“We’re under threat as public employees,” explained Phil Smith, the union president of United University Professions. “I want to speak to you about the crisis that exists at SUNY.”
In Cuomo’s proposal, the state universities will lose about $100 million in funding, and the SUNY medical schools will lose $154 million. All of this is on top of cuts that have taken place under Gov. David Paterson.
“In the past three years, SUNY has been cut more than any of the state agencies,” Smith said.
Including the colleges and teaching hospitals, the past few years of cuts have bled out $685 million from the SUNY system. “That is the equivalent of cutting all of the operational funding of all the 13 operating colleges.”
Smith, who is the president of the UUP, the union that represents professionals at the 29 SUNY campuses, came to New Paltz last week to rally professors and students in a campaign to counteract the devastating cuts coming from Albany. That campaign will likely reach a boiling point during March 15’s “SUNY Palooza,” when students, professors and college employees head to the state capital to lobby for the reversal of those gubernatorial budget changes.
The union president painted a grim picture, saying that the cuts would critically underfund the universities.
“If SUNY isn’t properly funded, it’ll get worse and worse and worse,” Smith said. “So there are really dire consequences in this budget.”
Locally, the union would like to see SUNY New Paltz dip into its reserve funds to keep staffing and programs at the same level for at least the next two years.
“You probably know that the administration has launched into a budget process that’s cloaked in secrecy,” said Peter Brown, the UUP’s vice president for academics in New Paltz.
Brown also said he felt the timing of the release of the SUNY New Paltz budget for 2011-2012 was suspect -- it comes out right after the spring semester ends and students and professors are less likely to be around.
Union members have been trying to get information about exactly what SUNY New Paltz has in reserves, but they haven’t gotten firm answers. “The administration has not provided the executive committee that information,” he said.
While the SUNY New Paltz administration has responded to some private Freedom of Information Law requests for information on the reserves filed by professors, what people get back is usually a layman-unfriendly 1,100 pages that only an accountant could love, much less understand. But for the most part that information is hard to access.
“SUNY protects that data like it is Fort Knox,” UUP President Smith said.
By using those reserves, which are in the tens of millions of dollars, the university could temporarily cushion the blow on its workers. “The administration is trying to make it look like the cuts are inevitable,” Brown said. “I think the current process is a charade.”
Revenues can be found to make the system more stable, said Glenn McNitt, a political science professor and union member. Specifically, one thing that could be done is to extend the state’s “millionaire’s tax,” which taxes New York’s richest citizens.
“It’s due to expire on Dec. 31 of this year,” he said. “After all, wealthy New Yorkers need to take up a fair share of the burden.”
While it seems like Gov. Cuomo has made up his mind about where he’d like to make cuts, individual state assemblymen and senators are likely easier to persuade. McNitt and other union leaders urged students and professors to reach out to their representatives.
Students at SUNY seem ready for that challenge. Already a group of students have a teach-in planned for March 8 where students will walk out of their classes at about 12:30 p.m. to head to the Student Union Building.
“We are not walking out on you or your classes -- we’re walking out on Albany,” said Caitlin Ryan, a student who helped to organize the teach-in.
Professors, however, are in a bit of an awkward place in urging students to lobby against the cuts. Because of New York’s Taylor Law, which disallows state employees from striking, they can’t officially encourage college students to attend the rally. Despite knowing that no one might be in their classroom on March 8, the professors will have to be in the room.
For professors and state employees on campus, it feels a bit like tax hawks are blaming them for the meltdown on Wall Street.
“We didn’t cause the Great Recession,” said Richard Kelder, the president of the UUP’s New Paltz chapter.
Right now, the big struggle in Wisconsin against a state bill to severely cripple unions’ collective bargaining power demonstrates a right-wing strategy to blame the workers. With the success of the Tea Party, even Democrats like Gov. Cuomo want to look tough on spending, Kelder added.
“There are many wealthy people in this country who seem to have a vested interest in keeping us … poor,” UUP President Smith said. “It’s the big money people of this country who will try to deny you what little money you’ve earned.”
Smith noted that public sector employees, like SUNY staff members, on average earn 25 percent less than people working in the private sector.
Again, the protests in Wisconsin -- and the big money from billionaires like the Koch brothers who have stacked the decks against unions -- were a big focus of the Feb. 23 meeting. Muilti-million dollar ad blitzes, compared to the amount of money union members can scrounge up for advertisements, haven’t helped anything.
“They’ve got plenty of money against us,” McNitt said, urging students to organize and protest the local cuts.
For students, the cuts will play out in a different way. SUNY New Paltz has cut roughly 100 adjunct professors in the last three years, which puts a burden on full-time professors, who thus become busier. SUNY students weather these cuts in some unfavorable ways, like being turned away from the classes they need to finish up their degree on time, Smith said.
“It should come as no surprise that our classes are going to get larger and larger,” Kelder said.
The college responds
During his budget presentations, the college’s Interim President Donald Christian did address using the reserves, saying that it would not be feasible.
“We are disappointed at the continuing distraction of an issue that has been asked and answered, both by New Paltz administrators and nationally,” college spokesperson Suzanne Grady said about using the reserves.
The college administration also denied that the budget process had been secretive or closed off to the public in any way. “Our budget process and the criteria upon which budget decisions are made has been posted for months and updated regularly on the website for those who wish to be informed about these issues,” she said.
Right now, the cuts to SUNY New Paltz amount to $3.2 million -- however, the cuts coming down from Gov. Cuomo will take a larger toll than that.
“The budget approved by the legislature last summer reduced funding for SUNY New Paltz by $2.6 million, a further mid-year reduction increased that gap between revenue and expenditures to $3.2 million, and Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget would increase that shortfall to over $6 million. And this is on top of a budget reduction of about $6 million in 2008-2009,” she said. “These are permanent, base reductions, not one-time give-backs to state coffers. We must adjust our spending plans downward in response to these reductions in revenue.”
Advocacy is one way that people might be able to change the situation.
“We encourage everyone to direct their attention where it needs to be -- on advocating with state leaders to restore taxpayer support for SUNY and to institute a rational tuition policy,” Grady said. “We hope that everyone who cares about the quality and availability of public higher education in New York will in the next several weeks reach out to their legislators and the governor to advocate for increased state support and tuition for SUNY.”
Another option is a slight tweak to tuition costs.
“Student leaders have voiced their support for a tuition increase, which would give New Paltz and other SUNY campuses partial relief from the severe loss of funds we have experienced,” she said. “SUNY tuition is extremely low by any standard. Modest and predictable increases in tuition, coupled with taking advantage of state and federal tax credits for tuition, will still provide New York citizens with extremely affordable educational opportunities.”
For information about the budget process at SUNY New Paltz, head to budget.newpaltz.edu.
For more about the UUP’s campaign against the budget cuts, head to www.savesuny.org.