CUNY Feels The Effects of a Worsening Relationship With Cuomo
It was late summer 2012, and then-mayor Michael Bloomberg summoned the City Hall press corps to the Upper East Side to unveil “a hugely significant agreement.”
The City University of New York and New York’s pre-eminent cancer treatment center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, were going to drop $215 million on a site on East 73rd Street overlooking the East River. In dollar terms, it was, according to Bloomberg, “easily one of the largest real estate transactions city government has ever been involved in.”
Together, the two New York institutions would build a complex befitting the hype, one that would solidify Memorial Sloan-Kettering's hold on the East Side cancer corridor and finally give nursing and physical therapy students at CUNY’s Hunter College access to state-of-the-art facilities and top-flight neighbors.
There was, however, a fly in the ointment: Andrew Cuomo.
Its name notwithstanding, City University is a state-run institution. But the governor, who got along poorly with Bloomberg, was not involved in planning the press conference, and was invited to it at the last minute. He did not attend.
Afterward, Cuomo's top aide at the time, Larry Schwartz, rang up CUNY executives and bawled them out, according to two knowledgeable sources.
The Cuomo administration's expression of pique has since become legendary among CUNY insiders, because it seemed to herald a worsening of relations between the public university and the governor.
Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said the account of the bawling-out, and the idea that it impacted relations between CUNY and the governor, was "both untrue and silly."
The Memorial Sloan-Kettering half of the project is poised to move forward, once the building's foundation is complete. CUNY’s portion might not, because three and half years after the Bloomberg announcement, Cuomo has yet to include funding in his budget.
The governor has taken things further recently in his official posture toward CUNY, dramatically cutting previous levels of state funding for the system.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose relationship with Cuomo is worse than Bloomberg's ever was, said at an event in Bay Ridge last week that it was in the “dead of night” before Cuomo’s annual budget address last month that he first learned the state would reduce its contribution to the CUNY system by nearly a half billion dollars a year. The city, which does not control the university, would have to pay the difference.
Cuomo and de Blasio, of course, have been feuding. And the move was widely portrayed as yet another example of Cuomo toying with his erstwhile friend.
While that interpretation may well be understandable, it’s also incomplete.
Like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, another state entity that he technically controls but would seemingly rather not, Cuomo has long made it clear that he doesn't view City University of New York as a priority.
He has yet to name his own chairman to the board: Benno Schmidt, who has sat on the board since 1999, has been technically term-limited since 2013.
Of the 17 members on the board, Cuomo controls 10. Two are holdovers whose terms have expired. One trustee resigned earlier this month because, the trustee said, Cuomo wouldn’t pick a successor.
Dani Lever, Cuomo's spokeswoman, said Cuomo plans to fill some of those seats after the budget is passed.
The university has yet to reach a contract agreement with CUNY’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, whose more than 25,000 members have been without one since 2010, or District Council 37, which represents over 10,000 non-professional workers at CUNY and hasn’t had a contract since 2009.
He’s denied CUNY staff a $15 minimum wage, even as he insisted upon it at the State University of New York.
A CUNY spokesman declined comment.
"The Governor has always been a champion and advocate for these students and is committed to ensuring this system remains strong, healthy, and viable for generations to come," said Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever, in a statement.
ASK PEOPLE IN AND AROUND CUNY ABOUT CUOMO'S attitude toward CUNY, an institution that serves 530,000 New Yorkers, many of them people of color, and they will offer a number of explanations, prominent among them the Memorial Sloan-Kettering incident.
They will point to the fact that the CUNY’s faculty union declined to endorse Cuomo in last year’s unexpectedly competitive Democratic primary against Zephyr Teachout, which surely didn’t help matters either. The Professional Staff Congress went along with its parent union, New York State United Teachers, which declined to endorse.
(“I can’t say I’m inside the mind of Andrew Cuomo, but I have to think it plays a role,” said Stephen Brier, a CUNY education historian and co-author of the upcoming book, "Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education.")
And they will point to the Matthew Goldstein issue.
In 2013, Goldstein, then CUNY’s chancellor, retired. He was appointed under former governor George Pataki and he was never really this governor’s guy. When Goldstein finally did leave CUNY, he did so on a golden parachute, enraging Cuomo’s office and apparently leaving a lasting impression that CUNY is wasteful with its resources.
On Jan. 31, in an apparent effort to explain why the governor was proposing to slash CUNY’s budget by half a billion dollars, his operations director Jim Malatras released a letter comparing CUNY unfavorably to SUNY.
“According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the total cost to pay for administrative overhead is $4,634 per student at CUNY and $3,804 per student at SUNY,” wrote Malatras, a former SUNY vice chancellor, to CUNY Chancellor James Milliken and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.
