CUNY’s Largest Crisis in Forty Years

Conor Tomás Reed

In 1976, tuition was imposed at CUNY amidst a financial crisis in which New York City could no longer market its debt, and a federal bailout came with the stipulation that students would now have to pay for education. This was just as the 1970 Open Admissions policy began to change the ethnic demographics of CUNY into a predominantly Black and Latin@ student body. Newly hired faculty were laid off. Hostos and John Jay Colleges were almost shuttered. And Medgar Evers and York Colleges briefly faced reduction from baccalaureate to associate degree-granting status. Today, we are threatened with a half-billion dollar cut in state funding, a proposed tuition hike of $1,500 USD or more across five years in addition to the 30.4 percent hike from 2011-2016, dwindling Black and Latin@ student enrollment, and a labor contract negotiation impasse by CUNY’s multi-millionaire management.

As the cost of living has spiked 20 percent over the last fifteen years, the Professional Staff Congress union’s over 25,000 members have worked without a contract since 2010, and the District Council 37 union’s over 10,000 campus workers have done so since 2009. In the last several months, direct actions and organizing campaigns have begun to blossom. Several thousand PSC faculty and staff have pledged to authorize a strike vote—Taylor Law illegality be damned. The University Student Senate has amassed over two thousand signatures for a petition to freeze tuition. In Fall 2015 alone, hundreds held early morning and evening protests outside Chancellor Milliken’s penthouse, which is paid for by CUNY in addition to his salary in excess of $900,000 USD. A mass PSC membership meeting packed Cooper Hall with excitement about taking action, as well as repeated calls from the floor that the contract highlight the needs of the university’s most exploited constituencies: adjuncts and students. Fifty-three PSC members were arrested after a mass sit-in blockaded the entrance to the administration’s headquarters. Marches, walkouts, assemblies and action pledges are gathering people whose demands are moving beyond bread-and-butter economic issues to articulate how this university can be transformed from the bottom up.

CUNY comprises twenty-four colleges, a half-million students, tens of thousands of faculty and campus workers, and millions of alumni and their families. The situation will impact the vast majority of New Yorkers, and may indeed be a battleground for the future of the city’s working people.
Graduate Center central-line professors Steve Brier and Michelle Fine explain in a December 2015 op-ed in City & State that “three of every four college-bound city high school graduates attend one of CUNY’s 24 campuses. CUNY’s current full-time student body is 26 percent African American, 30 percent Latino and 38 percent immigrant. A full 54 percent of CUNY students have family incomes below $30,000.” A disinvestment campaign by Governor Cuomo—buttressed by the measures of the CUNY Board of Trustees to shift cost burdens onto students and campus workers—illustrates that our city university may become a sacrificial lamb to massive economic restructuring that benefits real estate and hedge fund companies, many of whom fund Cuomo’s re-election campaigns and employ Board of Trustees members. The immediate effects of these austerity measures are stressed in a 26 February op-ed in Crains by Graduate Center distinguished professors Meena Alexander, Michelle Fine and Nicholas Freudenber that “fewer than 25 percent of CUNY community college students graduate within three years and fewer than half of four-year college students graduate within six years.” The article further notes that CUNY “can significantly improve graduation rates with smaller classes, more advising, coordinated support services and financial assistance that enables students to attend school full time. However, the state has not provided CUNY with the resources.”

Over the last forty years, these dynamics have altered higher education and the US economy nationwide. Student debt has surpassed $1 trillion USD. Three in four faculty positions are non-tenure track, city and state funding has receded as tuition has risen. And college graduates face under/unemployment as the majority of new jobs announced by US companies are for part-time low-wage service work. Meanwhile, the amount of incarcerated people in the US has skyrocketed from about 250,000 in 1976 to 2.2 million today. In view of these long-emerging contradictions, the current struggles for a just contract, tuition freeze, and sustainable budget at CUNY may have much more expansive ramifications—defending access to and livelihoods within the nation’s largest public urban university can be redefined as a vital opposition to a forty-year business class assault on our schools, workplaces, and communities. This report intends to chronicle, within the swirling milieu of current organizing efforts by CUNY students, faculty, and staff, how one Graduate Center program’s step-by-step preparations to collectively strike can serve as a model for building the rank-and-file coordination needed for a general university strike across New York City.

On 8 February, members of the English Student Association (ESA), which represents the students in the Graduate Center’s English program, met to air our concerns and devise a plan to reach out to other programs to do the same. As $4.8 million were cut from the building’s operating budget last year, tuition remission has been eliminated after five years’ enrollment, Magnet Fellowships have disappeared, and dissertation fellowships have been cut from ninety to forty, we’ve witnessed the English program-operating budget be reduced from $8000 to $4000. As well, a December 2015 open letter on CUNY’s lack of diversity, spearheaded by central-line English faculty and students and sent to Graduate Center President Chase Robinson, has been met with no administrational steps towards reform. In the English program, there is a history and practice of people collaborating on social justice resolutions, getting them passed, and producing actionable steps afterwards.

