CUNY Rising Alliance rallies to save NYC colleges

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"They say cut back?" "We say fight back!"

AFT members chanted with hundreds of students, faculty and community advocates at a rally near Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Manhattan office March 10, carrying signs that read "Stop Starving CUNY" and "CUNY Is for the People." They are insisting the governor abandon his plan to slash state funding for the 24-school system of colleges and professional schools.

The rally was the first event sponsored by the CUNY Rising Alliance, a new coalition of about 20 civic, faith-based, student and social justice organizations and unions, including the Professional Staff Congress, which represents CUNY faculty and staff.

Crowd at the CUNY Rising Alliance rallyCuomo has proposed a $485 million cut in CUNY funding, and though he has cloaked the cuts in language that suggests he is only shifting the budgetary responsibility to the city of New York, a swelling number of education advocates are not buying his explanation (including the editors at the Village Voice, who wrote a searing article on the subject). The state Assembly has already presented its proposed budget without the cuts, with a freeze on tuition at CUNY and the State University of New York for two academic years, and an additional $749 million for capital support and other aid programs for students. The governor and state Legislature have until April 1 to hammer out the final budget.

But much damage has already been done. Since Cuomo took office, tuition at CUNY has increased by 38 percent at four-year colleges and by 45 percent at two-year colleges, according to CUNY Rising. Currently, Cuomo is backing legislation that would increase tuition at four-year institutions by $1,500 over the next five years. Meanwhile, faculty and staff have had no salary increases, and no contract, for more than six years.

Protesters delivered a "Rising Platform for Change" to the governor's office. It calls for a tuition freeze this year and a return to free tuition for CUNY in the future, rejects the governor's proposed cuts, and asks for state funding to resolve CUNY's long-expired union contracts—so the university can hire and keep the approximately 35,000 faculty and staff its students need. It also demands financial aid reforms, changes to CUNY admissions policies and infrastructure fixes.

With half a million students, CUNY's colleges have touched the lives of countless families in New York. More than three-quarters of its students are people of color; 42 percent represent the first generation in their family to go to college, and 37 percent are immigrants. "In a cruelly unequal economy and a society still shaped by structural racism, CUNY offers the one shot at a stable life, a good life, for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers," said PSC President Barbara Bowen, who is an AFT vice president. "We call on Albany not to take that opportunity away."

"The PSC's five-year fight for a contract is part of the fight for investment in CUNY," she added. "Failing to invest in our contract is failing to invest in CUNY students. There is no educational justice in New York, no racial justice, and no economic justice, without a strong City University."

"Three of my daughters currently attend CUNY, so I understand firsthand the financial burden caused by continuous tuition hikes and cuts," says Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education. "This is an economic and racial justice issue. Instead of proposing cuts, Gov. Cuomo should be investing in CUNY for the long term."

It's not just the CUNY community that has tuned in to the drama. Even the Wall Street Journal posted a story about the cuts. Among other things, it quoted a Republican state senator who is afraid the cuts will lead to school closings.

[Virginia Myers, Professional Staff Congress reports]