York City. However, at the end of 2015, New York’s “progressive” Governor decided that even this was too much, and vetoed the “maintenance of effort” legislation.
A few months later, Cuomo proposed a 30% cut in state support for CUNY’s senior colleges, leaving $485 million to be covered by New York City, and placing the burden on students, faculty, and other staff members who are already feeling the effects from five-years of tuition hikes and budget cuts. While the state Assembly has rejected the proposal, the Republican-led Senate have already passed the bill in their house, leading to a conflict over education funding that Senate members have somehow linked to the Students for Justice in Palestine, coding their protests as “anti-semetic” while using them to deflect from the reality that they want to cut public education even further despite a $1 billion budget surplus.
Sunday’s march over the Brooklyn Bridge was just the latest action demonstrating that students, staff, and faculty have had enough of Cuomo’s austerity politics and are ready to fight back!
On Monday, the CUNY Collective is hosting #StrikeTheHike at 4pm in the Baruch College backyard.
Here are scenes from Sunday’s powerful multi-borough march: