|The Old Stadium (NAC Building Today)
In 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students at City College fought for and won an unprecedented opening of admissions at the City University of New York (CUNY) that resulted in a radical transformation of the university. The student body doubled within a year and within seven years the almost all-white student body had become majority students of color.
In 1999 the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to eliminate remedial classes at CUNYs Senior Colleges, thereby finally eliminating a central pillar of the policy of Open Admissions and effectively ending it. It remains to be seen whether their decision will ultimately be reversed after a review by the State Board of Education, but for the moment Open Admissions at CUNY is effectively dead.
This is a history of the CUNY student movement that in 1969 won and for the next thirty years defended expanded access to the university.
CUNY was not the first institution to establish an Open Admissions policy, but the precise characteristics of that policy as applied to such a large institution serving a city like New York had an extraordinary impact quite unlike its application at land-grant public state universities in the mid-west. Almost overnight CUNY became the single largest degree-granting institution for Black and Latino students in the United States.
Federal civil rights laws prohibited discrimination in employment based on race, and affirmative action policies promised the partial rectification of past injustices. Open Admissions at CUNY made the promise of greater equality of opportunity and an enlarged Black and Brown middle class a reality.
Open Admissions was won at the high-tide of the civil rights and liberation struggles of the 1960s. It was a radical concession offered to increasingly insurgent communities in the hopes of preventing a full-scale social explosion that many in power feared might result in more radical sorts of change. But before Open Admissions could even be implemented, the backlash was underway. The attack on access to CUNY has taken a variety of forms over the years budget cuts and freezes; the imposition of and then increases in tuition; attempts to control, cut back or eliminate ethnic studies programs and departments; and changes in the admissions formula for senior colleges. The overall result was a running thirty-year battle over the identity of the university.
There have been a number of studies of the effects and implications of Open Admissions at CUNY including several that have tracked the changes over time in the actual policy. That is not the focus of this paper. While there is a general acknowledgement of the importance of student actions in bringing about Open Admissions through the 1969 Open Admissions Strike, there has been less appreciation of the importance of student activism in the defense and maintenance of the policy for almost 30 years. But to treat Open Admissions primarily as a matter to be debated by policy makers and experts on education is a denial of its political character. Open Admissions was won as the result of the political mobilization of several constituencies in the context of larger political struggles, and it was preserved for as long as it was as a consequence of the continuing organization and mobilization of those constituencies. Chief amongst these has been a CUNY student themselves.
Open Admissions have had some courageous defenders among faculty and administrators. At times they have staked their professional careers on its defense. But since the mid-70s it has been CUNY students who have been the most energetic and reliable defenders of Open Admissions and it was their actions, often militant, that repeatedly stopped or at least slowed down the roll back of Open Admissions. Community support of student struggles has often been crucial, but it has been student-initiated actions that have called forth the most forceful community mobilizations.
There should be little doubt that, if not for the efforts of CUNY student activists, the collection of policies that taken together constituted Open Admissions would have been dismantled much more quickly. Even if at present it seems that they ultimately lost the fight to preserve Open Admissions, the truth is that by making the fight a protracted one they enabled literally tens of thousands of poor and working class New Yorkers, primarily people of color, to enter, attend and graduate from an institution of higher learning and to pursue the life advantages that attach to those opportunities. By so doing they helped reshape the social character of New York City.
The purpose of this paper is simply to present a narrative account of the struggles of CUNY students from 1969 to 1999 in defense of access to the university and to draw out, where it seems appropriate, some of the lessons of those struggles. While I touch on events over the entire thirty years I focus on four periods of particularly intense struggle in which large numbers of students were drawn into action and became a force to be reckoned with. Student activism and protests of one sort or another were more or less continuous over the entire thirty years. But for most of that time, the bodies responsible for the fate of the university the Governor, the Mayor, the State Legislature, the City council, and the Board of Higher Education (later the Board of Trustees) could safely ignore student opinion and generally did. On occasions, issues might even be resolved in a way coincidental with student interests, as when particular proposed budget cuts or tuition increases were defeated in spite of no significant organized student opposition. In these situations, other interests were always at play. But on four separate occasions the CUNY student body became a social force in its own right. Each of these instances involved a mass shift in the consciousness of CUNY students in which they became aware of themselves as a collective actor able to assert their own vision of the university and to fight for it.