We ultimately decided to host a larger assembly with a specific strategy in mind—encourage students in every Graduate Center program to present resolutions that commit to the following: (1) Pledge to support a potential strike that centers adjuncts’ and students’ concerns (2) Create a strike fund that protects the most economically vulnerable (3) Compile educational materials to share with each other and our students (3) Urge Graduate Center central-line faculty to exert institutional leverage toward these aims (4) Make solidarity links with other union workers in the Graduate Center.

On 22 February, students from seven Graduate Center programs, the campus PSC chapter leadership, a CUNY TV worker in DC37, and a CUNY professor gathered to share reports, questions, and ideas for cohering wider strike support. We stressed that resolutions can address concrete issues in each program, and that an appeal to strike should not be made only to the most radical students among us but to anyone who teaches and studies at CUNY who will be hurt by these impending austerity measures. We inhabit a specific strategic location in CUNY—we study at the Graduate Center with central-line and tenure-track CUNY faculty who are also fellow union laborers, and we teach students across CUNY, with whom we share many similar grievances.

As graduate students, we can conduct campus strike actions (picket lines, walk outs, one-day to multiple-day actions) as dress rehearsals for striking as PSC members. By organizing strike committees in each program, we can establish voting mechanisms for taking action, i.e. if the majority of programs are in support, then the whole Graduate Center building goes on strike. By the conclusion of the students’ assembly, we agreed that strikes work when they cause intractable problems for management. In the case of CUNY, management is not just Presidents Robinson et al, Chancellor Milliken, and the Board of Trustees, but also Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and real estate and finance giants – an entire shadow university management against which symbolic actions alone will not suffice.

English program students will vote on a draft of the following resolution at the English Student Association’s 7 March, 2016 meeting. We hope that this initiative will encourage the Advocate readers to enact similar resolutions in additional Graduate Center programs.

The resolution on the following page was co-drafted by Esther Bernstein, Rebecca Fullan, Elizabeth Goetz, Paul Hebert, Christina Katopodis, Meira Levinson, Jason Nielsen, Conor Tomás Reed, and Danica Savonick. It expands upon an earlier statement by Graduate Center students that was distributed at the November 2015 PSC mass meeting, and later printed in the December 2015 PSC Clarion newspaper.

CUNY Solidarity Resolution: Respect Student and Adjunct Demands

A joint effort among CUNY students, faculty, and staff is necessary to reverse the continued attacks on public higher education. The English Student Association (ESA) makes the following demands of CUNY, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), and the Graduate Center English Program. By passing this resolution, we members of the union —adjuncts, instructional technology fellows, teaching fellows, and writing fellows —show our commitment to and genuine solidarity with the most exploited members of CUNY: students and adjuncts.

  • We call for the CUNY Board of Trustees to vote for an immediate tuition freeze and roll-back of the 2011-2016 tuition hikes, and for the PSC to pressure the Board to act by making this a central demand in its contract campaign. In advocating racial and economic justice for the working class, the CUNY Board of Trustees and the PSC should refuse to let CUNY fund faculty raises with student tuition increases.
  • We call for the PSC to make significant progress toward pay equity for adjunct faculty by increasing the base pay to $7,000 dollars per 3-credit course, and to make this a central demand in its contract campaign. Within the last few years, the Modern Language Association (MLA), Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), and CUNY Doctoral Students’ Council (DSC) have advocated a $7,000 starting salary for 3-credit courses. By refusing to accept pay disparity between CUNY adjuncts and other faculty, the PSC and CUNY can end the reliance on adjuncts as cheap exploitable labor, which harms our students, our union, and our university.
  • We call for the PSC to demand real and comprehensive job protection for all through a seniority system by date of hire that doesn’t introduce additional evaluations into the process, and to make this a central demand of its contract campaign. This would prioritize the demand that adjuncts earn a Certificate of Continuous Employment after teaching an average of twelve contact teaching hours a year in the same department in any five of the previous seven years that entitles them to teach a minimum of six contact teaching hours per semester.
  • We call for the PSC to demand the elimination of the cap on the number of courses adjuncts can teach at any single CUNY campus. Current restrictions prevent adjunct faculty from teaching courses at campuses where they are already established and when there is still a need.
  • We call for the Graduate Center English program to begin a strike fund now in case the payment of English program students who adjunct at CUNY schools is jeopardized by striking. Prior to 2007, when tuition remission was granted to students teaching at least one class at CUNY, and prior to 2015 when all incoming English program students were funded at the same level by the Graduate Center, the English program routinely worked to “top-up” student funding so that it was equal and to pay tuition costs for its students. This call by the English Student Association is thus in line with the English program’s history of standing with and supporting its students to the best of its ability.
  • We call for the English Program Executive Committee as the governing body of the Graduate Center’s English program to formally resolve, in the name of the English Program, to support its students advocating for these demands.

We want students and faculty to take action – even strike – to support a different kind of contract campaign that can express our needs. Strategically, we encourage similar resolutions to be passed in other programs across the Graduate Center and CUNY to cohere collective strength that can build upon individual strike pledges that many of us have already signed. The addition of these demands will strengthen our ability to negotiate, fight, and win.

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