Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Melinda Person, president of the New York State United Teachers, is advocating for more money to go toward education aid and higher education aid for a combined total of $5.5 billion, in addition to what the governor proposed in her $233 billion budget, including $35.3 billion, according to the Governor’s budget office.

Toward the close of 13 budget hearings, many lasting more than five hours, state agency heads, advocacy groups and lobbyists sat before key members of the Assembly and Senate from each topic area to give testimony and answer questions about their perspective and suggestions about the topic of interest for the day. Tuesday, February 8, was the tenth budget hearing. It focused on higher education.

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy (D – Albany) chairwoman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, questions the CUNY, SUNY Chancellors, lobbyists and advocates about the good and the bad about the higher education budget proposed by Governor Kathy Hochul last month. She is also pushing a plan she called ‘Turn on the TAP’ aimed at helping students afford college.

Last week, Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy (D – Albany), chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee in the lower house, sought answers from the chancellors of the City University of New York and State University of New York about hatred, antisemitism and harassment on college campuses.


“Students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. It’s a prerequisite for students to focus on their academics,” Fahy said, addressing the group.

“Student safety is our top priority,” SUNY Chancellor John King replied. “Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act requires that campuses protect students from discrimination or harassment on the basis of race or ethnicity. We’ve been very clear that there is no place for antisemitism at SUNY. We’ve provided training for our senior staff on their responsibilities under Title 6. We’ve also deployed our university police department to provide additional security for Shabbat services [and] for vigils and protests. We want our campuses to be places where students feel safe and where they can engage in dialogue with real disagreements about policy matters, but no student should ever feel unsafe and we’re working to assure that.”

“I agree,” Fahy said. “We need to maintain that civil discourse and encourage civil debate which is what our campuses are supposed to be the centers of.

The chancellor of the City University of New York also concurred.

SUNY Chancellor John King speaks at the Higher Education Budget hearing last week at the Legislative Office Building hearing room in Albany.

“I would only echo what the chancellor [King] has said. We’ve been proactive on this one. We are proactive because the race hate and antisemitism preceded October 7. October 7 just escalated that to a different level,” said CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez.

“We’ve had a partnership with everybody else. Some of them are doing a deeper dive with campus culture. We’re part of that with surveys and climate and a review of policies. We’re working with them to do that. We have some money from the state. We’ve provided grants to our campuses so they have workshops, symposia, activities and training so that we get a better understanding. Many of our campuses are urban campuses. Our campuses mix with the city. We’re working with the NYPD in providing safety and making sure that people that want to use their First Amendment do that in an appropriate way.”

Assemblyman Ed Ra (R – Garden City South, Nassau County), ranking member of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, questions top city and state officials about how to improve the higher education budget.

Assemblyman Ed Ra (R – Garden City South, Nassau County), the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee in the lower house, wasn’t buying what Matos Rodríguez was selling and pressed him for a better answer.

“We designed, even before October 7, a plan to address [antisemitism on campus] because the cases were on the rise,” Matos Rodríguez told lawmakers. “We put funds we got from the Assembly, we gave to the campuses as grants to be able to do brand new programs, initiatives, exhibits and educational work to be able to address all these issues, mostly from a proactive standpoint as opposed to meeting with things when they occurred. We have also been having regular communication with the ELSAR campuses. I established an advisory Council on Jewish Life and they are giving me feedback about things that we can do better.

“I’ll give you one concrete example. It is New York state law and CUNY policy that if we need to accommodate students who either want to observe a religious holiday [because of which] they will be absent from their classes. We got feedback from the students in the community that that was something always and we initiated our campuses by using student voices to let them know what CUNY policy was and what New York state law is. We’re listening to their concerns and sending a message of inclusion and safety on the campuses. We will continue to do more and we take that very seriously,” Matos Rodríguez concluded.

Matos Rodríguez also highlighted for skeptical lawmakers the focus CUNY has for students identifying as Jewish. He said he is implementing a system-wide mechanism for a speedier response time when students feel the hatred of others.

“We’re procuring for a far more sophisticated instrument to help capture and make it easier for individuals to file any complaints they may have on discrimination, harassment or things of that matter. We can be more timely in knowing where the cases are as well as work with campuses that might have delays in responding,” he continued. “We learned that the portal is a great first step at centralizing getting good information, making something available to everybody in the system to be able to file a complaint. Before, it was done campus by campus and if you had questions for me about data, I would have to ask 25 separate campuses for their data. This [the portal] is a step in the right direction but as we did that, we want something that is far more sophisticated that can be a lot more customer-friendly, that can send reports to the individuals who filed the complaint about where they are in time. We are procuring an instrument to be able to do that. At some of the campuses that had a higher number of reported incidents we’ve been able to deploy some resources to help them expedite the resolution of those complaints.”

