The City University of New York is in abysmal financial shape ahead of the fall semester — and it’s time for students and faculty to “yell” for funding, a CUNY trustee declared.
“If we don’t ask, we ain’t gonna get,” Henry Berger, a member of CUNY’s Board of Trustees, said in sounding the alarm last week at the 17-member body’s first in-person meeting since the pandemic began last year.
Berger, one of five appointees of Mayor Bill de Blasio on the board, decried the city and state’s funding of the public university system as insufficient to address a range of rising costs that CUNY must now account for as the city emerges from COVID-19.
He proposed starting an “organized campaign” — consisting of students, faculty, staff and the board — to aggressively advocate for funding increases in the fall.
“When the budgets get put together in the state in September and in the city in January, our asses are in there,” said Berger, who previously served as de Blasio’s special counsel and as a Manhattan City Council member in the 1970s. “We got a lot of voices. We don’t seem to yell nearly loud enough.”
The trustee’s criticism comes as local and state governments attempt to rebound from a pandemic-induced financial crisis, and CUNY tries to boost enrollment for its fall semester classes beginning in late August, following lackluster sign-ups at both community and four-year colleges a year prior amid the pandemic.
CUNY boosters say the system, which serves more than 275,000 degree-seeking students across 25 campuses, is a crucial engine in bringing countless New Yorkers into the middle class and will be key to the city’s long-term recovery from economic devastation wrought by COVID-19.
‘A Stop-Gap Measure’
A CUNY spokesperson did not answer THE CITY’s questions about Berger’s remarks. Instead, spokesperson Frank Sobrino noted the university’s overall budget has increased recently — from $3.62 billion in fiscal year 2019 to $3.79 billion in the current year.
“CUNY continues to uphold its historic mission of providing a first-rate public education to all New Yorkers, regardless of background or means,” Sobrino said.
CUNY has also benefited from federal stimulus dollars flowing into higher education. In May, CUNY distributed $118 million of federal emergency aid to about 150,000 students, amounting to about $750 per student.
Advocates have long demanded that city and state officials increase their financial support for CUNY.
In recent weeks, students, local elected officials and the Professional Staff Congress, a union representing some 30,000 faculty and staff members at CUNY, have rallied against what they view as a lack of investment in public education and in programs intended to address student needs, including childcare and food insecurity.
PSC President James Davis said the city and state funds may stabilize CUNY this year but “relying so heavily on federal relief is a stop-gap measure.”
He noted the de Blasio administration cut $67 million in funding to CUNY, although it may be restored next year.
“There’s no reason why they should ask CUNY to kind of cannibalize its own stimulus funding,” said Davis, who is also a professor of English at Brooklyn College.
In his July 6 remarks, Berger told the board that even though CUNY recently received $26 million in funding that the state withheld last year due to the coronavirus, it wasn’t retroactively applied and additional funding didn’t materialize.
“That doesn’t get us ahead at all,” he said. “That keeps us treading water.”
Berger also noted that while he’s pleased by a recent freeze on tuition increases, the move cut into a prime revenue stream.
“That costs us $33 million,” Berger said. “They [the state] didn’t provide $33 million to make up for the tuition freeze.”
Michael Arvanites, a fellow trustee, told THE CITY that the tuition freeze will help enrollment and retention. CUNY, he added, is also exploring non-traditional ways of generating revenue to ease its reliance on “students’ pockets, City Hall and Albany.”
But he, too, said additional state funding to make up for tuition losses could have helped.
“I would have liked to see it,” said Arvanites, a de Blasio appointee.
Berger estimated that CUNY will need to spend “a total of about $163 million” from its operational budget to cover expenses that the state funds won’t.
A spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget told THE CITY that the Cuomo administration has actually boosted funding for CUNY.
“CUNY funding has increased by $540 million, or 36% during this administration, including $80 million above pre-pandemic levels in the budget enacted in April,” said the spokesperson, Freeman Klopott.
He added that the increase came “while enrollment declined nearly 4% year-over-year, in-person instruction was halted last year, and CUNY is set to receive about $1.6 billion in federal stimulus funding that New York fought hard for to cover pandemic-related expenses, lost revenue, and financial aid to students.”
John Verzani, an advisory member of the CUNY board’s Fiscal Affairs Committee, said that while state funding has increased about 2% each year, it’s not enough to keep pace with CUNY’s 5% expense increases.
A December 2019 report by city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams noted, cited an 18% per student spending drop over the previous decade, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth.
“There’s this slow inability of the campuses to pay because the funding isn’t keeping up with the expenses, even though the campuses are, by and large, doing a very good job of trimming their expenses,” Verzani, a College of Staten Island math professor, told THE CITY.
Verzani applauded Berger for his willingness to say the city and state are failing CUNY.
“I mean, they’re all political appointees,” he said. “And so they’re representing either the mayor or the governor. So they generally don’t step out of lane. I’ve been very impressed by his courage to say, basically, what it is, that there’s been a lack of funds.”
Klopott pointed out the city’s CUNY budget reductions.
“New York City cut funding to the system and is yet to restore those cuts or provide any increases in funding,” he said.
Call for a Coalition
Davis said the $67 million the city sliced from CUNY’s budget could have paid for much-needed academic advising, mental health care counseling and rehiring faculty. Last year, nearly 3,000 part-time faculty members lost work amid the pandemic, but since then, only a little more than a third have been reappointed, he said.
The PSC president recalled first hearing de Blasio introduce the city budget as radically transformative.
“As far as CUNY goes, there’s nothing radical or transformative about it,” Davis said. “And I would say for a truly transformative budget for the city, public higher ed would have to be at the center of that.”
Berger also chided city officials for initially signaling that they intended to yank funding for CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which serves low-income students, before restoring its funding.
“We shouldn’t be pleased that they’re restoring $10 million,” he said. “We should be fighting for further funding for ASAP because it is such a successful program and, in the long run, saves us money and furthers our students’ success.”
Before finishing his board-meeting speech, Berger called forging an ongoing coalition to battle for additional funding for CUNY in the future.
“We have to work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Berger said.