Political Battles Over Funding CUNY

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

I’ve recently discussed the changing pattern of funding for public higher education and the pressures that those shifts have imposed upon tuition-paying students. Despite arguments about tight state budgets and financial crises, that shift is mainly underpinned by a real change in the way public officials view higher education and about who should be responsible for its cost. As I sat to write the next chapter in this series, that dynamic became all the more clear in my mind as we—administrators and higher education professionals—consider Governor Cuomo’s recently announced budget proposal.

In the past decade, crippling financial crises have moved states across the country away from past robust support for public higher education. But these periodic crises merely punctuate the steady decline in state funding for public education over the last 25 years. New York State’s current cuts to CUNY and SUNY are taking place despite a billion-dollar surplus in the past year, contributing to an undesignated reserve fund estimated to reach 2.1 billion dollars by March 2016. Suddenly, most of the funding cuts seem to result from a choice rather than a tough decision driven by financial hardship.

The policy details underpinning that choice recently became more clear: In his recent budget declarations, Governor Cuomo is calling for 30 percent of current state funding to be passed on to New York City, reflecting the 30 percent of the CUNY board members appointed by the city. There’s a kind of logic to that explanation, but it’s not robust: It suggests that the state should allocate funds in proportion to its power to control (even indirectly) the disposition of those funds. The proposal contains a number of truly welcome provisions, such as monies to cover the cost of a new contract and to cover increased expenses due to inflation (both absent from last year’s budget). Both provisions, however, are contingent on the City assuming 30 percent of the public-funding burden.

The contours of the friction between Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo are fairly well known, dating back to their tussles over early childhood education. But the standoff is not, in fact, unique. In the past weeks, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Illinois State’s defunding the University of Illinois systembecause of a similar dispute among state level officials.

The fact is that, in this season of rising populism, it has become much easier for politicians to regard public higher education as a luxury enjoyed by a relatively small share of the voting public at the expense of the broader society. Across the country, the idea that education is an individual benefit that people should pay for individually (either at private schools or via increasingly expensive public universities) has displaced the idea of an educated, prosperous society and a capable workforce as a public good that we all share. Even where elected officials do not openly deride higher education as a luxury, they increasingly approach it in ways that allow the health of our great universities to take a back seat to political considerations—and that leads us back to the tug of war between New York State and the City of New York.

It’s worth considering what the Governor must be thinking as he makes these recommendations. Presiding over a New York that is sharply divided between the conservative and often economically depressed upstate districts and a politically different, more prosperous downstate New York Metropolitan area, the governor is asked to support two university systems, one largely serving the former and the other totally located in the latter. Why should he ask upstate voters to support CUNY when they have their own SUNY campuses, championed by local politicians, in their own areas? Moreover, a democratic governor has fewer incentives to bring a New York City system under his wing—the largely democratic constituents of the city can be counted to support his candidacy far more than the more mixed upstate constituencies. Why not stand with those upstate, and demand that New York City take care of its own?

Over the long term, the idea merits consideration. The financial formula that has sustained CUNY since the late 1970s was occasioned by the crisis of the city at that time, and while state-level funding kept CUNY in business ever since, the university also remained in more or less constant crisis, repeatedly called upon to justify its very existence to a statewide legislature that often verged on indifference. At minimum, moving CUNY to a more New York City-based funding structure would ensure that politicians who are directly responsible to our communities would be allocating the resources necessary to educate them. And if the funding battles are becoming more political than matters of financial necessity, closing the geographic and political space between those who attend our colleges and those who fund them makes sense.

However, acting to implement this change in funding will require discussion and planning, and should not be a matter to be introduced in the brief period between a budget’s proposal and its adoption. Any concern for the health of our public education system demands careful consideration and the time to approach the change without impacting the quality of education on CUNY campuses, or its accessibility to our students. In the current political moment, any consideration of a graceful or measured transition in CUNY’s funding structure has taken a backseat to politics. But the best politics in this case would eschew the brinksmanship of a man-made budget crisis that casts the university in the role of Solomon’s baby. We have three months to make that case before the current proposals—or revised versions of them—find their way into the new budget.

