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Things were already starting to feel grim in New York City in March when Mark Blum, a faculty member at Brooklyn College who also happened to be a prize-winning stage and screen actor, died from complications related to COVID-19. Governor Andrew Cuomo had recently put the entire state on lockdown as the pandemic bore down on the region. Some 280 city residents had already died, and the number was growing daily.

The death of a professor from within the City University of New York system, or CUNY, was not particularly unusual given what was occurring. After all, the city was the epicenter of the pandemic in the state that would ultimately lead the country in deaths. But less than two weeks after Blum's death on March 25, Moshe Augenstein, the undergraduate deputy chair for computer and information science at Brooklyn College, also died from complications of COVID-19 on April 7. Paul Shelden, a professor emeritus of music at the college and a highly talented clarinetist and classical music enthusiast, died 10 days later on April 17. Then Peter J. Brancazio, a physics professor who taught at the college for more than 30 years, died on April 25.


Previous coverage:

A Deadly Toll in Academe, April 2

A Requiem for Academics, April 15

Legacies and Life Lessons, May 15

Meanwhile, professors and instructors at CUNY’s 24 other colleges and professional schools were also dying, along with staff members and students. They included Carmen Valle, a celebrated poet and professor of Spanish language and Latin American literature at New York City College of Technology, whose death was announced on April 20, and Anita Crumpton, a graduate of City College of New York and the longtime office assistant at the CUNY Graduate Center, who died on April 26, and Jay Jankelewicz, a 2013 graduate and office manager of the philosophy department of Brooklyn College who died on April 9. He was 31 and one of the youngest victims.

Just this afternoon, CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez announced that Allen Y. Lew, the senior vice chancellor, had died from the coronavirus earlier in the day. Rodriquez said the news of Lew's death "has left me shaken and deeply saddened." 

At least 38 people affiliated with CUNY have died so far, based on numbers separately compiled by system administrators and by the Professional Staff Congress, or PSC/CUNY, the union representing 30,000 faculty and staff. The union keeps a running tally of members who have died on a memorial page on its website. (Other deaths may not have been counted because neither the university system nor the union were made aware of them.)

“It’s pretty devastating,” Carolina Bank Muñoz, the Tow Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said of her lost colleagues.

Their deaths were among what would become thousands of New York City victims from all walks of life. Some 17,636 New Yorkers had died from COVID-19 as of June 22, and another 4,685 have been classified as "probable deaths" from the virus, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The death toll statewide reached 30,816 last week. CUNY now has the sad distinction of having more coronavirus-related deaths than any other higher education system in the country.

Even as infection and death rates recede citywide and statewide, and New York sheds its designation as the center of so much sickness and death, the emotional fallout is likely to last longer.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking. It’s horrible, just horrible,” said Barbara Bowen, president of PSC/CUNY and an English professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center. “Several of them I knew personally. Several were well-known nationally. And, of course, they were all people who were loved.”

So many deaths over such a short period within one university system would seem to demand a period for collective mourning. Frank Sobrino, a CUNY spokesman, said the system will hold a memorial event when it's safe to do so.

“CUNY deeply mourns the passing of valued members of the university community lost to the horrific coronavirus pandemic,” he said in an email. “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families, friends and colleagues in this time of grief. We will be honoring members of the CUNY community who passed as a result of the pandemic.”

Any public or systemwide memorial event may have to come later. Faculty members, staff and students still grieving the deaths of friends and loved ones are now engaged in what many consider the fight of their lives to keep CUNY fiscally strong during the national recession as unemployment surges and city and state funding cuts loom.

A Pandemic, Then a Budget Ax

The state funding cuts to CUNY could be as high as $95 million, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced $20 million in midyear funding cuts to the system. The jobs of 12,000 adjunct faculty are also on the line. Some adjuncts have already received notice that they will not be reappointed to teach next year.  All of them must be told their status by June 30 under the terms of the union contract. Some 2,000 adjuncts have CUNY provided health insurance that they would lose if not reappointed. What's more, the New York State Legislature has approved a $200 increase in annual tuition and a new student health and wellness fee of $120. (The CUNY Board of Trustees has discretion on whether to impose the tuition hike or to reduce it.)

