Degrees of Austerity

Inside the budget crisis affecting the largest urban university in the United States and the half million students it serves.

Student protesters at Baruch College in New York, NY in 2011. Timothy Krause / Flickr

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The New York Times published a devastating attack on the City University of New York (CUNY), where I’ve been teaching for nearly two decades, and the state’s criminal underfunding of a once-great institution. An above-the-fold photograph of a library at one of CUNY’s senior colleges features students studying at tables, surrounded by buckets strategically placed to catch the gallons of water dripping down from the ceiling.

It’s a near-perfect tableau of what it’s like to teach at CUNY today: excellent, hardworking students, encircled by shabbiness, disrepair, and neglect.

Though you should read the entire piece, here are some of the highlights.

Collapsing Infrastructure

The piece begins thus —

On the City College of New York’s handsome Gothic campus, leaking ceilings have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper. The lectures are becoming uncomfortably overcrowded, and course selections are dwindling, because of steep budget cuts. . .

— and it doesn’t let up, across fifty paragraphs and seven columns, relentlessly documenting an institution facing near-collapse.

It reports on a college library with an entire annual book budget of $13,000 — that’s less than the individual research budgets of many professors at elite universities — and books covered in tarps to protect them from rainstorms and leaky roofs.

At another college, a biology professor is stalked across the stage of her genetics lecture by giant water bugs. There are computers that still use floppy disks, Wi-Fi that doesn’t work, elevators and copy machines out of commission, and more.

The piece makes a brief nod to my campus, Brooklyn College, whose “rapidly deteriorating campus” has earned it the moniker “Brokelyn College.”

I can personally attest to that. On Thursday, as I left campus, I stopped in the men’s room of our wing of James Hall. One of the two urinals was out of business, covered by a plastic sheet.

I sighed, and thought back to the time, about a year ago, that that urinal was so covered for about six months. The clock in my office has been stopped for over a year. Our department administrator tried to get it fixed: it worked for two days, and broke again.

Last fall, our union launched a hashtag campaign #BroklynCollege. Go on Twitter, and you’ll see photographs like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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And this:

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And this:

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And this:bc6

That last one is a personal favorite: that’s the sight that greeted me for weeks on end as I walked into James Hall last fall.

Last year, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by a Columbia philosophy professor about her experiences teaching at a prison in upstate New York. While the piece was a thoughtful exploration of the relationship between incarceration and education, I was struck by these passages —

My incarcerated students differ radically from the ones at Columbia. When I walk into a tidy, well-equipped classroom on Morningside campus, I know my undergrads have spent years preparing for academic achievement, supported by family and teachers. Trained to ask hard questions, they consider diverse perspectives and then expect to get to the bottom of things.

When a correctional officer escorts me into a prison room equipped with rickety tables, tangled Venetian blinds, and no chalk, I know my incarcerated students have been locked away for years — sometimes for decades — with virtually no opportunity for intellectual stimulation …

My main goal as a teacher in prison has been to create a space comfortable enough for exploration and insight. The circumstance does not make that easy. With a heating system so loud we can barely hear ourselves think…

— and the explicit contrast they draw between this professor’s experience of her physical environment at Columbia and at this prison. As I wrote in a blog post at the time:

As any professor at CUNY will tell you, the telltale signs that the author of this piece attributes to prison — rickety tables, tangled blinds, no chalk, loud heating systems — are ubiquitous features on our campuses. I have a very strict no-gifts policy for my students: at the end of the semester, I only accept emails or cards of thanks.

But one day a student gave me a gift, and as I protested to her that I don’t accept them, she gently pressed it into my hand and said, “Just open it.” It was a box of chalk: I gratefully accepted it. That’s how bad things can get at CUNY.

It’s difficult to explain to people who teach on tonier campuses how wearying and dispiriting this relentless shabbiness can be.

While you’re striving to inculcate excellence in your students, to get them to focus on the lyrical beauty of a passage in Plato or the epigrammatic power of a line from Machiavelli, you have to literally shut your eyes to the space around you, lest its pervasive message of “What’s the point? Give up” get inside your head. Or the students’.

Which brings me to a second element in the article.

Scrimping on Students

While there are periodic articles in the media about the challenges of teaching at cash-starved campuses like CUNY, this is one of the very few that gets into the nitty gritty of what that means. For both students and teachers.

The bigger class sizes have made it harder to grade papers. Three-page papers are now more common, students and instructors said, versus the once-standard five or six pages. Classes, overstuffed, have become more impersonal.

Michael Batson, an adjunct lecturer who has taught history at the College of Staten Island since 2000, said that he traditionally gave his freshmen, many from immigrant families, “low-risk assignments” at first, in order to offer intensive instruction.

