They all came: students, teachers, union leaders, politicians from across the board, and, of course, the interim president of New Jersey City University.
All of them came Monday to a union-sponsored “Fund NJCU” campus rally to plead the case for the survival of NJCU, to demand that Gov. Phil Murphy and state legislators come to the aid of the financially-strapped state-funded university.
Speakers were cheered by throngs of students, professors, and members of unions representing workers from both inside and outside the university — such as the Communication Workers of America — who filled the Student Union building’s reception area where the rally was staged.
Hudson County Commissioner William O’Dea struck the mood for the day when he referred to the governor’s mandate for an audit of NJCU finances, saying, “No one is questioning the need for oversight,” but added that the state’s priority right now should be ensuring that the university remain open as a commitment to furthering educational opportunities for a diverse, urban community.
“We shouldn’t have to beg for money,” O’Dea asserted, when the governor has boasted of a $6.83 billion surplus in the newly introduced state budget and NJCU’s request for $10 million in additional state aid to help close an operating deficit represents “less than one-half of 1%” of that surplus.”
“This is the beginning of our crusade” to get that assistance, O’Dea said, and “if (some) legislators are reluctant” to go along, “we’ll take buses to their homes and I’ll be the first to knock on their door.” If there are insufficient votes to carry the aid measure, then state lawmakers should vote “no” on the governor’s budget, he said.
What’s more, said Charles Wowkanech, president of New Jersey AFL-CIO, if a legislative majority rejects the NJCU aid package, then “(our membership) is not going to vote for them in November.” Many union family members have attended and/or work for the university, he added.
Faced with decreasing enrollment and other financial pressures, NJCU’s board of trustees has taken some steps to “right-size” its academic operations in part by sending layoff notices, effective this June, to 30 tenured faculty and non-renewal notices to 19 adjunct faculty and to several professional staff and by restructuring its academic portfolio.
Barbara Hildner, president of American Federation of Teachers NJCU Local 1839, which sponsored the rally, said that since the governor often speaks of his humble beginnings, he should bear in mind that his experience mirrors similar hardships faced by many NJCU students as they aspire to advance and fund a budget “that will allow appropriate staffing and delivery of services to our students.”
Echoing that theme, Thyquel Halley, NJCU student government association executive board president, wondered, “Why are we even having this conversation, just to get adequate resources? We aren’t looking for handouts. We need investment and change in the mindsets and policies (impacting) our futures.”
Jersey City Ward E Councilmember James Solomon, a non-renewed NJCU adjunct, took aim at Murphy’s endorsement of a $22 million allocation to Rutgers University for an indoor football practice facility. “If (Murphy) can fund that (project),” Solomon said, “then he can sure as hell fund this school.”
Recalling that Jersey City Medical Center nurses who aided his wife’s delivery were trained at NJCU, much as many Jersey City public school teachers and other skilled professionals got their start at the university, Solomon said that virtually “every institution in this city relies on (NJCU).”
Assemblymember Raj Mukherji, whose district includes Jersey City, recalled how his impoverished father told him that, “education was the way to rise above your station in life,” a lesson he took to heart and, “NJCU has been that path for so many in Jersey City” and, for that reason, he said, “we will not let NJCU fail.”
NJCU’s interim president Andres Acebo, a Union City product and an attorney who took office this past January when the deficit was roughly $13 million, told the crowd he welcomed the challenge of making the university whole again and he credited persevering students — including alums like his wife and his mother-in-law, who, as a single mom and recipient of government assistance, took 13 years to complete her degree — with inspiring him to fight for funding.
“Every day on this campus, I see my experience mirrored back to me,” Acebo said, reminding his audience that, “I’m not supposed to be here (as) the son of an immigrant father who escaped (his native Cuba) on a raft with a compass.” But, he added, “Here, the improbable becomes possible, every single day at this institution.”
So, Acebo said, he remains committed to fighting for adequate funding, “because this place matters, it’s ingrained in this community, because our people matter.”
But making speeches, shouting slogans, and writing letters won’t carry the day, cautioned New Jersey AFT President Donna Chiara and national AFT President Randi Weingarten.
“If Trenton doesn’t hear you, it doesn’t mean anything,” Chiara said. And without persistent follow-through, she said, urban schools like NJCU and William Paterson University, with more affordable tuition rates, will be in danger of going under. If Murphy and lawmakers can’t fund these schools, “then shame on the state,” she said.
“We want a plan, money to fund that plan and, if not, accountability,” Chiara said.
Weingarten, whose grandparents grew up in Hudson County, said she remembers hearing about the then-Jersey City State College, Rutgers, William Paterson, and Kean College as “places of upward mobility where kids could go to advance themselves.”
But today, she said, that prospect remains in limbo for urban, inner-city students. “This is a state that prides itself on saying it has one of the best educational systems for these types of institutions,” Weingarten said.
“We need for them to keep that commitment, but that doesn’t happen through Tweets. It happens through action and engagement.”
It remains to be seen whether state lawmakers can be persuaded to follow through.