The CUNY Experiment | Kim Phillips-Fein

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Like a lot about New York Metropolis politics, the fates of the varied Gaza solidarity encampments that sprang up all through the town in latest weeks had been partly a query of actual property. On the New College, which has no out of doors campus, protesters wanted to arrange the encampment indoors on the college’s principal constructing on Fifth Avenue—good for wet days however not as welcoming to a crowd. At New York College the administration acted inside twenty-four hours to arrest college students and school who sought to kind a fledgling encampment on Gould Plaza exterior the enterprise college; it was extra tolerant of a camp in a small alley that abuts college housing (although police finally eliminated it as properly). The primary encampment was at Columbia College, the place the famed library, imposing buildings, and grassy lawns quickly drew journalists and politicians. The administration was determined to clear the area partly as a result of it wished the garden again for graduation.

However Columbia’s is just not the one campus in higher Manhattan. On April 25, eight days after college students arrange tents on the South Garden in Morningside Heights, these at Metropolis School, to the north, established an encampment of their very own. Quickly tons of of antiwar and pro-Palestinian college students, college, and workers from throughout the Metropolis College of New York (CUNY) system gathered there, together with folks from the neighborhood. The encampment—which included meals tables, a big free library, and artmaking stations—lasted till April 30, the identical evening Columbia known as the NYPD to arrest protesters who had taken over Hamilton Corridor. A whole bunch of officers in riot gear arrested greater than 170 folks utilizing what many observers described as vital bodily pressure. A few of the protesters who had tried to occupy an administration constructing have been charged with housebreaking, a felony, not like at Columbia, the place it seems that nobody arrested faces costs extra extreme than misdemeanors.

Many of the encampment’s 5 calls for—together with for CUNY to divest from corporations with ties to Israel and boycott Israeli universities—centered on institutional complicity within the ongoing struggle in Gaza, a lot as college students had at Columbia and at campuses across the nation (though Metropolis School’s close to $300 million endowment, established in 2019 by personal donors, together with alumni, is tiny in comparison with Columbia’s $13.6 billion). However the fifth was for “a people’s CUNY”—a requirement that made an implicit connection between the scholars’ intense anger about the US’ help for the struggle and their alienation from democratic politics at dwelling. “There is plenty of wealth in New York,” the organizers wrote, “that could be taxed and redirected to make CUNY fully open and free for all.”

All schools and universities, to various levels, are concurrently locations of particular person enchancment and collective ambition, of meritocratic striving and political riot. However that stress is particularly pronounced on the metropolis college, which from its inception has been meant to coach the entire metropolis within the democratic curiosity. The most important public metropolis college system within the nation, CUNY enrolls about 225,000 undergraduate and graduate college students in seven group schools, eleven senior schools, and 7 graduate {and professional} colleges sprawling throughout all 5 boroughs. Greater than three quarters of all CUNY college students are folks of shade; 60 % of undergraduates are first-generation school college students. Research after examine has demonstrated that CUNY is what a 2020 Brookings Establishment report calls an “opportunity engine.” It has propelled virtually six occasions as many low-income college students into the center class as all Ivy League colleges mixed; when Brookings ranked the nation’s most profitable four-year and two-year schools for social mobility, six of the highest ten had been CUNY campuses.

And but CUNY is not only a chance engine or a path to middle-class stability. It has additionally lengthy been a web site of protest and civil disobedience, and the scholars who organized the Gaza solidarity encampment had been drawing on that deep historical past. Simply as Columbia’s protesters regarded again to 1968, these at Metropolis School regarded to 1969, when pupil activists took over the campus to name for larger racial fairness in admissions and curriculum. (That motion, too, had issued 5 calls for, together with “that the racial composition of the entering freshman class” mirror the proportions of Black and Puerto Rican college students within the metropolis’s excessive colleges.) By demanding “a people’s CUNY,” they had been invoking a imaginative and prescient the town college has lengthy nurtured of a better schooling system accessible to all.

