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Cuomo’s Gamble and CUNY’s Full-Throated Retort

In January, while planning the state budget, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $485 million cut to state funding for the City University of New York (CUNY), expecting the city to pick up the balance. It was a strange move, as he otherwise tried to shore up his progressive bona fides (by raising the minimum wage, for example, and enacting paid family leave), and one that backfired politically when CUNY staff and students publicly bucked. As they took to the streets and questioned Cuomo’s motives and liberal credentials, the Governor countered that the City had the money; that he was trying to cut bloated administrative costs; that he would give back pay to professors who had not seen a raise in six years—and finally capitulated and included the half a billion dollars in the state’s budget. CUNY was safe.

Photo: Dave Sanders.

As Kingsborough Community College professor Dominic Wetzel told me, however, the entire fiasco was a smokescreen: far from a victory, the budget re-up simply gets CUNY back to being “moderately underfunded as opposed to being decimated.” Professors have not received raises since 2010, when the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, their union, last had a contract in place. Cuomo’s gambit painted maintaining a hand-to-mouth status quo as more than CUNY should expect, but it had the counter-effect of galvanizing the workers he meant to undercut. In early May, more than 10,000 PSC members voted by a nine-to-one margin to authorize a strike in order to get their contract.

The authorization put added pressure on the state to negotiate—CUNY administration asked the state to intervene in the contract talks—but it does not necessarily mean a strike (which would not occur until next semester anyway) is imminent. Such action would technically be illegal under the Taylor Law, as the professors are state employees, which has some professors worried about retaliation. On the subject, though, Wetzel is vociferous: “Nobody’s ever lost their job through fifty years of job action under the Taylor law [. . .] Does the leadership go to jail? Yes. Do workers get fined one day, two days’ pay? Yes. But if you actually get something out of it, then a couple hundred bucks in fines versus thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the contract—it’s worth it.” He points to the Transportation Workers Union as an example public employees who have gone on strike—successfully—despite the law.

A lack of raises, combined with the rising cost of living in the city, means CUNY is having trouble attracting and retaining quality professors. In a May 12 op-ed for the New York Daily News, PSC president Barbara Bowen wrote that seven of the eleven economics hires in the past decade at City College left to greener-backed pastures before their tenure review, and that other departments are unable to find anyone at the salary levels offered. “The lack of a contract,” she wrote, “has begun to hurt CUNY’s core mission—teaching and learning.”

One irony of the new budget is that by the time the minimum wage increase kicks in for New York City workers in 2018/19, many adjunct professors—paid an average of $3,275 per course, according to the CUNY Adjunct Project—w  ill be making less than a full-time worker at minimum wage. Three out of five CUNY professors are adjuncts. For Bowen, this teaching model demonstrates nonchalance on the part of the state toward its public education system. “The ‘adjunctification’ of CUNY is the clearest sign of massive radical disinvestment in CUNY,” she told me. “Because the biggest activity we do in CUNY is teaching. More than half the teaching we do is on this underpaid basis. So the core activity is massively underfunded, and the only way it survives is through underpaid labor.” Reliance on adjunct professors is hardly particular to CUNY, as two-thirds of professors nationwide are now non-tenure.1 But the low wages and precariousness of adjunct work are intensified where cost of living is high; thirty thousand dollars a year goes a lot further in Tennessee than in New York City. Wetzel is indignant: “To let two-thirds of the students’ faculty become oppressed, burned-out, struggling, overwhelmed people is not good for students. […] Faculty and staff working conditions are student learning conditions.” Adjuncts have become a major focus of the current contract negotiations, as PSC hopes to move toward greater parity in benefits, job security, and salary for adjuncts and their tenured colleagues.

