The defining moment for the City University of New York came in 1976. The city, which was quickly sinking into bankruptcy, struck a deal with the state that required CUNY institutions to charge tuition for the first time in the system’s history. The influx of cash via tuition would be used to subsidize the loss of funds that were needed to keep the city afloat. At the time, there were roughly 11,000 faculty members and 250,000 students.
Since then, CUNY—whose principal funding source remains the state (50 per-cent), then tuition (39 percent) and the city (11 percent)—has seen its faculty drop to 7,000 while the student population has risen to 266,000. State funding has been unpredictable for the past two and a half decades and flat since 2011, putting many state and city schools in difficult financial situations.
As a result, only 46 percent of CUNY classes are now taught by full-time faculty, said Dr. Steven London, a vice president of the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY, the union representing some 25,000 CUNY faculty and staff members.
“This is a direct result of the 25-year period of defunding,” London said. “This has been a long and persistent problem that has now been exacerbated by the increased enrollment.”
Asked to comment on the low full-time faculty rate at a recent budget hearing, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said that because of a recent and unprecedented influx of students, “There is no way—it’s true with SUNY schools and public schools around the U.S.—to keep up with a full-time faculty balance with that kind of enrollment.”
CUNY has seen a net increase of 2,000 faculty members since Goldstein’s tenure began in 1999, when the full-time faculty was at an all-time low of 5,000. He estimates that the university will be able to add another 400 full-timers this year.
At an executive budget hearing, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher also said hiring more full-time faculty is a top priority. “In 2011 we saw the first year of the rational tuition plan,” she said. “Since then, together we have reinvested in academics and instruction—the areas of our mission that directly benefit our students most. We have created 326 new jobs, 192 of those in the faculty area.”
Zimpher noted that SUNY enrolls 467,000 students, employs 88,000 New Yorkers and has 20,000 retirees in its system.
Teachers’ unions aren’t as optimistic about the CUNY and SUNY systems’ future hiring, and see serious defects in the state’s flat funding. First enacted in 2011 as part of the NY-SUNY 2020 legislation, stagnant funding made any significant hiring difficult, partially because the executive budget leaves $35 million in cost increases unfunded. London argued that since the budget remains the same from year to year, and does not allow for inflationary increases for mandatory costs like rent and energy, 2020 is actually costing the schools money.
“At the end of the day it’s basically a budget reduction that CUNY has to make up for by cannibalizing other parts of the system in order to invest in new faculty,” he said. “That’s why progress has been so slow.”
The 2020 legislation leans heavily on increased tuition to cover the cost of hiring new staff, but most students will still get state help from the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).
“The problem with 2020 and TAP is that it caps at $5,000,” London said. “If the average cost of a CUNY four year school is $5,500, and rising by $300 a year for the next four years thanks to the rational tuition plan, that means that the school has to eat the remaining tuition costs. Since the beginning of the program CUNY has had to eat about $14 million in student tuition.”
Difficulty in hiring full-time faculty and rising inflation costs have not been the only problems created by flat funding. Specialized programs that attract smaller numbers of students have been unable to cover operating costs, and new programs have had trouble getting started.
“We have double the amount of adjuncts than full-time faculty, which makes it very difficult to get new, smaller programs off the ground,” said Brandon Shaw, an instructor at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica. “It hurts our legitimacy, which in turn can affect how potential employers view our graduates. It can even extend to what credits will transfer to four-year schools.”
Some students believe the state’s focus in recent years has been to use SUNY and CUNY as catalysts for economic development through the construction of new facilities and the jobs such projects bring, while academics have taken a back seat.
“NYSUT believes that SUNY and CUNY have a role to play here,” Andrew Pallotta, a vice president with the New York State United Teachers, said of the systems’ contribution to creating jobs. “It should not come at the expense of its primary mission, which is teaching and learning.”
In a SUNY survey conducted last year, 46 percent of students reported not being able to register for a class, and 26 percent said that they could not get into a class required for graduation.
“The thing is, we read about new construction, investments in labs and research, yet I can’t sign up for classes that I need to graduate because there aren’t enough professors to teach them,” said Caitlin Johnson, a junior at Hunter College, her frustration beginning to boil over. “At this point I don’t even care if it’s an adjunct; I just want to graduate on time.”
But SUNY spokesman David Doyle argued that the state, along with SUNY’s leadership, has helped stabilize the higher education system.
“Our shared services initiative, launched in 2011, aims to save $100 mil-lion over three years, and we have already met 20 percent of that goal, netting $20 million in savings across the system in the first year of this initiative,” Doyle said. “These savings will be reinvested in expanding academic and student services on our campuses, adding 200 faculty positions, increased offerings of courses required for degree completion and a continual reduction in time to a degree.”
Goldstein and Zimpher have also shown a willingness to reinvest money in their facilities. In 2010–11, SUNY put more than $1 billion into capital improvements across all of its capital programs.
But with SUNY graduation rates ranging from 81 percent of students at Geneseo to just 32 percent at the College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill, the quality and consistency of a state education will remain in question. And as long as there is a feeling among students and faculty that there is no room in “capital improvements” for more full-time faculty and an increase in required class availability, friction is bound to continue.
“The biggest problem is the continuing adjunctification of the universities,” London said. “At the end of the day that’s what this is about, delivering quality education … and a professional staff.”
Tags: adjunct, Andrew Pallotta, Brandon Shaw, Caitlin Johnson, City University of New York, Cobleskill, CUNY, David Doyle, faculty, Geneseo, Hunter College, Matthew Goldstein, Nancy Zimpher, NYSUT, Professional Staff Congress, State University of New York, Steven London, SUNY, tuition assistance program