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Professors at New York's public colleges ask for more money to ease shortfalls

United University Professions President Fred Kowal standing in front of a red and black "FUND SUNY & CUNY" sign with a group of people around him in a legislative hallway.
Karen Dewitt
WBFO Albany Correspondent
United University Professions President Fred Kowal (center) rallies for more funding for SUNY before a legislative hearing on Gov. Kathy Hochul's budget.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has promised to overhaul the state’s vast university system after years of underfunding. But members of the faculty unions from the state and city university systems, along with their allies in the Legislature, testified Monday at a budget hearing that Hochul’s plan does not go far enough.

United University Professions, which represents professors and other faculty at SUNY campuses, CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress and some senators and Assemblymembers held a rally before the hearing began.

They say Hochul’s pledge to revamp the struggling campuses does not go far enough to make up for what they say are 10 years of neglect under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They say that's led to a 28% decline in the growth in funding over the past decade.

UUP President Fred Kowal praised Hochul for proposing an investment of an additional $1.5 billion in SUNY and CUNY over the next five years and expanding the Tuition Assistance Program to part-time students and prison inmates. Hochul also wants to add more money to the Excelsior Scholarship program, which covers remaining tuition costs for low- and middle-income students who have not received enough grant money to cover all of their expenses.

But Kowal said the campuses need at least an extra $250 million to hire adequate faculty and provide services to students who need them. He said it’s not a lot of money in an over $200 billion state budget.

“It comes to a grand total per student of $477. Average it out per day, that’s $1.30,” Kowal said. “The cheapest cup of coffee at Starbucks costs $2.35.”

Professional Staff Congress President James Davis said $53 million in the governor’s budget proposal to hire more faculty is a “welcome change,” but it falls short.

“That would bring in approximately 540 new full-time faculty members,” James said. “We have an enormous, enormous system and that barely gets us back to where we were a couple of years ago with attrition.”

Assemblymember Anna Kelles said she’d like to see Hochul reconfigure the SUNY Board of Trustees, which is made up of people appointed by the governor.

“What if, instead of having a board … that was comprised exclusively of governor’s appointees, you have some representatives from the Assembly and Senate?" Kelles asked to applause.

In 2020, Cuomo appointees on the SUNY Board approved former top Cuomo aide Jim Malatras to head SUNY, skipping a nationwide search. Malatras resigned in December after he became embroiled in the fallout from the sexual harassment scandal that led Cuomo to resign last August.

Malatras had tried to discredit Lindsey Boylan, a former staff member in the governor’s office. Boylan later accused Cuomo of harassing her and attempting to retaliate against her for voicing complaints about his behavior.

Malatras is currently receiving $450,000 in payment from SUNY for a “study year” and will then assume a $186,000-a-year post there.

The union leaders were hesitant to pass judgment on that arrangement.

“We’re both focusing right now on the resources of the hundreds of millions that we need," Kowal said.

The board is now conducting a thorough search for a new SUNY chancellor. The interim chancellor, Deborah Stanley, testified that she also would like the legislature to add to the governor’s budget.

Stanley said the proposed funding to hire new faculty would still require the campuses to pay for fringe benefits like health care and retirement plans. She asked the legislature to consider adding enough funds to cover that.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.