A $200 tuition hike may seem relatively modest, but it's financially meaningful to the majority of degree-seeking CUNY students, whose median household income is about $40,000 a year. Some 38 percent of the 271,242 students enrolled at CUNY institutions are from families earning less than $20,000 annually, according to the university system, and nearly half of the students work while in school. Many of those students are now either unemployed or underemployed because of the pandemic and are experiencing food and housing insecurity and lack of access to health care. The system launched a $2.25 million Chancellor’s Emergency Relief Fund in April to help thousands of students facing financial hardship during the public health crisis.

"I think we’re all traumatized, whether by the loss of income or the consequences of COVID and what it looks like in our communities," said Timothy Hunter, chairperson of the University Student Senate and the only student member of CUNY's Board of Trustees. "We're all taking stock."

Hunter is scheduled to formally graduate from the City College of Technology at a commencement ceremony planned for July 9 at the campus in Brooklyn. He will remain a voting member of the board until his term expires in October. He says more, not less, financial investment in CUNY is needed to get the university system and the student body back on its feet.

"It’s going to take a lot to change the narrative," he said. "We have to have more conversations to continue to understand what we’re going through, not just the economic impact but the emotional and physical."

Several presidents or provosts of the various CUNY institutions have responded proactively to the pending budget cuts and asked departments heads to start reducing costs even before the full extent of the budget picture is known. For instance, the provost at John Jay College last month announced plans to eliminate 437 adjunct positions, almost 40 percent of that college's teaching force. Department heads at Brooklyn College were told to reduce their course offerings by 25 percent, and those at the College of Staten Island were told to reduce the adjunct staff by 25 percent.

“The college presidents came in saying, ‘We’re in a major crisis’” and ordered departments to start looking at cuts to course offerings and staff and adjunct positions, said Bank Muñoz, former vice president of her campus chapter of PSC/CUNY and now a delegate on the CUNY-wide PSC assembly.

“That means there will be fewer course offerings, which means delayed graduations, and increased class sizes, which means less individual attention that we can give students,” she said. “It means people will lose jobs and health insurance. We think it’s unconscionable to do this in the middle of the pandemic.”

Sobrino, the CUNY spokesman, said the system has no choice at a time of such acute austerity.

“The state is facing a more than $13 billion revenue shortfall due entirely to the pandemic, and if the federal government doesn’t step up to offset those losses, the state will have to reduce spending by billions of dollars to balance its budget,” he said in an email. “Additionally, the City has already notified CUNY of significant cuts in the current fiscal year and is looking at a $31.6 million reduction target for the University in the next fiscal year.”

New York City, which funds more than a third of CUNY’s community college budget, is facing $9 billion in revenue loss over the next two fiscal years. It has cut CUNY’s budget by $53 million for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

“We've lost billions of dollars in tax revenue due to the pandemic. In the face of these dire circumstances, we're focused on saving lives, protecting the health and safety of New Yorkers, and making sure everyone has a roof over their head and enough food to eat,” Laura Feyer, deputy press secretary for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, said in an email. “In order to uphold these priorities and avoid disastrous budget cuts, the federal government must step up and fund our recovery.”

Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the New York State Budget Division, said in an email that economic conditions in the state made for tough budget decisions.

“This administration places a high value on CUNY and the education opportunities it provides New Yorkers, which is why it increased funding for CUNY 29 percent -- nearly $750 million -- prior to the pandemic,” he wrote. “The reality is, New York State is contending with a 14 percent revenue loss, amounting to $61 billion over four years, and in the absence of federal funding to offset this revenue loss, we will have no choice but to cut state spending.” (PSC/CUNY notes that the $750 million is a figure often cited by the governor's office without any explanation of how many years of budgeting that amount covered.)

