Occupy CUNY: Education Should Be Available to All

Occupy CUNY Education Should Be Available to All

Protestors at Occupy CUNY, Madison Square Park, New York, November 21. (Photo: WarmSleepy)

There are campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY) situated so far away from downtown Manhattan, global capital of the interests of wealth, that subways don't run anywhere near them, the subway stops of the financial district, by contrast, popping up every couple of blocks in any direction.

Still, students and professors from Kingsborough and QC and several other campuses besides found their winding ways into Gramercy, a neighborhood populated by luxury townhouses and Baruch's campus.

Uniting the students and teachers of the CUNY system Monday was resistance to the decision of the CUNY Board of Trustees, which also unites them, to impose a five-year tuition surge of $300 a year, system-wide. While the bodies in the streets chanted, “They say tuition hike, we say tuition strike,” board of trustees Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson casually remarked, “What was approved today was a modest and predictable tuition increase.”

Well, anything is predictable if the people in power decide to precipitate it, sure. And it's only modest compared to some things, like CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein's $560,038 in total compensation last year, a sore spot for the protesters. Last year, the CUNY Board of Trustees raised Goldstein's salary by 9 percent, over and above a 14 percent increase in 2008 .

It is worth remembering that, before 1976, there were no tuition increases, because there was no tuition. “This is supposed to be a free education. Tuition hikes have to be compared to that standard, not to how expensive private colleges are,” Phillip, 24, tells me. He identifies himself as a music student at Brooklyn College. “Free college should be the primary goal and if there is no room in the budget for it, there shouldn't be room in the budget for salary raises for the trustees.”

The proposal on which CUNY was founded in 1847 as the Free Academy was that college should not be an option available exclusively to the rich. Anyone who has tried to understand what a credit default swap is will know that some expertise is required for even the most basic monitoring of a financial system that has damaged the 99 percent, but wrought absolute havoc on the lives of the young, the poor and workers. When college education is inaccessible to the underclass, an important result is the solidification of a system that benefits the rich as a system only the rich can understand.

Selective class-based ignorance is in no way concomitant with America's professed devotion to democracy, says Grace Davie, a professor of history at Queens College. “Access to excellent and affordable – preferably free – higher education is essential,” she says in an email. “Democracy requires the participation of everybody in high-stakes public debates. These debates will continue to be framed in ways that benefit the wealthy until the historically oppressed (and indeed all of us who believe in justice and fairness) can find ways to reframe these debates so that they reflect the concerns of everyone, including immigrants. If we want to protect the core of our democracy – free debate – we must invest in high-quality public education because it empowers poorer people, amplifies their voices and ensures that everyone affected by public policy can participate in shaping public policy.”

The demand that education should be free may seem radical, but it is being proposed by students on campuses not only in New York City, but all over. A conference call among the University of California regents Monday was treated to some agitation courtesy of occupiers at various campuses who declined exclusion from the meeting.

There is, however, a reason that, according to a report by the New York City Independent Budget Office (.pdf), “Tuition and fees accounted for 20 percent of CUNY revenues in 1989 and grew to 42 percent in 2006,” beyond cowardice and callousness among the trustees. Over the same period, “Direct state aid fell from 68 percent of CUNY's operating revenues in 1989 to 48 percent in 2006,” indicating that cowardice and callousness among the political class deserves credit as well.

The evisceration of the American public sector over the last three decades has had the cumulative effect of transferring huge sums of wealth from social programs aimed at uplift for the vulnerable to the private coffers of the very wealthiest citizens and corporations. Corporate America's huge lobbying and campaign finance operations help ensure that the opposite trajectory remains untried. As the situation in Europe shows, this type of budget austerity at a moment when unemployment is so high and aggregate demand so low can lead to wholesale social disorder.

The ownership class should count itself lucky that, for the moment at least, the backlash is confined to students' peaceful reception of chemical weaponry at UC Davis and professors marching in academic robes through the streets of New York. A somewhat nastier response, one can't help feeling at protests like yesterday's, lies waiting just around the corner.