“Administrative overhead at CUNY and SUNY is too high,” wrote Malatras. “We must find administrative efficiencies through shared services, back office overhead and other savings to lower the overall administrative costs per student.”
Statistics are, of course, malleable.
A comparison of SUNY’s financial statements to CUNY’s indicates a slightly different situation. In the 2015 fiscal year, SUNY provided “institutional support” of $5,236 per student, while CUNY provided $3,044.
Cuomo has also been far more attentive and generous to SUNY. The system has served as the vehicle for his economic development projects. Its faculty has a contract. Its workers got that aforementioned $15 minimum wage (although the governor announced the raise after the university had finalized its budget requests). At his last State of the State address he named-checked SUNY’s chancellor and chairman — and not CUNY’s. He has appeared with Zimpher numerous times but Milliken not once, according to the governor’s public schedules. And according to Cuomo's released schedules of meetings, he’s met with Zimpher and SUNY’s chairman several times, while Milliken and Schmidt do not appear in the schedules.
Cuomo also favored SUNY with the personal rollout of his 2014 anti-sexual assault policy, which CUNY subsequently adopted and the Legislature later mandated for the state's private universities.
"He’s behaving as if the New York City Democratic liberal vote has no place to go and he can count on it without having to do much to get it,” said John Mollenkopf, a CUNY political science professor.
Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science who joined the Hunter College faculty in 1967, said, "If there isn’t hostility toward the university from the governor, then he’s doing little to make it seem that he has affection for it."
NEW YORK STATE WAS LATE IN GETTING into the public university game, thanks in part to pressure from private colleges that feared competition, according to Brier.
It was only in 1948, when Thomas Dewey was governor and was looking to move to the White House, that Albany agreed to create the State University of New York.
CUNY was formed in 1961 from the city’s pre-existing municipal colleges.
“[Nelson] Rockefeller, working with state legislators, agreed that year to make a substantial state contribution to CUNY’s growth, providing one-third of the costs for freshmen and sophomores attending CUNY’s four senior colleges plus one half of CUNY’s debt service costs for capital construction,” wrote Brier in an article that will appear in the faculty union’s upcoming magazine.
By the time Rockefeller left the governor's office, New York was providing roughly 45 percent of CUNY’s operating budget.
Hugh Carey, elected as governor in 1974, quickly found himself dealing with the city's historic fiscal crisis. With the municipal coffers bare, the state took over funding of CUNY's senior colleges.
“I’m a state of New York employee,” Brier said.
The governor, in turn, acquired control of the CUNY board.
In April of last year, Cuomo made a rare appearance at a CUNY function, attending the opening of its newest two-year institution, Guttman Community College near Bryant Park. The governor spoke in stirring terms about the role that public universities play in civic life.
“Mario Cuomo went to public education and the public education system made him governor of the state of New York, all from the public education system,” he said, referring to his father.
But the elder Cuomo, who attended St. John’s University and law school, both of which are Catholic institutions, also was famously stingy with CUNY.
While Andrew Cuomo, who attended a Catholic university (Fordham) and a private law school (Albany), was effusive at Guttman, he vetoed the so-called “maintenance of effort” bill that would have required the state to fund increases in certain operating expenses at the public universities.
At the same time the state has a surplus, state investment per student under Cuomo has fallen 3 percent, according to the faculty union. (Nominal funding has increased, but enrollment is higher than ever.) The central administration took a 6 percent cut this past year. Tuition, this year $6,330, has increased $300 per year since 2011-12, and Cuomo’s budget (with CUNY’s concurrence) supports extending that schedule another five years.
The CUNY staff union, which has questioned Cuomo's progressive bona fides with respect to CUNY funding, is planning a strike authorization vote for March, though no firm date has been set.
“I hope that the governor of New York will embrace CUNY as the perfect exemplar of the goals he speaks about," union president Barbara Bowen said, referring to the governor’s statements on economic opportunity for immigrants, the poor, and minorities. "His policy on CUNY, so far, shows a different agenda. And there is still time to change that.”
This year, CUNY’s campuses are absorbing austerity measures. They’re not filling positions that come vacant, they’re getting rid of travel funds that professors use to attend conferences, they're offering fewer classes.
The cutbacks affect many minority students of modest means. CUNY serves 75 percent of all Pell grant recipients in the city, and two-thirds of all undergraduates.
More than 80 percent of all African American and Hispanic undergraduate students in the city attend CUNY. It is believed to be most diverse university anywhere in the country.
“Having taught at CUNY for 35 years, I have never been so dismayed about how the state is treating the university budget,” Mollenkopf said.