SUNY Website Highlights Hypocrisy
By Jess Rybak
It’s ironic, insulting, and revealing of the true nature of SUNY. SUNY – the statewide public university system of New York – is currently masquerading as an institution that offers something it does not: an environment for accessible public education. And it’s using a photo of a campus protest to do so.
The photo on the SUNY “Find a Campus” page shows a Stony Brook Cultural Analysis and Theory faculty member leading a Women’s and Gender Studies course beneath the cherry blossom trees that sit adjacent to the university administration building. On a typical day, this accredited course would be held, like all classes in the university, indoors. On May 1, when the photo was taken, this course was held in an outdoor “classroom” in conjunction with the 2013 “Free University of Stony Brook.”
When you approach a Free University, you enter an environment not unlike the one pictured. “Students” and “teachers” sprawl out around public spaces to share knowledge with one another. The photo captures the positive energy of a day devoted to community, empowerment and education. When featured on SUNY’s webpage, it suggests that one can simply approach a SUNY campus and participate in the learning experience. However, with tuition, fees, entry criteria and more, SUNY is not a space where just anyone is welcome to participate. If anything, SUNY is an institution that is squeezing out the underprivileged, making a world-class education inaccessible for all. The Free University, however, cultivates an environment of shared knowledge that SUNY claims to have.
The Free University is an important action because it allows activists, organizers, learners, and teachers to design and conduct the type of university that we envision. A university without the current barriers of tuition that lead to inaccessibility of higher learning and unmanageable incurrences of student loan debt. One without criteria to enter, where everyone is welcome to listen and participate in a learning experience. One where public space is just that: open to the public, and is not controlled by police, security, administrators, or corporations.
SUNY has shown that the institution is truly the antithesis to the Free University through its actions toward its universities, students and workers over the past five years. Since 2008, the New York state budget has gutted the SUNY system. In 2008-9 alone, SUNY suffered cuts of at least $348 million. State funding cuts to SUNY now exceed $1.4 billion. As a result, SUNY turned to the most vulnerable parts of the university and made them victim to the cuts. Humanities and art departments sustained heavy budget cuts or were altogether eliminated. Tuition and fees increased for undergraduate students. Graduate student employees have been given larger workloads – bigger class sizes, longer work hours, more responsibilities – for wages that average much less than a living wage. The adjunct population has swelled, in a move that has forced educators to earn wages per-course for work that should be compensated through tenure-track faculty positions.
The state now funds less than 50% of SUNY’s operating costs. This means that the burden of funding this institution has been shifted to private donors, corporations, and students. While turning away from the people it is meant to serve, SUNY, like many public institutions, has turned toward privatization as a solution for its lack of funding. Initiatives like SUNY2020 and StartUp NY contribute to the process of turning the university into a business.
The irony lies here: SUNY has embraced a photo depicting the type of environment that the Free University has outlined in protest to the current circumstance of SUNY. And still, the voices of those advocating for a return to an accessible public higher education system are either ignored or policed.
Throughout the past few years of the student rights movement at SUNY Stony Brook, the university has tightened security and police forces against student activists, administration has scolded student activists, and the university has, above all, ignored the position of a community that opposes the direction toward privatization that SUNY has been taking. And thanks to the Free University, this community is broadening.
This year, May Day will act as a cornerstone date in the progression of multiple movements. Students and workers are joining forces to translate International Workers’ Day into an event that brings each of our battles to the forefront of our actions, together. The Coalition of Graduate Employees Unions has declared May 1st a nationwide day of action to protest the exploitation of graduate student teaching and research assistants in the university system. The New York May 1st Coalition will hold its annual immigrant rights march and rally, endorsed and attended by many organizations and supporters. May Day Free Universities are being planned throughout New York and have even spread to the UK to promote the rights of students, educators, and university staff.
The Free University (unlike SUNY’s hierarchical administration) is open to anyone who wishes to organize or participate in this movement. Join us! Members of the SUNY Stony Brook community and greater Long Island area are welcome to get involved by organizing, teaching a class, volunteering, or rallying with us toward a free and accessible public education. Haven’t gotten word of a Free University in your area but want to get involved? Consider holding a public teach-in in the spirit of free education, and be sure to get in touch with other Free University organizers so that we can inspire one another and grow this movement together.