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Save NYC’s Abandoned Buildings, Save the Planet

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By Alex Davies, Communications Coordinator

In a January 2012 report, grassroots advocacy group Picture the Homelesssurveyed vacant buildings and properties in New York City, finding enough space to house nearly 200,000 people — four times the homeless population of the city.

As the Center expands its work on environmental issues, I’ve been thinking about how the expression, “the greenest brick is the one already in the wall” applies to the report. It’s the unofficial mantra of the design section of TreeHugger, an environmental blog I contribute to. Here’s a simpler way to put it: It’s a waste (of time, money, energy, and resources) to build an entirely new structure when there’s one already there. 

The Picture the Homeless report focuses on the social and economic costs of vacant properties, charging: “NYC’s laissez-faire free-market strategy for dealing with empty buildings and lots harms communities and helps big real estate.” In its view, owners of vacant properties refuse to undertake renovation until the neighborhood gentrifies, at which point they sell to developers, who demolish the old buildings and construct new ones.

READ MORE: Students and the Homeless Share a Classroom to Advocate for Change

Build Resilient

Sidestepping the political and economic issues here, I want to address the environmental question Picture the Homeless didn’t bring up. For those who don’t spend their time reading and writing for environmental blogs, “resilience” has replaced “sustainability” as the new buzzword.

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Resilient buildings don’t need LEED certification; they don’t rely on fancy technology to reduce energy use. Rather, they are simple, durable, and stand the test of time. Ever been to the Louvre or the Coliseum? They were built centuries ago and are still in use, serving 21st century functions. The palace becomes a museum, the gladiatorial arena becomes a tourist attraction. That’s resilience.

Winning the Battle for Earth, in NYC

21st century environmentalism is not about national parks, it’s about cities. In urban centers, people share resources: buildings, transportation, space, and energy. Resilient buildings play a vital role in that. A study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found reuse of buildings almost always has less of an impact on the environment than new construction.

READ MORE: As the Rivers Rise, 3 Ways Harlem Needs to Prepare for a Wet Future

The vacant buildings cataloged by Picture the Homeless may be abandoned, but they’re still standing. That’s not to say they’re all fit for habitation; many may be beyond the reach of rehabilitation, and should be demolished. But I doubt that’s the case of more than a small minority.

New York is one of the world’s biggest cities, and among its most imitated. So the title of this post is not as hyperbolic as it might seem: If we can save these buildings, use them to house the homeless and hold off devastating climate change, other cities will take notice and follow suit. — Alex Davies

Alex is the communications coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Find out more about him and other contributing writers.

Soda Bad, Pot Okay? Pondering New York’s New Legal Paradigm

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In New York City, buying a 24 ounce soda was fine a month ago. Openly possessing marijuana was not. Since then, a lot has changed. Mayor Michael Bloombergunveiled a plan to ban the sale of sugary drinkers larger than 16 ounces; Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a bill, with Bloomberg’s support, to reduce the charge for open possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation.

Rather than editorialize on either plan (there has been a lot of that already), I want to point out some surprising connections between the two. Despite the different motivations behind them (public health; curtailing the negative impact of stop and frisk policies), they share supporters and detractors. They both bring up politically-charged questions of freedom, personal accountability, and the role of the government in prescribing and proscribing individual behavior. Each will have outsize consequences in Harlem.

Lovers and Haters

Mayor Bloomberg is a moderate Republican, which in these polarized times translates roughly to “liberal”. Governor Cuomo is a plain, old Democrat. Chirag Raval, a former New York Life graduate fellow at the Colin Powell Center, hasnoted on this blog that Tea Party libertarians “criticize as unconstitutional the elements of the [anti-snack food] campaign they perceive to impinge upon individual freedoms.”

Increasingly in control of the Republican party, shouldn’t the libertarian Tea Party support the decriminalization of marijuana for those same reasons? If so, why is the GOP faction in the New York Senate forming the major opposition to Cuomo’s bill?