Underneath Mayor Eric Adams, the town college’s traditions of meritocratic uplift and radical dissent have each come beneath menace. In late January Adams delivered his annual State of the Metropolis speech at Hostos Neighborhood School, a CUNY campus on the intersection of Grand Concourse and 149th Avenue within the South Bronx. Hostos, based in 1968, is by any metric a exceptional establishment. It’s attended by 5,400 college students—59 % Latinx, 28 % Black, and lots of the primary of their households to attend school.

Inside the primary constructing is a youngsters’s heart for the households of Hostos college students, college, and workers. Down the block is a public park named for the activist Evelina López Antonetty, a Puerto Rican political chief who in 1965 based United Bronx Mother and father, which organized the dad and mom of schoolchildren round such points as bilingual schooling and the standard of faculty cafeteria meals. Throughout the road is an enormous put up workplace that was a gradual supply of jobs and upward mobility for Black New Yorkers. Works Progress Administration murals by Ben Shahn can nonetheless be glimpsed inside.

Initially of his speech Adams cited Hostos as proof that New York Metropolis is “a place to find your way forward with a world-class education.” However as a part of his common program of belt-tightening, the mayor has pushed by means of $95 million in cuts for CUNY since January 2022. Now the system is confronting a brand new drawback: greater than $100 million in federal funds it acquired through the pandemic are about to expire.

In mid-January, proper earlier than the State of the Metropolis speech and as college students and school had been on the brink of begin the spring semester, the CUNY administration knowledgeable 9 schools (together with the John Jay School of Prison Justice, Adams’s alma mater) that they had been “colleges of concern” and would want to search out methods to deal with looming funding shortfalls by pushing by means of further midyear cuts. (The senior schools are primarily funded by the state, however the cuts mandated by Adams’s Program to Remove the Hole have an effect on all the system.) At York School in Queens, greater than 270 course sections, about 18 % of all courses provided, disappeared from the schedule. At Queens School, twenty-six full-time college had been laid off. In response to the comptroller’s workplace, the variety of full-time college at group schools fell from 2,353 in 2017 to 2,153 in 2023.

The mayor’s Government Funds proposal, launched in late April, restored spending to different areas of the town price range: NYPD funding, for instance, and a few cash for the town’s early childhood schooling program. But it surely does nothing to make up both the sooner declines in metropolis funding for CUNY or the approaching federal losses. Town college’s present fiscal difficulties mirror bigger uncertainties about New York’s future—particularly relating to what place the Adams administration sees for public investments that embody financial vitality and provides life to a bigger democratic ethos.  

CUNY was based in 1847 because the Free Academy of the Metropolis of New York, a tuition-free school meant to supply larger schooling for New Yorkers no matter their means to pay. At its opening the school’s first chief, Dr. Horace Webster, mentioned: “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”



Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

An educational procession on the dedication ceremony for the Metropolis School of New York’s new campus, 1908

Regardless of this idealism, for its first sixty years the Free Academy (which modified its identify to the School of the Metropolis of New York in 1866) derived its curriculum from West Level, the place its first two presidents had been educated. Because the historian Conor Tomás Reed argues in his latest guide, New York Liberation College: Research and Motion for the Individuals’s College, what remodeled the school was the migration of Jap European Jews to New York Metropolis within the early years of the 20 th century.1 Columbia—based in 1754 as an Anglican establishment and retaining its ties to the town’s WASP elite into the 20 th century—restricted the variety of Jewish college students, designing its admissions insurance policies to exclude them (and, some historians recommend, encouraging candidates to go to Metropolis School as an alternative).2 NYU was costly; academically gifted poor and working-class Jewish college students went to Metropolis School without charge.

In 1907 the school moved uptown to its current campus on 138th Avenue. Within the following many years the varsity grew to become colloquially often known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” Through the Thirties it nurtured radical politics, sending at the least sixty college students to struggle within the Spanish Civil Struggle. For a few years it solely admitted males; its sister establishment, Hunter School, created within the late nineteenth century, admitted girls, principally for coaching as academics in public colleges. In 1930 Hunter’s Brooklyn campus was renamed Brooklyn School and opened as a free coeducational establishment. Its campus in Midwood was constructed beginning in 1935 with Public Works Administration funds; FDR spoke on the opening.