The Governor shifts the blame for this underpaid workforce to bloated administration sucking up the available money. This reflects a national trend—from 1993 to 2009, administrative positions in universities expanded by 60%, roughly six times the rate of tenured professorships.2 The pared-down budget offer was meant to force the university to streamline by having them put “skin in the game,” a Cuomo spokesman told the Times.3 As Nick Pinto noted in the Village Voice in March, no plan was ever introduced to cut administrative inefficiencies beyond the huge budget slash.4 But with the city awash in money, Cuomo proposed, was it so much to ask it to contribute? (New York City already contributes $30 million or so a year to support CUNY’s seven community colleges, but little to the senior and grad/professional schools.) Cuomo’s purported reasoning for the switcheroo is that the state had originally only stepped in to fund CUNY in response to the city’s budget crisis in 1976. Writing in Clarion, PSC’s publication, Graduate Center professor Stephen Brier disputes this claim, pointing out that the state began upping its funding of the CUNY system years before the city’s budget crisis in 1976 (although state funding did increase drastically after the crisis).5 Coincidentally, Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s increased funding of the CUNY system corresponded with his interest in absorbing CUNY into the SUNY system. This theme re-emerged in 2015, when Cuomo proposed merging the administrative functions of the CUNY and SUNY systems’ eighty-eight campuses statewide, which many saw as a first step toward uniting the systems entirely.

Photo: Dave Sanders.

The proposal was denied by the state legislature, as it fails to recognize essential differences between the state and city systems. Namely, CUNY is recognized in state law as responding to “the special needs of an urban constituency,” while SUNY’s scattered campuses have a more traditional mission. Seventy-five percent of CUNY’s students are students of color; the majority are working-class or poor. Over a third are immigrants. The school system represents, at its best, a vehicle out of poverty and marginalization for tens of thousands. It is inherently progressive. Yet “there is a failure of political will to invest in the people we teach,” Bowen laments. “And one of the clearest signs of that lack of investment is the short-changing of the faculty and staff who serve them. If you want to attract the best people to the job, and keep those people, you have to pay them well.” CUNY Adjunct Project Coordinator of Advocacy Sean M. Kennedy wrote by email that low graduation rates—54% of CUNY students in four-year CUNY schools graduate within six-years, while only 13% percent of those who start in community colleges earn a bachelor’s degree in that time—mean that CUNY is helping to reproduce social inequalities rather than relax them. “To me and many other observers,” Kennedy writes, “this is the central problem facing CUNY, and higher education at large, right now, and it’s why many of us at CUNY in particular would like to mount a strike in service to get not just a pay raise for faculty and staff but, more importantly, a broad-based transformation of the university overall: away from reproducing inequality and toward producing equality (and social justice, and liberation).”

Kennedy and the Adjunct Project support making CUNY entirely free again, as it was in its early days. That dream, not necessarily echoed by the PSC, runs deeply counter to the consistent belt-tightening of the state, even under a nominally progressive Governor. But Cuomo’s recent threat may have been one notch too tight. “I don’t understand what Cuomo’s calculation is,” Wetzel wondered. “If we do have a job action, it’s going to create a lot of negative headlines for him.” Perhaps Cuomo imagined that the issue would be swept under the rug when the budget passed; perhaps he simply wanted to reroute attention from the looming issue of retroactive pay raises, briefly a $240 million line-item in the proposed budget. Some read it as retaliation for PSC’s lack of endorsement of the notoriously thin-skinned governor during his 2014 reelection campaign. He may simply have miscalculated. But he now finds himself with energized union members demanding their due, the threat of an embarrassing system shutdown looming, and much more than his own progressive credentials at stake.


  1. Fredrickson, Caroline. There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts, The Atlantic, September 15, 2015.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Lee, Vivian. Cuomo Faces Loud Backlash Over Push to Cut State’s CUNY Funding, The New York Times, March 24, 2016.
  4. Pinto, Nick. Cuomo Bares Fangs at CUNY, Puts Final Nail in the Coffin of His Own Progressivism, The Village Voice, March 8, 2016.
  5. Brier, Stephen. A History Lesson for the Governor, Clarion, February 2016.


Samuel Feldblum

Samuel Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and reports across the southern half of the United States.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2016

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