Broad-based coalition fights for higher ed
In an unprecedented effort by labor and community groups to pressure New York State to support CUNY, more than 1,200 people from the coalition CUNY Rising lined an entire block of Third Avenue, between 41st and 42nd Streets, in view of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office. Nurses, clerical and custodial workers, CUNY students, PSC members and New York City high school students with dreams of going to college were crammed into protest pens constructed by police for the March 10 rally, which was organized by an alliance of two dozen groups, including the Professional Staff Congress, New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPRIG), AFSCME’s District Council 37, CUNY’s University Student Senate (USS), faith-based groups and other organizations. Their chants echoed amid the skyscrapers: “City University under attack. What do we do? Rise up! Fight back.”
Following the spirited protest rally, participants marched to the Murray Hill neighborhood, where they gathered at the Community Church of New York on 35th Street.
As the protesters assembled on the busy Manhattan street, lawmakers in Albany were debating the level of state funding CUNY colleges would receive in the coming fiscal year, and whether to approve a hike in tuition requested by CUNY management. In his executive budget proposal released last January, Cuomo introduced a staggering $485 million cut to the state’s allocation for CUNY’s senior colleges, a blow that Kenneth LaValle, chair of the State Senate Higher Education Committee, said would constitute a “life-changer for [the] institution,” according to Politico New York. Also at stake was funding to settle the university’s outstanding labor contracts with the PSC, DC 37 and other unions, which have been without contracts for more than five years. (The budget deal hammered out with leaders in the state legislature on March 31 did not include dedicated monies for settling the contracts, but also did not institute the nearly half-billion-dollar cut proposed by the governor. The final budget did not grant CUNY the authority to raise tuition as university leaders had requested.)
“This is a coming together of all of New York because CUNY belongs to the people,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told the CUNY Rising crowd. “Our fight is just beginning tonight,” she said.
Motorists in the evening rush signaled their support, honking in solidarity. One driver of a yellow medallion cab raised his fist through his open window, while his passenger held up two fingers in a “V.”
Deborah Meise, an administrative assistant at the College of Staten Island, arrived wearing a green DC 37 T-shirt. She used two hours of her annual leave time to attend the rally, and was quick to note that she and her union sisters and brothers have not seen a raise in seven years.
“Everything goes up, except our salaries,” Meise said. “Our parking [fee] at the college is going up, the prices of everything at the college are going up, the prices of everything on the outside are going up.” Meise squarely put the blame for the lack of a contract on the governor. “We’ve got to make some noise,” she said. “Maybe if we disturb [Cuomo], he’ll wake up.”
Philip Yanos, a professor in psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, stood near the passing traffic at the edge of the rally. “The budget deadline is April 1, and time is running out,” Yanos said as he held up a blue-and-white CUNY Rising sign that decried tuition hikes and the lack of contract. “I don’t think the people of New York are taking this seriously. This is an effort to destroy public higher education in New York City,” he added.
Students, labor and community leaders and CUNY alumni came to the podium to tell the crowd what the university means to them, their community and the people of New York.
“It’s an institution that serves us all, an institution that has provided access to higher learning with affordability,” said Alexandros Hatzakis, director of planning at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies and an alumnus of Baruch College. “Too much rests on the shoulders of our students. Do not shift the burden to them. Invest in quality, invest in affordability, [invest] in all of us,” he said.
“I have busted my butt every single day to study,” Venus McGee told the crowd, speaking of the challenges of raising her children while attending LaGuardia Community College. She doesn’t want the opportunity that’s available to her to be out of reach for her children and future generations, she said.
With their handmade signs of neon poster board, CUNY students led the march to the church as night began to fall. “It’s only when people stand up and make noise [that] change happens,” Axel Owen, a Hunter College junior, told Clarion as he held up a sign that spelled out in twinkling lights: stop the hike. He added, “And the time is now.”
“When we stand here and fight against tuition hikes, against any cuts, we have to stand with the very folks who are in the classroom with our young people every day: the professors, the staff of CUNY,” Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, told the hundreds of protesters who gathered in the church.
The work of the coalition is just beginning, said PSC First Vice President Mike Fabricant, who outlined a “platform for change” designed to keep CUNY accessible, ensure academic support for the transition to higher education and address critical infrastructure needs for CUNY colleges. “There is no institution in this city that does more for racial and economic justice and contributing to the reinvention of lives than the City University of New York,” Fabricant said.
The Whole People
But the night ultimately belonged to the students, as one by one they took the stage and connected their personal stories with the original mission of the City University of New York: to educate children of “the whole people” of New York City. They talked about state disinvestment and higher tuition and spoke of working full-time while going to school full-time. One told of her path from high-school dropout to CUNY graduate student. Qusi Modeste, a junior at Bard High School Early College Manhattan, talked about how her mother worked, raised a family and attended classes at Kingsborough Community College in order to become a physical therapist.
“[My mother’s] experience at CUNY has shown me that CUNY is more than the sum of its budget. It represents the dream of many New Yorkers,” Modeste told the audience. “It must be strong for generations to come.”