As American larger schooling expanded within the postwar years, so did CUNY, including group schools and four-year campuses. Town’s public colleges had a excessive proportion of Black and Latinx (on the time principally Puerto Rican) college students, however the populations of CUNY’s most prestigious four-year campuses had been overwhelmingly white—particularly Metropolis School, regardless of its location within the heart of Harlem. In April 1969 a gaggle of Black college students there took over the campus, requesting extra equal admissions insurance policies and an enlargement of Black and Puerto Rican historical past and literature programs. Town and state responded by introducing an “open admissions” plan that assured any highschool graduate within the metropolis a spot someplace within the CUNY system. It additionally ended tuition at group schools, the place college students had wanted to pay a small quantity. In impact the brand new insurance policies established that New Yorkers had a proper to a school schooling. Black and Puerto Rican enrollment instantly doubled, leaping to 24 % the primary 12 months the brand new coverage took maintain; white working-class New Yorkers benefited as properly. Between 1969 and 1975 the system’s enrollment grew by 55 %.

However the inflow of scholars was not accompanied by further funding, and the brand new guidelines had been contentious. For some college, open admissions uncovered the strain inherent within the ideally suited of free school schooling. Was the purpose to create a extra rigorous meritocracy, to make it doable for essentially the most sensible college students to entry larger schooling even when they had been poor—the “Harvard of the Proletariat” mannequin? Or was the actual function of free school to make larger schooling and its advantages obtainable to as many individuals as doable?

Among the many adherents of the latter imaginative and prescient was the poet Adrienne Wealthy, who taught within the Primary Writing program at Metropolis School within the late Nineteen Sixties and early Seventies. Reed quotes a press release Wealthy made at an emergency Metropolis School college assembly the day after the 1969 campus takeover started:

We’re not admitting merely a set of social and emotional issues, remedial issues. We’re admitting a wealth of intelligence, tough-mindedness, and motivation…. There’s a entire useful resource of brains, expertise, and braveness which now we have hitherto excluded from the American instructional system; if we will start to confess and take up these presents, the academic course of for each whites and non-whites, academics and college students, will turn out to be, in my view, vastly extra significant.3

June Jordan, one other poet who taught at Metropolis School on the time, agreed: “We thought that if we could make democracy come to City College,” she remembered in 1994, “probably we could have an impact on the concept and perhaps even the practice of public education throughout the country.” 

Hostos was an ideal instance of this new imaginative and prescient of upper schooling. The school, based in 1968 and opened in 1970, enrolled a remarkably numerous pupil physique, and its college included many left-leaning students for whom working there was half of a bigger political venture. The historian Gerald Meyer, for instance, who wrote an influential examine of Vito Marcantonio, the left-wing Congressman who had represented East Harlem within the late Thirties and Forties, was drawn to Hostos as a result of it provided an opportunity to show working-class college students. Hostos’s location within the South Bronx—it opened in a former tire manufacturing facility—symbolized public funding within the neighborhood at a second when it was swept by industrial disinvestment and fires, some ensuing from arson-for revenue schemes whereby landlords paid folks to torch buildings so they may acquire insurance coverage.

In its early years Hostos was a bilingual group school, one of many few of its type. This generated intense loyalty from the neighborhood. When the school was threatened with a shutdown through the metropolis’s extreme fiscal disaster in 1975, the group launched a public marketing campaign to maintain it open, writing letters to public officers, organizing demonstrations, and even at one level taking on the campus. Protesting girls college students arrange a daycare heart within the president’s workplace, close to the place the Youngsters’s Heart is at the moment.

Hostos remained open, however the fiscal disaster introduced profound adjustments to CUNY. When the system began charging tuition in 1976, ending the period of free larger schooling, the state took over a lot of the funding of the four-year colleges, whereas the town continued to pay the payments for the two-year group schools. On this interval CUNY remodeled from a democratic experiment right into a poor relation of the town’s personal establishments.

Its monetary straits could make educating at CUNY at the moment a demoralizing expertise, as public testimony, union studies, and my very own interviews with college reveal. Xerox machines are at all times breaking. Pc terminals within the library don’t work. Understaffing implies that college students should take care of lengthy waits and overstressed advisers. At one school within the Bronx, damaged lightbulbs within the library require college students to seek for books by flashlight.

