Branded recently as “the greatest urban university in the world,” the City University of New York is among the most diverse academic institutions in existence: three quarters of CUNY students are ethnic minorities and over 180 languages are spoken by students (1). CUNY is also a peerless engine of social transformation: seven four-year CUNY campuses rank among the top 10 nationwide in promoting social mobility, and five were among the top 10 among two-year institutions for mobility rates (2).
City institutions like CUNY are still feeling the effect of the 1975 financial crisis.
And yet, CUNY is under enduring financial attack. Of course, institutions of higher education across the country have been ravaged fiscally in the years since the Great Recession of 2008 (3). Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent efforts to starve CUNY by attempting to slash its state funding are of a piece with this broader, bipartisan attack on public education (4). But CUNY’s economic tribulations have a much deeper history, one grounded in the elite’s long-standing fear of an educated working class of color.
SPIRIT OF ‘69
In April 1969 students held a sit-in at City College to denounce the university’s discrimination against people of color and the poor in its admissions. In response, the CUNY Board of Higher Education began open admissions for every graduate of a New York City high school and free tuition for many students. As the third largest public university system in the country, behind only the University of California and the State University of New York, CUNY was setting a progressive and potentially highly influential precedent.
Reaction against student movements, like the one that led to CUNY’s transformation, was swift and came from the highest levels. In June of 1969 President Richard Nixon gave a speech equating “drugs, crime, campus revolts, racial discord, [and] draft resistance,” and attacked campus movements such as the one at CUNY as central to a purported national crisis: “We have long considered our colleges and universities citadels of freedom, where the rule of reason prevails. Now both the process of freedom and the rule of reason are under attack. At the same time, our colleges are under pressure to collapse their educational standards.” (5)
THE VP ASSAULTS
Vice President Spiro Agnew echoed these charges, arguing in early 1970 that there was too high a percentage of black students in college, that student militancy was spreading violence and that open admissions in particular was one of the main ways “by which unqualified students are being swept into college on the wave of the new socialism.” (6)
Nixon education advisor Roger Freeman made the target of the conservative counterattack explicit in public statements delivered later that year: “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education.” (7)
It took some time to roll back the progress at CUNY, but when New York was gripped by a financial crisis five years later, Nixon’s appointed successor, Gerald Ford, vowed to withhold federal aid to the city until it eliminated open admissions and free tuition at CUNY. To be financially responsible, Ford pronounced, New York could no longer be a city that “operates one of the largest universities in the world, free of tuition for any high school graduate, rich or poor, who wants to attend.” (8)
Ford’s financial threats were effective and, in 1976, CUNY ended its 129-year policy of free tuition, obliterating the last stronghold of free public college education in the United States. It subsequently fired over 3,000 faculty members who had been hired to implement open admissions. By 1980 CUNY had 50 percent fewer African-American and Latino first-year students than it had in 1976.
The systematic disinvestment of CUNY responsible for tuition increases and faculty and staff wages falling behind the salaries of our peers at other institutions is not an accident, but an ongoing conscious attack on CUNY as an engine for the working class and communities of color. The racist impact of these cuts are not an unfortunate consequence, but are by deliberate, racist design.
THE ‘PC’ RUSE
Decades of attacks on US higher education (often launched under the guise of culture-war-style assaults on “political correctness,” but really acts against the inclusion of minorities and women in higher education), coupled with today’s right-wing bullying campaigns against prominent faculty of color, and the Trump tax effort to tax graduate student tuition rebates, continue a long effort to dismantle critical thinking and progressive transformation in academia. But CUNY students and faculty have not endured these attacks quietly, they have fought back, not just as individuals, but collectively through the PSC.
Today we see a new generation of openly progressive figures entering public life in New York and around the country, campaigners not afraid to support the right to a university education by making tuition genuinely free once again. As we lend our voices to this struggle, it is worth recalling that this is a right with a long lineage, one whose extension our predecessors at CUNY fought for, a right rescinded only after a brutal campaign waged first and foremost against our great urban university. CUNY, we must remember proudly, is dynamite!
1 “A Profile of Undergraduates at CUNY Senior and Community Colleges: Fall 2015.”
2 “Colleges with the Highest Student-Mobility Rates, 2014” The Chronicle of Higher Education (15 Oct 2017).
3 Nirja Chokshi, “The Economy is Bouncing Back. But Higher Education Funding Isn’t,” The Washington Post (13 May 2015).
4 “Cuomo to Continue Shrinking State’s Share of CUNY’s Costs” The New York Times (15 Jan 2016).
5 Richard M. Nixon, speech delivered at General Beadle State College, South Dakota, June 3, 1969, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), p. 429.
6 Spiro Agnew, “Threat to Educational Standards,” speech at Republican fundraising dinner, Des Moines, Iowa, April 14, 1970, in Immanuel Wallerstein and Paul Starr, eds., The University Crisis Reader: The Liberal University Under Attack (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), p. 320.
7 “Professor Sees Peril in Education,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 1970.
8 Speech by Gerald Ford to the National Press Club, October 29, 1975, as reported in The New York Times, October 30, 1975.
Ashley Dawson is a professor of English at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center. He is the author, most recently of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso).