Since 2016, CUNY tuition has raised by $600, adjunct faculty have seen layoffs and minimal salary raises, and senior college presidents and vice presidents have seen large increases in salary and benefits.
These decisions were not made by CUNY presidents and were not implemented by the CUNY Chancellor. The approval of these decisions rests in the hands of the CUNY Board of Trustees, a panel of members appointed, for the most part, by the city and state government.
Of the Board of Trustees’ seventeen members, 10, including the Chairperson and the Vice Chairperson, are appointed by the Governor of New York, and five are appointed by the Mayor of New York City. The remaining two, the chair of the University Student Senate and the chair of the University Faculty Senate, serve as student and faculty representatives.
Chairpeople of the Board serve six-year terms, and trustees have four-year terms. If the Governor or Mayor do not appoint replacements, members may stay on past their term expiration dates, and currently, six members have stayed on past terms that ended in 2020 or earlier.
“The Board’s role is oversight,” said Professor Martin Burke, ex-officio faculty representative on the Board. “It is not to make policy.”
Nevertheless, the CUNY Chancellor is the highest policymaker in the University, and the CUNY Board of Trustees appoints the Chancellor, who, according to state law, “shall serve at the pleasure of the board of trustees” (N.Y. Educ. Law sec. 6206). While the Chancellor nominates university presidents and senior staff, directs infrastructure initiatives, hands out staff promotions and reappointments, and implements changes to degree programs, the Board must approve all these decisions, according to the CUNY general policy.
Furthermore, the Board is responsible for the approval of CUNY’s budget as proposed by the Chancellor, as well as the dispersal of funds.
Currently the 15 appointments made by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio consist of businesspeople and people who have worked or currently work in city and state administrations. Among previous city administrators are Chairman of the Board William Thompson, who served as comptroller of New York City, and Board Trustee Fernando Ferrer, who was formerly the Bronx Borough president. The Board also includes a host of businesspeople, such as Vice Chair Barry Schwartz, who sits as Vice Chairman Emeritus of the holding company MacAndrews and Forbes, and Trustee Mayra Linares-Garcia, the Vice President of Public Affairs at Coca Cola.
“That CUNY has a board that reflects the business members of the community and not specialists in higher education is not uncommon; in fact it’s quite common,” said Burke.
Models of public college leadership vary; some boards, such the University of Michigan, are voted for in statewide elections. Others, like SUNY, are appointed by elected officials.
“It’s possible for someone with a corporate job to still do their CUNY Trustee work effectively and care about students,” said Professor James Davis, chair of Brooklyn College’s PSC chapter. “But it would be best if candidates for appointment by the Governor and Mayor had to demonstrate a prior record of service or commitment to public higher education as a baseline qualification.”
Former student representative to the Board Timothy Hunter echoed this sentiment.
“I think it’s important to take into consideration that a lot of the board members also have a background in government,” he said. “I’d love to see more government folks and more CUNY grads on the board.”
To that end, several current or previous employees of the state government hold positions on the board, like Michael Arvanites, deputy chief of staff for a former state assemblyman – and Robert Mujica, the state budget director.
“The naming of Trustee Mujica certainly indicated the governor’s interest in the management of the University,” Burke told the Vanguard. “It does give the governor’s office a direct line into the doings of the Board.”
Cuomo appointed Robert Mujica as both state budget director and CUNY trustee in 2016. A former Republican state senate staffer and a Brooklyn College alumnus, Mujica now manages a $177 billion budget for the state, which includes, of course, the $3 billion or so CUNY receives annually.
“The budget proposal that is going to Albany – that is, to Trustee Mujica – is one that Trustee Mujica has seen along the way, and it certainly gives the governor a good deal of presence on the Board,” Burke told the Vanguard. “If one were critical of this relationship, you could suggest that in fact the Board’s power is de facto diminished by having the budget director sitting on the Board.”
Mujica also serves on the Board’s committees for Audit and Fiscal Policy, which are among several committees that report to the Board. The committees review information pertaining to their field before making proposals or recommendations to the Executive Board, which then votes on an issue.
Mujica is vice chair of the committee for Fiscal Policy, which reviews the Chancellor’s proposed budget as well as the city and state’s allocated funds. The state provides close to 60 percent of CUNY’s funding.
“It is clear that Mr. Mujica’s presence on the Board of Trustees is one important way that Governor Cuomo has exercised control over the administration of the university and its finances,” said Davis. “It compromises the independence and autonomy the Board is supposed to exercise according to CUNY policy.”
