Resisting the Gutting of CUNY

Against the Current, No. 142, September/October 2009

Carolina Bank-Muñoz, Scott Dexter and Tara Mulqueen

NEW YORK STATE is experiencing its worst fiscal crisis since the 1970s, with profound impacts on the City University of New York (CUNY), the nation’s largest urban public university system. CUNY has been under public scrutiny since its founding in 1847 as The Free Academy,(1) an institution dedicated to the experiment of providing education to “the children of the whole people” at a school “controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”

CUNY receives both city and state funding. The majority of state funding goes to the 11 senior campuses, while the majority of city funding goes to the six community colleges. Until 1976, CUNY was almost entirely publicly supported: students were able to attend CUNY without paying tuition.

Once the tuition system was implemented, state funding rapidly declined: While in 1989 student tuition only accounted for 12.5% of CUNY’s operating budget, today it accounts for over 40%.(2) Despite the well-documented connections between economic vitality and public investment in higher education, CUNY’s public support has continually declined.

As Barbara Bowen, president of the faculty union, put it, “Brooklyn College, Queens College and Lehman College were all founded during the Depression. These times demand a similar, visionary investment. Public higher education is the key to reinvigorating the economy.”(3)

In the summer of 2008, Governor David Patterson announced that the state was facing a projected $6.4 billion budget deficit and called for a $65 million cut to CUNY’s senior colleges, along with a roughly 15% reduction in state aid to CUNY’s community colleges. Directly targeting many of CUNY’s poorest students, Patterson proposed cutting $47 million from funding for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), a program of financial aid that covers tens of thousands of CUNY students.

Despite the fightback (discussed below) mounted by the student movement and the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union that represents faculty and staff at CUNY, the impact of the budget cuts will particularly hit poor and working-class students. Even before experiencing their actual implementation, we have seen what the future holds.

At Brooklyn College, classes are being cancelled, adjuncts are being laid off, faculty are being encouraged to absorb additional students in their courses, and many students are unable to graduate on time. When the tuition increase takes effect, many students will not be able to afford an education.

The Student Response

One product of the budget cuts, tuition hikes and layoffs has been the kindling of a new student movement at CUNY. Students in organizations such as the campus chapter of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) were actively speaking out and fighting the budget cuts, giving testimonies to the CUNY Board of Trustees, lobbying state legislators, and participating in city-wide rallies. But most of the greater student body had no idea what was happening to their university.

In Fall 2008, the CUNY Social Forum brought together students, faculty and community members under the banner “another CUNY is possible.” Out of the Social Forum came the idea for a CUNY-wide Student Union as a way of bringing together students from throughout the CUNY system, to fight back against budget cuts and tuition hikes and also to build an alternative system.

Student Unions are currently thriving at three of the main CUNY campuses — Hunter College, the City College of New York (CCNY) and Brooklyn College. The unions have been able to bring together diverse groups of students in the name of fighting for their education and for the overall transformation of CUNY. The unions started with potlucks and small meetings, conversations in the bursar’s line and talks around cafeteria tables, and have grown as networks among students.

When the tuition hike became imminent in March and April 2009, students, led by the student unions, walked out of classes on three different CUNY campuses. A walkout at Brooklyn College drew over 500 students on a chilly Monday afternoon. At CCNY, more than 250 students walked; at Hunter College at least 200 students left class to join a rally in Manhattan. Signs read “Keep CUNY Public,” and “Whose CUNY? Our CUNY!” Actions of this magnitude have not been seen at CUNY in more than 10 years.

The Faculty Union Response

The Professional Staff Congress (CUNY’s faculty and staff union) immediately understood the disastrous implications of these cuts on this working-class institution. In the fall of 2008, PSC began central planning for its budget campaign, including lobbying state and city legislators, holding budget hearings across CUNY, and working in coalition with student and other activists against the tuition hikes.

The campaign was explicitly organized around a vision both of the public good (and higher education’s contribution) and of economic justice, and with the hope of advancing organizing, or “base-building,” goals. The main vehicle for these was a series of campus-based budget hearings over the Spring semester. Between February 26 and May 7, the PSC spearheaded meetings on nine CUNY campuses, drawing a total of 1,300 CUNY students and staff and nearly two dozen city and state legislators or aides.(4)

At these meetings, CUNY faculty, staff and — most of all — students testified both to their local representatives and to each other about the significance of CUNY to themselves and their families and communities. Further, these meetings were centrally co-sponsored by District Council 37 of AFSCME (representing over 10,000 white- and blue-collar workers at CUNY), NYPIRG, and the University Student Senate (the official governance organization for CUNY students since 1972).

This was the most common story we heard from students at our budget hearing: “On my budget, I just simply won’t be able to come anymore.”

In parallel with activities in other venues — a rally at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on November 24, aggressive lobbying both in Albany and City Hall as well as home offices, protests organized by the umbrella One New York Coalition(5) in Albany and New York City, a December emergency mobilization at Governor Paterson’s New York City office hours after the executive budget proposal was released — the campaign yielded modest yet significant victories.

Making Gains, Looking Forward

At the state level, a few progressive taxation measures were introduced, which, with the addition of federal stimulus funds, prevented some of the worst cuts from being implemented —  including averting dramatic cuts to TAP. But state support to CUNY was reduced by 3.9% ($44.6 million),(6) compensated by a 15% increase in tuition ($300/semester for senior college students and $175/semester for community college students).

This is indeed a tax on working-class students, as some 80% of the monies derived from the tuition increases will go directly to bailing out the state’s failing economy, instead of CUNY. In short, students are bailing out Albany at the expense of their own education.

Although these protests haven’t halted the current tuition hike or the continued privatization of CUNY, they have signaled the start of a new student movement at CUNY. CUNY students are remembering and relearning the radical history of the university, and in turn reclaiming their identity and voice. It appears that the culture of the student body is in flux and a community of resistance and change is in the making.


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ATC 142, September-October 2009

1 comment

  1. Hi, I am a student at CUNY Hunter College in New York City and I started a petition to protest tuition increase. I am writing to ask for your help to spread the word about the petition. I am trying to get 10,000 signatures by November 28th. At this point we have 137 signatures. This is the link for my petition:
    I would really appreciate your help with this petition. I am including a flyer I made to promote the petition.
    Thank you,

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