The first period is the Open Admissions Strike itself which I attempt to frame in the context of the history of CUNY as an institution, the global context of particularly sharp social conflict in the late 1960s, and the particular atmosphere established by student activism preceding the strike, with special attention on the situation at City College.
The second period is the so-called Fiscal Crisis which began in 1975 and ultimately resulted in the implementation of tuition at CUNY and significant changes in the Open Admissions policy. Here I give special attention to the struggle to defend Hostos Community College which (along with others) was targeted for elimination.
The third period is the 1989 and 1991 CUNY-wide student strikes against proposed tuition hikes and budget cuts.
The fourth and final period covers the struggles starting with the 1995 protests against further proposed tuition increases and budget cuts and ending with the elimination of remedial classes in the Senior Colleges, effectively bringing the experiment with Open Admissions to a close.
A Brief History of CUNY
The City University of New York (CUNY) has its origins in the Free Academy founded in 1847. At the opening ceremonies of the Free Academy, its president defined its mission:
The experiment is to be tried whether the highest education can be given to the masses; whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of learning of the highest grade can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few, but by the privileged many.
In 1870 the Free Academy (which later became the City College of New York or CCNY) was joined by Hunter College, originally a normal school for women. Brooklyn College was established in 1930 and Queens College in 1937. In the late 1950s, Staten Island, Bronx, and Queensborough Community Colleges were established and in 1961, New York Citys public colleges were brought under a common central administration and designated as the City University of New York. The same year the Graduate Center was established and in 1964 Kingsborough Community College and the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) were established and New York City Technical College was separated from the State University and incorporated into CUNY. York College was founded two years later and Baruch and Lehman Colleges were established on former campuses of City and Hunter respectively. According to Allen Ballard, the founding director of the SEEK program, by 1968, the City University of New York, the worlds largest municipal institution, consisted of nine senior colleges with a total enrollment of 46,800 undergraduates, six community colleges enrolling 15,000 students, and a graduate school with 1,000 doctoral candidates."
The Free Academy may have been intended to serve the children of the whole people but in truth access to the university has always been an object of social struggle. Standards for admissions to the university and mechanisms for limiting the access of different communities have changed over the years. But because access to higher education has been the primary means of upward class mobility for poor and working class New Yorkers, CUNY has always been a battleground, and CUNY students have frequently been the protagonists in intense fights over the future of their university.
Prior to 1882 admissions to City and Hunter (called the Normal School until 1914) were limited to graduates of public schools, effectively excluding Catholic high school graduates. Starting in the 1880s the student body became increasingly Jewish so that by 1905 Jews constituted 75 per cent of City College students. The public colleges remained predominantly Jewish until after the Second World War when increasing numbers of Irish and Italians began to enter them.
The only requirements for entrance to the colleges before 1924 were New York City residence and a high school diploma. In that year a high school average of 72% was established as a condition for admission when, for the first time, there were more applicants than seats. It rose to 80% during the Depression with the increase in unemployed high school graduates. With the flood of students from the GI Bill and then the entrance of the Baby Boomers the average continued to climb, so that by 1963 an 87% average was necessary to gain admission to Brooklyn College and 85% at City, Hunter and Queens.
CUNY Student Activism Before 1969
While the character of student activism at CUNY changed dramatically with the implementation of Open Admissions it is important to at least note the character of student activism at the university prior to 1969. Well before the 1969 Open Admissions strike CUNY had a reputation as a hotbed of radical student activism and this contributed not only to the success of the strike but also to the militant resistance to the attempts to roll back the gains it had secured.
In the 1930s and 40s the colleges that would become the CUNY system were major centers of socialist and communist student activism on the part of the children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, especially among Jews. City College in particular produced a whole generation of leading figures of American radicalism. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, New York Citys public colleges were one of the few places where socialists and communists in the United States dared to organize openly.
