The City University of New York used to be free for most students. Only students, faculty, and workers organizing together on all of its campuses can win public education back.
The Reality at CUNY
In just the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), alone added $1.8 billion to New York City’s economy. In the long term, “for every dollar of public money invested in CCNY, taxpayers receive a cumulative value of $3.00 over the course of the students’ working lives.” However, a 2018 survey found that about 55% of CUNY students were housing insecure in the previous year, and about ~48% of CUNY students were food insecure in the 30 days previous to the survey. CUNY generates a significant amount of wealth for New York City and its residents, but CUNY and its students aren’t benefitting.
The economic wealth that CUNY creates is produced by the same working-class students who struggle with absolutely basic necessities, such as housing and food. So where is all this money going? Certainly not to CUNY students: as the scarce resources in place to help students are not advertised to CUNY students. Many students struggle to pay their tuition bills, while the CUNY Board of Trustees continues to raise tuition and defund already-scarce student resources. Even during this current pandemic, already a huge financial strain in itself, students fear a possible tuition hike of $320 dollars.
Who has the power?
Every year, the Board of Trustees increases tuition by $200. Most years, their excuse is that they have to do it because of Cuomo; in 2011, Cuomo and the New York State legislature passed “NY SUNY 2020,” which mandated annual tuition increases for CUNY and SUNY schools for five years. However, this year, Cuomo did not renew the legislation, meaning that the Board of Trustees has no obligation—other than money-grubbing—to further raise tuition fees.
Recently, multiple student-led groups organized online petitions calling for full refunds on semester tuitions. When the University Student Senate and other local college student governments started supporting such petitions, the Board of Trustees decided to instead refund part of the students’ activity fees, which are used to run student governments and clubs on campus — which looks like retaliation for those student governments for speaking up. Since Cuomo does not support food pantries on campuses, the local student governments were using the student activity fee to run the food pantries and help students in need, but since student governments have been defunded, so have these student-run food pantries. The Cuomo administration has defunded food pantries for students in the middle of a pandemic, and students in return will get under $50, which is around what they pay in those student activity fees.
While students continue to struggle with housing insecurity, food insecurity, increasing tuition bills, and the failing infrastructure of their schools, administrators, like the CUNY Chancellor, take home around $700,000 a year. The salaries for college presidents and the members of the Board of Trustees can range from $200,000 to $500,000 a year. These are the same people who insist on putting the burden of funding CUNY on working-class students. What most don’t know is that the members of the Board of Trustees aren’t selected by the schools—they’re directly appointed by Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio. This means that they are puppets to the Democratic Party and their corporate backers with no intention of looking after students’ interests.
Students take action
On Monday, April 20th, the Samelys Lopez campaign partnered with CUNY YDSA chapters—City College YDSA, Hunter YDSA, and LaGuardia YDSA—to put together a town hall addressing the current hardships of students, faculty, and staff during the COVID pandemic. The panelists spoke eloquently about issues of homeless, food insecurity, lack of access to resources, and hardships with tuition. This wasn’t the first time a CUNY YDSA chapter has partnered with professors to organize such an event. This was, however, our first online event since quarantine started. About 30 people showed up to this town hall, most of whom engaged in the conversation. Some of the attendees were already familiar with CUNY and the issues students have been fighting against. However, some of the audience shared their questions, as they weren’t super familiar with New York’s public education. The energy and spirit of this town hall were inspiring, especially now. But like many past student actions, it isn’t enough.
In the past, groups like Free CUNY, have tried to mobilize students against the CUNY Board of Trustees. Their actions range from rallies, to press conferences, to meeting disruptions. None of these actions have been effective; town halls are also not enough. Tuition is still likely to be hiked, and student food pantries remain underfunded. So what can YDSA do differently?
A YDSA chapter at every CUNY!
Recently, thanks to the hard work of our comrade Labiba C., the number of official CUNY YDSA chapters has doubled. This has allowed for significantly stronger organizing efforts oriented around College For All and the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Still, much work remains to be done on the 26 campuses of CUNY: 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, seven post-graduate institutions, and one undergraduate honors college. In order to achieve free college in the CUNY system, a majority of campuses will need to coordinate simultaneous student-teacher strikes—something far out of our reach right now. But we continue to organize and educate chapters across CUNY, always with our goal of College for All in mind.
The value of education and the worth of the working class should not be measured in terms of monetary gains. Education is a human right. It is imperative for a society to function. Yet capitalism dictates that everything must be measured in terms of profit. And assuming this is right, which it isn’t, there is still plenty of evidence that demonstrates the importance of investing in public education.
CUNY is a crucial part of building a mass working-class movement in New York City. Therefore, both YDSA and DSA should be putting resources into building a strong base in all of the CUNY schools, so that with enough education and organization, we might realize our demand for a free public college education in New York.
Jatnna DLC is a student of Political Science at the City College of New York. She organizes with her school’s YDSA chapter as a member of the Organizing Committee. She’s also part of the editorial board of The Activist.
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