Andrew Cuomo, the archetypal politician — fickle, conviction-less, his soul shriveled to a crushing singularity from which only ego can escape — has of late been feeling the political winds blowing left-wise and has grudgingly drifted accordingly. Indeed, a Martian visitor freshly descended to the Empire State might be forgiven if, surveying recent political developments, she came to the belief that the governor is motivated by progressive ideals. Ignorant of history and blessedly unfamiliar with the howling void at the center of Cuomo’s being, she might look at his recent advocacy for paid family leave or increases in the minimum wage and conclude that he is committed to the use of government to benefit and protect working-class New Yorkers.
Our Martian might believe this, that is, until she came across the headlines of the past few months announcing Cuomo’s plan to gut nearly half a billion dollars in state funding — a full 30 percent — from the City University of New York. CUNY, the public conglomeration of community colleges, four-year institutions, and graduate and professional schools that serves students in New York City, is the third largest university system in the United States. Thirty-eight percent of its quarter of a million students are immigrants. Three-quarters of them are people of color. Forty-two percent represent the first generation in their family to go to college. As Barbara Bowen, the head of CUNY’s faculty union, puts it, “You can’t be progressive without being progressive on CUNY. Cuomo’s position is a glaring swerve from his position of being the champion of working people and people of color.”
Of course, Cuomo is careful not to describe the gaping $485 million hole he’s carving out of CUNY as a cut. (CUNY chancellor James Milliken’s dance around that word in his budget testimony last month was a masterly demonstration of the dark linguistic arts.) Rather, Cuomo frames the butchery as an accounting matter, shifting greater responsibility for the university system away from the state and onto New York City. There are historical problems with Cuomo’s rationale for this shift, but the evidence of his bad faith is plain: City officials say they didn’t even learn of the plan until just before the governor announced it in his budget address.
What possible motivation could Cuomo have for the sudden amputation of 30 percent of the state budget of one of the greatest engines for economic opportunity in New York City? Theories are plentiful, diverse, and universally unflattering to the governor. On the one hand, the CUNY cuts come as part of a larger package of budget surprises, including an end to the state paying the city’s share of Medicaid costs, that add up to nearly $1 billion in extra costs to the city. In this context, the young strivers whose education is put in jeopardy by Cuomo’s move are merely more collateral damage in his ongoing slap-fight with Mayor Bill de Blasio. Blowing a billion-dollar hole in your rival’s hull is a pretty compelling way to establish dominance, especially if you don’t give a fuck about noncombatant casualties.
If you find it disturbing to think that Cuomo would happily torch a public institution with a history stretching back 169 years just to land a blow on a political rival, hold on tight and adjust your pressure suits; the naked cynicism and pettiness goes far deeper than that. Cuomo’s hostility to CUNY well precedes his pissing contest with de Blasio. In 2012, then-mayor Mike Bloomberg announced a $215 million collaboration between CUNY and Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital. Bloomberg’s relationship with the governor was almost as frosty as his successor’s would prove to be, and, as Politico‘s Dana Rubinstein and Conor Skelding reported, Cuomo’s invitation to the press conference arrived late. He did not attend. Shortly afterward, CUNY sources told Politico, a Cuomo lieutenant called CUNY officials with a furious tongue-lashing (a charge the Cuomo camp denies). Three and a half years after the incident, Politico notes, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s piece of the project is ready to proceed, while CUNY’s portion is stuck at square one because Cuomo has never signed off on funding for the project.
Bringing down vengeance on a population of hopeful young innocents due to a late party invitation may sound more like the behavior of a fairytale homunculus than a human adult, but Cuomo’s fragility in this regard is the stuff of legend. Nor is that the only CUNY-centric grievance he might be nursing. When Cuomo faced a challenge from upstart anti-corruption advocate Zephyr Teachout in the 2014 primary, he sought endorsements to bolster his progressive credentials. Memorably, the Working Families Party threw Teachout under the bus after extracting from Cuomo, in a process as agonizing as prolonged maxillofacial surgery, a series of policy commitments (many of which he would later stall or renege on). But not everyone got onboard the Cuomo train. Among the holdouts was CUNY’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, which declined to make any endorsement. CUNY faculty had already been working without a contract since 2010. Did its failure to fall at the feet of the governor hurt CUNY in the governor’s eyes? It didn’t help: The faculty is still without a contract. Other CUNY staff feel a cold shoulder from Albany as well: When Cuomo announced plans to raise the minimum wage for state employees and workers in the State University of New York system, CUNY non-faculty employees were inexplicably left out of the plan.
As the blowback against Cuomo’s CUNY shell game mounts, the governor has attempted to finesse his position. The cut in state funding won’t affect students at all or even affect the city budget, he argued. The savings would come instead by trimming the fat from the system’s administrative costs. (One might ask whether the governor has an analysis of these administrative inefficiencies and a plan to address them. To date, he does not.) In an especially cynical maneuver, Cuomo has suggested that some of the money the state saved with his plan could go toward covering retroactive raises owed to CUNY faculty, effectively pitting the obligation to pay educators what they deserve against adequate funding for the schools where they work. For Cuomo, this not only has the happy side effect of forcing a wedge between CUNY students and the union that is one of their most effective advocates, but also backs de Blasio into a corner. If, as seems hardly unlikely, de Blasio ultimately trades away state funding for retroactive raises in favor of restoring basic funding to CUNY, Cuomo can tell teachers he wanted to pay them but de Blasio got in his way.
“This whole process is really worrying to us as students,” says Chika Onyejiukwa, a junior from Jamaica, Queens, studying public health at Hunter and the vice chair for legislative affairs for CUNY’s student representative body. “We feel like we’re part of a political game that Cuomo is playing with the city. The state should be investing more in our education, not threatening to cut it.”
Maybe Cuomo will ultimately back off the $450 million in cuts. “This is really the beginning of the discussion,” he cautioned NY1 in January. But even if, at the end of the budgeting process, some last-minute heroics do forestall the cataclysm Cuomo has set in motion, CUNY will likely just be back where it started, and that’s a problem. Beyond faculty and staff working without a contract — at rates well below those of competing public university systems — lies an even more fundamental illness: As CUNY’s enrollment has grown and state funding on a per-full-time-student basis has dropped in recent years, the system has had to rely increasingly on its students to fund its operations. Tuition at CUNY’s senior and community colleges has quadrupled in the past 25 years, and Cuomo’s state education plan calls for further hikes going forward. This dire situation is the status quo ante state and city legislators are now scrambling to restore.
And here we arrive at the most pernicious thing about Cuomo’s CUNY machinations: the way they deliberately degrade New Yorkers’ expectations for our public education system. After a lifetime of gamesmanship, forever seeking out the tactical advantage, Cuomo has forgotten, if he ever knew, why the game is played at all. Instead of spending political capital to shore up and improve the lives of public college students in New York City, he is incapable of seeing CUNY as anything but another chip to be traded in his endless, joyless pursuit of power without purpose.