If liberals support Bloomberg’s criminalizing vices like huge sodas, shouldn’t they want him to crack down even more on marijuana possession than he has in the past (especially given his determination to ban smoking cigarettes within a mile of anyone with nostrils)?

Whose Freedom, Whose Ideology?

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it seems odd that you would either support or oppose both of these measures. One restricts personal choice, the other expands it, albeit for different reasons.

The timely juxtaposition highlights a much ignored reality of politics and policy: Few are those who adhere strictly to one belief system. Flexibility is the norm. There are those who are willing to criminalize the sale of 20 oz sodas in the interest of reducing the levels of heat disease in the city, and okay with decriminalizing marijuana possession if it improves community-police relations and saves the City effort and money.

In the end, a policy’s results often outweigh the ideology that approves or condemns it.

Impact in Harlem

What strikes me most about these proposed legal reversals is that each will have a dramatic impact on residents of Harlem and other low-income areas of New York City.

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East and Central Harlem have the highest rates of fatal heart disease in the City; obesity and diabetes are closely connected to this growing trend. (Note that a New York Times reporter headed to the McDonald’s on 125th St for comments on the soda ban.)

Minorities make up 94 percent of marijuana possession convictions in New York, a large percentage of those happen in Harlem. The Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on 125th St was the site of an anti-stop and frisk rally last fall.

The Cuomo-proposed, Bloomberg-supported bill (which closes a loophole that allows police to empty the pockets of those they stop, rendering marijuana they may have concealed visible and thus illegal) will change day-to-day life for low-income New Yorkers more than for those living in SoHo or the Upper East Side.

Okay, So What?

I’m offering observations, not opinions, and hope this post will spark a dialogue among you readers. So please share you comments in the space below, or let me know what you think on Twitter, or on the Colin Powell Center Facebook page! —Alex Davies

Alex Davies is communications coordinator for the Colin Powell Center. Read more about him and our other contributors here.

Powell Leadership Fellow Wins Fulbright Scholarship

Humaira Hansrod, Fulbright Scholarship winner

Winning a Fulbright Scholarship for 2012–2013 will enable Humaira Hansrod to examine support for women’s economic empowerment in the Middle East country of Oman. Humaira, a native of Maurititus who moved to Queens as a young teenager, will graduate from the Macaulay Honors College at CCNY in May with a double major in political science and economics. The Center spoke with her recently about her project and its evolution.

Tell us about your Fulbright Project.
It’s about how specific government policies in Oman are promoting an active role in economic development for women, especially for women who are not so educated and are pursuing work in less formal occupations. The government is providing them with credit and skills so they can build their businesses and participate economically. Oman is a particular case because the government, especially the leader of the government, the Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has actively promoted increased participation by women, especially in rural areas. This is a rarity among Middle East countries, especially among Gulf countries as traditional as Oman.

What motivated you to pursue this project?
I’ve always been interested in women’s rights and economics. So it was interesting to me to find this bridge between economics and policy because women’s work is an economic issue, but the right to work is a political issue. I have to say the kinds of access I’ve had to policy issues and to building my understanding of policy issues at the Powell Center has been key in helping me forge these links.

How does this issue affect women you’ve met in the Middle East?
I’ve lived with local families in every place I’ve been to, and have observed and participated in the kinds of daily interactions that they [and their extended families] engage in. They’re really limited as to what they can do. They’re struck by poverty and have little ability to pursue their interests, but they still are hopeful that if they can’t achieve the kind of economic prosperity they want, they will do what it takes so their children will able to achieve the success they want, even if it means working low-paying jobs or facing domestic violence. These women know their plight is a difficult one, but they take it as something that can be overcome, if not by them then by their children.

What are your long-terms goals?
My interest in the Middle East and especially in women’s rights and their role in economic development is a strong one, but I’d like to leave my options open. I don’t want to say I’m only going to go to grad school, because I think it’s also a fair pursuit to do policy-related work in government or an NGO or a civic center. But if a graduate degree is going to help me become a stronger advocate then, sure, I’ll pursue that, God willing.

Colin Powell Center Weekend Reads, May 12-13

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Some brief thoughts on things I read or came across this past week.  Happy weekend, everyone!

