Perhaps you know New York Governor Andrew Cuomo only through his daily coronavirus briefings, where he has been thoughtful, strong, and compassionate.

But there is another side to Cuomo. He doesn’t like public education or teachers. And as Ross Barkan writes in the Nation, he definitely doesn’t like public higher education.

Cuomo has governed New York state since 2011. State aid to CUNY, adjusted for inflation, has declined by nearly 5 percent during his tenure, though the state’s gross domestic product has increased.
At the same time, CUNY tuition has steadily risen. A New York State resident who is a full-time student at a four-year CUNY school now pays $6,930 a year, up from $5,130 in 2011. New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, which provides aid to students below a certain income threshold, no longer covers the full cost of tuition, and Cuomo forces individual colleges to make up the difference. Another tuition increase of $200 per year, along with a $120 “health and wellness” fee, is set to be voted on by the CUNY Board of Trustees in June.

While the cost to attend a CUNY college is still lower than that of many other large public institutions around the country, CUNY’s 271,000-large student body is overwhelmingly low-income: Forty-two percent of all first-time freshmen come from households with incomes of $20,000 or less, and more than 70 percent of students enrolled at senior and community colleges identify as nonwhite.

“It’s a hugely important system because of the nature of the students it serves,” said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “And it has a really important role in higher education more generally. Historically, it’s done a very good job helping low-income students move into the middle class.”

At the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the vast majority of adjuncts say that they found out earlier this month that they were not rehired for the fall semester, meaning classes could be dramatically larger come September. Brooklyn College and the College of Staten Island are grappling with proposed overall department cuts as high as 30 percent, which would also most likely lead to layoffs.

Meanwhile, the PSC anticipates that actual student enrollment for this fall could increase, as it did during the last economic downturn in the 2000s. Simultaneously, course offerings could shrink, meaning students could struggle to complete their majors on time. Full-time faculty and adjuncts would strain to give any kind of individualized attention to students, especially if CUNY continues remote instruction but with far larger classes.

For adjuncts, many of whom are hired only semester to semester, the layoffs are traumatic. Though each adjunct earns only several thousand dollars per course, they are able to access comprehensive health insurance through PSC. “The biggest problem is stress,” said Elizabeth Hovey, an adjunct professor and union leader at John Jay. “People in this era shouldn’t be threatened with the loss of their health insurance….”

Until the mid-1970s, CUNY was largely tuition-free. Then, in 1975, New York City nearly went bankrupt. White flight, the decline of manufacturing, and poor fiscal management had driven the city into a fiscal crisis that would haunt it for decades to come, even after the economy recovered.

For CUNY, it was a tragic turning point. For the first time, tuition was imposed for all students and the budget was drastically cut, resulting in mass layoffs, reduced course offerings, and a noted decline in building maintenance. Advocates at the time correctly predicted that once CUNY introduced tuition, administrators would never make the schools free again.

Now, the specter of another fiscal crisis looms, this time because of Covid-19. New York City no longer faces the structural challenges it did during the 1970s—the city’s economy was humming along until March—but the evaporation of tax revenue is a disturbing echo of that era. What’s uncertain, still, is how hard the latest budget axe will fall.

Thanks to new powers granted by the state legislature when New York state’s budget was passed in April, Cuomo has the power to impose rolling cuts on local services throughout the year. The governor has said that without a fresh infusion of federal funding, aid to localities could be slashed by more than $10 billion, a number that has no precedent in modern times.

K-12 public schools across the state, the State University of New York system, and CUNY could be hit the hardest. In the coming days, Cuomo is expected to detail the severity of this first round of cuts. In addition, a CUNY representative told The Nation that New York City’s government, which partially funds the system, is seeking a $31.6 million reduction target for the next fiscal year, starting in July.

The architect of New York State’s draconian cuts is Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, now one of the most powerful people in the state. Mujica is a former Republican staffer who shares Cuomo’s willingness to shrink budgets.

Only the State Legislature can stop Cuomo’s cuts to K-12 education and public higher education.