Gov. Andrew Cuomo is fond of calling himself a “progressive.” If Cuomo wants to truly earn that distinction, he should adequately invest in one of the most progressive institutions in New York – its public university systems.  The City University of New York offers an important educational opportunity for almost 500,000 low- and moderate-income New Yorkers – many of them students of color.

But despite arguing that tuition increases should “make it possible for the public university systems to add faculty, reduce class size, expand program offerings, and improve academic performance,” Cuomo has instead let yearly tuition increases go to fill the hole left by state funding cuts. Per-student funding remains essentially flat at 14 percent below its pre-Recession 2008 levels, and Cuomo has, thus far, refused to help reverse the state’s disinvestment in CUNY. This year, CUNY was forced to absorb an additional $51 million in unfunded operating costs.

Now Cuomo has an opportunity to throw CUNY a lifeline by signing a bill that was passed almost unanimously by both houses of the Legislature. The legislation, known as the Maintenance of Effort bill, requires the state to provide steady funding in future budgets to maintain the educational and administrative operations of CUNY and SUNY. It would also provide necessary funding from the state’s substantial surplus to fund a fair contract for CUNY workers.

Why do we turn to the governor to seek adequate funding for CUNY?  For more than 50 years, New York state helped underwrite CUNY. Following CUNY’s creation in 1961 and dramatic expansion thereafter, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller agreed that a share of its costs should come from state coffers. This percentage increased dramatically after the 1976 fiscal crisis in New York City, thanks to Gov. Hugh Carey. But that trend has been changing under recent governors—including Cuomo.  Today state aid accounts for 53 percent of revenues to CUNY’s senior colleges, far less than the 74 percent the state committed in 1990.

CUNY’s 25,000 faculty and staff have been working without a contract since 2010. Since then, the cost of living in New York City has risen more than 20 percent. Many faculty and staff – the people we depend on to provide an excellent education for the young men and women who go to CUNY – haven’t had a pay increase, even a modest cost-of-living boost, in the last half decade. As one can imagine, this leads to trouble attracting and retaining faculty; many job offers are turned down because of uncompetitive pay and the city’s high cost of living.

CUNY is integral to the intellectual, cultural, and civic life of the city. Three of every four college-bound city high school graduates attend one of CUNY’s 24 campuses. CUNY’s current full-time student body is 26 percent African American, 30 percent Latino and 38 percent immigrant. A full 54 percent of CUNY students have family incomes below $30,000. A third of the city's public school teachers and a quarter of the New York City Council have at least one degree from CUNY. Three-quarters of CUNY graduates become city taxpayers, working as lawyers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, health workers, writers, poets, scientists and tech workers.

Many of us who teach at CUNY left elite universities to come here; we remain at CUNY because of the institution’s vibrant, multicultural, and democratic heritage and the belief that a broad system of public higher education is a precious, if increasingly precarious, public service. One might argue we have a faith-based commitment to public higher education.

We hope Gov. Cuomo will join us in that faith and invest in CUNY students and faculty.

 

Stephen Brier and Michelle Fine are professors at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.