CUNY: canary in the coal mine for American public higher education

CUNY logoWhat is happening to America’s public higher education system?  The New York Times offers a bitter article about the decline of the City University of New York (CUNY).  It may be an unusual case, or it could serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

David Chen paints a devastating portrait of a group of campuses (24) that have suffered financial degradation over the past decade.  This includes physical plant deterioration, resource cuts, and reduced faculty and staff compensation.  The article starts off with the shame right off the bat:

leaking ceilings have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper. The lectures are becoming uncomfortably overcrowded, and course selections are dwindling, because of steep budget cuts.

Let me pull out some details, which can apply to other public colleges and universities – i.e., the majority of American higher education.  Let me also refer you to CUNY professor Corey Robin’s corroborating blog post.

The reduction of public funding: this plays a key role.  Despite some local politics (feud between state governor and city mayor), CUNY’s experience mirrors what we’ve seen nationwide.

While enrollment has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years, Albany’s funding of operating costs — the main source of public money for the 11 four-year colleges, where two-thirds of students are enrolled — has dropped by 17 percent adjusted for inflation, according to Stephen Brier, a CUNY professor of education…

The past decade being hard on higher ed: Chen emphasizes that the recent years (since the 2008 financial crash) have been especially hard.  One anecdote follows a Ghanese man, who identifies a sharp (and negative) difference between 2007 and 2013.”He said he was struck by a rapidly deteriorating campus — some call it ‘Brokelyn College’”.

"Library shelves at Lehman College, part of the CUNY system, have been covered with plastic since a leak three years ago." <-NYTimes caption

“Library shelves at Lehman College, part of the CUNY system, have been covered with plastic since a leak three years ago.”

Budget cuts: obviously CUNY is reducing spending.  For example, “[l]ast fall, with Albany’s budget uncertain, the CUNY administration asked its colleges to cut their budgets by at least 3 percent.”  This leads to the decay in physical plant, shown by Twitter images under the #broklyncollege tag (as in “Broke-lyn”).

Faculty and staff are not getting raises, which is a serious problem in very, very expensive New York:

Faculty and staff members represented by CUNY’s biggest union, the 25,000-member Professional Staff Congress, have not had a raise in six years. They have vowed to walk out in the fall if the contract dispute is not resolved — knowing that a strike could lead to arrests and fines.

(“six years” – see my previous point about the past decade.)

There are even hints of queen sacrifices:

City College, citing increased personnel costs and declining enrollment, particularly in graduate programs, imposed a 10 percent cut, or $14.6 million. Programs with the steepest enrollment declines suffered the most, with the humanities and education departments cut by more than 40 percent each.


In October, nearly two dozen department leaders and faculty members active in governance, in a letter to CUNY’s chancellor, James B. Milliken, warned that “these cuts could mean the closing of programs for undergraduate majors and graduate students, forcing students to transfer in order to complete their degrees and producing a consequent decline in City College’s graduation rate.”

Adjunctification: this is not only a general trend across the United States, but specifically a move appealing to financially stressed campuses.

Senior professors said CUNY’s woes have hampered its ability to retain and recruit faculty. So the university has relied increasingly on adjuncts: while the number of full-time faculty at CUNY’s four-year colleges has been flat since 2009, the number of adjuncts has climbed by 23 percent.

Privatizing public tuition: as per usual, CUNY is turning to students and their families to pay a greater share of education costs.

students are paying more. The share of CUNY’s $3.2 billion budget that comes from tuition has climbed to 45 percent from 20 percent in 1989. In the last five years, tuition at its four-year colleges has risen by $300 per year, to $6,330 for New York State residents. Undergraduates must also pay an extra $280 a year, at least, in fees. It is a daunting burden to students, more than half of whom report family incomes below $30,000, according to school data.

That last point is especially sharp, given the institution’s nominal mission statement:

CUNY has a legislatively mandated mission to be “of vital importance as a vehicle for the upward mobility of the disadvantaged in the City of New York … ensuring equal access and opportunity” to students, faculty and staff “from all ethnic and racial groups.”

