Cuomo’s Ouster May Have Saved Public College in New York

Andrew Cuomo's record as New York governor was marked by an undisguised personal contempt for public university education. His ouster offers a chance to roll back the attacks on higher ed.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, 2015. (Bryan Thomas / Getty Images)

As Andrew Cuomo readies to resign in disgrace, it’s important to remember the harm he’s inflicted on New York as governor for more than a decade. There is much to pick over — his sexual harassment, his cover-up of nursing home deaths, his enabling of conservative Republicans — and a lot of it has received copious coverage. But missing, even now, is a reckoning with how Cuomo, a triangulating corporate Democrat, targeted public education.

There are two major, state-funded university systems in New York: SUNY and CUNY. The State University of New York schools operate the state’s public community, four-year, and postgraduate higher education institutions outside the borders New York City. (I happen to be a SUNY graduate, with a degree from Stony Brook in Suffolk County.) Within the five boroughs is the City University of New York system, including well-known public institutions like Brooklyn College, Queens College, and Hunter College. These schools, collectively, educate the city and state’s middle class, working class, and poor.

None of these has ever been a priority for Cuomo, particularly CUNY. Though located in the five boroughs, much of CUNY’s fiscal future is determined by the state legislature and the governor. State aid to CUNY, adjusted for inflation, declined by nearly 5 percent from 2011, when Cuomo took office, to 2020, though the state’s gross domestic product has increased. At the same time, CUNY tuition has steadily risen.

While the cost to attend a CUNY college is still lower than that of many other large public institutions around the country, CUNY’s 271,000-large student body is mostly low-income. Forty-two percent of all first-time freshmen come from households with incomes of $20,000 or less, and more than 70 percent of students enrolled at senior and community colleges identify as non-white.

But if Cuomo had merely increased tuition and stripped funding, he may have been an enemy of public education but not so different from other austerity-minded governors throughout America. Where Cuomo diverged, from other Democrats certainly, was in his periodic attempts to gut CUNY further.

In early 2016, when the state faced no economic crisis of any kind, Cuomo attempted to slash state aid to CUNY by nearly $500 million. After encountering fierce backlash, Cuomo reluctantly backed off the plan. A few months later, however, he appointed Robert Mujica, his budget director, to the CUNY Board of Trustees, consolidating the governor’s office’s control over the university system.

During the pandemic, Mujica targeted CUNY anew, withholding funds during the fall semester of 2020. Chaos ensued, with adjuncts laid off and classes canceled. Class sizes ballooned for those that remained.

The Cuomo administration has repeatedly made demands that CUNY find more “efficient” ways to spend — a thinly-veiled call for more cuts. For long stretches of time, state investment per student has not kept pace with enrollment, falling 3 percent even as tuition has increased. Professors and students at CUNY had to endure a scarcity of school supplies, crumbling infrastructure, swelling class sizes, hiring freezes, and a reliance on exploited adjunct labor to teach classes. For years, the faculty went without a contract or raise.

Luckily, hope might be on the horizon. Kathy Hochul, the incoming governor, is a centrist like Cuomo, but she does not share his obsessive hostility to the Left. Next year, she is running for a full term and will need the support of progressives and socialists to win on her own terms. The Democrat-dominated state legislature will have far more leverage over her than Cuomo.

One big piece of legislation they can send to her desk is the so-called New Deal for CUNY. The plan would greatly increase state funding for CUNY and make the schools tuition-free, like they were before the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. In addition, the legislation would increase the ratio of full-time professors to full-time students, seeking to “professionalize” adjunct professors’ and lecturers’ salaries.

The New Deal for CUNY would hire five thousand more full-time faculty members, with special preference for current adjuncts, within the next five years, and boost adjunct salaries to equal those of the full-time and tenured faculty. The cost of this would be $636.5 million, according to advocates, a fraction of a percent of the state’s $212 billion budget. It will be up to the emboldened leftist lawmakers in Albany to push the plan and make sure Hochul signs it into law.