My mother, Mary Kowal, passed away on April 2nd after 98 incredible years. She was born in 1920, when Woodrow Wilson was president. As many know, Wilson was an arch segregationist. But mom, who was born the year that women were first allowed to vote in the United States, lived long enough to vote for America’s first African American president – twice.
She was a bright student and graduated first in her class from Chicopee High School in Massachusetts, in 1938.
That’s the same school my father, my siblings and I graduated from as well. For my mom, given that it was in the Great Depression and her parents were working class immigrants, she had no chance to go to college. It was simply economically impossible. So, she went to work at a local factory. But she never abandoned her desire to learn.
She was a voracious reader all her life and finally did take college courses in her 60s, because she was interested in history. She was bright and inquisitive and followed the news closely until just a few months before her passing.
Losing a member of one’s family does lead to contemplation about a number of things. For me, I have wondered about how to best honor her life. As president of the largest higher education union in the nation, this time of contemplation has led me to commit myself and the union I lead to make public higher education a priority for our state like never before. This is not a rhetorical statement. It is a promise. A vow. Nobody who wants to go to SUNY should miss out on that chance. It’s a question of fairness. Of opportunity. Of Justice. And it represents a wise choice for society: An educated society is more likely to be politically, economically and socially stable and democratic.
Since the Great Recession, public higher education in New York has not received nearly enough funding to provide the access, affordability and quality all New Yorkers deserve. In fact, the budget cuts to SUNY were the deepest to any part of New York State government back in 2009 and 2010, and the cuts have never been undone. In fact, the SUNY system, including the SUNY hospitals, has lost well over half of a billion dollars in state funding in the last decade.
This is unacceptable. New York cannot flourish in a changing economy without the highest educated population. Not just so that we have productive workers. It’s also imperative that we have a population that is informed and can make wise decisions about the future of our nation, given that America is facing a time when our republic is under assault from within.
During my mother’s life, she experienced economic upheaval, cataclysmic wars, and massive social change. But one value she cherished was for her children to have the opportunity to go to college. And she was proud that we all graduated successfully – as have all of her grandchildren. All our children should have that opportunity. UUP and its leadership is committed to this principle, now more than ever.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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