A Message from WCCFT President Jim Werner

Jim Werner

Let’s Make a (New) Deal!

Every year, I attend the New York State United Teachers’ Higher Education Policy Council meeting in Albany. It’s a gathering of representatives from locals at SUNY community colleges, as well as the Professional Staff Congress (CUNY) and the United University Professions (on behalf of SUNY’s four-year institutions and teaching hospitals), along with NYSUT leadership. NYSUT provides updates on recent events of note across the public university systems, and lays out its strategies for budget and legislative asks in the coming year; locals have an opportunity to share what’s going on at their campuses.

Last year’s HEPC struck me as notably optimistic: with new executive leadership in Albany and strengthened ranks of allies in the legislature ushered in by recent elections, we had high hopes for substantive change in the State’s commitment to support public higher education. Unfortunately, that change has yet to materialize—and we need it now more than ever.

NYSUT President Melinda Persons kicked off the Council by noting the increasing sense among the public that higher education is essentially a private investment, for private good. She called on us (and all at our public universities) to educate New Yorkers broadly about why SUNY and CUNY matter, for the good of everyone in our State, and why it’s the responsibility of the State to invest in it. I doubt many of us would disagree.

Convincing the powers that be in Albany is another matter, especially when the Governor is projecting a $4 billion deficit in the State budget. The Governor’s Proposed Executive Budget for 2024-25 has been described as “pretty vanilla” in its provisions for public higher education, with no dramatic or large-scale announcements. In fact, the proposed funding for the SUNY system appears to be in effect an overall reduction in support, to the tune of $20 million. There is no change to State aid for community colleges: the “floor” is still in effect (meaning that campuses will receive 100% of the funding they received for fiscal year 2023-4), but this is clearly not a sustainable model in the long term. 

The State University is in sore need of a new approach to prioritizing public higher education. Chancellor King recently issued a report on SUNY’s Long-term Enrollment and Financial Stability, projecting a $1.1 billion shortfall in revenues system-wide. However, SUNY’s response, according to President Persons, appears to be a fairly typical movement to “right size” the system: programs are being cut (at campuses like Potsdam); we’ve seen furloughs and potential layoffs (at Rockland), campus consolidations (Clinton Community College into SUNY Plattsburgh), and even potential closings (at SUNY Downstate). 

This “right-sizing” is exactly the wrong approach in positioning SUNY for future growth and continued excellence. I would certainly not deny that in some instances, “efficiencies can be achieved” with judicious structural changes, and innovative approaches to enrollment management are clearly at a premium. But Persons is spot on when she says what’s actually needed is increased State support, and broadly expanded access to public higher education, not a “shrinking” of the University. Decreased investment in SUNY means reduced offerings and opportunities for our students, which will drive them away from the University, not towards it, resulting in even lower enrollments and tuition revenues—a virtual death spiral.

[A]fter years of sub-par salary increases, after four years of bargaining in our current round of contract negotiations, after pulling the College through the COVID pandemic, it’s well past time that we, the faculty at WCC, got a well-earned “new deal,” too.

What’s really needed, and what NYSUT has been pressing for, is “A New Deal for Higher Education,” which has three main pillars – increased operating aid/support for campuses, increased student supports (hiring more academic advisors and mental healthcare professionals, and expanding programs like our Viking Roads and EOP), and enhanced higher education access for all. We are calling on the State once more to make a “new deal” to fund the State University at levels that will foster growth, not decline, and invest in the faculty who are the heart of our students’ learning experience.

The same can be said about our College: after years of sub-par salary increases, after four years of bargaining in our current round of contract negotiations, after pulling the College through the COVID pandemic, it’s well past time that we, the faculty at WCC, got a well-earned “new deal,” too. If the College administration wants to give faculty the morale boost we sorely need and demonstrate the respect we deserve– if they want to stem the loss of teaching and student support talent we’re seeing as faculty retire or take better-paying positions elsewhere—if they want to continue to attract the finest educators in the tristate area—it’s time for them to demonstrate their commitment to invest in the professionals who provide the outstanding learning and support services that have always been our hallmark.

I believe we are close to a tentative agreement on a new contract. We have been bargaining in good faith, and are coming down to the wire. We need to get it done, and we call on the College to meet our most recent proposals, which we feel are eminently fair and equitable. As we look to our elected leaders in Albany to deliver on behalf of SUNY overall, we look to the College to make real its professions of gratitude for our hard work, and its commitment to the highest standards of higher education.  To those leaders, on both fronts, we say: Let’s make a deal, already!