But his classes have steadily increased in size, while staying in the same cramped classrooms. Group projects — which he favors, as a way to get small clusters of students to work together — have also become impossible.

As both a professor and chair of my department, I can’t tell you how much this issue of class size speaks to me. In political science, we’ve been monomaniacal about keeping our class sizes small.

I’ve written about the benefits of that class size, particularly this semester, when I am teaching our department’s capstone seminar. It has allowed me to focus on the writing of our students to an unparalleled degree. As I said earlier this month:

It’s an intense process for the students. We start with a one- to two-page précis. The students then write a detailed outline of the paper. Then they submit a rough draft (I just got the rough drafts yesterday and have begun reading them today). And then the final draft, which is due in a few weeks.

My goal is twofold: first, to get the students to really dig into a topic (I’ve written about that here); second, to teach the students that old truism that all writing is just rewriting. I think the fancy education folks like to call that “iterative writing” (google that phrase and you get 16.2 million results). But to me, it’s just writing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you snake oil.

This kind of teaching, that kind of intensive feedback, of going over sentence after sentence, is a lot of work. It can be grueling and challenging for the student.

And just this past week, as my students handed in their final papers, I got the following email from a student:

I would like to thank you for an excellent semester and for the critiques of my paper. I have never had a professor pay such close attention to a paper that I have written and give such thorough edits and suggestions. Although it was tough, I appreciate it because it helped a great deal.

There’s a reason this student has never gotten this kind of attention from a professor: she’s in classes that are too big taught by instructors (permanent and adjunct) who are teaching anywhere from three to five classes per term, responsible for anywhere from a hundred to two hundred students.

At Brooklyn College, our teaching load is four to three: four courses one term, three courses another. At the community colleges, it’s five to four.

And our adjuncts have even greater challenges of racing across the city’s five boroughs, hoping to catch one class at the College of Staten Island, another at City Tech, and a third at Lehman, just to make a paltry $9,000, if they’re lucky, a term. (Most adjuncts get paid roughly $3,000 per class.)

Ever since I became chair, I’ve struggled to protect our department’s small class sizes from the administration, which wants us to pack more students into each classroom. It has made my relationship with the administration contentious, and I’ve often gotten into heated exchanges in person, on the phone, and over email.

But as much as I push back against the administration, I recognize that they are only responding to financial constraints of their own. We’re not Harvard, they’ll tell us — even though there was a time, as the Times poignantly reports, when City College (Brooklyn College, too), was proudly known as the “the poor man’s Harvard” — and they’re just doing the math.

But doing the math has long-term corrosive effects on the students. As we see in those passages from the Times piece above. It also has long-term corrosive effects on the faculty and administration. As this passage from the same piece shows:

Last fall, with Albany’s budget uncertain, the CUNY administration asked its colleges to cut their budgets by at least 3 percent. City College, citing increased personnel costs and declining enrollment, particularly in graduate programs, imposed a 10 percent cut, or $14.6 million.

Programs with the steepest enrollment declines suffered the most, with the humanities and education departments cut by more than 40 percent each.

“It is a good budget model, and it’s better than the way we used to do it for the past 40 years, which was arbitrary, very political and you had to go and beg for everything,” said Gordon A. Gebert, the interim dean of the architecture school.

When you operate in an environment of austerity, educational questions ineluctably become, wholly and entirely, financial questions. And suddenly educators talk like accountants. As this interim dean quoted by the Times inadvertently reveals.

How do we decide where to devote scarce resources? Not by thinking about what we as educators deem to be of paramount educational value. No, just follow the students.

If they’re registering for business classes because that’s where they think the money and career are to be found, long-term, then we should cut English, history, and philosophy.

The sixties were supposed to be the high-water mark of student-led education, but never have educators so slavishly followed the preferences (really, perceived preferences) of students as they do today. Not because these educators are trying to give students what they need but because they’re trying to maximize the administration’s returns, to get the greatest bang for their buck.

I’ll never forget a meeting I was in earlier this year between the department chairs and the college’s administrators. One administrator said, point blank, the money goes where the students go; we have to maximize each dollar we spend on teaching.

Not a single person in the room objected, so unremarkable did that kind of talk seem. It’s as if we were the board of General Motors. But with no money.

Circles of Rewards

I always say that at CUNY, 95 percent of our problems are structural: we’re getting screwed by the state; we don’t have enough money. But there’s that last 5 percent of shittiness that we do to ourselves.

The Times piece demonstrates this perfectly. Until 1976, CUNY was free. It provided an amazing education to generations of immigrants and working-class students.