The CUNY system consists of 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, one honors college and seven postgraduate institutions. CUNY is the United States’ largest urban public university, with an enrollment of over 274,000 students. A new college, the School of Labor and Urban Studies, was established in 2018 as the newest addition to the university system.

The SUNY chancellor, John King, was definitive about how he is handling antisemitism and bias throughout the 64-campus system.

“I’m very proud of the work that our presidents and staff have done to try to diffuse issues, to create a climate for a positive safe exchange of ideas. This is an area where we have to be ever vigilant,” King told state lawmakers concerning the rise of hatred, bias and antisemitism throughout the SUNY system. “We’re not going to tolerate antisemitism. We’re going to take action every time there is a bias incident report, we’re going to investigate it and make a determination on what steps are next.”

Among all this turmoil on college campuses, King predicts the possibility of a “one-billion-dollar deficit over ten years if the state does not come to the rescue. As a result, to make up for the deficit, tuition may have to rise,” King said.

Other issues brought up at the higher education budget hearing includes a push by Fahy for her colleagues to support the “Turn on the TAP” bill she sponsored. TAP is the deficit tuition assistance program to help college students manage their tuition bills.

Fahy also wanted to make a point about supporting the growth of artificial intelligence [AI], based on the “new funding of $75 million in 2022 that will go to UAlbany for the College of Applied Sciences and Engineering and an artificial intelligence semiconductor to cement our region as an academic leader in the economy of tomorrow,” as she proclaimed two years ago.

Last month, CUNY received $25 million from the Manhattan-based Simons Foundation to underwrite its participation in Empire AI, a state-sponsored consortium of New York’s research institutions to create a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence computing center to bolster research and development as well as unlock AI’s economic potential for the area.

David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation, donated $25 million to CUNY to improve its artificial intelligence program.

“This gift aims to strengthen computational research at CUNY, to build on its traditions of excellence, its record of inclusion and opportunity, and to enable outstanding students and researchers to have the tools needed to be at the forefront of the field,” David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation said. “New York will be the center of computational science and computer science. CUNY’s faculty and students will be a vital part of this scientific revolution.”

Senator Toby Stavisky (D – Whitestone, Queens), chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee in the upper house, focused her questions on the possible closure of Downstate Medical Center, which is in imminent danger of shuttering its doors this summer, according to King. The medical facility is apparently a near disaster with a failing infrastructure. Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions union, testified that nothing is further from the truth and the hospital “is not falling apart.

Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions, countered the SUNY and CUNY chancellors’ assertions that the Downstate Medical Center might close. He recommended state lawmakers and the two chancellors take a tour of the complex for themselves. Complaints about flooding and poor heating have been asserted by doctors at the health facility.

When it came to the unions’ position, they were asking for a dramatic increase in higher education funding.

“We are asking for $4.9 billion. Access to public higher education is a pathway to a better life for so many New York families. We need to provide that access to everyone here in New York state,” said Melinda Person, president of the New York State United Teachers, with union members in both higher education and elementary education.

“We know how valuable these institutions of higher learning [CUNY, SUNY and community colleges] are and now we need to fund them. Over the last several decades there has been a systematic underfunding of public higher education in this state. We need to reverse that trend.”

Another concern among lawmakers was the possible closing of some SUNY campuses due to low enrollment.

“We are not closing any campuses,” said King. “Campuses losing enrollment will have to adjust to being a smaller campus.”

At some campuses, “there are empty buildings being heated,” King said, so the infrastructure will remain intact so as not to fall into complete disrepair.

Another movement underway behind the scenes is to change the latest pension tier for state employees before they retire.

“Fix Tier 6,” Person said of the less generous program for state workers when compared to the other five pension tiers. “In New York state, public service is a career we all can be proud of. It is something we should be able to depend on, a dignified retirement. We need to provide equity across our pension tiers and we need to use fixing Tier 6 as an improvement and retention tool for the next generation of public servants. We want to focus on the final average salary this year. We’re going to start moving the ball down the court so we can get it done before people over 60 retire.”

In case you have time to watch the entire six-hour higher education budget hearing and the 19 experts in the field, you can go to:


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Marc Gronich is the owner and news director of Statewide News Service. He has been covering government and politics for 44 years, since the administration of Hugh Carey. He is an award-winning journalist. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press and his coverage about how Jewish life intersects with the happenings at the state Capitol appear weekly in the newspaper. You can reach Mr. Gronich at [email protected].