This tradition of leftist student activism ensured that the City University would be a significant and early center of activity during the upheavals that swept U.S. campuses in the 1960s. CUNY students formed early chapters of the Friends of SNCC and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) long before the name of the latter organization became a household word. CUNY students went south to participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer and came back radicalized.
One of the earliest SDS chapters was established at Brooklyn College in 1960. By the fall of 1963 there was a chapter at City College and a handful of members at Hunter (where Friends of SNCC was already active) who would constitute a chapter in the spring. A Queens College SDS chapter was formed in the fall of 1964. In the spring of 1965 an SDS chapter was established at Queensboro Community College. By the fall SDS chapters had also been set up at the Bronx campus of Hunter and at Kingsborough Community College.
The three years leading up to the Open Admissions struggle saw a steady intensification of on-campus activism at CUNY, especially at City College. As on many campuses, opposition to the U.S. war on Viet Nam was high at CUNY and protests against the war in general and various forms of campus complicity in the war in particular became increasingly militant. These actions, again based largely among white students, established both a mood and a series of tactical precedents for a style of militant action that contributed to the atmosphere in which the Open Admissions strikers were able to win.
In December 1966, students at City organized a sit-in at the placement office against the provision of class rankings to the Selective Service System. Class rankings were used in the determination of the draft status of male students and were therefore viewed literally as a matter of life and death. SDS organized nationwide actions against the rankings beginning in the spring of 1966. The anti-ranking actions were the first example of what would become a more general form of protest against specific examples of campus complicity in the Viet Nam War. The anti-ranking sit-in at City College ultimately led to the suspension of 34 students.
The following year a November 1 demonstration against construction on the City College campus organized by a radical counter-cultural group called the City College Commune led to suspension of 46 students for 2 to 5 weeks. The Commune would become one of the main sources of white student support for the Open Admissions strike two years later. Two weeks later, on November 13, over 100 students held a sit-in in the corridor of Steinman Hall at City to protest the presence of employment recruiters from Dow Chemical on campus. Dow was already well known for its manufacture of napalm used in the Viet Nam War. Student protests were often reinforced by activism on the part of faculty. The day after the anti-Dow sit-in the City College faculty voted to strip classes conducted by the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) of their accreditation by the college. And when thirteen students were suspended for their participation in the sit-in, Assistant Professor of English James V. Hatch publicly resigned in protest. The drum beat of anti-war demonstrations helped set the stage for the coming Open Admissions strike. Ballard, for example, observes that (s) student and faculty demonstrations against Dow Chemical and ROTC led to an unstable atmosphere on the CCNY campus.
Of course not all student protests took place on campus. CUNY students participated in all the national and citywide protests against the war. And in December 1967 ten CCNY students joined other young men in turning in their draft cards at the Brooklyn Church of St. John the Evangelist. And not all protest was focused on the war. Fully a year before the Open Admissions Strike at CCNY, the Third World Coalition at Hunter College was demanding the creation of a Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department. Indeed similar demands were being raised on several campuses including CCNY, Lehman, and Brooklyn.
The Global Context
The atmosphere that existed at CUNY in the late 1960s was not simply the product of the activism of CUNY students themselves. Rather it reflected a worldwide atmosphere of social upheaval. The rapid decolonization of Africa, the Cuban Revolution and the appearance of armed national liberation movements across Latin America, the upheavals taking place in China, and the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese to the aggression of the mightiest military power in human history all contributed to a situation in which oppressed people everywhere imagined that they could make great gains through struggle.
The international situation had a profound influence on the conditions for struggle inside the United States. The competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for the sympathies of the newly independent Third World countries made the system of legal white supremacy in the Southern U.S. particularly vulnerable to challenge. Once the fight for civil rights in the South was joined, all of the internal contradictions of U.S. society were brought forward. Domestic and international events fed on each other, each in turn raising up the general level of political consciousness and willingness to engage in struggle on the part of oppressed people inside the U.S. Sit-ins and freedom rides were followed by urban rebellions which in turn were followed by the appearance of organized militant forces like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords.
1968 saw an acceleration of all these processes. Starting with the Tet offensive and followed by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which sparked urban revolts in over 100 U.S. cities, then the appearance of a revolutionary situation in France in May, and the demonstrations and police repression at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, by the fall the whole social order seemed extraordinarily fragile.