  • The week began with sad news that children’s author (and one of my absolute childhood favorites) Maurice Sendak had passed away from complications after suffering a stroke.  Sendak was eighty-three years old. The Christian Science Monitor has a nice reflection on the author’s life and work which includes video and links to pictures from his life. RIP.
  • Last week, I posted about the mini brouhaha at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Well, turns out that the outrage over Naomi Schaefer Riley’s vile post about Black Studies was significant enough to warrant her firing. TheChronicle canned her on Monday, justifying the move by rightly noting that “When we published Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog posting on Brainstorm last week (“The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations”), several thousand of you spoke out in outrage and disappointment that The Chronicle had published an article that did not conform to the journalistic standards and civil tone that you expect from us. We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.”  Good for them, though the question still lingers—did they not thoroughly read Riley’s original post the first time through? Or, more troublingly, does the fact that the editors didn’t think the post was offensive in the first place suggest that they share Riley’s prejudice, consciously or not? In that case, perhaps it isn’t just Riley that needs to go…
  • Those who trumpet the success of Libya as evidence that NATO forces get involved in the horrors playing out in Syria would do well to read this tremendous piece by Robert Worth in the New York Times on the current state of political control in Tripoli, and the role that torture plays in the new, post-Qaddafi Libya: “Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police… What Libya does have is militias, more than 60 of them, manned by rebels who had little or no military or police training when the revolution broke out less than 15 months ago. They prefer to be called katibas, or brigades, and their members are universally known as thuwar, or revolutionaries. Each brigade exercises unfettered authority over its turf, with “revolutionary legitimacy” as its only warrant. Inside their barracks — usually repurposed schools, police stations or security centers — a vast experiment in role reversal is being carried out: the guards have become the prisoners and the prisoners have become the guards. There are no rules, and each katiba is left to deal in its own way with the captives, who range from common criminals to Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the deposed leader’s son and onetime heir apparent. Some have simply replicated the worst tortures that were carried out under the old regime. More have exercised restraint. Almost all of them have offered victims a chance to confront their former torturers face to face, to test their instincts, to balance the desire for revenge against the will to make Libya into something more than a madman’s playground.”
  • Jacques Hymans, who wrote a marvelous book on understanding the psychological motivations of world leaders who chose to build the bomb (or, more importantly, not) has a solid essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairsassessing approaches to tackling the challenge of a possible nuclear Iran.  In an environment where talk about going to war in Central Asia to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear capability has reached dangerous levels, Hymans clear-headed, rational take on the matter is a welcome relief. And, in my opinion, correct. He says, “Taking radical steps to rein in Iran would be not only risky but also potentially counterproductive, and much less likely to succeed than the simplest policy of all: getting out of the way and allowing the Iranian nuclear program’s worst enemies—Iran’s political leaders—to hinder the country’s nuclear progress all by themselves.”

I read three books this week, as well.

  • Charles Kenny’s Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More offers a nicely written, deeply researched and clear-headed antidote to the pessimism that animates the great majority of development literature.  Shifting the analytic lens away from worrying about income, Kenny persuasively argues that other indicators are just as, if not more, important to understanding social well-being than simply stats charting economic growth. From this perspective, there’s much evidence to suggest that things are quite a bit better than is readily acknowledged by scholars and practitioners of development. There are certainly challenges that need serious attention if the world is going to survive the coming centuries intact, Kenny argues, but acknowledging the seriousness of our current condition shouldn’t obscure the fact that more people, in more parts of the world, are enjoying better, longer, happier lives more of the time than at any other time in recorded history.
  • Again, on an academic note, I tore through Guns, Drugs and Development in Colombia, a slim, interdisciplinary volume that analyzes the nexus of these three features of Colombian society from a variety of standpoints. Jennifer Holmes, Sheila Amin Gutierrez de Pineres and Kevin Curtain are pretty deft at weaving together political economy and geographical approaches to understanding markets for drugs and violence in Colombia and conclude their look at the available data with a reasonable game plan of coordinated action to effectively implement peaceful resolution where previously there has been little other than violence perpetrated by non-state and state actors alike. A valuable contribution to the literatures of Latin American and development politics.
  • It’s been a real treat to blow through graphic novelist Guy Delisle’s latest, hulking book, Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy CityDelisle’s books cover his unique and far-flung experiences travelling with his wife, a Doctors without Border’s employee, to some of the more interesting and least known spots around the world. He has written cartoon travelogues about his time in Burma and North Korea, and so his latest offering from Israel and Palestine offers impressions of distinctly more familiar territory. I’ll have more to say about the book itself sometime soon, but if you’re a fan of comics, travel, and world politics, Delisle’s Jerusalem will be a delight. —Michael Busch

