Pataki's SUNY Shock

Fed Up With Cuts and Hikes, Students Prep to March on Albany

Hunter College freshman Crystalina Rosario is grateful—grateful to be in school, for the tuition assistance she gets, for the SEEK aid that covers her books and fees, for the tutoring she needs, and for her personal counselor, who helps with the academic and administrative problems students like Rosario sometimes face. But she's terrified that all of it—the aid, the books, the tutoring, the counseling, even college itself—will be torn from her if Governor George Pataki gets his way. "I have no other options," she says, so she's fighting the governor's plans to raise tuition by $1200 and cut aid by telling her story to the City Council, to other students, to reporters, to as many people as she can.

So is Kevin Bynoe, a finance major who has reached his last semester at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn despite the fact that he still owes the school $6000 in back payments, despite the days he can't afford subway fare to school, and despite the death of his father, Vibert, two years ago. "He was my main support," Bynoe says, looking away. He's graduating in May, so the cuts won't affect him, and he's here on a late afternoon on the last Friday in January telling his story to the City Council's Higher Education Committee anyway. He knows how the cuts would have hit him: "It would have thrown me upside down."

Rosario and Bynoe are not alone. By January 31, just two days after Pataki proposed a budget that included a 35 percent tuition hike and more than $310 million in cuts to New York's public college budgets and a slew of financial aid programs, hundreds of state and city university students had already turned out at a dozen rallies statewide. Activists at Hunter occupied part of president Jennifer Raab's office on Monday, demanding, among other things, that she make a public statement against Pataki's budget plans and also against the war in Iraq. According to Hunter employee Christopher Day, "There's a strong connection between the war and the budget."

In the cut: Christopher Day speaks out against Pataki plan at Hunter College.
photo: Julia Xanthos
In the cut: Christopher Day speaks out against Pataki plan at Hunter College.

It was a budget plan shaped in secret, implemented by the governor and his appointed trustees with no outside input. With the state facing an estimated $11.5 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, Pataki signaled all of his state agency heads that cuts were coming. (Only prisons would get a boost.) The trustees responded on January 17 by suggesting a $1400 tuition hike, so when Pataki later proposed a $1200 increase, still the largest jump in state history, somehow it looked more considered, more responsible, expected, inevitable. He even added a flourish: a one-third "deferred payment" cut to the Tuition Assistance Program and the halving of a number of aid programs such as the Educational Opportunity Program—all a part of his overall $2 billion proposed cut to state education funding.

Two of the 16 voting trustees strayed from the herd: Bronxville's Candace de Russy, who would have preferred the elimination of departments, programs (such as women's studies and black studies; see "Toy Story," Village Voice, June 12-18, 2002), or even entire campuses in order to absorb the cuts, and George Pape, the only student trustee on the board. "In an ideal world, I think there should be tons of discussion," says Pape, a senior at the University of Buffalo. "I don't see how the welfare of our university system would benefit, or would even survive under the current budget."

Pataki flacks have justified the proposed budget by saying the economic impact of 9-11, coupled with the struggling national economy, forced the governor's hand, but they leave out his history of unsuccessful attempts to raise tuition and cut aid, including during the financially flush late '90s. Albany officials did not return repeated calls for comment, but SUNY spokesman Dave Henahan told The New York Times that a tuition hike won't hurt manystudents, provided "the total amount of theassistance available to a student does not decrease," and didn't explain that availableassistance will do just that, by an estimated $134 million. SUNY officials have also said that tuition has remained flat since the last increase, by $750 in 1995, but they don't mention that at least 29,000 fewer students enrolled in the state's public colleges as a result of that hike. Nor do they talk about how campus-based activity and technology fees—what critics call "backdoor tuition hikes"—have risen more than 100 percent in the last decade.

CUNY spokesman Michael Arena acknowledges the burden the governor's budget places on poor and middle-class students, and he says Chancellor Matthew Goldstein is exploring ways to minimize the impact on undergrads, such as raising tuition at a higher rate for graduate and professional-school students, and by having sponsored five informational sessions around the city for high school and returning students during the month of February, dubbed "Financial Aid Awareness Month." While he wouldn't say whether the governor's proposals would hurt CUNY's mission to provide affordable higher education to all New York City residents, he did say that, "In the true tradition of this university, we are offering the informational sessions in English, Spanish, and Chinese."

But for students like Suzan Hammad, an English major at Hunter who is one of four siblings to have studied at CUNY, a lack of financial aid awareness isn't the problem. "Education is becoming no longer a right, it's becoming a privilege for rich people," she told the City Council's Higher Education Committee.

She has an ally in the committee and its chairman, Charles Barron of Brooklyn, who said Pataki is "unjustly balancing the government's budget on the backs of working students and families." Barron himself is a CUNY graduate, and has a son, Jawanza, currently at Medgar Evers, but he says that the issue would be a personal one regardless, because "for people of color, whether we achieve or not is based on education." In a City Council session filled with angry students and professors, his committee passed a non-binding resolution that opposed the tuition increase and aid cuts; the full council will consider it on February 12.

In the meantime, student leaders across the state, with help from the New York Public Interest Research Group, are organizing dozens of media-friendly protests. Miriam Kramer, NYPIRG's higher-education project coordinator, says they include larger rallies planned for February 26 at City Hall and March 11 in Albany that she hopes will spur lawmakers to beat back "a triple whammy for New York's college students and their families."

Cail Casserly, a NYPIRG volunteer and Hunter sophomore, will participate in a 17-day protest hike by hundreds of SUNY and CUNY students to Albany (see www.notuitionhike.org) that is scheduled to hit most of the campuses along the way. She'll be the only student who will walk the entire southern route, starting from Stony Brook on February 23 (a second route begins in Buffalo on the 25th), winding through the city, and up into Albany—a total of 245 miles. There she will join what organizers hope will be thousands more on March 11, many of whom will be battling for their chance just to stay in school. Casserly promises: "We're going to fight until we get what we need, and we're not going to back down at all."

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