CUNY cuts endanger educations and adjunct professors’ livelihood

wutzkohphoto/Shutterstock

CUNY cuts endanger educations and adjunct professors’ livelihood

The governor doesn’t want to raise taxes on the rich to protect public higher education.
June 30, 2020

When advertisements for the City University of New York, usually called CUNY, boast that they’re “one of the greatest engines for social mobility in the world,” I try to believe it. Now in my fifth year at CUNY studying political science, first getting my bachelor’s at the City College of New York and now studying at CUNY Graduate Center, I have dedicated my time maintaining my grades and conducting independent research thanks to the world-class professors who choose to teach at public colleges. As a working-class kid from the Bronx, I consider this education an immense privilege.

Like so many CUNY students, I am also an essential worker. One might have thought my employer – a computer and electronics store in Yonkers – would be shut down, as cell phone chargers or drones might not have been deemed “essential.” But Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed with a federal guideline that allowed states to keep “critical infrastructures” of the economy up and running. Anything the store sold could have easily been bought online, but my fellow workers and I carried on going to work. 

We do not go to work out of love for the minimum wage we make, but because there is still rent to pay and other necessities like prescriptions that cannot wait the coronavirus pandemic is over. 

As a result, I have come into contact with thousands of people during the peak of the pandemic, mostly in-store customers. With the store staying open, my colleagues and I could not claim the $600 coronavirus unemployment boost, all while I had to risk my health and the health of my loved ones to allow people to buy new televisions. At least three of my coworkers have had confirmed cases of coronavirus, with many more calling out for long periods with “suspected” cases.

My situation is not unique, and it can be repeated by many CUNY students across New York City. So, why, during a pandemic, is it necessary to gut funding for “one the greatest engines for social mobility in the world?”

With New York state facing a revenue shortfall upwards of $13 billion, and in the expectation that the federal government won’t come through to fill the gap, CUNY’s colleges are making drastic cuts, leaving adjunct professors without jobs and health insurance. Hundreds of classes have been dropped, leaving class sizes even bigger in the fall and leaving students having the trouble fulfilling course requirements needed to graduate. Brooklyn College is cutting 25% of its course offerings, City College is cutting 25% of its budget, and the College of Staten Island is planning to lay off 35% of its adjunct faculty. While students admire and need our adjuncts, the state seems to think they are expendable.

For CUNY students, this is nothing new. The steady cuts to CUNY over the years have left buildings with broken elevators, moldy classrooms and vermin infestations. You can conjure up visions of plucky students and professors from disadvantaged neighborhoods beating the odds and still succeeding. But the successes are largely in spite of the governor. At some point the fantasy can’t block out the reality that things were already bad before Coronavirus.

Whenever I hear people say they want to return to the way things were “before” the pandemic, I wince. For our adjuncts, many of them were already cash-strapped and struggling to stay afloat in Cuomo’s CUNY. Until this year, adjunct lecturers could make as little as $3,222 per three-credit course. Under the new contract, that minimum is now $4,469 and the top wage for adjunct professors has gone up to $7,378 per three-credit course. Although the new contract won substantial raises, it still means someone teaching four courses per semester could make as little as $35,752 per year before taxes. 

This is why Cuomo’s vision for New York should be frightening. It’s an accelerant for the worst elements of the past.

Outside of CUNY’s budget, Cuomo’s plan for New York is one where private companies play a larger role in the government’s functioning while public services get the austerity treatment. Microsoft and Google executives get to sit on Cuomo’s task force to “reimagine” New York and exert influence over government decisions about the future of our health care and education system, thus jeopardizing the quality of our education and public services for the benefit of private interests.

Cuomo’s budget cuts also targeted funding for public hospitals (which are now on the brink of collapse), Medicaid, EMT services, localities and transportation. 

The budget should not be balanced on the backs of nurses and adjuncts. A poll by the left-leaning Data for Progress think tank shows that not only do New Yorkers overwhelmingly disapprove of further cuts to address emergency pandemic services, it also finds that they would rather tax those making over $2 million a year and the investments of billionaires in order to stave off any of these cuts. Not only would it be politically popular to tax high-income earners that have remained unscathed or gotten even more outrageously rich during the pandemic, but, if these taxes were passed, it would work to allow New York to recover from the pandemic without punishing CUNY students and its workers.

My fellow CUNY students and I – many of whom have taken to the streets in the past few days, either in Black Lives Matter protests, blocking the CUNY Board of Trustees building in Manhattan to protest these layoffs or occupying City Hall to demand city resources be used for education instead of policing – do not share the same enthusiasm for Cuomo, or any other New York establishment figure, as our chances at a better life are snatched from our hands.

Cuomo’s budget director Freeman Klopott told Gothamist that “You can’t tax your way out of a 14 percent revenue shortfall,” which is conservative ideology masquerading as math. You can, in fact, just as easily solve a revenue shortfall by increasing revenue as you can by cutting spending. The Cuomo administration just doesn’t want to raise taxes on the rich, fearing that it would somehow hinder the economic recovery. 

As the battle over New York’s budget has shown, we cannot look at the pandemic as an aberration in history. Coronavirus, and the political response to it, has proven once again that in times of crisis and upheaval, the suffering of the powerless is the rule, not the exception. The lack of concern for CUNY is a very clear and painful message to the students of New York: poor, Black, Latino, queer futures should remain precarious, while those at the top can have their futures secured.

Correction: This article originally misstated CUNY adjunct professors' pay.

Michael Villanova
is pursuing a master’s degree in political science at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He lives in the Bronx.
20200807