It’s hard for me to listen to Andrew Cuomo without wincing. I was thinking about that a couple of months ago when I attended a national immigration conference in New York City where Cuomo spoke. Rip-roaringly taking on Donald Trump’s views on immigrants, Cuomo evoked his Italian immigrant heritage. He talked about public education as the great equalizer.
“We don’t care where you come from, how much money you have in your pocket, the color of your skin, you can go to a public school and become whatever you want to become,” he said. The audience, immigration activists from around the country, rose and applauded. Not me.
I teach at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York, where 75 percent of the 275,000 students are people of color and 38 percent are immigrants. Over 40 percent of CUNY undergraduates are the first person in their family to go to college. Over half have family incomes of less than $30,000. And yet I have watched the state defund CUNY. This year, Cuomo has proposed nearly $500 million in reductions through administrative restructuring.
This comes on the top of the fact that student tuition has risen every year for the past five years and Cuomo in his State of the State speech called for tuition hikes to continue. At senior colleges like Brooklyn, tuition now provides 46 percent of the budget. In 1990, it was 21 percent. In December, on a quiet Friday with few people paying much attention, Cuomo vetoed legislation on a Maintenance of Effort bill, in which the legislature committed itself to maintaining current funding for CUNY.
In addition, for six years the faculty and staff has gone without a contract, all 25,000 of us. Over 10,000 non-professional workers in a different union haven’t had a contract in seven years. All of us are treading water. This is Cuomo’s vision of public education?
I know the importance of young people not only getting into college but succeeding there. Before I became a college professor, I taught high school, first at Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and later at the Heritage School in East Harlem and Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn's Coney Island. I helped my students with college essays, harassed them about deadlines, nudged them about scholarship applications. I drove some of them to college interviews and celebrated when they were accepted. I also kept in touch long after they were enrolled, knowing that the transition to higher education is often a road with many twists and roadblocks.
That’s why I understand my students at Brooklyn College have so much going on in their lives: they work a couple of jobs, they live at home and often have innumerable family obligations. When a student tells me he’s late to class because he worked late the night before at Target, I know he’s not playing me.
It is hard not to read Cuomo’s antagonism to CUNY as personal pique — competition with Mayor Bill De Blasio and against my union, the Professional Staff Congress, which stayed neutral during the Democratic primary between Cuomo and Zephyr Teachout. Whatever its source, it has devastating effects on CUNY students.
It is great seeing all those ads for CUNY plastered all over the subway cars showing CUNY faculty mentoring students, touting the awards that CUNY students have won and the 14 Fulbright Scholars teaching at CUNY. Those of us — faculty and students who ride the subway to work — laugh ruefully though, like I did hearing Cuomo’s speech. You can’t on one hand talk about your commitment to public education and, on the other, raise tuition, argue that the city needs to pay more and disregard the needs of faculty and staff.
I teach because I love it. I’m constantly inspired by my students' insights, fire and tenacity. But CUNY needs Cuomo and the state to come through. We need fair funding, an end to continual tuition hikes and enough money to settle faculty and staff labor contract talks.
Only then can CUNY fulfill the promise of being the "great equalizer" that every student deserves.