Today I’m going to spend most of my time discussing the budget, which is one of the most important responsibilities of this board.
I want to begin by briefly mention the importance of and progress we have made in one area, performance funding, which I believe holds real promise for accelerating smarter investments in our operations and improvements in how we deliver on our mission. Since we last met as a Board, the Executive Committee, with authority provided by this Board, approved many promising new investments in our 24 colleges.
CUNY has had a performance management system for many years. It assesses areas like academic quality, student success and financial management. The new funding initiative, advocated by the Governor and closely aligned with priorities of the university and our colleges, has given the colleges a chance to formulate strategies and seek funding for new targeted approaches through a competitive process.
Approximately $20 million was allocated for the first stage, in which our colleges offered proposals. We evaluated the proposals and made awards based on merit. It was a rewarding process, with proposals for areas such as accelerating development of online courses, increasing graduation rates and developing new workforce initiatives. In one example, its “We Want You Back” proposal, Queens College will create a system for contacting former students who left in good standing without degrees and try to recruit them back, offering financial aid and other assistance.
Our budget request, which will be presented later this evening, includes funding for expanding and sustaining this effort. I expect they will enhance our capabilities, provide new models, and allow us to deliver even better outcomes for our students.
We are, of course, addressing a number of other important priorities. One involves data science and data analytics. Baruch College has created three new business majors and two minors in the important fields of data science and data analytics, with the participation of leaders in the finance sector. We are leading a national effort with a number of financial services firms to develop new curriculum and educate more students in data analytics and the firms are offering internships and jobs. This is a good example of private-public partnership that I think is so beneficial to our students.
I could offer similar support for each priority in our request, but I want to use most of my time today to discuss more generally some thoughts on a number of interrelated issues central to the funding and success of this university. First, a topic that is always controversial: tuition.
Our budget request includes support for a renewal of what has been referred to as the rational or predictable tuition policy. I know some have claimed the policy is not rational because of its impact on students and their families. I think we can stipulate that no one likes tuition increases, and if I had a choice there is no question what I would choose—that the state would provide more support and the need for tuition increases would be minimized. The reality is that nationally a general disinvestment in public higher education has taken place for decades. New York, with its historically generous Tuition Assistance Program, has been one state that has invested more in higher education, although it’s clear that CUNY’s operations have not been adequately funded in the modern era.
In New York too we have seen deep budget reductions some years and in others modest increases at best. In years when there were significant budget reductions, steep tuition increases–up to 37% one year—went to make up for budget deficits. Two components of the tuition policy of the last five years are notable: first, the University was allowed to spend the tuition raised on investments in students, and second, it was accompanied by a commitment from the state memorialized in a “maintenance of effort” provision that prevented the state from reducing the state appropriation year over year to CUNY. And in all years but one, the state increased the non-tuition appropriation year over year. But as we know from the current year, when the state does not adequately fund mandatory increases in CUNY’s non-discretionary budget items such as automatic fringe benefit increases, our budgets still suffer significantly.
With the strong support of CUNY and SUNY, both chambers passed a more robust MOE provision in the last session that requires the state to fund increases in contractual salary and benefit obligations. We have also joined SUNY as well as our own students and faculty and PSC and others in urging the Governor to sign this bill. CUNY representatives were in Albany as part of a larger effort just last Friday to urge the Governor’s support.
Everyone here knows too well that our labor contracts are long out of date and I know everyone here agrees with me that we need a fair settlement. We need to do all we can to be competitive for the faculty and staff. Funds to support a contract come from three sources, and I have been open with everyone, including the PSC leadership, about this from very early in my tenure. The sources are state and city appropriations, reallocations in existing budget, and tuition. And without additional funding from the state, that leaves reallocations and tuition. Since our budgets are approximately 80 percent personnel, meaningful reallocations would almost certainly include reductions in workforce. The truth is we have too few full-time faculty and academic advisors and other support staff now. As we continue to enjoy record enrollments and face more demands, cutting important positions is not a constructive alternative. That leaves tuition. These are facts; people can disagree about choices that should be made, but I don’t believe they can dispute the possible sources and availability of funding.
What Trustees are being asked to vote on today is a request supported by the Board’s Fiscal Committee for authority to raise and invest tuition. The Board is not voting on a tuition increase, as you know. That decision can be made when we have a better sense of what the state funding picture looks like. At that time it is at least conceivable that a tuition increase may not be necessary or may be required at a level lower than that authorized. The Board will make that decision later with more information.
A couple of additional points here: First, we do not plan to ask the Board to consider an increase in tuition next year for the more than 100,000 students who attend our community colleges. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact, that while our senior college tuition is quite low by national standards, our community college tuition is relatively high. Second, while tuition rates have increased in each of the last five years, over 65 percent of our undergraduates actually pay no tuition, mainly because of Pell and TAP support. It appears that the impact of relatively low tuition and significant financial aid makes a difference; CUNY enrollment during these same five years has grown 5 percent or 13,000 students, in that time—equal to the enrollment of a good-sized college.
The final aspect of this subject I want to address is the idea that we should use tuition revenue only for new investments, especially new investments that help students. Among the investments justly celebrated is the addition of almost 1000 new full-time faculty. This is a great thing for CUNY and our students and I fully support this investment. But the idea that we should not use tuition, if it’s the only source of available increased funding, for supporting our current faculty is wrong in my view. We can make no better investment in our students than in attracting and retaining the best faculty. And as a practical matter it is often more cost-effective and valuable to retain experienced faculty than to have to replace them. So whether the source of investment is state appropriations or tuition, my priority will always be investing in talent because I am convinced that has the greatest impact on our students’ education and success.
We have a lot of work ahead of us. We must do our best to convince the Governor and legislature to invest more in CUNY because of the incredible return on investment it provides. We will make difficult decisions on tuition later, depending on the level of state support. We will continue to do all we can to reach a fair agreement, given our fiscal condition, with our outstanding faculty and staff. And we will be driven by the goal of providing the best education for our students, helping them succeed in college and in life.
I’ll finish on a more upbeat note by mentioning an opportunity I had recently to attend a conference we organized with CUNY staff who help students apply for and obtain important awards. The keynote speaker was a remarkable Macaulay Honors Brooklyn College graduate, Zujaja Taqueer. Her family was forced to flee their native Pakistan when she was a girl and they came to Staten Island. After earning her degree here in History she won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and spent three years at Oxford University. She is now in her second year at the Harvard Medical School.
What was striking was not just her impressive achievements and maturity, but the thoughts she shared on how the CUNY awards staff could help our students earn more distinctions. She noted that every student she was competing against for the Rhodes, and the other winners, were from the Ivy League, but she insisted that CUNY should resist the temptation of trying to change our story to sound more like them. Our strength in the eyes of the judges for these awards, she insisted, is our narrative of diversity and, in some cases, of hardship, and that that narrative is the persuasive argument we should always make. I’ll close with Zujaja’s words:
“We should leverage rather than repudiate what makes CUNY special relative to other universities. Other students are considered privileged because of access to the social and financial capital that comes with going to a privileged elite university, but I’ve really come to realize what a privileged experience it is to be a New Yorker and go to a university with the kind of student population we have.”
I think Zujaja was on to something. Thank you.