Defending Public Higher Education in New York

Manny Jalonschi Oct 6, 2011

As states across the country claim a desperate need to rein in expenditures while pointing their accounting fingers to growing budget gaps, public universities are often among the first public services to feel the pinch of austerity measures. While the lack of tax revenue to fill those budget gaps is rarely addressed, lower-income students who  attend these universities are forced to cover the gap through tuition increases and a decreasing quality of education.

In the hopes of rebuilding a popular education movement, this Friday, a collection of public education advocates, including Barbara Bowen (president of the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY), Francis Fox Piven and Frank Mauro (from the Fiscal Policy Institute), will be gathering for a discussion and conference on the threats to public higher education. Entitled “Defending Public Higher Education” the conference will examine the dimensions of the austerity cuts facing New York’s public higher education systems as well as possible strategies for building a movement against those budget cuts.

The Indypendent recently had the opportunity to interview Michael Fabricant, PSC-CUNY’s current treasurer, about Friday’s event.

Manny Jalonschi: How do austerity cuts and tuition increases affect the accessibility of public higher education in New York?

Michael Fabricant: There’s no question that tuition increases are having an ongoing consequence on student access. The state is decreasing its investment in the City University of New York (CUNY) to such an extent that we’re rapidly approaching a point where 50 percent of the operating budget comes from tuition. At the same time that’s going on, the university is experiencing substantial budget issues. Raising revenue by raising tuition is a form of privatizing the university and it represents an attack on the poorest members of the city. We’re asking some of the poorest people in the city to pay even more with tuition increases in what basically amounts to a second tax, one that’s even higher now. Those are the sectors of the city that the university has a long tradition of serving. You reach a point, though, where you ask is this a public university anymore?

When a university is driven largely by tuition, and it is functioning in a starved environment, part of what it does is try to raise revenue, in this case by increasing the number of students. We have increased the number of students in the last 7 years or so, from 220,000 to almost 300,000 students, enough to potentially fill two new campuses.

When you look at those numbers what you have to remember is how it negatively impacts students’ quality of education largely because there’s been no comparable increase in full-time faculty and no comparable investment in the sort of buildings needed to instruct these students. So the student is being taxed more, the millionaires are being taxed less and on the other side of the equation public universities are now offering less services for that increased cost.

MJ: How does the two-tier labor system (adjunct/tenure) affect the level of education public universities are able to provide their students?
Not only are students being jammed into areas often designed for smaller numbers but instructors are also increasingly part-time faculty who have to run from class to class to cobble together a living. When you look at universities more generally, nationally less than 30% of instructors are on tenure bearing lines now, so what we’re seeing is a rapid-decline of faculty on tenure-bearing lines as well as a dramatic increase in the use of part-time adjunct faculty.

What you’ve got is increasing numbers of people teaching, many of whom have doctorates, masters, we’re talking about a highly educated group of people, who are being paid relatively poor salaries. Not by some abstract notion of hours in the classroom, but when you add up the work outside of the classroom, like grading papers, meeting with students and so on, it’s a relatively low wage, with no health benefits (unless you pass a certain teaching threshold). Adjuncts are out there as a work force that the university has little to no sense of responsibility for, and they’re carrying at least half of the teaching load. We also know that a large part of the work is in the classroom and grading papers. Another large part of the work, though, is meeting with students after class. Well, part-time faculty are often not given the space to meet with students and since they’re paid so little, they are constantly running from class to class trying to make a living. That affects how much time they can spend after class with their students. Why is that so important at CUNY? Because a lot of our students, when they’re not in class, they themselves are out working so their own time to meet with professors is limited.

Part-time faculty do some heroic work in actually finding ways to meet with students, online or offline, but its far far more difficult for part-time faculty which in turn makes it even harder for students to make that connection. Because part-time faculty are being so systematically exploited, the education of students and the connection to their learning environment suffers.

MJ: What are some solutions you hope will emerge from Friday’s Defending Public Higher Education conference? What sort of resistance is needed to fight these cuts and tuition increases?

MF: It’s going to be a highly heterogeneous group at the conference. We have about 185 people already pre-registered. A lot of people are coming who haven’t pre-registered so it’s going to be a large, mixed group. From undergraduates students to doctoral students to faculty and staff. Part of what the conference is about is education, more fully understanding the national landscape as well as the state landscape on the economic and political side. To what extent is this a manufactured crisis regarding public education and to what extent is it real?

The second segment will more particularly discuss the way this plays out for New York State and the consequences for CUNY. In each of those sessions, as well as in general at the conference, will be conversations about how we fight back. A lot of different people are coming in to describe the different work that their doing and I think this will serve as a good opportunity for people to learn from each other. The austerity regime marches on, so part of what we’re learning to do right now is push back against these austerity regimes.

In the end, part of this is that there is no magic bullet. What needs to happen is there needs to be unity. In the absence of unity between groups that can push back on issues they all support, creating a platform that unites, in the absence of that, if it’s a divided movement, a movement which fissures, where lots of sectarian interests begin to emerge, in the absence of unity we’re going to be lost. The power that’s arrayed against us is enormous and we at the very least have to be united in our push back.

Number two, there needs to be education. A lot of folks believe there’s no money. A lot of folks believe this is the best we can do. If you’re skeptical about the need for austerity, then you can come down and sort of arm yourself with the information and the knowledge to persevere in this fight. We need to find those seams, those spaces where we can win on increasing revenue. The talk on the public sectors side has been that this is an expenditure crisis. Our argument is that it’s a revenue issue. This is a manufactured crisis on the basis of tax codes and the way they’ve been re-configured to let certain wealthier New Yorkers and institutions off the hook. One concrete example is that New York State has a multi-billion dollar deficit right now. You know what? If they had just sustained the millionaire tax last year, we’d have no deficit–in fact, we’d have a little bit of a surplus. So the revenue from that one tax, which they allowed to sunset, in itself represents the difference between being in deficit or not. A choice was made to let the wealthiest sectors of the state off the hook. And so a choice was also made to raise tuition for very poor students, to diminish access to healthcare, to further degrade k-12 public education. That’s a choice, not a naturalized circumstance. Part of the struggle is going to be, through that unity and education we spoke of, understanding that these austerity cuts were themselves a choice. Then we can really attack the revenue question.

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