CUNY Is the People’s University. Austerity Is Killing It.

The City University of New York is the crown jewel of the city’s once-robust welfare state, a vital resource for working-class New Yorkers. Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul are starving it.

Ahead of the final state budget, over a thousand New Yorkers including students, faculty, staff, and supporters of City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) marched from Brooklyn Borough Hall to Foley Square in support of increased funding for the public universities on March 6, 2022, in New York City. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

I started my current job as a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a senior college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, in August 2008. Unlike some other newly minted PhDs who received job offers in the fall of 2007, mine was not rescinded because of the onset of the Great Recession in December 2007. I am a person under forty-five who has worked at the same workplace for almost fifteen years, a rarity.

I have had the fortune to work in CUNY for that time because of an activist, social movement–oriented union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which successfully resisted austerity contracts; maintained the stability of pensions, protection of tenure, and a high-quality and affordable public employee health insurance program; and gave me the opportunity to work with the working-class and immigrant students who make up CUNY’s diverse student body. Faculty and staff working at CUNY could rely on such programs such as public service loan forgiveness; a guaranteed return tax-deferred annuity; and paid parental leave, which made working and staying at CUNY the obvious choice for a middle-income New Yorker like myself, raising children and building a life for myself in our increasingly unaffordable city.

CUNY has been a public good that makes a good life possible for so many New Yorkers. As the PSC proudly states, “Everyone loves someone at CUNY.”

But the shape of the CUNY system today is the result of struggle. It has suffered many setbacks in the past — and faces a politically hostile budget environment today.

In Kim Philips-Fein’s seminal work Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, the author discusses the radical, inclusionary politics of CUNY at its establishment. The CUNY system was created in 1847 to allow the children of laborers and new immigrants in NYC to pursue higher education, at a time when such education was an elite pursuit.

Phillips-Fein argues in the chapter on CUNY and its decimation during the 1975 financial crisis:

The view of higher education as a right that could be claimed by any New York resident was among the most striking aspects of the city’s social policy. . . . It articulated a conception of citizenship that was much more expansive than any to be found at the national level.

The crisis hit shortly after the CUNY system’s adoption of an open enrollment policy in 1969, the result of mass organized civil rights struggle by black and Puerto Rican students to demand more equal access to the system. As a result, all graduates of New York City public schools were guaranteed a place at a CUNY campus, doubling student enrollment from 118,000 in 1969 to 212,000 by 1974.

CUNY’s free tuition was considered part of the “bedrock” of New York liberalism. Democrat Hugh Carey, in his campaign for New York state governor in 1974, promised the CUNY student senate, “I will do all in my power, whether I become governor or not, to preserve free tuition at the City University.”

While the New York State legislature insisted that the city begin charging tuition as a condition of its bailout package to NYC during its fiscal crisis in 1975, the broader CUNY community did not allow for an austerity-minded government to destroy its beloved democratic institutions. Instead, students, faculty, staff, and unions fought against college closures, layoffs, tuition increases, department closures, shuttering of ethnic studies programs, and other devastating cuts to the largest urban education system in the country. By 1992, after the CUNY movement could not succeed against Governor Mario Cuomo’s harsh budget cuts and imposition of financial exigency in the system, the period of radical retrenchment was followed by a period of continued struggle against privatization, budget cuts, and the general refusal commit to higher education as a human right.

The idea that we all deserve a high-quality higher education, no matter our origins or class position, retains strong social support, despite constant elite attacks. Polls show that New Yorkers overwhelmingly support taxing the rich to pay for state services like CUNY. The recent leftward shifts in the New York State legislature and the success of the ongoing campaign New Deal for CUNY have challenged the austerity model that has threatened this institution for years.

As a result of this successful mobilization and the popularity of CUNY among New Yorkers, the system received a “historic” budgetary increase in fiscal year 2023. The city council also committed to new investments in CUNY, creating the CUNY Reconnect program to provide resources for students in all stages of life to return to CUNY to finish their degrees. This led to the enrollment of thirteen thousand new students in spring 2023 alone.

Yet city and state political leaders responsible for CUNY funding are ignoring the system’s importance for New Yorkers, instead instituting austerity budgets that hurt our essential and important public services. Back in the fall, Mayor Eric Adams demanded 3 percent cuts across all city agencies, who already had budgets set in the summer, and additional 4.5 percent cuts over the following years. This meant that individual colleges across CUNY were told to cut their budgets mid–fiscal year.

Adams released his executive budget, the mayoral blueprint for fiscal year 2023–24, on January 12. For FY 2024, CUNY’s budget was slashed $168,041,086, for a budget cut of 11.63 percent of total funds from the city. This is especially devastating for CUNY’s community colleges, which historically accept all freshman students with a high-school diploma or equivalent, regardless of grade point average, and thus have preserved the radical vision of guaranteed admission. The cuts that Mayor Adams has proposed constitute a new chapter in gutting the crown jewel of New York’s formerly robust welfare state.

Gov. Kathy Hochul released her budget on February 1, which did not include cuts for CUNY’s budget but included only modest increases. Perhaps to justify this low support, Hochul’s budget document compared CUNY and the State University of New York to other state systems, bragging that New York State’s contributions to higher education were higher than average.

Despite the clear needs, such a cashstrapped transit system, Hochul has already pledged no new tax revenues in the FY 2024 budget. But she has pledged to include “modest” regularized tuition increases, 3 percent or the “higher education price index” increase, whichever is lower, every year.

In contrast, many states are moving to better fund their public higher education systems, facing surpluses in 2023 and responding to the needs of a tight and growing labor market. Of course this follows over a decade of underinvestment since the Great Recession. In 2023 Illinois, for example, funded its largest increase in public higher education in twenty years. New Mexico instituted an almost-universal tuition-coverage scholarship program, one that applies to a variety of learners (part time, traditional, nontraditional) and allows students to “stack” the scholarship with other forms of financial assistance. Kentucky also made “historic investments” in its higher education system in the most recent budget cycle.

Cutting funding for CUNY is more than about reducing capacity for public higher education.  Despite the neoliberal idea that colleges exist to credentialize workers to get higher paying jobs, we know that institutions like CUNY have a democratic mission to create education and social experiences for students that can’t be reproduced in lower-cost online learning environments.

I asked a former student, Rael Almonte, a first-generation college student and immigrant from the Dominican Republic, about his experience at CUNY:

Coming from a lower-income background, CUNY gave me, like many others before and after me, the opportunity to achieve my dreams. Not only was I able to get a good education at little-to-no cost, which would have been impossible if it weren’t for CUNY, but I was also able to meet people who were in a similar boat as me. As trivial as it sounds, knowing that I wasn’t going through the struggles I was going through alone was extremely important to me.

CUNY doesn’t just grant degrees to students like Rael — it creates the opportunity for such students from diverse backgrounds all over the city to become each other’s support networks, friends, collaborators, and companions to hone their worldviews apart from their families. Failing to fund CUNY during this economically uncertain time hurts the social supports that make surviving and thriving in New York City a possibility for so many young and working people today.