SUNY and CUNY: The latest battleground in the Cuomo/de Blasio contest

Judy Sanders / Office of the Governor

New York has two of the finest higher education systems in the world, both of them public institutions. SUNY has 64 campuses, a million and a half students, and jewels like SUNY Purchase and Stony Brook. CUNY has 27 institutions, over half a million students and 13 Nobel Prize winners to its credit. Both are academically excellent, real bargains financially, pathways upward for new Americans and absolutely essential to the economic and social realities of our time.??

Both systems are also in crisis and the subject of a public debate on whether to rearrange the power relationships that define them. This discussion could help continue CUNY and SUNY’s excellence or hurt the systems in the long-term.

Both CUNY and SUNY are reeling from years of neglect and budget cuts: Fewer full-time faculty members, more adjuncts, wage freezes and labor unrest, deteriorating physical plants and significant tuition increases. That's true of public higher education across the nation, not just in New York. Years of austerity policies and tax cuts are taking a toll on our roads and bridges, cultural institutions, public schools and higher education. SUNY and CUNY are poster children for that dismal reality.

As if that's not enough, the continuing food fight between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is raising the stakes. Cuomo has attacked high salaries and administrative overhead at both systems. Jim Malatras, Cuomo’s director of state operations, lambasted the “golden parachute” for CUNY's previous chancellor. And the governor included a budget proposal to hike the city's contribution to CUNY by half a billion dollars.

De Blasio shot back: Shifting additional costs to the city is “not fair” and “threatens our ability to serve our people.”

But even with the fate of CUNY and SUNY being dragged into the Cuomo/de Blasio discord, there actually may be an opportunity to sort out some of the problems, at CUNY especially.

CUNY was a Nelson Rockefeller merger of Brooklyn College, Queens College, the Free Academy (CCNY) and the Female Normal and High School (Hunter). Over the years it has expanded greatly, started charging tuition, created an open admissions policy that resulted in skyrocketing attendance and created a network of community colleges.

But no one has paid attention to intrinsic flaws in its budget and governance structures, which are emerging as the political fight escalates.

The state pays 45 percent of CUNY costs, students pay 45 percent, and the city only 10 percent. Yet the city appoints one-third of CUNY’s board. Hmmm. Maybe Cuomo is on to something.

Cuomo sort of backed off his first shot, largely because cuts in aid to the city of any kind are rightly unpopular. After all, the city sends Albany significantly more in state taxes than it gets back in state aid.

So some deep thinkers are trying to make lemonade out of this lemon. Cue Gale Brewer, the shrewd and caring Manhattan borough president: “It makes no sense for CUNY to be part of an annual tug of war. Let the city step up and pay the bulk of the public cost for CUNY. Let the city take charge of governance.” Simple and sensible.

Brewer’s suggestion comes with caveats: “Given how much cash we send to Albany, this is not the place to slash state aid to the city. The mayor and governor should figure out how to make this budget neutral for both. That won't be hard to do.”

The bigger problem is power and cooperation. As former Lieutenant Governor Dick Ravitch points out, “It makes eminent sense to have the city pay for and be responsible for CUNY. The mayor and governor need to work together to get this done.” 

The Legislature, especially the Democrat-controlled Assembly, can help make this happen. New Speaker Carl Heastie knows and protects CUNY when he can. Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick does the same.

This will also help SUNY, which has problems of its own. SUNY will benefit from a clearer focus within state government, and an end to annual competition with CUNY for limited state dollars. CUNY will have a single master, and its city-centric mission will be easier.

We tend to take the successes of our higher education systems for granted, and there's been no discussion of how we run CUNY and SUNY for decades. Now is the time. In the end, de Blasio and Cuomo have to decide to continue their unending war, or to find a place to make the peace. Let's see if Brewer, Glick and Heastie can use their wiles on the mayor and governor and, in the words of a great New Yorker, Do The Right Thing.

Richard Brodsky is a former state assemblyman who is in the private practice of law and serves as a senior fellow at both Demos and NYU's Wagner School. He is a regular columnist for the Albany Times Union and The Huffington Post.