Jennifer Gaboury, who teaches at Hunter, informed me that certainly one of her courses was interrupted when a ceiling tile “with a suspicious odor” fell in the midst of the room. (I’ve taught at personal universities in New York for the previous twenty years, and my college students have by no means needed to dodge ceiling tiles.) Testifying in April to the CUNY Board of Trustees, Carolina Muñoz, a sociology professor at Brooklyn School, described buildings riddled with mould and associated {that a} colleague had discovered “black goop” dripping from the ceiling on lab tools. When she reported the difficulty, amenities informed her to “bring an umbrella.” Muñoz is leaving CUNY after twenty years for the College of Massachusetts-Amherst.

In recent times the system’s monetary difficulties have solely grown extra extreme. Over half of CUNY’s whole price range of $4.27 billion comes from New York State, however this funding has grown unpredictable. Underneath Governor Andrew Cuomo, state help was erratic—flat one 12 months, lowering or barely rising the following. The senior schools discovered themselves more and more strapped. Then, through the Covid-19 pandemic, pupil enrollment fell, particularly on the group schools. It stays greater than 14 % under that of 2019, and has simply began rising once more.

A take a look at the town price range leaves no query that CUNY is a significant year-to-year expense: in Adams’ Government Funds proposal for the 2025 monetary 12 months, its prices to the town quantity to just about $1.3 billion. (The NYPD’s, in the meantime, quantity to $5.8 billion.) It prices cash to supply courses, pay professors, rent advisers, and keep campuses. However in the long term the college is a wonderful funding for the town. Roughly 80 % of CUNY graduates stay in New York Metropolis ten years after commencement, working in well being care, schooling, social work, expertise, finance, and lots of different fields.

These with an affiliate diploma from CUNY earn, on common, greater than 67 % greater than these with solely a highschool diploma; graduates with a baccalaureate earn greater than double. Cumulatively they contribute billions of {dollars} in tax income to the town and the state every year. A well-resourced metropolis college, like different metropolis companies, offers folks a motive to remain in New York. However not like investing in libraries, parks, and cultural establishments, as helpful as these are, investing in CUNY actually helps create a middle-class metropolis. Earlier than attending John Jay, Adams himself began his instructional profession on the New York Metropolis School of Know-how, a CUNY campus in Downtown Brooklyn.

CUNY has additionally been an important web site of analysis and mental work concerning the metropolis itself. Ari Paul, who edits the publication of the Skilled Employees Congress (the union for CUNY college), informed me in an electronic mail that a number of the essential analysis that has formed metropolis coverage in recent times—such because the work that documented racially discriminatory patterns in “stop and frisk” policing or scholarship on how the town would possibly adapt to take care of local weather change—has been produced by college at CUNY.

The latest cuts have helped encourage a wave of labor and political organizing. Since 1972 the Skilled Employees Congress (PSC) has sought to attach the working circumstances of school and workers to the general public good of the town as an entire. As Sharell Walker, a librarian at Borough of Manhattan Neighborhood School, informed me, “CUNY is not Columbia, not Princeton, not Harvard. We do not have the type of funds that they do. We rely on the city to help us help our entire community.”

The Gaza solidarity encampment had no organizational reference to the PSC, which disavowed an unauthorized one-day “sickout” known as by some college and workers the day after the arrests, nevertheless it gained a few of its energy from anti-austerity organizing on the college. Of their fifth demand the organizers known as on the town to revive CUNY’s tuition-free standing and on the college’s administration to simply accept “all the demands for a fair contract made by the Professional Staff Congress.” On this respect, too, they had been drawing on the establishment’s historical past. The final time college students launched a high-profile occupation of an educational constructing at Metropolis School was in 1991, in a protest towards price range cuts.