In New York City, the strike by the United Federation of Teachers against Black and Latino community control of the schools revealed the enormous social fault lines that ran through the city. The political elite of New York City was terrified that any sort of intensified struggle might take things to yet a higher level and directly threatens their power. They further understood that any sort of major social explosion in New York City would have a profound impact on the rest of the country.
It is difficult today to really understand how precarious the situation seemed for those in power. And since they were ultimately able to maintain themselves it is tempting to regard such estimations in hindsight as exaggerations. Not surprisingly this is the interpretation favored by the powerful themselves if only because it reinforces the appearance of their invulnerability. But the truth leaves its traces. Among these were the sorts of concessions like Open Admissions that were made at the time in the hope of securing social peace.
This then was the larger context When students at CCNY returned to school in the fall of 1968. In October members of the City College Commune disrupted ROTC classes and employment recruiting by Hughes Aircraft. Five students were subsequently suspended. In November, the New York Resistance (an anti-draft group) and the City College Commune offered sanctuary to Pvt. William Brakefield in the Finley Student Center ballroom. After an eight-day stand off CCNY President Buell Gallagher called in the police and 164 people were arrested. Faculty outrage at Gallaghers decision to call in the police would subsequently inform his response to the Open Admissions Strike. A month later members of the City College Commune forced their way into the office of Associate Dean of Students James Peace and rifled through disciplinary files. Five students were subsequently brought up on criminal charges.
The Open Admissions Strike
The Open Admissions Strike was a dramatic event that radically transformed CUNY as no other protest before or since has. It set a standard of militancy in the fight for access to education that informed subsequent struggles to defend what it conquered. In order to appreciate its significance it is necessary to understand the character of CUNY before Open Admissions. Ballard notes that before 1964 (t) he universitys faculty and student body was almost totally white In that year under the impetus of editorials by the New York Amsterdam News and pressure from Black state legislators, the (Board of Higher Education) initiated the College Discovery Program under which 250 Black students were admitted to the community colleges.
In response to the advances of the civil rights movement it was increasingly politically impossible to keep CUNY an essentially all-white institution. Both the state legislature and the university saw the need to open up access to CUNY to some degree. In 1965 City College initiated the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program with 105 Black and Puerto Rican students. The SEEK program placed students who did not meet normal admissions requirements in the University and gave them support in the form of remedial classes, tutoring, financial assistance and so on. The students initially selected for the SEEK program were chosen based on recommendations by teachers and counselors who saw in them talents that were not reflected in their grades or test score. In short they were naturally bright and talented young men and women who had been cheated by the New York City Public Schools. By 1966 SEEK was established CUNY-wide and by 1968 1500 students were enrolled in SEEK (600 of them at CCNY)
By the 1968-69 academic year New York City was a bomb waiting to explode and City College was a strategically located fuse in the heart of Harlem, the capital of Black America. The college had a deeply rooted tradition of radical and militant activism, and a small core of carefully selected Black and Puerto Rican students who had entered the college through the new SEEK program. Although they had been selected for participation in the program precisely because of their promise, the SEEK students were consistently treated as second-class students (they were even deprived of the right to vote in Student Government elections!) and had accumulated a series of particular grievances against their own treatment at CUNY. But far more importantly they had developed a sense of responsibility to the communities they came from to use their tenuous position inside the ivory tower to advance the liberations struggles of their peoples. Ballard explains, (T) he Black and Puerto Rican students on the campus, although small in proportion to the total student body, were extremely well organized, well led, and supported by a group of Black and Puerto Rican faculty who had been recruited to teach and counsel in the SEEK program.
City College was committed to the expansion of educational opportunities for Black and Latino students, but the schools plans lacked any sense of the urgency felt by the Black and Puerto Rican student population. According to Ballard:
The colleges master plan called for a total SEEK program size of 1,200 students by 1975, a growth rate that would have resulted in eight years, in a student body 10 per cent Black and 5 per cent Puerto Rican. While such an increase might have been appropriate for some colleges, it was inappropriate for an institution so near to Harlem.
