Board of Trustees discusses CUNY issues at hearing

Ayse Kelce

The Manhattan borough hearing of the CUNY Board of Trustees was held on Oct. 21, at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. The CUNY Board of Trustees meetings are open to the public; however, the public hearings are the easiest way to communicate with the board. It is only possible to present ideas at these public hearings if the people willing to speak sign up to do so in advance.

The Manhattan borough hearing hosted students and professors from various CUNY schools, presenting both complaints about and appreciation for the university system, and focusing mainly on funding and special programs. CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez attended the meeting, along with the presidents of the university system’s various colleges.

Funding issues for the colleges were discussed during the hearing, along with speeches of appreciation for certain programs offered to CUNY students. The adjunct faculty pay issue was brought up many times as well.

Guttman Community College’s space constraints in its leased building near Bryant Park and the complaints about the antiquated classrooms in the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing were also mentioned.

“I won’t go through all of the allocations, but we have put in almost $7 million to CUNY in the last five years when I’ve been borough president,” Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer said. “And of course we would always like to do more.” 

Brewer also acknowledged food insecurity, which has been an ongoing worry for many CUNY students that come from low-income families.

“I also know the food is an issue,” she said. “We talked about how we can get the cost of food for students down because I know that that is a tremendous burden…across the city.”

However, many people at the hearing did not share the belief that the funds allocated to CUNY were sufficient enough to take care of the concerns raised at the hearing. Pamela Stemberg, an adjunct professor at the City College of New York and Hostos Community College, was one of the speakers who believed in the possibility of a free education at CUNY. 

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[Students] have to wait sometimes a year to take required classes. So, we’re all about the students. I think all of us are.
— Vincent DiGirolamo

“You have a $9 billion institution. You need to fund it,” Stemberg said. “You need to, because you are responsible to these students.  Every single student that’s in your school should have a free education, but should also have the right to an absolute great education.”

Stemberg also talked about the responsibility of the CUNY Board of Trustees to lobby in Albany and provide the funding needed for all CUNY students. Her speech was followed by applause and cheers from the audience.

Marc Hagan, an adjunct professor in the history department at Lehman College, directly addressed Rodríguez in his speech, stating that he has two issues for the chancellor. 

“One, of course, is about the 7k,” Hagan said, referring to the struggles that adjuncts have faced in trying to raise their wages to $7,000 per course taught.

“I hope that we have made substantial progress toward that. But I want to assure you that I think the delegates in the PSC will continue to press for higher wages, for more job security, for conversion from adjunct status to full-time status, and I hope that we can continue that over the next few years.”

Later in his speech, Hagan pointed out the necessity to fix the admissions process for Hunter College High School, which requires students to take an entrance exam during their sixth-grade year in order to apply for the school.

“There’s been all this discussion about the specialized high schools in New York City but you collectively have it within your power to fix the admissions process at the high school to make it a paradigm of what should be happening throughout the regular Department of Education system,” Hagan stated, and urged the board to take this issue seriously. 

Class cancellations in all CUNY schools, leading to a lack of classes offered to students each semester, was another crucial issue discussed by various professors from the schools. 

“Hundreds of core classes have been cancelled for the spring semester all across campuses, setting back graduation timelines for thousands of students,” Jane Guskin, adjunct lecturer at Queens College said. “Classes that remain are over-enrolled, so students will get less attention from faculty.”

Guskin brought up several other common problems that frustrate both students and faculty across the university system. “Student services have been slashed. Counseling centers have waitlists that are months long. And writing centers have reduced their hours,” she said. 

“Tuition keeps going up, putting a CUNY education increasingly out of reach of New York City’s poor and working-class people. There is plenty of money in New York to fully fund CUNY and make it free and pay faculty and staff fair salaries.”

Vincent DiGirolamo, a history professor at Baruch College, agreed with Guskin about the lack of classes issue. “The increased class size, classes cancelled as well because the minimum is required is increased as well,” DiGirolamo pointed out. “[Students] have to wait sometimes a year to take required classes.  So, we’re all about the students. I think all of us are. And we need to close this gap to combat the hiring freeze, also known as a vacancy control measure at Baruch.”

DiGirolamo also drew attention to the problems caused by the lack of funding at Baruch College specifically.

“I also go to the gym, and six out of the seven treadmills were broken,” he claimed, referring to the fitness center in Baruch’s Athletic Recreation Center. “Three out of the six showers were taped off.  So it’s really evident. And I just lost a day of teaching because of a flood which impaired the elevators,” he added, noting that classes were cancelled in Baruch’s Newman Vertical Campus on Sept. 17 due to a flood that turned off all express elevators in that building.

DiGirolamo was the only person from Baruch who spoke at the borough hearing.Other speakers at the hearing also stated that the class cancellations were not only affecting students, but also the living standards of faculty members.

“Some of us have had classes cancelled at the last minute,” Ruth Wangerin, and adjunct assistant professor at Lehman College, commented. “And for half of the faculty, I know this sounds weird to you, but the cancellation of a class takes a big cut into standard of living.”

Despite all of the criticism and issues brought up, there were also some speeches that appreciated and encouraged special programs for CUNY students.

Cynthia Carvajal, the inaugural manager for the Immigrant Student Success Center at John Jay College, brought up the importance and value of the center. 

“So this is the first of its kind in the CUNY system,” Carvajal noted. “Brooklyn College just opened theirs. We provide legal, academic and financial resources for undocumented, DACA, TPS and refugee students at John Jay College.”

Carvajal also talked about the reach of the center. 

“In the year that we have opened we have supported over 600 students primarily in John Jay but also from across the CUNYs, SUNYs, private schools and high schools in New York City,” she said, and encouraged similar centers to form within other CUNY schools.

John Jay students and faculty also acknowledged the Prison-to-College Pipeline, an educational program founded by John Jay English professor Baz Dreisinger.

“P2CP is administered by the Prisoner Reentry Institute in partnership with Hostos Community College and provides prisoners with access to public university-level education, mentorship, and community support to increase their chances of timely graduation and employment upon release,” the program’s website states.

“I was released five months ago and the assistance that the College Initiative, Prison-to-College Pipeline has given me since I’ve been released has been invaluable,” Chaz Zachery, who is currently studying English at John Jay, said about how the program helped him with his education.

“They’ve assisted me in enrolling into college. They’ve assisted me in purchasing my books for my classes. I’m a full-time student. I take four classes at John Jay. My goal is to at least be able to attain my degree and be able to teach the children so that they wouldn’t have to go through some of the things that I went through in my life.”