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Union plans rally on SUNY cuts

United University Professions President Fred Kowal at SUNY Fredonia in October.

It appears significant cuts may be on the horizon at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Members of United University Professions, America’s largest higher education union, plan to gather with students and allies for a silent march on campus today to oppose anticipated program cuts at the campus. UUP members will also urge SUNY to fund the campus fairly using $163 million in new direct state funding for SUNY. The lunchtime event coincides with rising concerns about a potential announcement from SUNY that programs will be cut at SUNY Fredonia.

At noon, members and marchers will gather on campus in front of Fenton Hall, which houses the campus president’s office. They will then march silently across campus to send the message that cuts are not necessary and that significant reductions in programming amount to an assault on the union labor that runs the SUNY system.

SUNY Fredonia, which has reported a $17 million deficit, is one of 18 campuses facing projected multimillion-dollar deficits heading into 2024.

“It’s imperative that campuses like SUNY Fredonia receive equitable funding, so they are able to serve the diverse educational needs of students across the state,” said UUP statewide President Fred Kowal.

Kowal was at SUNY Fredonia last month to tell staff and faculty the UUP will fight any attempts to make program reductions.

SUNY Fredonia, like many other higher-education institutions, has been plagued by enrollment decreases. Since fall 2018, the campus has gone from 4,405 students to 3,236 – a decrease of 1,169 or 26.5% over that time span.

According to the university’s current numbers, the strongest major remains music with 472 students, curriculum and instruction with 291 students and business administration with 259. Other programs, however, are suffering. Philosophy has three students while physics has 22 and politics and international affairs has 32 students.

At the start of the semester in August, SUNY Fredonia President Stephen Kolison distributed a memo to staff noting that there will be $10 million in unspecified cuts at the university over the next five years.

“Though we have taken substantial steps to reduce expenditures in the last three years, as I presented to you in my August 16, 2023, State of the University Address, a steeper path lies ahead,” Kolison wrote. “Consequently, I will propose a plan to decrease our annual expenses by $10 million over the next five years, underpinning our commitment to fiscal responsibility. Our goal is to make this endeavor a collaborative one, involving critical inputs from stakeholders and our SUNY partners.”

UUP, through its strong advocacy, was instrumental in securing the $163 million, a record investment in SUNY by Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Legislature in the 2023-2024 state budget.

SUNY could have erased deficits at Fredonia the other campuses had it distributed that state aid to campuses based on need. Instead, SUNY’s four university centers received the lion’s share of those funds.

SUNY’s remaining campuses, many of them smaller comprehensive and technical colleges–located in economically depressed rural, upstate communities–split the rest, according to data in the enacted 2023-2024 state budget.

SUNY Fredonia received $2.8 million. SUNY Potsdam, which is cutting 10 degree programs to reduce a $9 million deficit, got $2.5 million.

Kowal also noted that UUP’s members see the cuts at SUNY Potsdam — and potentially at other SUNY campuses — as an attack on the union workers who do the work of educating students at the campuses.

“Making matters worse is that there is a limited and contradictory pattern of communication from SUNY to our union’s members,” Kowal reports. “And to be blunt, they see these steps as continuing the destructive work started under former Gov. Cuomo to defund SUNY.”

Massive Great Recession-era cuts, combined with more than a decade of austerity budgets forced upon SUNY under the Cuomo administration, are mainly to blame for the deficits.

When adjusted for inflation, direct state funding to SUNY was slashed by $7.8 billion since 2008-09 — a 39 percent decline. Under Cuomo, students were forced to shoulder the majority of SUNY’s funding through tuition and fees. When Cuomo resigned, students were paying $2 for every dollar the state provided.

“With record funding for SUNY provided by Gov. Hochul and the Legislature, I am frustrated and disappointed that SUNY chose to allocate those monies the way it did,” Kowal said “If SUNY had allocated the $163 million as UUP had argued for — to eliminate multimillion-dollar deficits at 19 SUNY campuses — it would have allowed those campuses to plan for a future without the pressure of an artificial crisis,” Kowal said.

Kowal is urging the SUNY Board of Trustees to reject the Cuomo-era policy of primarily funding SUNY through tuition and student fees and work together to build a “stronger, more accessible and more diverse SUNY for all New Yorkers.”

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