Brokenhearted Announcements

No matter the final number of the budget cuts, the impact, like that of the deaths, is likely to be felt beyond the walls of the various campuses and touch the hundreds of thousands of people linked to CUNY either directly through faculty members, students or staff, or indirectly through their relatives. Some of those who may lose their jobs may be important sources of income for their families. Some may have spouses or parents who already lost their jobs earlier during the pandemic. Some may have sick relatives at home who rely on their health insurance, while others are still trying to recover from paying funeral expenses.

In the midst of all that, survivors of departed members of the CUNY community are still grieving, as are students and others who lost family members unaffiliated with the system. Having to now turn their attention to job security and economic survival feels a bit cruel in a city that was steeped in illness and death just weeks ago.

For a time, it seemed as if internal announcements of the latest passing of a CUNY colleague were unrelenting.

“It is with a very heavy heart that I write again to inform you that two more members of the York College family have passed away in recent days,” Berenecea Johnson Eanes, interim president of York College, wrote to the campus in an undated announcement of the deaths of Yves Roseus, a York alumnus and adjunct assistant professor in the occupational therapy department, and Luis Diaz, “a dedicated member of our custodial staff,” who served York for more than 20 years.

“We were saddened to learn this morning that our distinguished colleague, Dr. Joseph Bertorelli, succumbed to complications related to the coronavirus,” Timothy G. Lynch, interim president of Queensborough Community College, announced on April 2 on the college’s website.

Bertorelli joined Queensborough’s mathematics and computer science department in 1976 and was the former chairperson of the department, wrote Lynch, who described Bertorelli as a steward of quality mathematics education, a valued collaborator and a trusted mentor.

“He was wise and humorous and a Queensborough stalwart,” Lynch wrote. “To so many Queensborough students, Dr. Bertorelli was the ideal math teacher, especially for difficult subjects such as calculus. His patience, his willingness to help beyond the classroom, and his ability to give real life applications to abstract math concepts made Dr. Bertorelli tremendously popular with his students. His love for math and for his students served as an inspiration to other faculty.”

Five days later, on April 7, Brooklyn College tweeted an announcement about Augenstein.

"With profound sadness, we share news of the passing of Professor Moshe Augenstein of complications from COVID-19," it said of the professor, who graduated from Brooklyn College in 1969 and taught there for 45 years.

Augenstein was described as "an institution … in his own right" and one of the earliest members of the computer science department.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful guy,” Moshe Lowenthal, another professor in the computer science department, told The Brooklyn College Vanguard, a student newspaper.

Similar sentiments were voiced by colleagues of Peter Brancazio, 81, Paul Shelden, 79, Mark Blum, 69, William B. Helmreich, 74, a popular New York City sociologist and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at City College, and his colleague Michael Sorkin, 71, the architect and public intellectual and Distinguished Professor and director emeritus of the Graduate Urban Design Program. They were all prominent in their fields and their deaths were reported on by national publications. Others known mostly within the university system were also celebrated and recognized internally and in local publications.

The passing of those who've lived full and accomplished lives are sometimes easier to absorb than the deaths of young people who were still making their mark on the world. Jay Jankelewicz was one of those young people and among four CUNY students who died.

“The news of his passing has been a crushing blow to all who knew and loved him,” according to an announcement jointly issued by Brooklyn College, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Department of Philosophy.

Jankelewicz began working as a college assistant as an undergraduate at the college and worked his way up to managing the department of philosophy, where he was considered “the backbone of the department.” He was named Brooklyn College Employee of the Month in June 2019, but he may as well have been the best employee ever, according to co-workers who described him as friendly, dedicated to his job and possessed of a good sense of humor.

“He was in every sense of the word a true mensch,” the announcement said.

Two weeks after Jankelewicz died, his father, Howard, also succumbed to COVID-19.

