For the first time in five years, City University tuition will be frozen for at least one year and the governor has stepped back on his proposal to cut nearly half a billion dollars from the university.
The governor and state legislator stayed up through the night hammering out the final New York budget on April 1. After a season of protests coordinated by the Professional Staff Congress and University Student Senate, the message to back off of the City University was heard loud and clear.
“The burden of paying increased tuition has been shifted from hardworking students to the illustrious New York State. On a larger scale, it is a reminder that strength comes in numbers, and everyone’s voice matters,” said Susan Thomas, Brooklyn College junior and one of the project leaders for the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Higher Education campaign.
“This change would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the rallying and gathering petitions,” said Thomas. “On a basic level, rallying and petitioning raises awareness about the importance of an issue. On a larger level, it also reminds the citizens of New York that they have a voice and it is through this voice that positive change comes about.”
Funding disputes are not new. Throughout its history, the City University has struggled to keep tuition low and state funding high. The Board of Higher Education imposed tuition on the previously free City University of New York in 1976. Since then, protesters have reacted against budget cuts and tuition hikes.
In January, Governor Cuomo requested to cut half a billion dollars from the City University and extend legislation that would increase tuition by $300 each year for five years as part of the CUNY 2020 plan. This plan has been in effect since 2011.
The extension of the CUNY 2020 plan was met with animosity from activist groups who made their voices heard. The groups gathered in a series of protests that stomped around Brooklyn College, across the Brooklyn Bridge and on the steps of Governor Cuomo’s doors in Albany and Midtown Manhattan.
Despite the tuition freeze, many activists don’t see this legislation as the end of the battle for fair education.
Darryl Kenneth Estey is a political science professor at Brooklyn College who has fought in the war between the state and the City University. Estey was arrested last semester while advocating justice for the university. “Students must use this tuition freeze period as a chance to mobilize for the future to hold the line on tuition increases for the foreseeable future,” Estey said.
“A tuition freeze is simply excellent news however, the restoration to $1.6 billion for senior colleges restores only the underfunded status quo. There is no step forward here.”
Estey and others see the freeze as a minor adjustment that doesn’t address the true issues, and is actually hurtful.
“Just because there’s a tuition freeze, doesn’t mean that Brooklyn College is going to be all hunkydory,” said Jake Levin, speaker of the CLAS assembly.
Levin and Tim Donnelly, president of the CLAS student government aren’t as optimistic about the budget as some. With no real funding and no raise in tuition to go towards bettering the education system at Brooklyn College, the college remains in a difficult financial situation.
“If you’re not going to give us a way to deal with the deficits we have, and then say, well you also can’t raise tuition, it kind of puts our school in a hard spot,” said Donnelly. “It is still a budget cut because we have to cut from other areas to achieve desirous effects.”
“CUNY never gets the attention it needs because people who are upstate representatives don’t really understand the value of CUNY, don’t really understand how important CUNY is, don’t really understand what CUNY does,” Levin said. “Basically, the bottom line is, CUNY is hurting financially. We need more alumni to give back, that’s a very key thing.”
The student government is not the only group seeing the downside to the freeze. John McFarland, student and administrator of the Brooklyn College Debates and Controversies group also sees the freeze as a budget cut. “Tuition needs to be affordable for students of all classes to
get a good education, but we need to make sure the school is able to fund all of its programs,” said McFarland.
“There is always room for improvement and NYPIRG will be fighting for the education that CUNY deserves,” said Thomas. Petitions, lobby days and activist events caused this legislation to unfurl the way it did, according to NYPIRG Campaign Organizer, Tiffany Brown.
“The next steps will be urging the state legislature to pass a real maintenance of effort provision to fully fund CUNY and SUNY, and to pass the New York state DREAM Act, to give undocumented students access to state financial aid,” said Brown.
Donnelly believes that it was not the governor that was scared by the long line of protests, but the assembly. Once the assembly was convinced, the governor had to listen, Donnelly said.
“Im very pleased to see that the 485 million has been restored…I am also pleased to know that the assembly under the leadership of Charles Hasley fought diligently and convinced the senate that the governor’s proposal should not be one that they should adopt,” said Inez Barron, New York councilwoman who was arrested while attending a diein outside Governor Cuomo’s midtown office.
“We are going to continue to fight to make sure that there is funding for the proposal for settling the contract for CUNY workers,” Barron said.
Funding for the backpay of City University faculty and staff was eliminated in the state budget, which dealt a blow to professors in the union that have been fighting for a contract that is six years overdue. James Davis is a Brooklyn College professor that has been vocal about his feelings towards state funding.
“The responsibility to fund CUNY…should primarily be shouldered by the city and state, not the students. However, the tuition freeze will only be a true victory if there’s a corresponding investment in CUNY and a genuine maintenance of effort is secured from New York State,”
Davis said. “Since the faculty and staff are still working on a contract that expired six years ago, we are eager for students to join us in that struggle to obtain the quality working conditions and learning conditions that everyone here deserves.”
Opposition against Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts and tuition hikes created two clear sides of the issue. Now that the state budget is signed and finalized, two sides continue to showcase themselves, debating the degree of the City University’s victory.
“Being able to witness the success of our campaign from start to end is an inspiring and motivating experience,” said Joseph K. Awadjie, chairperson of the University Student Senate.
Awadjie understands the reality of the failures of the budget. Failure to establish a maintenance of effort bill, failure to pass the DREAM Act and failure to fund a contract for the City University staff, as Awadjie puts it.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we know what can be achieved when we are united and vocal.”