In June, a group of City University of New York students concerned about the rising cost of tuition met with Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson at his office. There, members of the University Student Senate argued that the City needed to urgently address the hikes and underfunding at CUNY.
They didn’t get far in their argument. The students say they were cut off and the meeting was terminated 15 minutes into the hour the deputy mayor’s office had promised to set aside for the discussion. After the meeting’s premature end, the students say, Thompson’s secretary ushered them out of the office. “Don’t come to us with problems,” one of the students remembered her telling them. “We know what the problems are. Come back to us when you have solutions.”
Over the past four years, CUNY students have seen their tuition increase by $800, a significant amount at an institution where almost half of the students come from households making under $20,000 annually. For this current semester, the City University of New York’s trustees approved another tuition hike last June 24, four days before the students’ meeting with Thompson. As of fall 2019, students who are New York State residents will pay $6,930 per year.
At the same time as administrators argue that these increases are necessary for the institutional health of the system, students are experiencing diminishing access to vital services like academic and career counseling while adjuncts remain underpaid and overworked.
The City University of New York’s trustees did more than raise the cost of public education when they voted to hike tuition this fall. Rather, they opted to continue a pattern of divestment that students say is sabotaging public universities coast to coast. Students are seeing the cost of their education go up while school spending to support their success goes down.
These developments reflect a nationwide decrease of support of public institutions. The University of Alaska system, for example, will bear the brunt of a 41 percent cut after Governor Mike Dunleavy vetoed sections of the state budget. This could lead to massive layoffs and has thrown the system into chaos as universities fight each other over which school should absorb the most “pain.”
Budget cuts at leading public research universities across the country—like UC Berkley, which announced a $150 million deficit in 2016 due in part to a reduction in state funding—are undermining their capacity to compete with their privately owned counterparts. Public universities typically have smaller endowments and less money to spend per student. This has meaningful implications for the lower-income students who are more likely to rely on these schools.
In New York, this trend has been hastened by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Despite rolling out his vaunted Excelsior Scholarship—framed as an initiative to make education free—in August of 2018, only a sliver of the student body attending the state’s public universities has benefited from the scholarship program. Cuomo notably continued to support raising tuition after introducing Excelsior.
Governor Cuomo has been sharply criticized regarding the growing gap between rising tuition and diminishing state funds for the Tuition Assistance Program, which helps students cover the cost of an education that is steadily becoming more expensive—this discrepancy has even been given its own name, the TAP Gap. As resources for TAP become increasingly scarce, institutions are driven to cut back on hiring staff, funding libraries, and investing in support services for students in an attempt to make up the difference.
The TAP Gap illustrates a glaring disconnect between students’ experience at the university and how administrators and officials understand the institution. “A narrative that I’ve been hearing at CUNY, or even by the governor, is that CUNY is so affordable,” said Smitha Varghese of the University Student Senate. “The Board of Trustees say that when they raise our tuition and the governor says that when he doesn’t fund us enough. They say that CUNY is so affordable, so why not increase [tuition] by a little?”
Varghese pointed out that the governor and the trustees are “not taking into account all the other expenses [of going] to CUNY” when making these claims. The cost of living in New York, for example, is a crushing burden for most CUNY students.
The state government’s decision to withdraw funding has had a cascading effect on both CUNY and the State University of New York system. Stonybrook University implemented a hiring freeze to offset a $18.5 million shortfall and, February of last year, closed its undergraduate pharmacology department. SUNY Binghamton libraries have seen a 4 percent budget cut, alongside a hiring freeze that only exempts adjuncts and teaching assistants. Facing a $5 million budget shortfall for 2018 and 2019, SUNY New Paltz stopped hiring to replace positions vacated because of retirement or attrition for three months. The president of Baruch College, which had been able to avoid “some of the impact of CUNY budget reductions,” released a statement last year saying that the school has been affected by these “austerity measures,” which he described as “severe and unwelcomed.” The school was unexpectedly forced to cut back spending by $5 million.
One justification top administrators have offered for hiking tuition has been that it is the only way to pay rising faculty salaries. Yet adjuncts, who must meet students’ needs in overcrowded classrooms, are currently paid only $3,500 per class. They are currently demanding $7,000 for each course, a raise the administration has yet to put on the bargaining table.
