Open Admissions and racial justice
“It was pouring rain,” Reverend Afiya Dawson recalled.
Dawson, now a retired guidance counselor, was one of more than 200 black and Puerto Rican students who padlocked the gates of City College of New York’s south campus on April 22, 1969.
The students gathered in the lobby of a nearby building in the predawn darkness before moving out to the gates, she told a 50th-anniversary commemoration at CCNY on April 18. The movement a half-century ago made five demands: that the university establish departments of Black and Puerto Rican studies; that education majors be required to take classes in Spanish and in black and Puerto Rican history; that there be special orientations for new black and Puerto Rican students; that students have a voice in the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) tutoring and financial-aid program; and most important, that CCNY’s student body, then more than 90 percent white, reflect the demographics of the city’s high schools, then 40 percent black and Latino.
“We expected the police to kill us,” Dawson told the crowd of about 75 people gathered at the commemoration, a mix of mostly ’60s-era protest veterans and current students. Dawson’s statement might sound melodramatic at first, but it wasn’t that far-fetched: a year earlier, highway patrol police had killed three students and wounded 28 during protests at a historically black state college in Orangeburg, South Carolina. And a year later, four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State in Ohio during protests against the bombing of Cambodia.
“We came without a toothbrush or a change of underwear,” she said.
Instead, they set off a student strike that spread to several other CUNY campuses over the next two weeks. It won the establishment of CUNY’s open-admissions program, which guaranteed a place in the system’s senior colleges to any graduate of a city high school with at least a B average or in the top half of their graduating class. By 1972 the number of black students at CUNY had more than doubled to about 44,000, almost a quarter of the student body, and the number of Puerto Rican students had almost tripled, to 13,500.
The strike was “the greatest effort to increase educational opportunity in the history of American higher education,” said Larry Rushing, a retired LaGuardia Community College psychology professor.
Yet the participants also mourned the erosion of what they won. “You’ve got to know the things that were lost in the 1990s,” said Ron McGuire, a white participant in the strike. “It’s not as diverse as it was 30 years ago.”
The number of black students at CCNY has fallen from 40 percent in 1990 to 18 percent today, the biggest decline of any CUNY campus, he told the crowd. The departments of black and Latino studies have been reduced to programs. The requirement that education majors study Spanish is also gone, he said.
Speakers blamed the decline on the imposition of tuition in 1976, the tighter academic requirements of the 1990s, working-class people’s loss of income in the Great Recession, and the multiple tuition increases of the last decade. The university’s mission to educate the city’s working class, “gets eroded with every $200 tuition increase,” said Haris Khan, the student member of CUNY’s Board of Trustees and the chair of CUNY’s University Student Senate.
BLACK FACULTY DECLINE
Equally troubling, rally participants said, is the minimal number of black faculty members. At City College, L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociologist who recently moved from CCNY to New York University, told the audience that only two of the 40 new faculty members hired last year were black or Latino. The reduction of minority faculty members, many say, is part of a general decline in full-time hiring. CUNY has lost 4,000 full-time faculty lines since the 1970s, PSC President Barbara Bowen told Clarion last fall. The austerity policies that imposed those cuts emerged just as the number of people of color earning PhDs was increasing.
NOT KEEPING UP
“CUNY has not done what they need to do in terms of bringing black faculty to campuses,” said City Councilmember Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn), who has pushed for free tuition at CUNY. “CUNY needs to be a tuition-free institution. That’s the only reason I was able to go.”
Restoring free tuition is also a demand of current student activists, senior Bryan Wigfall told Clarion.
“The important takeaway is that the student strike was the power of ordinary people – students and progressive faculty – and confronting CUNY and not settling for half measures,” said Stephen Brier, a Graduate Center professor of urban education who also served on a panel that developed Councilwoman Barron’s tuition-free CUNY plan.
For the future, Brier said that CUNY can only really make race and class progressive if the state stops its austerity funding regime for public higher education. “Unless institutions like CUNY are properly supported as public goods, the problems that Open Admissions was intended to address go unaddressed and get worse over time,” Brier said. “The savage underfunding of CUNY has led to division across class and race lines. Activism is critical, it’s only the first step. The lesson 50 years later is that those gains were not institutionalized and that CUNY was undercut a mere six years after the student strike by the 1975 financial crisis.”
Steve Leberstein, a retired CCNY historian who currently serves on the PSC executive council, attended the commemoration and told Clarion it was the 1969 uprising that had originally inspired him to teach at the college, where he started in the 1970s.
“It was militant students who were willing to take a stand by occupying the South Campus that opened those doors, just as militant students in Paris the year before had occupied their campuses demanding radical change,” he said, adding that the participants in the commemoration “spoke movingly of their experience which enriched the lives not only of those who would have been denied admission if not for the uprising,” and they spoke “of the urgent need to continue that struggle today to reverse years of measures to close those doors both by policy changes and by chronic defunding of CUNY.”