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CUNYFirst or CuomoFirst?

PHOTO/ CLAS Student Government - Facebook
PHOTO/ CLAS Student Government – Facebook

Red tape without coherent leadership. The story of the City University of New York (CUNY) Board of Trustees (BOT).

By Nissim Said, President of CLAS Student Government

Published: March 7th, 2018

The Board of Trustees is comprised of 17 persons: ten are appointed by the governor, five are appointed by the mayor, one student who serves as the chairperson of the University Student Senate, and one non-voting member who serves as the chairperson of the University Faculty Senate. Without challenge, the ten governor-appointed positions are the majority, representing the governor’s interest, including his shadow war on public education.

The chairperson and vice chairperson serve solely at the pleasure of the governor. I’m quoting the New York Education Law, section 6204 for the duration of this article. 

What are the requirements for serving on the BOT? One must reside in one of the five boroughs, one of the mayor’s appointments need to be an alumnus from CUNY, two of the governor’s appointments need to be an alumnus from CUNY, and one needs to be an alumnus from a community college. That’s it. Meaning nearly anyone can officially serve on the Board. Experience within the field of higher education is not necessary. Experience working with students or young people is not necessary.

What is necessary is allegiance. At any time, the governor or mayor can terminate their positions, needing only a citation of misconduct or neglect of duties. According to most informed students and the largest group of shareholders within CUNY, that could be nearly anyone. 

Where is the accountability to the largest shareholders, the university’s students? Currently, the CUNY BOT is discussing changing to the student activity fee (SAF). As it stands, local college associations disperse funding from the SAF collections to the earmarked referendums. This guarantees every student organization their funding and keeps stability. However, the CUNY BOT prefers less self-governance and an increasing amount of red tape. Instead, all referendums are to be removed along with any amount of funding granted under the discretion of the college associations, the majority of which are administrators and faculty with only a few students.

Now, I have no issue with this personally, as long as all current referendums are placed under student government for self-regulation. The CUNY BOT is indicating that even student governments will rely on their associations for funding, and if the association disagrees, it can remove future funding toward other projects. Under current provisions, any student organization, including student governments, can propose SAF raises voted for by the students and should therefore be allocated to the students’ interest. Anyone who pays money for a product should be able to decide what that product is. That’s just how normal business works.

Not anymore. The CUNY BOT is suggesting referendums can only be created to raise the SAF but not to where the funding should go. Is this accountability? Students vote for self-imposed taxation to go towards worthwhile reasons, and the local associations can divert funding to anywhere they see fit? Therefore, students can vote to raise the SAF by $10 to go towards paying for a student newspaper that paints the administration or CUNY in a negative light, and the association can take that pool of funding and put it towards any program they see fit. Even when it disagrees with the students who voted for it.

That’s not accountability; that’s theft.

Was this process conducted in open doors with town halls and testimony? Nope, that’s not the CUNY BOT way. Instead, a “task force” was created with a majority of administrators to “investigate” the SAF. A “task force” that was only created because of the pleading of the University Student Senate. The investigation lasted only a few months, with no town halls or testimony collected. The “task force” produced a perplexing document that leaves more questions than answers. When asked about the language, the CUNY BOT could not answer; defining scope and jurisdiction hurts those who seek to control. 

The proposal directly states, “…allowing the SGA [Student Government Association] to allocate all funds to recognized student organizations on an annual basis, disallowing the earmarking and direct payment of SAFs to outside organizations, providing that the College Association will have authority to allocate all SAF funds for organizations, programs and services in the absence of earmarks…” 

Has a proposal ever been written with more contradictions? Student governments allocate all the funds of student organizations, but the college associations will have the authority to allocate all funds for organizations, programs and services. 

So who has authority? Student government or college associations? Has student government, students elected by the students and for the students, become an honorary role in shared governance? Can associations simply line item veto any student organization’s purpose they do not agree with?

Is this what the CUNY BOT view as the greatest urban university in the world?

“The portion of the student activities fees available to the student government association, student activities as a whole, and student programs and services as a whole shall be determined by the college association in consultation with the president or dean and SGA.” In consultation with student government. What is a consultation? An email? A heads up, “This is what we are doing, feel free to give your non-binding and irrelevant opinion that we won’t consider?”

Why is what students vote for and the leaders who students elected worth so little to the CUNY BOT?

At Brooklyn College, I am happy with our association. The representatives on the board work with students for the common interest of all students. Neither I nor the other representatives can predict the future. Who knows what proposal may be considered when we all leave? What about the community colleges, whose students have nearly no experience when serving? Students’ lack of knowledge will be used for the association’s benefit.

Additionally, the CUNY BOT is looking to categorize student activity fees as “tax-levied” monies. What’s the problem? Tax-levied funding cannot be used for lobbying. Student government would not be able to rent a bus to Albany to lobby legislators. It’s not enough that Governor Cuomo controls the majority of the BOT; it’s not enough that the BOT elects the chancellor; it’s not enough that the BOT elects local leadership of every institution. Now Cuomo’s minions are looking to control even the group that does not work for him? If students cannot speak against Cuomo, and the local associations can divert funding from student organizations who speak out against the CUNY BOT or Cuomo—is this not a first amendment problem? Is this not a public institution where our first amendment rights are guaranteed? 

If you believe this is a poorly created mess, it’s not. It’s a strategic move to remove power from local campuses and students. The CUNY BOT does not want students to have input in shared governance. CUNY BOT meetings are conducted in private, without testimony or town-hall until the eleventh hour. There is no initiative within the CUNY BOT to equip student governments with all the resources and tools needed to represent their students, even when I personally brought it up at a dinner they hosted.

At a time when public education has been under more threat than ever before, student government serves as the last frontline for student advocacy, and advocacy needs every tool and word it can get its hands on. We need less red tape, not more, and anyone who advocates otherwise is serving others, not the students. If the CUNY BOT wants to use SAF funds to pay for college operational costs, maybe they should go back to their leader and ask Governor Cuomo to stop cutting CUNY’s budget. 

Our education should not be political. We should not have to fight for our rights and funding for our campuses. We’re students who need to worry about our grades, not about the bathrooms or the facilities, and we definitely should not be fighting to protect our first amendment rights.

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