ALBANY — As the April 1 deadline for the state budget approaches, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appears close to victories on raising the minimum wage and instituting paid family leave across New York, achievements that would cement his carefully cultivated reputation for progressive leadership.
Yet since announcing in January that he would reduce state funding to the City University of New York by some $485 million, expecting New York City to pick up the balance, Mr. Cuomo has been playing fiscal defense, besieged by a well-orchestrated drive to paint his treatment of the university as a stain on his liberal agenda.
“The same people that we’re lifting up with raising the minimum wage are the same people that will be affected by the really draconian cuts to the university system,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, a liberal group that has teamed up with the Democratic governor on the minimum-wage push this year. “It’s those same people, it’s those same low-income people, same communities of color, that are going to be hurt by this.”
Democratic lawmakers have criticized Mr. Cuomo at a volume unusual in Albany. Liberal groups have banded together to demand increased funding in marches and protests. A group of prominent CUNY backers took out full-page ads in three city newspapers this week, calling the unsettled fiscal situation “deeply troublesome.”
Perhaps the most pointed critique came from the Student Senate chairman, Joseph Awadjie, who testified at a meeting of the university’s board of trustees on Monday night that Mr. Cuomo’s actions were “an attack on the American dream.”
Facing a backlash, the governor has appeared to alter his position. Initially adamant that the city pay what he called its fair share of the university’s costs — the city appoints one-third of CUNY’s trustees, and should pay a commensurate portion of its budget, he argued — Mr. Cuomo soon declared that the shortfall would be made up by “efficiencies.” The city, he said, would not have to pay “a penny.”
On Wednesday, after several days in which the university’s advocates tried in vain to parse the governor’s past statements on the issue, Mr. Cuomo’s director of operations, Jim Malatras, said that the proposal to offload costs to the city had been no more than a negotiating tactic to force the city and the university to take reforms seriously.
CUNY had ignored calls from the governor to make its spending more efficient in the past, Mr. Malatras said in an interview, and the administration had found with other issues — including teacher evaluations and Medicaid reform — that “the only way you compel change sometimes is where you put financial skin in the game.”
After he said he would reduce state funding to the City University of New York by some $485 million, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been criticized by Democratic lawmakers at a volume unusual in Albany. Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Mr. Malatras announced last week that the state would hire a management consultant to streamline CUNY’s spending. Several days later, the governor’s office clarified that if the Legislature approved the hiring of a restructuring consultant, Mr. Cuomo would support the inclusion of CUNY’s full $1.6 billion allocation in the state budget, with no cost to the city.
Citing the “high administrative cost in overhead” at CUNY, Mr. Malatras said: “We want to reduce that overhead as much as humanly possible in order to provide enhanced services to our students, which is the focus of what we’re doing here. That is not something to apologize for; that’s something to be applauded.”
If the governor were truly interested in improving CUNY, many university employees say, he would reverse a trend under his tenure: State investment per student has not kept pace with enrollment, falling 3 percent even as tuition has increased, according to the university’s faculty union. Professors tell of the scarcity of basic school supplies like paper and chalk, swelling class sizes, hiring freezes and increasing reliance on poorly paid adjuncts to teach classes. The faculty has gone without a contract or raise for six years.
All in all, many CUNY employees believe, the governor has little love for their schools.
“It’s very demoralizing; there’s sort of a drumbeat in the back of your head,” said David Forbes, an associate professor at Brooklyn College’s School of Education. “You look at N.Y.U. or Columbia, they don’t have these kinds of issues.”
Mr. Cuomo and his aides have repeatedly pointed out that their budget proposal called only for the city to assume some of CUNY’s costs, not for its budget to be cut. Any savings, said Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for the governor, should go to “students and teachers instead of toward bloated administrative costs.”
Ms. Lever added on Thursday that eliminating inefficiency and redundancy was not inconsistent with a progressive agenda. “It’s mind-boggling that groups claiming to represent the best interest of those students are instead defending the bureaucracy that diverts much-needed funding away from the classrooms,” she said.
The uncertainty over CUNY’s future has served only to mobilize a coalition of lawmakers, professors, students, liberal activists and city leaders in a coordinated effort to turn public opinion against the governor.
Hundreds marched on Mr. Cuomo’s New York office on Thursday; the rally was part of the alliance’s push to “humanize the folks that will be impacted,” said Javier Valdés, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a primarily Hispanic grass-roots group that has supported the governor’s minimum-wage and family-leave efforts.
City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a co-chairman of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, called the governor’s simultaneous moves on paid family leave, the minimum wage and CUNY “an exercise in cognitive dissonance.”
“What possible justification could exist for savagely cutting an institution that for many is a path out of poverty?” Mr. Torres said. “It’s their only shot at upward mobility. If CUNY is not a symbol of progressivism, I don’t know what is.”
As CUNY’s surrogates assail the governor, the university and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose own budget depends on the governor’s and lawmakers’ good will, have struck a more conciliatory tone.
While saying they welcome efforts to make CUNY operations more efficient, university officials have gently disputed the governor’s assertion that CUNY has more per-student administrative spending than comparable systems. (The governor’s office has emphasized that the national database on which it relied, to which universities report their own figures, is the most comprehensive available.)
“A comparison of the cost of major university systems clearly demonstrates that CUNY is spending less on administrative overhead than most of its peers,” the CUNY chancellor, James B. Milliken, said at the board of trustees meeting on Monday, citing an independently audited analysis of university financial statements. “Nevertheless, I agree more can be done.”
Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, has said that he is open to working with the state to find savings at the university, and that he expects Mr. Cuomo to keep his promise that changes to the university’s funding will not cost the city “a dime.”
CUNY has also found another Albany antagonist in the Republican-dominated State Senate, which recently embraced Mr. Cuomo’s proposal to shift costs to the city and added a hurdle of its own: It said it would withhold funding until it was satisfied with the university’s response to allegations of anti-Semitism on its campuses.
University officials have hired two former prosecutors to investigate the allegations and condemned “all forms of bigotry and discrimination,” prompting an approving response from the Anti-Defamation League.
Still, the Senate Republican majority has not budged, drawing a rare rebuke from a member of its delegation, Senator Marty Golden of Brooklyn.
Mr. Golden said in an interview that he believed his conference was using the funding as a bargaining chip to prod the city into imposing a cap on property taxes. He said he was confident, however, that the State Assembly, which is dominated by city Democrats, would not allow CUNY’s budget to be harmed.
“At the end of this, my kids need the CUNYs,” Mr. Golden said. “These cuts, they’re unsustainable.”
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