Unsurprisingly, the state seems to beg to differ:  “State officials have argued that support from Albany, when including items such as debt service, employee benefits and tuition assistance, has risen by 20 percent since 2011.”  I don’t know CUNY well enough to assess this claim, but it does sound reasonable.  If the campuses are in serious debt (not unlikely, given the past generation of financialization), debt service could well be a thing.  Increasing inequality, especially in the New York City area, should drive demand for more financial aid.

Administrative bloat: I can’t see data for this charge, but sometimes it comes from an unusual source:

Frederick R. Brodzinski, a senior administrator and adjunct professor in computer science who plans to retire in September after 30 years at the university [states]. “Morale is horrible on campus. There are too many highly paid administrators, and there’s a lack of clear leadership.

That’s one administrator calling out the rest, not a full-time faculty member criticizing the big house.  The government agrees, apparently: “State officials … contend that CUNY has too much administrative bloat.”  As does the New York Times:

According to public data analyzed by The Times, the college paid administrators classified as “executives” a total of $7.25 million in the last year, up 45 percent from 2009. Eleven of the 18 biggest salary increases, by percentage, came in 2015, even as the college was slashing its budget. The provost’s office and government relations operations, in particular, have expanded.

Drives for new revenue sources: obviously this is an option most would consider.   Chen and Robin draw attention to one campus using research funds for non-research needs.  Compare with another revenue drive, and how it was phrased:

just a few weeks ago, the college proposed — then scrapped, after student protests — a new $300 “excellence” fee for full-time engineering undergraduates to help defray lab costs.

“It is not possible to meet the needs of the undergraduate program,” the proposal read, “without a reliable new income stream as a means to address the shortfall.”

Inequality: these cuts and degradations occur while other institutions continue to engage in the fabled amenities arms race.  Or as one of the Naked Capitalism bloggers acidly comments,

you can bet that there are no desks like that at NYU or Columbia where the students are being prepped for jobs in the financial services or those sectors of the economy that look after big business’s far-flung empire.

Pedagogical impact: the preceding problems suggest extra pressures on teaching.  Chen offers several instances of this, leading with

bigger class sizes have made it harder to grade papers. Three-page papers are now more common, students and instructors said, versus the once-standard five or six pages. Classes, overstuffed, have become more impersonal.

Note, too, the many stories of persistent leaks, insects (!), and even “unsafe lab conditions “not conducive to good learning'”.  Corey Robin’s post goes into more detail, which I won’t summarize… except to share this:

When you operate in an environment of austerity, educational questions ineluctably become, wholly and entirely, financial questions. And suddenly educators talk like accountants.

And this:

It’s amazing to me, as I look back on the time, to compare the moral panic of the 1990s—the sense that something had to be done about this institution—with the criminal indifference that we at CUNY are faced with today. When the issue was allegedly uneducated and uneducable black and brown students, the state jumped to act. When the issue is chronic disinvestment, leaky ceilings, clogged toilets, stagnant salaries, and ballooning class sizes, the state yawns.

Remember that New York state is one of America’s wealthiest, and New York City a global financial leader.  If we are willing to drive a public institution down in that context, perhaps that helps us understand our desire to cut state colleges and universities across the country.

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5 Responses to CUNY: canary in the coal mine for American public higher education

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    I’m going to social media tag Sean Kennedy (CUNY graduate school, Adjunct Project) on this somewhere ~ pin it on PF/FB too

  2. CUNY is not a canary. It is the coal mine.

    • Can you say a bit more, Michael?

      • We usually think of the “canary” as an early warning system. The well-reported and disturbing account of the decline of CUNY could have been written about dozens regional public comprehensives.

        These stories are not as well reported, if they are written at all. Much of traditional journalism has been hollowed out too much to make meaningful note of the hollowing out of higher education. The usual story line is similar to a plant closing…”there will be layoffs.” That’s it. Stories about existential threats to a regional “industry” are too complicated, too difficult to tell and since there are no solutions, too depressing.

        At the core the stories have the same basic elements: public funding is failing to keep up with rising costs, student ability to pay higher prices is declining, there are no more out-of-state/country students to pay full tuition, internal cuts and downsizing have been quietly going on for about 10 years, and the big tell is vanishing internal reserves.

        The canary sang several years ago. The CUNY story is about what happens later.

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