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Protests Call For More CUNY Funding Before Michelle Obama Speech

 An organizer passes out fliers at the City College commencement ceremony Friday to call for more funding to the city's public college system.
An organizer passes out fliers at the City College commencement ceremony Friday to call for more funding to the city's public college system.
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Dartunorro Clark/DNAInfo

NEW YORK CITY — Thousands of attendees flowing through security to see First Lady Michelle Obama give the keynote address at CUNY's 170th commencement ceremony were met by protesters Friday.

Dozens of faculty and students from the city’s colleges called for school and public officials to “Invest in CUNY,” passing out fliers in the morning rain outside the college's south campus at 135th and Convent Ave.

The First Lady, who protest organizers said they supported, has touted the importance of public higher education in past speeches at colleges and universities through her Reach Higher Initiative.

Barbara Bowen, a CUNY English professor and president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents 25,000 CUNY faculty and staff, said outside the commencement security perimeter that she has noticed a consistent indifference and lack of commitment from city and state officials to fund the city’s two-dozen public colleges.

“There is a history of disinvestment of public universities and with that has been a disinvestment in the students served by CUNY,” Bowen said.

“These are low-income students from communities of color.”

City College, which was the first public higher education institution in the city, has more than 40 percent of its attendees being first-generation college students. Half of its student body comes from low-income households.

Bowen also said the sharpest example of the funding crisis is that raises that the union has been trying to secure for six years have not been agreed.

“Students are in danger of losing the staff and faculty they need,” she said.

Devin Ly, 20, a soon-to-be junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice studying Political Science and Law and Society, and also a part of the coalition of city university students on the University Student Senate, said he and his fellow classmates have noticed the deterioration in the school’s buildings and overcrowded classrooms first-hand.

Ly, who cited leaking pipes and limited access to overworked faculty members, said the system’s original mission of providing education for underserved communities has been eroded by the funding crisis.

“For one reason or another, they have an inability to afford private universities. CUNY is the last option we have for an affordable education,” he said.

“They’re being asked to give more and receive less.”

A spokesman for CUNY did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer testified earlier this year in the state Legislature that state spending on CUNY has not kept up with the growth of the state budget over the last seven years.

Had it done so, he said, CUNY would have an extra $637 million on hand to fund the senior and community colleges.

Zakiyah Ansari, who has three children currently in the city’s public university system, two of which attend City College, said when she learned of the issues it was “angering” and “sad.”

“(More resources) helps students move through a system they’re not familiar with,” she said. “I just think of all the black and brown students who say, ‘I have had enough of this’.”

Ansari, who is also the advocacy director for Alliance for Quality Education, said she thinks it’s “criminal” that the calls for more funding has been met with indifference.

“I have a son who is in 10th grade and who knows? He might want to go to CUNY,” she said. “I want it to be better for him not worse.”