An MTA trustee, and a board member of the Dormitory Authority and Public Authorities Control, Mujica’s influence sprawls across the state.
“I think there’s a huge conflict of interest with Trustee Mujica being on the Board,” Haris Khan, former USS chairperson and student representative on the Board, said.
Other members of the Board see his experience as a positive attribute.
“With leadership in any large scale undertaking, you want diverse backgrounds not just from ethnic and racial population we serve; but also in what experience and value added from those leaders bring to the organization,” Trustee Michael Arvanites told the Vanguard. “It is my hope people understand the value of having leaders from government, in leadership. Certainly, you can see the value in having people in leadership who are aware of the process in which CUNY receives the overwhelming majority of its funding and support.”
In the past few years, the allocation of CUNY’s funds have followed, to an extent, the nature of the state’s budgeting. In 2016, Chairman William Thompson, as New York City Comptroller at the time, was part of a committee that raised Governor Cuomo’s salary from $179,000 to $250,000. In 2017, the CUNY Board increased senior college presidents’ salaries from over $370,000 to a maximum of $402,700. The executive vice chancellor’s paycheck was raised from approximately $452,000 to $490,000.
For presidents of senior CUNY colleges, this was an almost 10 percent salary increase. Comparatively, almost two years later, the Board approved a 2 percent salary increase for adjunct faculty.
Meanwhile, CUNY tuition has risen steadily over the past few years, despite pleas from some students and faculty to fully fund CUNY by heightening taxes on New York’s wealthiest. In an announcement with Cuomo in late March, Mujica dismissed a proposed tax increase to compensate for reductions in the state budget for FY22.
Because of the fiscal crisis prompted by the pandemic, New York faced a $15 billion deficit when Cuomo drafted the budget.
By late March, however, Mujica said the state had “identified $5 billion in resources” to restore cuts made in the preliminary budget.
“As of right now we have the resources necessary so that there would be no cuts in the Governor’s Budget, so you wouldn’t require any significant level of tax increases to pay for the restorations,” Mujica said in an announcement with Cuomo.
The FY22 budget in fact increases CUNY’s funding by 3.8 percent compared to the previous fiscal year. The budget also freezes CUNY’s tuition for the next three years, which, due to a policy the Board approved in 2019, for which then student representative Timothy Hunter was the only opposing vote, was set to rise yearly by $200.
This year and last year, the Board faced an unprecedented challenge in managing the nation’s largest public university during a pandemic.
“My first impression of the Board was that these were a group of people that didn’t understand student problems,” Hunter, who became student representative in late 2019, said. “They graduated so long ago that the tuition was so low compared to what it is now. I think that the pandemic changed that. The Board had to respond in a way that they’d never responded before.”
The Vanguard recently reported on the Board’s handling of facilities protocols just before the virus shut down colleges. Two days before Cuomo announced the closure of CUNY campuses, members of the Committee for Facilities Planning and Management tabled a vote to discuss safety and maintenance procedures for campuses.
Just this week, the Board made news after tabling a vote on Monday that would have paid $3 million to an outside consulting firm, McKinsey and Co., to create a plan for campuses to reopen in the fall. The choice to table the vote came after surmounting criticism.
“The proposal to spend $3 million in a contract with a for-profit consulting firm to do the work CUNY managers are paid handsomely to do is outrageous,” PSC President Barbera Bowen wrote in a letter to the Board.
CUNY’s role as the largest higher education institution in the country, based within the nation’s economic epicenter, puts it in a unique position. As educators of students who graduate into New York’s economy, home to some of the nation’s most diverse schools, and, according to Burke, a “vehicle of social mobility,” CUNY’s Board reflects its relevance to New York’s State’s economy.
“The more we learn about the board and remember where they come from – it still doesn’t change the fact that decisions are made by the governor,” Khan said. “The systemic underfunding of our higher education and divestment occurs at the state level.”
Khan owes the steps that have been made to constant lobbying in Albany and the efforts of organizers, like current USS chairperson, Juvanie Piquant, but emphasized the continued importance of student organizing and voting in state elections.
“If you go to Columbia or Yale or Princeton, you have to spend a whole lot of time organizing against your board of trustees. You’ve got to do a lot of lobbying the president,” said Khan. “At CUNY you have to take it to a whole other level and you’ve got to be pushing, fighting for justice with the mayor of the largest city in the country and the governor of one of the biggest states in the country.”
Mujica and other members of the Board did not respond to requests for comment.