Op-Ed | CUNY is at an inflection point in this year’s state budget

Teal and orange mood of Manhattan and East river
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Each year, the State budget has the power to shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of CUNY students and tens of thousands of dedicated faculty and staff. 

Through 46 years of teaching at CUNY, I’ve been here for periods where CUNY was fully funded and the promise of public higher education was a reality for tens of thousands of New Yorkers. And I’ve been here for periods where disinvestment in CUNY meant students had more and more barriers put in their way, making it harder to achieve their path to economic mobility.

With nearly a half-century’s worth of perspective, I can tell you that this year’s budget is an inflection point that will determine the future of CUNY. 

For some context, here’s where we are now: Following decades of disinvestment in CUNY– which has led to crumbling infrastructure, vastly underpaid faculty and staff, and declining enrollment – Governor Hochul last year made a historic commitment to increase CUNY and SUNY funding by $1.5 billion over five years. The incredible students, faculty, and staff at CUNY have been doing so much for New York with so few resources. But last year’s budget laid the groundwork for a rebirth of CUNY, and a commitment to investing in the most powerful force for economic mobility for low-income New Yorkers, immigrants, and students of color.

Unfortunately, the funding increases in this year’s Executive Budget fail to keep pace with the five-year plan, failing to address not only the visible crises facing CUNY – like crumbling infrastructure and declining enrollment – but also the more hidden crises affecting faculty and staff and their ability to best provide the education students deserve.

One issue is that CUNY has shifted from hiring full-time faculty to instead bringing on more part-time adjunct faculty – with full-time faculty steadily decreasing by 5% in the past 5 years. In the STEAM disciplines especially, the most important thing for a university to do is to foster small classes with full time research-active instructors who are able to write effective letters of recommendation for their students.

But one recent report from Center for an Urban Future says that 10 years ago, Queens College was home to 406 computer science majors and 20 faculty. Now, the college has more than 3,500 majors and just 15 tenure-track faculty. This past October, City College of New York chemist Michael Green testified that their Chemistry department has not been allowed to hire any full-time faculty since 2015, despite several retirements. The Hunter College Writing Center, previously staffed by 3 full time people, is now staffed by two part-time, hardworking adjuncts. And a system-wide hiring freeze announced this month will only amplify these issues and hiring needs.

With starting salaries for CUNY assistant professors as low as $52,267– which fails in comparison to peer institutions – not only is there not enough full time faculty, but the tenured track faculty trying to teach, mentor, and uplift hundreds of students are not properly paid.

The adjunct part-time faculty who teach most CUNY courses earn only $5,500 for a full-semester three-credit course, not enough to live on, even if they take on multiple courses. 

Now, with their union contract set to expire at the end of February, the CUNY faculty and staff represented by the Professional Staff Congress are gearing up to fight at the bargaining table for a new contract that protects the quality of a CUNY education. The union is demanding across-the-board raises that exceed inflation for all members, plus additional “equity increases” to lift the salaries of faculty and staff in lower paid titles. The demands also call for pay parity for adjuncts with full-time faculty–equal pay for equal work.  

But we need increased funding to support a new contract for CUNY’s faculty and staff.

In the meantime, while peer institutions are properly investing in their students and faculty, we are faced with headlines about how CUNY is struggling to place their students at New York’s largest technology companies. A budget that disregards full-time faculty and adjuncts while leaving CUNY underfunded will deepen the racial and economic inequalities that have plagued New York.

As a CUNY retiree, I volunteered to teach chemistry students at zero salary during the pandemic and did so for several semesters. The need is simply so great. But a historic university cannot rely on volunteer labor. Students and the hardworking staff at CUNY deserve more funding and a new contract that champions more full-time faculty and advisors, well-equipped libraries and labs, and safe, modern buildings and classrooms, so CUNY will remain the place I love — the place where New Yorkers want to study and academic professionals want to work.