Looking around a circle of dozens of students gathered in Student Union 100, Student Association (SA) Senate Chair Terrell Coakley held up the cover of a student-made packet of information and ideas about school and state financial. The page featured no text – only an image of a book torn in half to reveal a dollar bill, stretched and lying within the blades of a pair of scissors.
Coakley said the brass knuckles he designed on these scissors represented the fight students should be prepared to wage so the state does not continue to cut funding for higher education.
“This is my pitchfork,” he said. “I am angry, just like you all might be. But I want you to be angry for the right reasons, and use that anger to strive for change.”
Coakley and other members of the SA E-board said discussions and ideas generated at Tuesday’s student-run forum, “The Final Cut,” were the first step in getting students involved in conversations about how the college’s multi-million dollar budgetary deficit and future cuts are handled.
Vice President of Academic Affairs and Governance Caitlin Ryan said the idea of SA sponsoring a forum focused on the causes of the school’s $3.2 million deficit and how reductions were being made was generated last semester. After they found out their forum was originally scheduled on the same day as one hosted by SUNY New Paltz Interim President Donald Christian and Vice President of Finance and Administration Jackie DiStefano, Ryan said the E-board decided to change their date to Feb. 22.
During the time period between each forum, Ryan put together the packet that was distributed to nearly 100 students in attendance Tuesday, according to SA President Jennifer Sanchez. The pamphlet included fact sheets about the administration’s budget planning process and the reserve funds being maintained by the college taken from budget.newpaltz.edu.
Though Ryan said it is important that students become educated about the structure and organization of the college’s operating budget, she said the forum should have primarily been a place for flowing conversation.
“This is not meant for us to just give you information and only say what we think,” Ryan said. “I want us to be able to come together as students to culminate ideas about what is happening to public education at this time.”
One topic of discussion in which students in attendance and SA E-board members expressed frustration about was the budget planning process on the New Paltz campus. According to Ryan, the planning timeline suggests that all discussion regarding reductions that may include elimination of academic programs will only occur between members of the president’s cabinet, advisory group and other administrators as of Feb. 15. She and other students said there is room for student involvement before reduction plans are implemented later this spring.
Third-year anthropology major Lisa Pomerantz said students should have some kind of voice in decisions being made that affect the education that they are paying for each year.
“We’re pretty much customers of the school, and customers are supposed to have a say in all of this,” she said.
Although Ryan said she felt administrators “spoke down to [students]” and suggested that they were not capable in being part of the budget planning process, Sanchez said it was important to keep the role of the New York State Legislature in mind when thinking about the financial problems of SUNY New Paltz and other schools across the state.
Citing that the state has cut the SUNY system’s budget by over $680 million since 2008, Sanchez said students should reach out to their legislators so institutions of public higher education do not continue to lose funding.
“This isn’t just happening here, and this situation is going to keep getting worse if we all don’t stand up to the Legislature,” she said. “Administrators are going to keep working with what they’re dealt, and that has been cuts.”
Aside from encouraging them to call their local representatives and the governor to express their anger about how education is being handled in the state budget, the student leaders also said the forum attendees should participate in SUNY Palooza next month.
On March 15, students representing schools from across the system will gather in Albany, N.Y. for SUNY Palooza in an effort to reach out to state government officials. Ryan said SUNY New Paltz students could better prepare themselves for this trip by attending SA’s teach-in about state and school budgetary matters on March 8, in the Student Union.
At the forum, attendees broke into four groups and offered their ideas about how they think the teach-in should be organized and what they could do to get more students involved. Coakley, Sanchez, Ryan and Executive Vice President Eve Stern gathered information from each group talk that included workshop suggestions and plans to get student organizations and other groups involved in the teach-in.
Ryan said she was extremely happy with the turnout and participation at the forum, and that plans for another meeting may be in the works.
“Everyone really had great suggestions for contributing tangibly to this cause,” she said. “This was really productive, and we hope everyone will tell their friends and others about what’s going on.”