Clarion Masthead

A literary event in defense of CUNY

A reading as large as New York

Poets, playwrights, and writers of fiction will share their work at an event titled “CUNY Writers Against Austerity,” on Sunday, March 20, in support of the battle for CUNY funding and a fair contract for members of the PSC. The writers, all of whom teach at the university, will take the stage of The Great Hall of The Cooper Union, a historic space for art, politics and activism.

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The reading will take place a little more than a week before state lawmakers are expected to finalize the budget, in which Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a $485 million cut to state funding for CUNY’s senior colleges. Funding for the PSC contract is also at stake in the state budget. The PSC and allies are calling for a final budget that includes funding for retroactive raises for CUNY employees and support for salary increases in future years.

ALL-STAR LINEUP

“CUNY has an astonishing roster of important writers — we are at a great moment for the teaching of writing at CUNY,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen, professor of English at Queens College. “It is significant that CUNY’s writers want to come together and use their voices against austerity for CUNY and the students we teach. The March 20 reading will be a historic gathering, a marathon reading, an event in the great tradition of empowering the imagination as part of creating political change.”

Some 50 writers will read short excerpts from their work. The program includes such celebrated writers as Peter Carey, the two-time-winning Booker Prize novelist; Meena Alexander, acclaimed international poet; Billy Collins, former United States poet laureate; and Grace Schulman, recipient of the 2016 Frost Medal.

Poet Kimiko Hahn, a distinguished professor at Queens College, has taken the lead in organizing the event, where, she says, faculty, staff, and the greater New York City community — CUNY students, their families, their neighbors — will have the opportunity to come together to raise a “collective voice” in support of CUNY and the dedication of union members who make CUNY work.

A ‘COLLECTIVE VOICE’

“We teach the children of small shop owners, police officers, office and factory workers, wait-staff, first generation immigrants, first-generation college [students], and [others],” Hahn, who plans to read a love poem on The Great Hall stage, told Clarion. “CUNY professors are the guides of hope for many middle- and working-class families.”

The PSC literary event speaks to a particular moment in a specific place — higher education funding at CUNY — but it also raises concerns about broader trends that have national significance: divestment in public higher education and the sidelining of institutions that give opportunity to those born into low-income and working-class families, and communities of color.

AT THE GREAT HALL

The venue for “CUNY Writers Against Austerity” carries its own significance; the walls of The Great Hall, a historic venue of national importance, reverberate with the voices of some of the nation’s foremost advocates for social justice. The lectern still in use there today was used by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe; Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain delivered addresses from its stage. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convened its first public meeting at the site, and, in the early 20th century, Lower East Side workers organized there in some of the US labor movement’s most critical struggles.

Following in this tradition, CUNY writers intend to send the message that the university and its students deserve justice in the form of an appropriate level of funding for a great university, and that CUNY’s faculty and staff must have a contract, in Bowen’s words, that is “worthy of our work.”

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