CUNY's Death Toll

  • Moshe Augenstein, 72, undergraduate deputy chair for computer and information science, Brooklyn College
  • Mark Blum, 69, adjunct assistant professor, Brooklyn College
  • Joseph Bertorelli, professor, Queensborough Community College, 
  • Peter Brancazio, 81, professor, Brooklyn College
  • Joseph Brostek, 87, coordinator of commencement planning, Queens College
  • Rashmi Christian, 47, higher education associate, York College
  • Anita Crumpton, college assistant, Graduate Center
  • Luis Diaz, custodian, York College
  • William Tulio Divale, 78, professor emeritus, York College
  • David Ernst, 74, professor emeritus, York College
  • Dennis Fox, 63, assistant professor, Medgar Evers College
  • William Gerdts, 91, professor emeritus, Grad Center, Brooklyn College
  • William Helmreich, 74, distinguished professor, City College of New York
  • Ray Hoobler, 78, professor emeritus, City College of New York, Graduate Center
  • Donald Hoffman, 80, adjunct associate professor, John Jay College
  • Jay Jankelewicz, 31, nonteaching adjunct, Brooklyn College
  • Perry Kalick, 89, professor emeritus, Lehman College
  • Allen Y. Lew, 69, senior vice chancellor for facilities and planning, CUNY 
  • Juliet Manragh, 41, HE associate, Brooklyn College
  • David Nocera, 63, adjunct instructor, City College of New York
  • Yves Roseus, adjunct assistant professor, York College
  • Joel Shatzky, 76, adjunct assistant professor of English, Kingsborough Community College
  • Paul Shelden, 79, professor emeritus, Brooklyn College
  • Michael Sorkin, 71, distinguished professor, City College of New York
  • Ralph Steinberg, 73, assistant professor, York College
  • Lucien Szpiro, 78, retired distinguished professor, Grad Center
  • Joseph Tusiani, 96, professor emeritus, Lehman College
  • Carmen Valle, professor, New York City College of Technology
  • Tom Waters, 56, former doctoral student, Graduate Center
  • Jean Weisman, 72, retired HEO, City College Center for Worker Education

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Michael Yarbrough, an assistant professor of law and society at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and his students spent the semester documenting the deaths in real time to try to understand the effects of the pandemic.

“There’s a danger sometimes that these numbers of deaths become the object of a sort of morbid fascination from outside,” Yarbrough said. “I think they should instead be a call to action. They show us that CUNY is where we’re going to need to go to, to understand the impact of COVID. And CUNY is what’s going to help us get through the impact of COVID by educating exactly these communities that are so affected right now. And that means more money, more investment, not less.”

Yarbrough, who teaches in the political science department, taught a senior colloquium in which students ordinarily design and preform individual capstone research projects. He said the students decided to do a group project instead on the impact of the pandemic on CUNY and it students and their families. The students kept diaries of their own experiences and did in-depth interviews with family members and friends about how they experienced the pandemic. The goal was to “bring those impacts alive through the voices of students and their loved ones,” Yarbrough said.

"It’s been, I have to say, pretty powerful," he said. "One thing about our student body being what they are is that a lot of them have friends and family who are health-care workers, who are nurses in hospitals, in particular. So we’ve gotten a lot of very vivid and very harrowing interviews with first-person accounts from nurses' perspectives. I have to say that it's been incredibly difficult but beautiful to read some of these."

Yarbrough said he and several of his students contracted the virus and got very sick. The research project helped the class understand the connections between the virus and the economy.

"These things can’t be separated," he said. "The virus is the economy and economy is the virus. The health of the institution depends on the health of us individually."

He noted that while CUNY may be unique in the number of coronavirus-related deaths, it is not alone in the financial challenges it faces.

“A lot of us are concerned, and this is true nationwide, that this has become a kind of moment when the entire sector gets transformed in negative ways, when budget problems become a kind of excuse to kill a lot of these university systems or drastically reduce them,” Yarbrough said. “I found myself thinking that the numbers of deaths at CUNY and some our affiliates are almost potentially harbingers of the death of the system as a whole, of CUNY itself, if we don’t move now to defend it and its value.”


This article was updated to reflect the news that Allen Y. Lew, senior vice chancellor of CUNY,  died of complications related to COVID-19 on June 23. The update also clarified the number of adjunct faculty that could potentially be affected by state and city funding cuts to CUNY’s budget.  

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