Meanwhile, CUNY students are finding themselves without support in many other key areas. A 2016 study showed that CUNY does not provide students adequate access to counselors and advisers. According to the report, “Breaking Through,” each single adviser at the university must account for between 600 and 1,000 students. Access to advisement is crucial for CUNY students, around half of whom are first-generation college students who are working full-time as well as attending school. The report also found that 16 percent of CUNY students support children.
Students from marginalized communities are acutely impacted by the withdrawal of support. While CUNY schools have offered legal support, undocumented students say the system does not help them with the tuition burden. Undocumented students’ access to measures like the Excelsior Scholarship and TAP was contingent on the passage of the New York State Dream Act. While Governor Cuomo included the Dream Act in his budget for the year, his version of the bill did not include a critical funding plan attached to the original—meaning even if funding for financial assistance becomes available, undocumented students could still face deportation.
Austerity at CUNY has devastated academic departments devoted to promoting scholars of color in particular. In 2016, Hunter College effectively closed its Asian Studies department by removing it from the School of Arts and Sciences and replacing it with a smaller institute managed by the provost’s office. The administration decided on this course of action without consulting students or faculty, which sparked controversy.
According to Daniel Vázquez Sanabria, a Brooklyn College student majoring in Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, moves like these direct resources away from entire areas of study. And departments identified as teaching “ethnic studies”—a homogenized grouping that students and faculty object to—are often the first to be cut.
“Departments like Puerto Rican [and Latino] studies, Africana Studies, Haitian Studies, and even Dominican Studies have been left to share their space with other departments in order to exist. It is also important to note that even with CUNY having a high percentage of Central American and Mexican students, as well as Asian and Southeast Asian students, it has yet to provide a complete set of courses that cover their histories,” Sanabria explained. “Ethnic studies are highly played down because they are seen as departments that contribute only to the identity of students, rather than their academic life. This is true across all CUNY campuses—including community colleges.”
Angel Oropeza, an undocumented student who arrived in 2016 as Donald Trump whipped anti-immigrant sentiment into a fury, is studying both political science and Latin American studies. He does not believe he will be able to get the second degree. “There are not enough classes being offered to actually fulfill my requirements,” he said. “I need six classes, and for the last three years there have only been four classes offered.”
Ethnic Studies departments at CUNY are historically tied to the fight to establish racial equity at CUNY. The establishment Puerto Rican Studies was the result of Latino and black students organizing against the grain of segregation and a hostile university system in the late 1960s and early ’70s. CUNY presidents often responded to student actions by calling the police, which led to mass arrests. This organizing eventually pushed the university to enact an open admissions policy, which was instrumental to breaking down school segregation in the 1970s.
Though the policy had not been among the student organizers’ demands, they were its “most reliable and energetic defenders” according to Fordham’s Christopher Gunderson. The fiscal crisis of 1975, which precipitated the austerity measures being implemented at CUNY, provided a pretext for gradually watering down the open admissions policy in addition to downsizing and consolidating the various ethnic studies departments.
Echoes of that struggle plague today’s student organizers who are still struggling with unsympathetic administrations and government officials. According to students who met with Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson concerning rising tuition, the deputy mayor told them that the city would not act unless students organized protests like those of the 1970s.
Students also find themselves isolated by progressives who talk extensively about making public education free. In 2017, Bernie Sanders visited his alma mater Brooklyn College and endorsed Cuomo’s Excelsior program. His team would not meet with student organizers despite their requests. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has CUNY students in her district, has yet to address the hikes and the cuts directly.
Even if they are on their own, student organizers at CUNY have not given up the fight. Greene says that students and faculty are building networks of support across campuses and gearing up for a bigger fight. Smitha Varghese says that the New York Public Interest Research Group and the CUNY Professional Staff Congress are preparing a massive campaign to educate students about the budgetary process, which will be key to identifying leverage points in the struggle against austerity.
Regardless of what the state, city, and administration throws their way, Smitha Varghese says, the organizers at CUNY are determined to stay on their toes.