SUNY and CUNY leaders tell lawmakers they need more state aid

SUNY chancellor John King assured legislators that there are no plans to close down any public universities, though staffing levels may be cut.

City University of New York Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez (left) and State University of New York Chancellor John King testify at a joint budget hearing on Feb. 8, 2024.

City University of New York Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez (left) and State University of New York Chancellor John King testify at a joint budget hearing on Feb. 8, 2024. Austin C. Jefferson

State University of New York Chancellor John King and City University of New York Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez put up a united front Thursday amid questions about the financial futures of their respective university networks. The chancellors said that New York’s public universities could be spared from closures and crises with a mixture of increased aid from the state and readjusted expectations for institutions. But state lawmakers at a joint budget hearing on higher education seemed skeptical as they expressed concern about the health of their district's workforces, some communities nearly dependent on the schools economically, and the effects of closing state institutions on the public. 

Both SUNY and CUNY have been under a microscope in recent months, amid increased scrutiny over their recent staffing and program cuts and the safety of students following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. King has been adamant about the SUNY system’s sustainability, despite the rough financial outlook for SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Fredonia, while Rodriguez has touted rising enrollment figures at CUNY in the face of anger from staff and students upset about layoffs and hiring freezes. There have been no reports of a rapidly approaching financial disaster at either organization, but decreasing enrollment and increasing wage and benefit demands from staff, not to mention inflation, have exposed the structural budget gap in New York’s public school apparatus and left lawmakers wanting answers. 

“We're not closing any campuses,” King said at the hearing. “We are committed to all 64 of our institutions and trying to make sure they have the resources to invest in areas of growing student demand.”

King said that schools like SUNY Potsdam, which are staring at debt while their student rolls trend downward, will not have to close down but will need to adjust to being small institutions. 

“Even with a double-digit percentage increase in funding, they still have a structural deficit because they haven't adjusted their programming to match being a much smaller campus,” he said. “So we're talking about going from over 4,000 (students) to about 2,500. They have buildings that are empty that they're paying to heat. So they really have a need to now adjust to being a 2,500-student campus.”

In the hopes of increasing enrollment, Assembly Member Pat Fahy and state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky – the chairs of their respective chambers’ Higher Education Committees – have proposed an expansion of the state's Tuition Assistance Program, and Gov. Kathy Hochul has signaled support for the measure in her budget. The idea behind the policy is that students enticed by a more affordable college experience will apply in greater numbers.

However, increased enrollment may not be the cure-all that some hope it will be. Rodriguez said that even with a boost in student numbers, without additional aid from the state, he and CUNY will need to take a hard look at their staffing levels, possibly making cuts if the shortfall is too great. “85% of our costs are individuals, people, right?” Rodriguez said. “So if we don't get the support for the labor contract moving forward, which has been the reason for the structural deficit for the most part, enrollment growth is not going to solve the issue.”

The looming closure of some upstate prisons has only added to concerns for lawmakers whose constituents rely on SUNY for employment. “The SUNY system represents about 1500 jobs, right? $93 million in payroll. Prisons represent 300 jobs. $25 million in payroll,” said Assembly Member Scott Gray, who represents parts of Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties. “I've got a community that sits here with tremendous uncertainty because of prison closures and the uncertainty of college campuses. So are we committed to making sure that these college campuses do not fail?”

Hochul has proposed developing housing at some SUNY campuses, including SUNY Stony Brook and SUNY Farmingdale, but the governor’s plan got a mixed response at the hearing. While acknowledging that increased housing is dearly needed in New York, lawmakers suggested that some communities would bristle at the thought of increased rental housing in college towns.

“I can assure you that the community, at least at Stony Brook, does not want to add more housing, specifically, leasing rentals,” said Assembly Member Ed Flood, who represents parts of Suffolk County. “I mean, they get a stream of students that flood into the neighborhood, some of that's not necessarily logical, but there's still a lot of community outcry over it.”

Flood described the relationship between SUNY Stony Brook and the surrounding community as “tenuous.”

King stressed that any potential housing development at SUNY campuses was in the early stages. But he said that his conversations with SUNY Farmingdale president John Nader revealed that staff at the school are currently having trouble finding affordable housing.

In January, Hochul proposed a $7.4 billion allocation for higher education in her budget, a 12% increase. While New York’s public universities have made it clear that they need more funding, and so have their labor unions, King and Rodriguez left the hearing resolute that these institutions wouldn't simply fade in the face of financial headwinds. 

“I’m very hopeful for the future,” King said.