Then it began to retrench. Tuition began to creep up: it’s now $6,600 a year for undergraduates, says the Times, “more than half of whom report family incomes below $30,000.”

Student tuition has increased because it must now cover nearly half of CUNY’s operating budget. Thanks to New York’s decreases in funding: according to one estimate, while enrollment has jumped by more than 12 percent since 2008, New York’s funding has dropped by 17 percent.

The upshot of this disinvestment, and its effects on morale, is obvious:

“We have gone backwards,” said Frederick R. Brodzinski, a senior administrator and adjunct professor in computer science who plans to retire in September after 30 years at the university. “Morale is horrible on campus. There are too many highly paid administrators, and there’s a lack of clear leadership. We have stepped down on the ladder that we were climbing for about 10 years.”

It’s true: I’ve been at CUNY since 1999, and thanks to what the state has done, I don’t think there’s ever been a worse time to be a professor here.

But Brodzinski also points to that last 5 percent of shittiness that CUNY has inflicted on itself. Thanks to the upsurge in administration hiring. Now this is a complicated question, I know.

Bashing administrative bloat is an easy thing to do, particularly for people like Governor Cuomo, and particularly at institutions like CUNY, where even if we dealt with that bloat, there’d be a vast budgetary shortfall that we’d still have to confront in order to make the place as excellent as its students.

As the Times reports, however, the problem of administrative bloat — even corruption — is real. At City College, where the administration instituted a 10 percent cut last year — we at Brooklyn College had to suffer a $5 million cut last year — the administration has been binge-hiring and rewarding its own kind:

According to public data analyzed by the Times, the college paid administrators classified as “executives” a total of $7.25 million in the last year, up 45 percent from 2009. Eleven of the 18 biggest salary increases, by percentage, came in 2015, even as the college was slashing its budget. The provost’s office and government relations operations, in particular, have expanded.

When asked about the personnel moves, the college, in a statement, said it had “invested in hiring new faculty and staff as well as moving existing staff to the executive level consistent with increased responsibilities for these areas.”

The school’s use of foundation money has also been questioned. Documents obtained by the Times indicated that the college’s 21st Century Foundation paid for some of Ms. Coico’s personal expenses, such as fruit baskets, housekeeping services and rugs, when she took office in 2010.

The foundation was then reimbursed for more than $150,000 from CUNY’s Research Foundation. That has raised eyebrows among governance experts, because such funds are typically earmarked for research.

The administrative bloat and corruption are horrifying enough. But that CUNY’s Research Foundation — which provides the tiny bit of research money faculty are eligible for (on a competitive and increasingly scarce basis) — bailed the City College administration out like this: well, that’s that last 5 percent of extra-special bullshit we heap on ourselves.

It’s not that we have incompetent, untalented administrators running CUNY, though we certainly have plenty of those. It’s that they’ve succumbed to what I was talking about above.

In the same way that it’s hard to demand excellence from your students when you and they are surrounded by so much evidence of how little the state and society think of you, so it is hard, I suspect, for these administrators not to succumb to the shabbiness around them.

This is not to excuse them: they are inexcusable and ought to face the consequences of their actions. It’s just that this low-grade corruption and everyday shabbiness thrive in a neoliberal environment of scarcity.

That last 5 percent that we do to ourselves? It’s because of the 95 percent that’s done to us.

Sending a Signal

I couldn’t help being reminded, as I read the piece, of a similar moment of crisis for CUNY, about twenty years ago. It was 1995, and James Traub, the veteran journalist, had just published his City on a Hill.

Focused on City College, it was a devastating attack on CUNY, particularly the students who were not quite prepared for college but who had been accepted through open admissions.

The book both reflected and spawned a nasty campaign of racist innuendo and racially coded talk of standards. Because CUNY was now serving the needs of the city’s black and brown populations, open admissions was taken to be the cause of a massive decline in the institution’s greatness.

What was once, well, a city on the hill, had slid down the precipice of race-conscious mediocrity.

This blurb from Publishers Weekly caught the ugly tenor of the discussion:

From 1847 through the 1960s, City College in Manhattan was renowned for the excellent education it provided free of charge (tuition was not imposed until 1976) to poor and middle-class urban students. Responding to student protests against the low number of African Americans and Puerto Ricans it enrolled, City College, in 1970, began a policy of open admissions.

Traub recently spent a year on campus, interviewing students and faculty and attending classes. Although his detailed evaluation of the open-admissions experiment contains inspiring descriptions of idealistic teachers and hardworking students struggling to overcome poverty, racism, and inadequate English-language skills, he concludes that open admissions shortchanges students.

Because inner-city high school graduates often can barely read, City College has been forced, according to Traub, to provide remedial classes at the expense of academic excellence. A lively and compelling report.

What got lost in that discussion was that open admissions also dovetailed with New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis, which as Josh Freeman has argued, launched a decades-long experiment in neoliberalism, with New York City (previously the closest thing to social democracy that the United States had had, Gotham’s version of Red Vienna) providing a terrible demonstration effect — much like Pinochet’s Chile — of what neoliberalism could do.

The state took over the city’s budget and institutions like CUNY went from being a paragon of free, excellent public education to the increasingly tuition-dependent institution of public shabbiness that it is today.

The culmination of these two developments — neoliberalism and attacks on open admissions — came in the late 1990s when, at the behest of a task force appointed by Rudy Guiliani, CUNY ended open admissions and remedial education, while doing little to reverse the decades-long decline in public disinvestment.

It’s amazing to me, as I look back on the time, to compare the moral panic of the 1990s — the sense that something had to be done about this institution — with the criminal indifference that we at CUNY are faced with today.

When the issue was allegedly uneducated and uneducable black and brown students, the state jumped to act. When the issue is chronic disinvestment, leaky ceilings, clogged toilets, stagnant salaries, and ballooning class sizes, the state yawns.

I remember that moment all too well because my graduate school roommate at the time, the prize-winning historian Greg Grandin, who graduated from Brooklyn College, made the trip to New York City to testify against CUNY’s proposed changes at a public hearing.

Greg was the product of open admissions. In his first year at Brooklyn College, he took the remedial writing courses that helped get students prepared to do college-level work.

Greg is Exhibit A of open admission’s success: a working-class kid from Brooklyn, he got radicalized in college and interested in Latin American history (thanks to excellent teachers like Hoby Spaulding), went onto Yale to do graduate work, and is now, at NYU, one of the preeminent historians of Latin America, with multiple literary and academic prizes under his belt, including the history’s profession top prize, the Bancroft Prize.

That’s the kind of thing CUNY used to do for students. It still does, often against the odds.

Zujaja Tauqeer, the child of Ahmadi refugees from Pakistan, was a student in my modern political thought class in the spring of 2010. She was an excellent student, determined to go to SUNY Downstate College of Medicine after she graduated. Brooklyn College’s history faculty were so inspiring, she decided to major in history rather than biology.

At the end of her semester with me, I urged her to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. She took a lot of convincing: like a lot of CUNY students, Zujaja didn’t know how good she was. But she applied, and got the Rhodes. Having gotten her doctorate at Oxford, she’s now at Harvard Medical School.

Zujaja’s class with me was small: I think we had twenty-one students in all. Students had to write rough drafts of the class’s three papers. Zujaja was a great student, but she had to work hard. And it was out of that and similar experiences at Brooklyn College that she wound up a Rhodes Scholar.

I want to be clear: Stories like this aren’t magic. It’s not Dead Poets Society. It’s not Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It’s not To Sir, With Love.

It’s about hard work — and hard cash. Successes like Greg’s or Zujaja’s — and there are thousands more, every year, at CUNY — require public investment. Excellence doesn’t come cheap. Just ask Harvard.

But excellence also doesn’t come without a fight. The generations that built CUNY came out of the struggles of the New Deal (Brooklyn College was established in 1935). It was working-class people, black people, immigrants, Latinos and Latinas, men, women: through collective action, through strikes and demands, as Freeman documents in his book, an institution of both excellence and equity was created.

Earlier this month, I voted to authorize my union to call a strike if CUNY doesn’t come to a reasonable settlement with us about our teaching conditions. Uppermost on my list is our teaching load, which is too damn high, but we also have salaries that are too damn low.

And a host of other problems that have made it difficult for us to recruit and retain faculty, as Kevin Foster, the chair of the economics department at City College, recently noted:

In my department, of the eleven untenured faculty hired in the last ten years, seven left before a tenure vote, driven off by low pay, poor working conditions, crumbling buildings, heavy teaching loads, and lack of support for research.

Striking in New York is illegal for public employees like me. If we have to strike, I could be facing fines, and our leadership could be facing jail time.

But it should tell you something that so many of my colleagues who voted for the authorization — 92 percent in total, nearly ten thousand men and women — have chosen to send this signal to CUNY and the State of New York. Despite the real consequences we could be facing if we strike, we feel like we have no other choice.

It’s my hope that Governor Cuomo, the State Legislature, and the CUNY administration take this Times piece as an opportunity: to reverse decades of defunding, to make CUNY once again a city on a hill. But if they don’t, we’re going to make them.

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