Op-ed | Funding, not cutting, CUNY is a wise investment

Fund CUNY March
Students, teachers, union members and elected officials march over the Brooklyn Bridge during a rally demanding the state fund the City University of New York in the upcoming budget, on Sunday, March 19, 2023.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

We are just a few weeks away from the city budget deadline, and if Mayor Adams has his way, the City University of New York (CUNY) will remain grossly underfunded.

New Yorkers know that CUNY is one the city’s best supporters of economic mobility, broad prosperity and strong public institutions, so it’s confounding why the Mayor has chopped nearly $100 million from the university’s budget. Cuts to CUNY are unacceptable and will hurt the future of New York. If the Mayor won’t budge, the City Council should use their full budget powers to save CUNY.

The mayor knows firsthand CUNY’s ability to change lives; he’s a two-time CUNY graduate of City Tech and John Jay College. As Brooklyn borough president, he marched with CUNY Rising Alliance across the Brooklyn Bridge in support of increased CUNY funding. And he’s called himself the “CUNY Mayor.”

CUNY’s return on its investment has been proven time and time again. Yet Mayor Adams has cut CUNY repeatedly, leaving the community colleges with 400 vacant positions.

Student support staff are not being hired to replace those who retire or resign. Workloads are rising for those who remain, and capacity to serve, advise and educate students is reduced.

A 2023 report from our union’s Library Faculty Committee revealed that nearly 100 lights malfunctioned in the Bronx Community College library circulation area. “Looking for a book requires, in some cases, a flashlight,” it said.

The LaGuardia Community College library only had three of its 11 units fully staffed at the time of the report, and the collections shrunk so much that access to databases needed for student and faculty research was lost. The Borough of Manhattan Community College library had its non-personnel budget cut by half.

Full-time faculty are taking on larger classes and more administrative tasks, leaving them less time to mentor students. Adjunct faculty have had course assignments reduced, leading to lost income and ineligibility for health insurance.

CUNY spends less by offering fewer courses – putting adjuncts out of work – but then students sometimes can’t get a seat in the courses they need to graduate on time.

CUNY isn’t the only victim. Mayor Adams has cut the city budget seven times since taking office. His cuts hit hardest on services that poor and working families in New York rely on, like childcare, libraries, and education. The NYPD’s overtime budget and the vendors who received hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts have fared much better.

The mayor keeps trying to blame Washington but the buck stops with him for community colleges and city agencies. He uses hyperbolic, careless rhetoric calling for federal help with the asylum seekers. No doubt, housing and feeding them represents a real fiscal challenge for the City, but the Independent Budget Office projects a $3.3 billion budget surplus next year. They shouldn’t be an excuse for continuing austerity–or scapegoats.

We’re grateful the City Council pushed back against the Mayor’s cuts and we know there are CUNY champions and graduates in every corner of city government. The long list of budget restorations the Council negotiated last year – or directly allocated – included $32 million in funding for CUNY.

Speaker Adams has defended CUNY and the working people of our city again and again, and she is the driving force behind CUNY Reconnect, a program that has re-enrolled more than 33,000 stopped-out students in CUNY colleges since its 2022 launch. But it is increasingly difficult for our members to service more students with smaller budgets.

It’s been 26 years since the City Council fully flexed its budget muscle. The Council, under Speaker Adams’ leadership, has pushed for a more just and equitable city. We urge the Council to exercise budget powers that have gone unused for too long, like the power to amend the budget to make sure that CUNY gets the funds it needs in this budget.

A budget amendment this June may not be the final word. After the Council took such steps in 1994 and 1998 there were vetoes, veto overrides and lawsuits. But the Council would be in a much stronger position to protect the services and agencies that New Yorkers depend on.

CUNY and our communities can’t endure another austere budget. The City Council must hold the line and use its full budget powers to reverse the Mayor’s cuts and ensure that CUNY – The People’s University – is fully funded.

Jen Gaboury is the first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress CUNY.