Opinion: The CUNY Board of Trustees Should Reflect the CUNY Community

Barry F. Schwartz, Charles A. Shorter, Sandra Wilkin — do these names sound familiar? Probably not. You might not know who they are, but they have immense power over your life as a CUNY student. These are three of the 17 members of the CUNY board of trustees. The board of trustees controls nearly every aspect of student life, from tuition prices to campus facilities to majors and minors. Despite having this much power, there is little connection between the board of trustees and CUNY students and professors, and this disconnect has shown in their past actions. Whether it be with tuition, professor salary or student space, they have consistently voted against the needs of students and faculty.

The process for selecting the board of trustees members is far removed from most students and professors. The governor appoints 10 members, the mayor appoints five members, and two additional members must be a student and a professor. The New York State Senate must confirm the appointed members. Legally, a minimum of three appointed members, in addition to the two ex-officio members, must be CUNY graduates. The mayor and governor have used their power to appoint political allies rather than members of our CUNY community. Ultimately, the board is a political appointment, not one rooted in higher education. CUNY, a working-class institution, should not be primarily run by politicians and financial executives.

According to the trustees’ bios on the board of trustees website, just six trustees are either CUNY students, alumni or professors. Nine members have worked in high-level political positions, with four former elected officials. Additionally, three members of the board of trustees have a background in finance or real estate development. Many of these appointees are political staffers of the mayor and governor; Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed his own special counsel and advisor, Henry Berger, and Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed his own budget director, Robert Mujica. The mandatory student and professor members are the only ones of their kind and not elected by direct democracy. They are chosen by the University Student Senate and the University Faculty Senate, respectively.

Most trustees’ day-to-day experience is radically different from that of most CUNY students, many of whom are working-class people of color. While the members come from diverse backgrounds and may have faced hardship in the past, most of them have graduated from elite schools and have since had prominent and lucrative careers. Few know the difficulty of depending on this public education system for an education or living. Most of them are not thinking about whether to credit/no-credit a class, don’t need an additional part-time job in addition to teaching, and are not going to class hungry. Nearly none of them have attended or taught a class on an online platform.

Because the board of trustees is primarily made up of politicians and investment bankers, improving CUNY will not directly improve their lives. For most of the board of trustees members, having to pay more to attend CUNY will not force them to pick up extra shifts at work, go without food or drop out of school altogether. It makes no difference in the lives of most trustees if we can afford our tuition, if we can handle the stress of classes or if professors can live off their salaries. They have no material interest in making CUNY better.

People protest against tuition hikes near Baruch College.
People protest against tuition hikes near Baruch College. Photo by Nick Gulotta, Creative Commons

The decisions of the board of trustees have been contradictory to the needs of the CUNY community. In the past, they have refused to allocate funding so adjuncts could be paid $7,000 per course, which would be a living wage. They voted before the pandemic to raise tuition and fees by $320. They also approved the building of a new Starbucks in Hunter College, which many students opposed. The students and professors of CUNY have no effective mechanism for holding the board of trustees accountable. The decisions to raise tuition and fees and construct a Starbucks at Hunter were met with massive student and professor protest. Protesters were removed from both board of trustees meetings on the issue, and one student was even detained by campus security while protesting the tuition hikes. The past actions of the board of trustees have made it clear they do not operate with the best interests of students and professors. Instead, they have implemented a bare-bones budget that has plagued working class New Yorkers.

As CUNY students, why should we be forced to accept the decision of people whom we have no say in choosing and who do not share the experience of being a CUNY student? We shouldn’t. If we want to see different results from the board, we must change its members. Instead of being a board of political appointees, the board of trustees should be a group of students and professors who are democratically elected. This will force them to be accountable to the students and professors who elect them, not the mayor or governor who appointed them. Instead of being far removed from CUNY’s day-to-day life, they will be in the trenches alongside us. Furthermore, board of trustee elections will make the institution more accessible to students; for the first time, CUNY students will have a say in who is making some of the most impactful decisions. If students or professors disagree with the actions of the board, we will have an opportunity to elect new people.

Ultimately, an elected board of trustees would empower students and professors. Instead of relying on politicians or financiers to make decisions for us and having no useful outlet to challenge these decisions, the CUNY community takes agency over its own life. If we want to see change, we must change the people in power. Having an elected student and professor board of trustees will empower the CUNY community and make a board of trustees that can advocate for the needs of CUNY students and professors. It would be a big step in creating a CUNY system and is economically just and accessible to everyone, where all of us can thrive.

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