Justice  /  Comment

The CUNY Experiment

The City University of New York has long stood at once for meritocratic uplift and for civil disobedience.

As American higher education expanded in the postwar years, so did CUNY, adding community colleges and four-year campuses. The city’s public schools had a high proportion of Black and Latinx (at the time mostly Puerto Rican) students, but the populations of CUNY’s most prestigious four-year campuses were overwhelmingly white—especially City College, despite its location in the center of Harlem. In April 1969 a group of Black students there took over the campus, requesting more equal admissions policies and an expansion of Black and Puerto Rican history and literature courses. The city and state responded by introducing an “open admissions” plan that guaranteed any high school graduate in the city a place somewhere in the CUNY system. It also ended tuition at community colleges, where students had needed to pay a small amount. In effect the new policies established that New Yorkers had a right to a college education. Black and Puerto Rican enrollment immediately doubled, jumping to 24 percent the first year the new policy took hold; white working-class New Yorkers benefited as well. Between 1969 and 1975 the system’s enrollment grew by 55 percent.

But the influx of students was not accompanied by additional funding, and the new rules were contentious. For some faculty, open admissions exposed the tension inherent in the ideal of free college education. Was the goal to create a more rigorous meritocracy, to make it possible for the most brilliant students to access higher education even if they were poor—the “Harvard of the Proletariat” model? Or was the real purpose of free college to make higher education and its benefits available to as many people as possible?

Among the adherents of the latter vision was the poet Adrienne Rich, who taught in the Basic Writing program at City College in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reed quotes a statement Rich made at an emergency City College faculty meeting the day after the 1969 campus takeover began:

We are not admitting simply a collection of social and emotional problems, remedial problems. We are admitting a wealth of intelligence, tough-mindedness, and motivation…. There is a whole resource of brains, talent, and courage which we have hitherto excluded from the American educational system; if we can begin to admit and absorb these gifts, the educational process for both whites and non-whites, teachers and students, will become, in my opinion, vastly more meaningful.

June Jordan, another poet who taught at City College at the time, agreed: “We thought that if we could make democracy come to City College,” she remembered in 1994, “probably we could have an impact on the concept and perhaps even the practice of public education throughout the country.”