The number of African American students at the City University of New York’s main campuses has dropped sharply, according to statistics reported in the Aug. 10 New York Times. Student and faculty activists charge that this is the result of recent efforts to roll back the university’s open admissions policy won in the late 1960s.
CUNY has nearly 220,000 students at its 17 undergraduate and three graduate campuses. The statistics reflect data at four of the relatively more prestigious campuses—City College, Hunter College, Baruch College and Queens College. According to the Times, Black student enrollment at City College dropped from about 40 percent in 1999 to close to 30 percent in 2005. African American enrollment at Hunter dropped from 20 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2005, while at Baruch, the percentage dropped from 24 percent to 14 percent. Queens College, which has among the lowest percentages of Black students, stayed constant at about 10 percent.
The statistics are especially shocking because of CUNY’s history of providing higher education for New York City’s Black and Latino communities over the last 35 years. CUNY currently educates more Black and Latino students than any other university in the United States. Today, the overwhelmingly working-class student body overall is 32 percent African American, 25 percent Latino, 14 percent Asian and 29 percent white.
But it was not always like that. Militant struggles at CUNY, beginning in 1969, broke down the racist barriers that had kept Black and Latino students out of the university. Struggles like those can push back the right-wing offensive.
Against educational apartheid
The CUNY system began with the founding of City College—then known as the “Free Academy”—in 1847, with the mission of “educating the children of the whole people.” Tuition was free. Admission was competitive, but many immigrant students were able to gain admission at a time when other universities turned away immigrants. Because of this history, City College was a center of progressive thought throughout the 1930s.
But the institution, despite progressive roots, was not immune from the racist reality of U.S. society. Prior to 1969, students of color accounted for less than one-fifth of CUNY graduates. According to CUNY activist-attorney Ron McGuire in a 1992 essay, “The Struggle at CUNY: Open Admissions and Civil Rights,” City College, located in the heart of Harlem, was 92 percent white and only 2 percent Black. The Amsterdam News labeled the college “white Rhodesia in Harlem.” City-wide, minority students made up only 1.5 percent of enrollment at the four-year CUNY schools.
The majority of the students of color on CUNY campuses were part of the SEEK program, then called “the Pre-Baccalaureate Program,” designed to enroll economically disadvantaged students at CUNY. The SEEK students found themselves in a kind of educational apartheid in which the needs of students of color were not addressed.
But inspired by the Black liberation movement and the struggles against Jim Crow segregation that were sweeping the country, SEEK students at City College began to mobilize against racial discrimination. On April 22, 1969, 250 Black and Latino students walked out of classes and occupied the campus.
With the help of the community, students chained the gates of City College’s South Campus and renamed it “Harlem University.” McGuire describes the struggle. “Students who continued to go to class were considered ‘scabs’ as hundreds of police in riot gear occupied the campus in a vain attempt to keep classes open. There were pitched battles between supporters of the strike and white students who opposed the five demands and wanted to return to class.”
McGuire was at the time one of many white students who supported the struggle led by the African American and Latino students.
Months of clashes with police and mass marches paralyzed City College. The actions forced the trustees into negotiations with the highly organized students. With thousands of students behind them, the student negotiators forced the Board of Higher Education to pass the Open Admissions Resolution in June 1969, which established open admissions at CUNY beginning in September 1970.
Struggle wins big gains
Open admissions meant that admissions to CUNY would be granted to any student with a high school degree or a high school equivalence. This was designed to guarantee that ethnic composition of CUNY would reflect the ethnic composition of New York City’s public schools. It was a victory of enormous historical importance.
The open admissions struggle secured other major gains as well. Every CUNY campus was required to create programs in ethnic studies. Each college was authorized to establish supplemental freshman orientation programs for Black and Puerto Rican students. City College made the study of Black and Puerto Rican history and the Spanish language requirements for all education majors.
As a result of the struggle, enrollment jumped from 100,000 students to 250,000 students. Since this victory, more people of color have graduated from CUNY than have graduated from any other institution in the history of this country.
The gains of the open admissions struggle opened the door for new struggles to widen the educational franchise. In 1976, New York City announced that as part of an effort to solve a fiscal crisis, Hostos Community College would be shut down. Hostos, located in the South Bronx, was the first bilingual college in the United States. Its budget at the time was a mere $4 million.
Students, faculty and community members seized control of the Board of Education and the college itself. After nine months of militant protest and showdowns with the authorities, New York State legislators reversed the city’s decision and the college remained open.
Ruling class strikes back
The victories of the 1960s and 1970s were deeply resented by the city’s billionaire ruling class. The initial triumph of open admissions provoked a racist campaign against the university system and its students. As early as 1971, U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew was quoted as saying that “CUNY would give away 100,000 devalued diplomas.”
For the first time in 1976, white students did not make up the majority of the incoming class. The same year, under the pretext of the fiscal crisis, New York State legislators imposed tuition for the first time in CUNY’s history. As a result of this racist legislation, enrollment dropped drastically—from 250,000 to 180,000 in one year.
Since that time, tuition has been steadily increasing while financial aid has been restricted. Beginning in 1989, for example, Gov. Mario Cuomo and then Gov. George Pataki tried to slash public funding and financial aid for CUNY. Massive protests and mobilizations involving tens of thousands of students took place in 1989, 1991 and 1995 in defense of CUNY funding.
In 1999, unable to turn back the gains of open admissions by economic cutbacks alone, Gov. George Pataki and then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani launched a new attack. In the name of “high standards,” the CUNY Board of Trustees—a majority right-wing functionaries appointed by Giuliani and Pataki—moved to eliminate remedial classes, barring students who did not achieve high enough scores on standardized tests from studying at CUNY’s four-year colleges.
Remedial programs were originally instituted at the time of open admissions to help prepare students for college-level coursework. They are common at colleges and universities around the country, and assist student success in college.
The ending of remediation at the four-year colleges was combined with a “tiering” system, with some colleges being viewed in the eyes of the CUNY administration as more prestigious. It is the “first-tier” or “flagship” schools that have seen the greatest drop in African American students.
A nationwide attack
The Manhattan Institute, the right-wing consulting firm that advised Giuliani on ending remediation, explained its perspective. “We don’t believe that a college is in the business of engineering academic standards to achieve a particular racial outcome. It should set its standards in a colorblind fashion, based on the skills necessary to perform college-level work.”
Of course, to speak of a colorblind society ignores the systemic racism and the reality of segregation that still exist for Black and Latino students across the country. In New York City, students of color attend the poorest schools.
But the conservative think tank does put the attack on open admissions within the national context of the overall attack on affirmative action and higher education for African American, Latino and other nationally oppressed students.
For example, affirmative action was banned in the University of California system in 1995. Since that time, African American admission has dropped to only 2 percent of freshmen—the lowest figure since 1973. At UC San Diego, only 1.1 percent of the incoming class is African-American.
The attacks against African American students are more extreme than those against white students—but all working people are facing attacks on the right to education. College tuition is spiraling out of control. The Bush administration has cut tuition assistance by $13 billion, preventing an estimated 2.5 million qualified students from attending college.
While many of the gains from CUNY have been eroded, the lessons of the struggle for open admissions remain valid today. A militant anti-racist struggle for the rights of oppressed nationalities can win giant gains for all working people. Those gains need to be defended in the streets.