Phillips Fein202405 4

Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Photos

CUNY college and workers organized beneath the Skilled Employees Congress marching exterior the college’s headquarters for a brand new contract, February 27, 2023

Some legislators on the state degree, in the meantime, are beginning to transfer to guard the town college. In 2021 the Democratic state senator Andrew Gounardes launched laws calling for a “New Deal for CUNY,” which would offer free tuition and broaden the hiring of school and educational and psychological well being counselors. Gounardes, whose Brooklyn district consists of Sundown Park and Bay Ridge, is a proud graduate of Hunter School, the place he studied political science and historical past. He credit his schooling, he informed me in an April telephone dialog, with setting “me up for everything I’ve been able to do in my life since then.” For him the town college issues as a result of it serves each type of pupil, from Rhodes students to the latest New Yorkers. “The university is struggling because we never fully fund it,” he says. Think about all the scholars who don’t go to school however who would possibly; all of the concepts and analysis and scholarship that doesn’t exist however might. With the right assets, Gounardes goals that the town college would possibly turn out to be the “premier public urban university” within the nation.

This previous December State Senator John Liu and Consultant Zohran Mamdani launched laws that provided one other approach to resolve the issue: repealing the two-hundred-year-old property tax exemption loved by New York College and Columbia College, two of the biggest property-holders in Manhattan. (Columbia, with 320 properties value near $4 billion, is the biggest.) The New York Instances has calculated that Columbia saves about $182 million yearly by means of these exemptions; NYU, which just lately spent greater than a billion {dollars} constructing a glass-wrapped tower on which it’ll pay no property taxes, saves $145 million. Merely accumulating this tax cash and giving it to CUNY would greater than wipe out the general public system’s price range shortfalls. This is able to additionally carry New York consistent with many different cities, the place personal universities—together with all seven different Ivy League establishments—make extra vital fiscal contributions to the widespread good.

Columbia and NYU are each deeply entangled with the town in numerous methods, and each—like all personal universities—profit from a variety of public funds, from analysis grants to tuition help packages. However not like CUNY they more and more don’t serve New Yorkers. This previous September the Instances reported that in 2010 1 / 4 of Columbia’s pupil physique got here from New York Metropolis; by 2022 solely 15 % did. Highschool steerage counselors on the metropolis’s public colleges complained on the report to the paper that few of their college students are in a position to acquire entry. Seventeen % of NYU’s pupil physique hails from New York Metropolis. Whether or not graduates keep right here is anyone’s guess. At a second of fiscal strain, it’s laborious to not see a press release of priorities within the determination to maintain giving these colleges tax breaks whereas reducing CUNY’s price range—a way that the town’s well being depends upon bolstering the status of personal establishments, with their networks of donors and their means to enchantment to a wealthier pupil base.

It usually appears as of late as if the town imagines itself as a magnet for the wealthy. Its leaders repeat that to fund social packages for the poor they must craft coverage across the preferences of the rich, who pay the lion’s share of private earnings taxes. Theirs is an unequal New York: one metropolis of well-off folks dwelling in spacious flats, attending personal colleges or public ones with lavish PTA budgets, jogging in well-maintained parks; and one other of working-class folks, principally Black and Latinx, who labor in service occupations, dwell within the outer boroughs, go to badly funded colleges, and scrape by. The poor are both servants or a menacing underclass who would possibly frighten the rich away.

Who’s the town for? In a memo from 1972, Wealthy wrote concerning the pleasures and challenges of educating Primary English at Metropolis School:

After we converse the phrase “childhood” in a C.C.N.Y. classroom in 1972 we might unconsciously be evoking a interval that happened in Puerto Rico, North Carolina, Israel, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Queens, Haiti, Germany, or one hundred and twenty fifth Avenue. The richness of this selection is staggering, the issues it presents complicated.

There have been many frustrations then: “Conditions at a huge, urban, overcrowded, noisy, and pollution-soaked institution can become almost physically overwhelming at times, for the students and for the staff,” Wealthy wrote in an essay the identical 12 months. And but the promise, too, was overwhelming. She ended by saying that what “held” her in Primary Writing had been the “hidden veins of possibility” in college students who won’t know that this ability could possibly be a part of who they had been, that it would allow them to “bear witness” to their lives. Elsewhere within the essay she wrote of her religion that life within the metropolis could be “a life more edged,” one “more charged with knowledge, than life elsewhere.” That promise would possibly nonetheless be true of a metropolis college, a college of and for New York.

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