We once heard a City University of New York (CUNY) adjunct instructor say “We’ve been CUNYd!” when he heard that adjuncts at a CUNY community college were forced to wait two extra weeks for their paychecks because of a payroll error. To be “CUNYd” is actually defined on UrbanDictionary.com as “What happens when some bureaucratic, unreasonable, convoluted, and highly idiosyncratic procedure prevents one from achieving a simple, commonplace goal.” That definition can be applied not only to the CUNY students, staff, and faculty abused by the institution’s bureaucracy, but also to the ways state and city political and economic leaders have repeatedly treated CUNY itself.
CUNY can be many things to those of us who work and study there: infuriating and hilarious (as in being “CUNYd”), but also a site of engaged struggle for intellectual awakenings, justice and equality. Across the five boroughs, CUNY’s 25 campuses carve out sanctuary spaces for inclusion, and expose students to new people, books and ideas.
Yet CUNY has been chronically underfunded for three decades and the disinvestment has only deepened since the 2008 recession. Today, CUNY teeters on the brink of austerity, as our undergraduates struggle to survive in a city of rising inequalities in wealth, housing, health care, treatment by the police, and segregated K–12 public schools. We have been placed on notice.
The Public Advocate for the City of New York, Jumaane D. Williams, has released a searing analysis of CUNY’s fiscal precarity and a bold set of recommendations for investment. Addressing the underfunding, “CUNY, New York’s engine of mobility, innovation and economic support” begins:
Funding challenges threaten to stall a major engine of mobility, innovation and economic support that the City University of New York represents for its students and the city of New York. For decades, New York State and New York City have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to support CUNY’s mission…. And now the city and the state are at a critical juncture where they can either build upon their investment and bolster CUNY’s mission of an equitable education for all or oversee the erosion of one of New York City’s most venerable institutions.
CUNY is indeed an “engine of mobility” for nearly a quarter million undergraduates every year. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) rates CUNY colleges among the top schools nationwide for moving college students from the bottom quintile to the top quintile of income earners. This is what it should mean to be “CUNYd.”
Our students overcome high rates of housing displacement, economic precarity, and food insecurity. They live in a city that has incentivized corporate welfare, where median rents jumped 19 percent between 2002 and 2011. They live in a state with one of the highest rates of income inequality in the nation.
We educate first-generation students (45 percent of our student body), immigrants, working- and middle-class students, students of color and white students, quite religious students from a number of faith communities, students with a range of (dis)abilities, LGBTQIA+ and gender expansive students, students who have spent time in prison, in the military, in foster care, in private boarding schools, living in other countries, as well as a depressingly large number of students who currently commute from homeless shelters. A full 60 percent of CUNY students come from homes with incomes under $30,000; 42 percent are from families that earn less than $20,000. Most work, many full-time; many care for children or elders.
The cumulative consequences of systematic underfunding – the long-term weathering of CUNY – mark the erosion of New York’s commitments to democracy, racial justice, integration, freedom of expression, and association.
Between 2008-09 the 2019-20 academic years tuition at CUNY increased 36 percent, adjusted for inflation. Over the same period, per-student funding from the state for CUNY senior colleges declined 17.5 percent, adjusting for inflation. The CUNY Board of Trustees will soon vote on a budget request to the city and state that would increase tuition and fees by another $320 per year starting in fall 2020.
The public advocate’s report also warns of the harm wrought by the TAP gap, a deficit in CUNY’s annual budget that grows with each tuition hike. The TAP gap is caused by the State’s failure to fully fund the need-based Tuition Assistance Program grants received by CUNY’s senior college students. Last year, unfunded aid for more than 142,000 students cost CUNY close to $73 million in lost funding. This year, the TAP gap will be roughly $80 million.
CUNY undergraduates and graduate students constantly witness the consequences of underfunding. They walk through rundown buildings to overcrowded classrooms; endure long waits to see advisors or counselors with outrageously high caseloads, and receive instruction from overworked, underpaid faculty, the majority of whom are adjunct instructors hired on a per-course basis.
To serve its growing student body while accommodating to the climate of austerity in Albany and City Hall, CUNY has hired low-wage adjuncts at a break-neck pace. At present CUNY employs 11,600 adjuncts and 7,500 full-time faculty. Between 2008 and 2018, as enrollment at CUNY rose by 30,000 students, the number of adjuncts teaching at CUNY increased 44 percent, while the number of full-time faculty increased by just 7 percent. Sixty-six percent of undergraduate instruction at CUNY is now provided by adjunct instructors.
Adjuncts carry the brunt of teaching at CUNY with dedication and passion. They are our colleagues, and often our graduate students. But their working conditions make it close to impossible to deliver to our undergraduates the kind of relational, sustained high quality education our students need. It’s hard to be a mentor, to be involved in campus life, to write recommendations, when you must rush off to teach another course in another borough or another university.
As long-time CUNY faculty members we know how much the students, staff and faculty work to sustain the soul of this institution. With more young people coming in to CUNY, chasing their own precarious dreams, with CUNY’s TAP gap widening every year as tuition increases, it is time for the governor, mayor, state legislature, and City Council to increase their investment in the CUNY of tomorrow.
We agree with the recommendations of Public Advocate Williams: Increase funding from the State and the city; close the TAP gap; increase the percentage, number and diversity of the CUNY faculty; raise adjunct salaries to $7,000; expand access to State TAP, and strengthen and expand the federal Pell grant program.
The weathering of CUNY is cumulative, and corrosive. As the public advocate so clearly documents, now is the time to build/repair facilities, hire full-time faculty members who reflect the rich diversity of our students, and pay our adjuncts what they are worth. All New Yorkers have a moral and political obligation to invest in that vision.
Stephen Brier is a Professor at CUNY’s Urban Education PhD program and founder and coordinator of the Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology & Pedagogy certificate program. Michelle Fine is a Distinguished Professor of Critical Psychology, Women’s Studies, American Studies and Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center.