Michael Busch is coordinator of the Colin Powell Program in Leadership and Public Service. Read more about him and our other contributors here.

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An Opportunity to End the Conflict in Somalia

When the Somali Islamist Group, al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu last week, the move presented an excellent opportunity for the Somali government, and the African Union (AU) to consolidate their forces, and strengthen the defenses around the capital. Much more than that, it presented an opportunity to unify a country devastated by over 20 years of conflict, and to extend the now emboldenedtransitional government’s authority to other parts of the country.

Before the withdrawal from Mogadishu, al-Shabaab had tightened the noose around the few neighborhoods of the capital the western backed transitional government controls. International isolation, or perhaps fear of entanglement into the Somali conflict by outsiders emboldened the group to go as far as pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda, and to conduct terrorist attacks outside Somalia. Over the past few years, it ruled most of southern Somalia under strict Sharia law, complete with beheadings and amputations of people it suspected of breaking Islamic laws. Al-Shabaab seemed invincible, and it was poised to take over the whole country—until a few weeks ago.

Somalia is now suffering from the worst famine in many years, and instead of easing the suffering of the Somali people; al-Shabaab became an impediment. The group restricted the movement of much-needed humanitarian supplies, and prevented people from seeking help outside the areas it controls. While the drought and famine are a natural phenomenon, the suffering that resulted is not. The policies of al-Shabaab, and its refusal to accept foreign aid in many cases has contributed to the devastation. The group’s inability to provide leadership in the face of the drought and famine has undermined its credibility, so much that it has lost the goodwill it brought when it emerged as a stabilizing force in 1996.

Nevertheless, the international outcry over the deaths of thousands of children from the famine, and months of fighting with African Union forces backed byprivate security firms sponsored by Western governments weakened the group’s hold on the capital, forcing a precipitous withdrawal of all its forces from the city. The hasty withdrawal exposes al-Shabaab’s weaknesses in the face of real pressure from both within and outside of the country. It also creates an opening for the African Union and Somali government forces to expand their reach and authority to other parts of the country for the first time in decades.

Sadly, the will to act forcefully is what was, and is still missing on the part of the international community, especially the African Union. Nigeria and other African countries who pledged to provide troops have so far failed to follow up with their promises, and the organization was criticized for not mobilizing support for the famine victims. The black hawk down debacle still haunts the United States, and prevents it from fully engaging in the Somali conflict. While money is being spent on security contractors, and for the training of Burundian and Ugandan forces that make up the bulk of the African Union forces, more needs to be done in terms of long-term tactical support. These forces are still inadequate and ill-equipped to mount any type of serious operations outside Mogadishu. If al-Shabaab is allowed to recover and regroup, it might be able to seize the capital again.

Now that al-Shabaab seems to be vulnerable, all those who really care about the suffering in this country should step up support for the Somali government and the African Union forces. The international community, through the African Union should provide more funding and logistics, and encourage other African countries to increase the number of AU forces in the capital to allow for not only its defense, but also for a potential expansion into the countryside. This will free up large areas of the country so that humanitarian assistance can freely flow to the country. While important, it is not enough to just send food and medicine to Somalia and to the refugee camps of Kenya. Only through expanding the government’s authority to most of the country will suffering on this scale be avoided in the future. A final resolution should be sought, and now that al-Shabaab is on the run is the perfect opportunity.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow (Class of 2008/2009). He is currently a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.