CUNY Public Hearings Draw Low AttendanceA year after the Baruch Lobby arrests, few attend CUNY’s public forum
CUNY’s most recent public hearing at Baruch College last month drew a slim crowd of roughly twenty students and faculty, a sharp decline from last November when the hearing room was filled to capacity, forcing a hundred students to protest tuition hikes in the lobby with hundreds more marching around the building.
“Unless there is a burning issue on the Board agenda – i.e., tuition raises – public hearings are usually pro forma events,” Sandi Cooper, former chair of the University Faculty Senate (UFS), wrote in an email. “Over the past 45 plus years that I have been in CUNY, I can [recollect] all [of] about 5 [or] 6 occasions when these hearings were widely attended.”
Under New York State Education law, CUNY is required to host public hearings before regular board meetings in order for the university’s board of trustees to “receive testimony and statements from concerned individuals about university issues,” according to the CUNY board of trustees bylaw.
“I think that it’s wonderful there are public hearings,” said Tami Gold, chair of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) Hunter College Chapter. “There is a space for individuals and groups to play a part in a participatory democracy.”
However, some like Cooper believe that CUNY public hearings have become a “pro forma charade” — reflecting little on actual board of trustee decisions.
This was exactly how it seemed on Sept. 15, when CUNY’s public hearing ended without even a session for questions.
Upon entering the Vertical Campus of Baruch College, students and faculty first signed in at a table tended by two security officers who directed guests to the 14th floor. The hallway leading to the white doors of the conference room resembled a security line at an airport, with 8 security guards and a set of metal detectors to screen participants before entering the company of the CUNY board.
Although Baruch’s Newman Conference Room can accommodate up to 300 people, the 20 seated in the back were the only audience for the month’s public hearing.
Students and faculty alike waited patiently as each speaker’s name was called. One by one, the individuals
reached the podium to stand before the commission members, where they were given three minutes to present their pre-submitted statements.
One speaker brought attention to Project Reach, an autism initiative, while another highlighted the need for more funding of the arts programs at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. A loud, high-pitch alarm that seemed more like a scolding than a warning was sounded when speakers went over their allotted time.
“The problem is not that the board of trustees do not listen to the testimony and statements presented in pubic hearings,” said Gold, who is also a Film and Media Studies professor at Hunter. “The problem with trustees listening to the testimonies of CUNY students, CUNY faculty and CUNY staff, is that the trustees do not work in the public sector,” she said. “We have different interests.”
Indeed, at the end of each public board meeting, the trustees hold an “executive session,” which is closed to the public and the proceedings of which are the subject of speculation.
Gold, like many other CUNY faculty and staff, said she believed in the necessity of the civic role played by the hearings. But the population most affected by the board of trustees decisions — students — are perhaps the least aware of the procedure that gives them an opportunity to directly address CUNY central administrators.
Hunter College senior and Film and Psychology major, Constantin Poselski, attributed the low student participation to the university’s failure to effectively publicize the events. “No one really checks the CUNY website,” said Poselski, who did not know that CUNY held regular public hearings until he was surveyed by the Envoy.
Camille Raneem, a senior and Political Science major, said that flyers and announcements from professors may help the university publicize its public hearings more efficiently.
“If I were a Political Science professor, I’d definitely tell my students,” said Raneem, who also said she was previously unaware that the board of trustees held public hearings before making resolutions. Raneem brought up some concerns that would interest her to attend these meetings, such as private donations to Hunter College and the recent CUNY tobacco-free policy.
Other concerns of the Hunter community included the Queensborough Community College’s threatened restructuring of its English department, CUNY’s development of a university-wide general education framework — known as “Pathways” — and the new science complex to be built for Hunter.
While most students did not know CUNY held public hearings in each borough, a few students who were aware of the public hearings did not know that they were open to all members of the CUNY community.
Faizi Jabaid, a sophomore, said he was aware of CUNY’s public hearings, but did not think that they were effective mechanisms for change. “One person is not really going to ‘make a difference,’ in an environment like that. The board has already made up its mind. You should at least get something out of it. What do you get? Arrested?” he said, referring to the Nov. 21 protest at the public hearing last year, where 15 students were arrested in the Baruch lobby.
Despite the scant audience that typically characterizes CUNY’s public hearings, many students still believe the forums are instrumental to keep the university accountable to the city at large.
In order to request time to speak at a public hearing, students or faculty must notify the Office of the Secretary before 4:30 p.m. the day before the scheduled public hearing. In the event that no speaker is scheduled to present, the public hearing will be cancelled.
The next public hearings is scheduled for Nov. 19 at 5 p.m. sharp.
“When there is a public hearing, and there is a student who is able to speak on behalf of those students, you get an effect of a chain reaction which creates more of a unity within the student body to stand up for an issue,” said freshman Muhammad Manzur. “It’s important.”