Revolution and CUNY: Remembering the 1969 Fight for Open Admissions

Bhargav Rani

 

The past month has seen a spate of retrospectives debating the legacy of the failed revolution of May 1968 in France. Beginning in late March as a cultural and sexual rebellion among university students in Nanterre, the movement spread like wildfire, eventually inspiring hundreds of thousands of students across the country. The following weeks witnessed mass demonstrations, occupations and rallies by students, professors and intellectuals, and there ensued daily brutal confrontations between the police with its riot shields and water cannons and the protestors armed with cobblestones dug up from the streets of Paris. By mid-May, the workers too joined the movement, and sparked a general strike of about ten million people, the largest in European history. The protests of 1968 questioned not only the inequities of capitalist relations of production but also threatened to dismantle the political establishment that sustained it. While the movement eventually crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions, the revolution of May 1968 was not only the first time that a student rebellion stood at the vanguard of a mass workers’ revolt — it was also the last serious threat posed to capitalism in the postwar Western world. For a few exhilarating weeks, the revolution held open the promise of a beautiful world beyond capitalism. 

This past year, the Advocate has facilitated a prolonged conversation on the theme of “Revolution and Sovereignty” in its pages. Beginning with a prefatory editorial on the “problem” of revolution, we have published a range of articles from various members of the Graduate Center community – from stories on the October Revolution on its centenary to the racial politics of the NFL; from the revolutionary force of poetry, theatre, literature, and film to critiques of liberalism and conservatism; from an exploration of the questions of individual sovereignty to the contemporary threats to national sovereignties under U.S. and British imperialism; and, from the politics of urban revolutions to the neoliberalization of schooling and education. Expanding on these conversations, the current issue of the Advocate contains articles on the politics of scientific practice and technological progress under capitalism, on “feminicide” as the grounds for an intersectional critique of settler Marxism, and on the political potential of images, among others. While the mythic specter of May 1968 casts its long shadow on our political consciousness, this editorial of the final issue addressing the theme seeks to bring the conversation back to CUNY and commemorate the spirit of the May revolution as it animated the militant student movements in our university around the same time. 

This spirit of May 1968 is perhaps best seen in the struggles for open admissions at CUNY in the 1960s. The postwar years witnessed an immense increase in the demand for state-sponsored public higher education, leading to the founding of the State University of New York (SUNY) in 1948 and the consolidation of seven senior and municipal community colleges under the CUNY system in 1961. Over the next decade, CUNY opened nine new college campuses, but this expansion could not meet the escalating demand for higher education among the nearly eight million New York residents. New York also experienced a major demographic shift in the 1950s and the 1960s, with nearly a million African Americans and Puerto Ricans taking residence in the city, replacing white residents, who had moved to nearby suburbs. Despite these demographic pressures and the expansion of the university system, CUNY’s meritocratic admissions policies ensured that it remained overwhelmingly white and middle class throughout the 1960s.

The persistent pressure of activist groups, students and parents in New York eventually led to the founding of “Community College No. 7” (later named Medgar Evers College) in 1966-67 to serve poor and working-class communities of color in Brooklyn. At the same time, the CUNY Board of Higher Education came under pressure to adopt an “open admissions” policy, which would ensure that every New York city high school graduate was offered a seat in a CUNY college. The board finally approved the policy in 1966, forced to concede to the demands of increasingly insurgent New York residents and partly motivated by fear of a social revolution that would extract more radical forms of change in the university. The policy was not intended take effect till 1975, offering some respite to the power brokers of the university. The administration was also compelled to introduce innovative pedagogical strategies and remedial teaching programs for underprepared students entering from broken public schools, most notably SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge), but their outreach was limited to a relatively small number of students in the 1960s. The inadequacy of the administration’s measures to meet the growing demand for higher education, coupled with widespread social and political unrest, ultimately boiled over into a major confrontation in 1969. 

In the wake of a decade of historic struggles, from the Civil Rights movement to the protests against the Vietnam War, more than 200 black and Puerto Rican students padlocked the gates of the City College of New York in April 1969 and renamed it the “University of Harlem.” The protesters at CCNY were soon joined by other students of color as well as white allies, leading to mass rallies, demonstrations and occupations in Brooklyn College, Queens College, and Borough of Manhattan Community College. Their demands included an increased intake of Black and Puerto Rican students in CUNY colleges, a strengthening of remedial programs like SEEK, and the creation of new special programs geared towards preparing the new students of color for a college education. These student occupations and strikes were the culmination of months of negotiations and confrontations between the students and the administration. As CUNY descended into a state of siege, the New York City police was called in to suppress the student uprisings and retake the university buildings, and the various campuses remained militarized with their presence for several weeks after. 