The go-slow approach was not limited to the administration. Indeed, most radical white faculty opposed a proposal in 1968 to have a 25% Black and Puerto Rican entering class in the fall of that year.
Student agitation for increased admissions of Black and Puerto Rican students began in the fall of 1968. The W.E.B. DuBois Club, a student organization affiliated with the Communist Party, that at City College was predominantly Black, collected around 1,500 student signatures on a statement that it then placed as an advertisement in the City College newspaper, The Campus. The statement included six demands:
1. That the racial composition of all future entering classes reflect that of the high school graduating classes in New York City.
2. That the SEEK program be at least quadrupled by January 1969 and extended to include those without a high school diploma.
3. That enough new senior colleges be built within the next two years in New York City to accommodate all students who graduate from high school.
4. That stipends substantial enough to live on decently be given to all those students who cannot afford to go to college.
5. Community-student-faculty control of the City University
6. a. That Black, Puerto Rican and labor history be integrated into the curriculum at all levels.
b. That Black and Puerto Rican history courses and the Spanish language be requirement for education majors.
Several of the W.E.B. DuBois Club demands would later be echoed in the five demands raised by the Black and Puerto Rican Student Community.
In January, 1969, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller poured fuel on the smoldering frustration of Black and Puerto Rican students with a budget proposal that called for slashing the SEEK program and reducing Fall admissions by 20%. Rather than moving forward with the tepid master plan, the Governor was calling for a roll back of the small foothold Black and Puerto Rican students had at CUNY!
On February 6, a meeting was called by the Committee of Ten, composed of leaders of Black and Puerto Rican student organizations that drafted the five demands that would be the focus of the struggle. On February 13, 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students occupied the office of CCNY President Gallagher for four hours and presented the five demands:
1. That a School of Black and Puerto Rican Studies be established.
2. That a separate orientation program for Black and Puerto Rican students be established.
3. That students be given a voice in the administration of the SEEK program.
4. The number of minority freshmen in the entering class reflects the 40-45 ratios of Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the total school system.
5. That Black and Puerto Rican history course be compulsory for education majors and that Spanish language courses be compulsory for education majors.
It is worth noting that Open Admissions was not among the demands. The fourth demand, for proportional representation of Blacks and Puerto Ricans in future entering classes, was in fact more focused than what actually came to pass.
The Black and Puerto Rican Student Community (BPRSC) avoided any direct confrontation with the administration for the next two months, essentially agitating amongst the student body in support of the five demands and preparing their forces for a more dramatic action. In late February a Black and Puerto Rican-led slate came in second place in student government elections on a platform of universal free higher education. On March 7, SNCC leader Rap Brown spoke at CCNYs Great Hall. Similar events reflected a high degree of activity on the part of the student body, especially the Black and Puerto Rican students. On March 18, 13,000 students, including five busloads from CCNY alone, rallied in Albany to oppose the proposed budget cuts.
Shortly thereafter the State Legislature passed a budget incorporating most of Rockefellers proposed cuts. In response, CCNY President Gallagher submitted his resignation to the Board of Higher Education in protest. The resignation letter was pointed:
I have taken every honorable step but one within my power, as an effort to avert the threatened mutilation of the university. . Among the measures necessary if we were to attempt to open our doors under such a budget next September would be these: 1. admit no freshman class; 2 admit no entrants to the SEEK program; 3. Close the evening and summer sessions; 4. Scrap our plans for black and Puerto Rican studies, and 5. Terminate graduate work.
Then invoking a powerful image from the Southern civil rights movement he continued:
I am now asked by officers of government to stand in the door and keep students out. I shall not accede, I will not do it. I will not turn my back on the poor of all races. I will be unfaithful to none of my brothers, black or white.
He goes on:
Is this to be the final word from the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in the world? Instead of serving as a lackey of political expediency and fiscal timidity, I want to be free to fight the battles and for freedom and justice and brotherhood.
Twenty-three out of twenty seven department chairs joined Gallagher in offering their resignations as well. Gallaghers stunning action, the sharp words in his letter of resignation, and the solidarity of the department chairs undoubtedly gave encouragement to the BPRSC.
