State of Your Public-School Education

By Carlos Camacho and Cecilia M. Salvi.

The Graduate Center isn’t Columbia. Or NYU. You learn that the hard way. The first time your paycheck is late so you can’t pay rent. Or you’re running around the five boroughs dropping off adjunct applications. You also experience one of the thousand other ways CUNY reminds you that you are at a public institution. The phrase “lack of funds” is part of the common register that issues reminders of  its public-school status. It is especially present in conversations when the administration explains why there are no new faculty lines or tuition remissions after the fifth year. And at a school whose strategic plan consistently boasts of “a reputation for world-class research,” even dissertation fellowships aren’t safe. They were cut from ninety offers last year to forty this academic year though subsequently restored in March. The obstacles graduate students face are compounded by the reality that many are unfunded or underfunded. This means we eventually end up adjuncting in the CUNY system. And while we might enjoy teaching, it’s difficult to get through a doctoral program carrying a heavy financial burden and being poorly compensated. Time-to-degree has become an indicator of student success even as programs and services necessary for that completion are diminishing. This academic year, CUNY schools faced three percent cuts across the board, which at the Graduate Center amounted to over USD $3.5 million dollar reduction. Economic emergencies such as these are the perfect excuse for increasing tuition, and CUNY’s Board of Trustees was ready to move forward with such a plan at the senior colleges. Additionally, CUNY administration has started implementing other measures to increase its funding, all of which dig deeper into students’ pockets. Last May, the Board approved “excellence” and “academic” fees all across the system that increased the overall cost of attendance. Some of these are seemingly modest, but the most recent one will cost some students at the CUNY School of Medicine $1,600 more a year. Our increasing dependence on student-generated income –over the last few decades, tuition has come to account for almost fifty percent of CUNY’s income – is often overlooked in media coverage and CUNY press releases. In fact, students are told paying for an education is beneficial. As one Board of Trustee member told University Student Senate delegates in a December 2015 meeting, paying tuition was “investing in yourself” (because CUNY won’t). And most recently at the Graduate Council meeting in March 2016, President Robinson informed members that the extra income generated by the Master’s degree programs helped pay for the dissertation year fellowships, and an increase in M.A. students is the (only) way to financially secure the Graduate Center’s future (translation: you’re cash cows!). As adjuncts and student workers, we have more in common with the students we teach than we usually think. They too work multiple jobs, have family members to care for, and struggle to make ends meet. For many working-class students and students of color, affordability is the key to success or failure. With continual tuition and fee increases, the students this system should be serving, will be priced out in the same way that communities are priced out through gentrification. But before you think to yourself that these are tough economic times and maybe asking students to pay more isn’t such a bad idea, remember that Chancellor Milliken’s monthly rent (which we pay for) is what an adjunct makes a year teaching six classes. What seems like small cuts or increases are salt rubs on already hemorrhaging wounds. There’s an undeniable disconnect between the mission of CUNY as a public institution and the administration’s policies. You see the “CUNY Value” ads on subways and buses, which boast that two-third of CUNY undergraduates graduate debt free, as you go teach a class for under $3,000 (and you sure as hell aren’t graduating debt free). Even as the word “diversity” slips effortlessly from the lips of our President, the Dean K. Harrison awards for students from underrepresented groups which were abruptly withdrawn in 2014 are still not fully restored, faculty lines remain vacant, and a very small number of students of color benefit from the funding packages designed for diversity candidates. In this context, the “CUNY Value” has come to mean undervaluing our collective labor, undermining us as legitimate researchers, and under-serving the communities of color and working-class communities of New York.

Given that public higher education is the principal way historically marginalized communities have achieved success and economic independence in this country, this administration is complicit in perpetuating economic and racial inequality through policies that directly impact access to higher education. (Another interesting tid-bit of information: members of the Board of Trustees recently defended former Chancellor Matt Goldstein’s “golden parachute” retirement package, valued at just under $550,000 a year, by claiming that he had been underpaid as a chancellor. We cannot let the continuous pricing-out of students while paying lip-service to diversity (as the “CUNY Value” ads do) become a reality. We also cannot continue to emulate the elite institutions with which we share a city, since they do not have the same responsibility to historically underrepresented communities nor the same history. The diversity of the students and faculty of the Graduate Center should reflect the diversity of the New York City community whose mission it is to serve. The Graduate Center isn’t Columbia. Or NYU. And it should never be.


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