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CUNY chancellor, under fire over budget cuts, defends reductions as key to cutting deficit

CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez
Barry Williams/New York Daily News
CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez

Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez on Thursday defended multiple rounds of painful spending cuts and a hiring freeze across the City University of New York as measures that have slashed the cash-strapped university system’s structural deficit by “almost half.”

By the end of this year, CUNY expects to shrink its deficit to $128 million, down from a high of $234 million in fiscal year 2022, the chancellor told state lawmakers at a hearing on the state higher education budget.

“While we have made great strides, there’s still more work to be done,” said Matos Rodríguez.

But the faculty union Thursday continued to blast the most recent cuts ordered by the central CUNY administration.

The Professional Staff Congress slammed what they called “austerity measures,” including larger class sizes and reduced student services from library hours to cafeteria access. At one campus, Queens College in Flushing, more than two dozen full-time substitute lecturers lost their teaching gigs within weeks of the spring semester.

“There are resources in the state economy to resist these cuts,” PSC President James Davis said, “and add hundreds of millions more to the CUNY budget.”

Matos Rodriguez attributed the gaping budget shortfalls at CUNY to factors from enrollment declines that accelerated with the pandemic to increased costs. While the school system recently logged a 2% overall enrollment increase, it’s still down about 40,000 students since the fall of 2019.

CUNY’s strategy to address its deficit has included two rounds of across-the-board savings targets and most recently a targeted approach for nine campuses that have “shown signs of more fiscal distress,” he said. On top of the hiring freeze, the university system also created a vacancy review board used when backfilling jobs left empty by attrition.

Matos Rodríguez also credited federal pandemic aid and investments by Gov. Hochul and state lawmakers as helping to close the budgetary gap.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is pictured during a press conference at her offices in Midtown Manhattan on Nov. 21, 2023. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)
Gov. Kathy Hochul (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)

Hochul’s proposal for next school year includes a $36 million increase in operating funds for CUNY’s four-year colleges and a community college funding floor so that no school receives less state aid than it did last year if enrollment drops. The plan also earmarks $441 million to invest in new facilities and repair crumbling campuses.

Just 8% of the university’s 300 buildings are considered to be “in good repair,” according to its strategic plan announced ahead of this school year.

In an effort to boost enrollment and tuition revenue, Hochul last month announced plans for both CUNY and the State University of New York to automatically admit students in the top 10% of their high school classes to their most selective campuses.

The university has also grown its rosters through a city program called CUNY Reconnect, where seven in 10 participants who dropped out but reenrolled are sticking with another chance at finishing their degrees.