They did not wait long to act. On Monday, April 21, almost a thousand Black and Puerto Rican students marched through the campus in support of the five demands. A simultaneous boycott of classes was thirty per cent effective.
Events escalated the next day when more than a hundred members of the BPRSC closed the entrances to the CCNY South campus. This was the beginning of the Open Admissions strike. In solidarity with the BPRSC actions, members of the City College Commune locked themselves in Bowler Lounge. On faculty advice President Gallagher closed the campus on Wednesday.
In spite of the closure, radical white students were able to seize a second building, Klapper Hall, which they renamed after Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. The same day the City College faculty met in the Great Hall to hear the demands of the BPRSC. Gallagher announced the beginning of negotiations with the BPRSC and cancelled classes through Monday.
On Thursday, April 24, CCNY faculty voted 221 to 1 to oppose the employment of force or the resort to injunctive procedures in order to resolve this dispute as long as negotiations are going forward. This gave the strikers even greater leverage. Negotiations with the strikers continued over the weekend and into Monday, but faltered on Tuesday, April 29 after the BPRSC discovered and seized a police agent on the South Campus. The same day an attempted rally against the strike by students in the Engineering Department fizzled.
Actions were by no means confined to the CCNY campus. On Monday, April 21, 400 Students at Queensborough Community College sat-in at their administration building. The same day saw large rallies at Brooklyn College and Queens College. And the protests were not limited to CUNY either. Two high schools in Brooklyn had to be closed. Students set fires at Erasmus High in Brooklyn and De Witt Clinton in the Bronx. At Bushwick High School one hundred students held a sit-in.
As the occupation at City College continued, increasing pressure was put on President Gallagher to call in the police to clear out the strikers. On May 1, two orders to show cause for closing the college were served on Gallagher respectively by Congressman Mario Biaggi and the Jewish Defense League. The next day Gallagher was served with a restraining order obtained by City Controller (and Mayoral candidate) Mario Procaccino ordering that the college be re-opened. Gallagher ignored the order and called for a faculty meeting on Sunday, May 4 where substantial agreement was supposedly reached on meeting the BPRSC demands.
As if to underline the precariousness of the situation, that same day Black and Puerto Rican students took over the main building at Bronx Community College (BCC), chaining shut four doors, and demanding Black, Puerto Rican and Asian faculty and greater student voice in operations of the college. Cuban and Vietnamese National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) flags were hung from the school. The BCC administration quickly announced that the college was to be closed in response.
On Monday, May 5, negotiations between the strikers and the administration were interrupted when the occupiers of the CCNY South Campus and Klapper Hall were served with injunctions issued at the request of the Board of Higher Education and the takeovers ended. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. urged the insurgents to defy the injunction. But when white student supporters decided to give up their buildings, the BPRSC followed suit.
Over the next several days racial strife broke out between Black and white students when some white male students physically attacked a group of Black female students. With fights breaking out between groups of students across the campus the police were then called in to occupy the college.
On Thursday, May 8, the fighting between students continued with the police targeting Black and Puerto Rican students and their white allies for arrests. The same day the Finley Student Center was severely damaged by a fire, presumably set by supporters of the strike. Ten other smaller fires were also set at other locations around the campus. The fires were an indication to university officials that if they did not act that the situation was about to go from bad to worse. The next day the CUNY Board of Higher Education effectively reversed its previous position and declared a commitment to meeting the demands of the strikers, including a policy of Open Admissions.
What led to this reversal? Ballard captures both the calculations and the spirit of the decision when he says
It is no exaggeration to state that the atmosphere at the board in that spring of 1969 was akin in mood to that which must have prevailed in general Westmorelands headquarters as the reports of the impact of the Tet offensive came in. For not only was City College in a state of siege, but almost every other institution in the university was being paralyzed by racial conflict, related both to admissions policies and to proposed Black studies programs. The chancellor and the board realized that there would be no peace in the university until some positive answers to the students demands were forthcoming
University Deputy Chancellor Seymour H. Hyman confirms Ballards account, describing his own response to the burning of Finley the only question in my mind was, how can we save City College? And the only answer was, Hell, let everybody in.
