Resisting the cuts at CUNY

January 30, 2009

Doug Singsen looks at the looming fight over tuition hikes and budget cuts at the City University of New York--and a long history of past struggles.

STUDENTS, FACULTY and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY) are being hit hard by tuition hikes and budget cuts--but the citywide public university system has a long history of resistance that shows the possibility of a different future.

In December, the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to raise tuition by $600 per year, and Gov. David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are proposing nearly $60 million in funding cuts between them, with more threats sure to come.

With over 220,000 students, CUNY is the largest urban university in the country, serving primarily students of color, workers and the poor. The cuts and tuition increases will further burden these students financially--especially coming in the midst of a worsening recession--and undoubtedly force many to drop out.

Many CUNY students can already barely afford tuition already: 53.5 percent have a household income under $30,000, which is barely above the poverty-level annual income of $26,138 for a family of four in New York City. CUNY community colleges, the cheapest option available to students, now cost $3,200 a year, 33 percent above the national average.

CUNY students protest tuition hikes in 1991
CUNY students protest tuition hikes in 1991

The current financial crunch at CUNY is part of a long history of under-funding. State funding fell by 25.5 percent between 1991 and 2005, while enrollment increased by 47,500 during the same period. The drop in funding has been made up for with increases in tuition--which went from 0 percent of CUNY's budget up to 1975 (when there was no tuition) to 12.4 percent in 1989 to 41.5 percent in 2006.

This situation mirrors the country's unequal education system as whole--which provides abundant resources for the wealthy, while starving schools that serve the working class, the poor and students of color. CUNY spends just $9,000 per student annually, while New York University, a private university, spends approximately $55,000 per student, and Harvard, Yale and Princeton spend an average of $146,000.

CUNY's critics sometimes justify cutting the budget by claiming that the system's graduation rate is below average. Aside from the fact that a lower graduation rate should justify investing more resources rather than the reverse, this argument ignores the fact that many CUNY students take longer to graduate because they are helping to support their families, or have to take care of family members. If the time period for graduation is extended to eight years, CUNY's graduation rate is actually above the national average.

Gov. Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg claim they don't have any option other than cutting CUNY's budget and raising tuition. But the state and city budget deficits could be closed right now by reversing all the tax cuts enacted since 1994. These tax breaks have overwhelmingly favored the wealthy at the expense of the working class and middle class.

Since 1972, the tax rate for the lowest income bracket in New York state has gone up from 2 percent to 4 percent, while the rate for the highest bracket dropped from 15 percent to 6.85 percent. When all taxes are counted, including highly regressive sales taxes, those earning above $1.6 million a year pay only 6.5 percent of their income in taxes while those with incomes under $15,000 pay 12.6 percent.

ALTHOUGH ACCESS to higher education is currently under attack at CUNY, students have a long history of resistance to guide and inspire them.

CUNY was founded in 1870 for "the education of the whole people," and until 1975, it was free for all students. However, as a result of segregation, the CUNY student body was almost exclusively white. That changed in 1969, when a group of Black and Puerto Rican students at City College, with the support of radical white students, occupied two university buildings to demand equal access to higher education.

The occupations at City College quickly spread to other CUNY campuses, while events at City College climaxed in clashes between the strike's supporters and violent gangs of racist white students. The following day, the Board of Higher Education agreed to meet all the strikers' demands.

The Board instituted the open admissions policy, which promised admission to any New York City high school graduate who had a B average or above, or was in the top half of their graduating class. It also created Black and Latino Studies departments on many CUNY campuses, another of the strikers' demands.

For the next 30 years, open admissions allowed hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino students to receive an education that would otherwise have been denied to them.

But it wasn't long before this historic advance in educational access was undermined. In 1975, Mayor Abraham Beame responded to a fiscal crisis by proposing to cut CUNY's budget from $650 million to $508 million, and impose tuition for the first time in the system's history.

Students took immediate action to resist these cuts by occupying buildings at three colleges, and staging protests at Hunter College and Gracie Mansion. A few months later, CUNY's chancellor proposed further cuts: eliminating three colleges and transforming two more schools into community colleges. In response, CUNY students joined their peers at the State University of New York, which was also facing budget cuts, for a 20,000-person protest at the State House in Albany.

In an attempt to save their school, students and faculty at Hostos College occupied their campus for 18 days, as students on other campuses demonstrated and staged an academic boycott. The students' actions were once again successful--the state legislature passed a law guaranteeing the continued survival of all the schools threatened with elimination.

However, the students didn't succeed in preventing the state from imposing tuition, which was set at $775 per year for community colleges and $925 for senior colleges (approximately $3,000 and $3,500 in today's dollars).

TUITION HAD a devastating impact on CUNY students. In one year, enrollment dropped from 250,000 to 180,000. The tuition hike hit Black and Latino students especially hard. In 1976, a majority of freshmen were students of color for the first time ever; the next year, white students were once again a majority.

Tuition was raised only once over the next 13 years, due partly to public memory of the strikes. However, in 1989, 1991 and again in 1995, the state attempted to raise tuition and cut CUNY's budget and the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which had been created with the promise that it would give every student the opportunity to attend CUNY.

In each case, CUNY students fought back with protests and building occupations, and in each case, they succeeded in either stopping or reducing the proposed budget cuts and tuition hikes.

In 1999, the Board of Trustees effectively ended open admissions at CUNY by eliminating remedial classes at all four-year colleges--despite the fact that 80 percent of public colleges in the U.S offer remedial classes. Because students didn't mobilize against this attack as in previous years, the board was able to enact its plan without significant resistance.

The end of remediation meant the further burdening of CUNY's already overcrowded community colleges, which weren't prepared to handle the influx of more students, and resulted in the rejection of 60 percent of incoming freshmen who would previously have been admitted to a four-year college.

CUNY students' fight against the current budget cuts and tuition hike has already begun. In November and December, students participated alongside CUNY faculty union in protests at the State House, a Board of Trustees meeting and the governor's New York City office.

The recent student occupation of the New School should provide an example to CUNY students of the kind of tactics that have been proven to work--and remind them of the history of struggles at CUNY for their and future generations' education rights.

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