At Brooklyn College, student activists under the banner of Black League of African-American Collegians (BLAC) organized with other student groups like Puerto Rican Alliance and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to pressure the administration to acquiesce to their demands. In early May, these students, along with 40 white allies, occupied the President’s office to present their demands, whereupon the police was called to confront them. Students occupied various university buildings, spray-painted “power” and “revolution” across some of its walls, started small fires across campus, and declared, “We’re not taking any more from the president!” As tensions escalated and police presence increased on campus, the administration issued a ban on “congregating in or near buildings, creating loud or excessive noise, or employing, inciting, or encouraging force or violence.” But the rallies and occupations continued. SDS led a mass demonstration of over a hundred students to the dean’s office, where the students broke the dean’s door and inscribed their demands on the office walls. 

On 12 May, in the largest incident of police repression against the student protestors during that period of ferment, 17 Black and Puerto Rican students from Brooklyn College were arrested, violently manhandled, and their homes raided. All the arrested students, including two more who were soon indicted by the court, were charged with arson and rioting. The students were kept on Riker’s Island for four days, with their bail set at $15,000 each till the courts ordered that the bail be reduced. A day after the arrests, around 200 students rallied at Brooklyn college in support of the arrested students and to help collect bail. Students and faculty went on strike the following day to demand that the defendants be released from prison immediately and all charges against them dropped, that police presence on campus be removed, and that student demands for an open admissions policy, among others, be accepted immediately. The defendants were ultimately released by the courts on the grounds that there wasn’t enough evidence, but the unrest that spread across campus, and CUNY, with their arrest tipped the scales, making it difficult for the administration to ignore the students’ demands any longer. At the urging of the President, the Board was finally forced to implement the open admissions policy in the fall term of 1970. 

The open admissions policy radically changed the demographics of the university. Enrollment for first-time students jumped from 19,959 in 1969 to 38,256 in 1972; Black students increased from 16,529 to 44,031; Puerto Ricans from 4,723 to 13,563, and even the number of enrolled white students increased from 106,523 in 1968 to 125,804 in 1972. In all, by 1975, CUNY had created a racially and ethnically diverse pool of 253,000 matriculating undergraduates (a 55 percent increase in total enrollment since 1969), all of whom attended tuition-free if they were enrolled full-time. However, with the financial crisis of 1976 – the same year that the number of non-white students enrolled exceeded white students for the first time – which crippled New York city with a debt it could not market, tuition was imposed at CUNY for the first time. While the open admissions policy marked a decisive move towards a democratic and egalitarian education system, the subsequent introduction of tuition fundamentally eroded its emancipatory potential because it precluded a vast number of non-white students from lower economic backgrounds from going to college. By the end of the 1970s, there was a decline of over 62,000 students in enrollment, with a 50 percent decline in the number of black and Latino students in the entering class of 1980. Since then, CUNY students have had to incessantly fight to salvage and uphold the victories of the militant student struggles of the 1960s—victories that have been eviscerated by the gradual neoliberalization of the university these past four decades. 

As we think back on the legacy of the revolution of May 1968, it behooves us to remember that “revolution” has animated the struggles and aspirations of the students at CUNY in more immediate ways than we can imagine in the current political climate. It becomes all the more important to pay heed to this radical history of CUNY at the Graduate Center, for our college remains the whitest of all CUNY colleges. Against an average enrollment of 23.7 percent white students across the university, 65.9 percent of the entering class of fall 2017 at the GC were white. Furthermore, as a result of the GC’s discriminatory two-tier funding policy, underfunded students find it particularly difficult to pursue their research when they are compelled to juggle multiple adjunct and research jobs to sustain themselves, as recorded in the testimonies collated by the Adjunct Project for this issue of the Advocate. As we continue to grapple with the recurring crises of the neoliberal university – from the increasing costs of tuition to the exploitation of adjunct labor – it is important to remember the last time that CUNY students said, “We’re not taking any more from the President!” 

 

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