President Gallagher was replaced at this point with Professor Joseph Copeland and negotiations with the Black and Puerto Rican faculty and the BPRSC were revived to determine the precise terms of the new policies. An agreement among these parties was reached on the two major issues Ballard recounts,
There was to be a School of Urban and Third World Studies, and an admissions policy was devised that would have resulted by the fall semester of 1970 in a dual admissions system. Under the agreement, half of City Colleges freshmen were to have been admitted on the basis of grades and the other half on the basis of graduating from schools that traditionally had sent few of their graduates to college. In short, the students had won their demands.
In early June, the faculty senate of CCNY rejected outright the negotiated agreement, using instead the time-honored device of appointing a committee to examine the feasibility of establishing a Black and Puerto Rican studies program, and substituting a pallid admissions formula that would have brought in 400 Black and Puerto Rican students in addition to those already admitted under the SEEK program.
It was then up to the Board of Higher Education to reverse the CCNY faculty in July.
The Board of Higher Education would not decide on the final policy until November. It guaranteed admission to the senior colleges to any student with an 80% average OR who graduated in the top 50% of their graduating class, giving preference in choice of schools to higher ranking students. This formula would have some fateful and not entirely anticipated effects. The first was that an enormous number of white working class students were among the beneficiaries of the Open Admissions strike led by Black and Puerto Rican students. The second effect was to create a semi-segregated university in which some campuses became virtually all-Black and/or Latino while others remained predominantly white as a consequence of giving the (usually white) higher ranking students preference in choosing their school.
It should be remembered here that the BPRSC had not demanded Open Admissions, but rather the proportional representation of Black and Puerto Rican students in the entering freshman class. But had the BPRSC demand been the basis of the policy it would have created a situation in which Black and Puerto Rican students would have gained admission while equally or more academically qualified whites would have been denied access. Such a policy would have ensured that the limited (and always under threat) resources of the university would be employed to correct the historical racial imbalance in access to the university. While that was the objective of the strike, fear of antagonizing working class white communities led to another policy: Open Admissions. This had two results. The first was the creation of a base of white support for the new policy as white working class youth who would never have gotten into CUNY under the old admissions standards were let in en masse. The second was to dramatically increase the costs and strains that the policy put on the university.
In spite of all this the Open Admissions Strike had was a tremendous victory for the Black and Puerto Rican communities of New York City. It is worth pausing here to attempt to draw out a few lessons from this battle. First, it tells us how desperate the powers that be felt in 1969. Ballards description of the sense of being under siege characterized not just City College but practically every major institution in U.S. society at the time. That such a situation is possible is important to remember in the current period of relative quiescence. Second, it shows us how much can be accomplished by a relatively small number of dedicated people with an appreciation of larger social dynamics. The BPRSC was not a large organization. It had a compact leadership core (the Committee of Ten) and commanded the allegiance of a couple hundred students at CCNY. Ultimately it was able to seize the imaginations of many more, but this is not how it began. The BPRSC seized on a spirit of insurgency that had already gripped the campus around the war in Vietnam and returned the focus to the liberation struggles of oppressed people in the United States. The BPRSC both understood the urgency of taking action quickly and the potential for winning real concessions. They acted in a bold and creative manner and captured the attention of the powers that be and the imaginations of other students. They transformed a situation of defeat the passage of devastating budget cuts into its opposite the opening up of the university to huge numbers of previously excluded young people of all colors. Third and finally the Open Admissions strike demonstrated the power of students to bring about significant social change by taking militant direct action. While the BPRSC utilized a variety of tactics to build support for their demands, they recognized that their greatest power lay in their ability to disrupt the normal functioning of the university and to threaten even greater social disruption. They did not emphasize registering students as voters or calling or lobbying their elected representatives in Albany not because such tactics have no worth, but because they knew that their power to win radical concessions rested on their willingness to engage in radical action.
The Effects of Open Admissions
While it is not my purpose here to document all the effects of Open Admissions it is necessary to note some of the dramatic changes that occurred in the University as a result of the implementation of the policy. These changes shaped the terms and terrain of student struggles after 1969 in a number of important ways. First and foremost the size and composition of the student body underwent significant changes. The CUNY student body doubled almost immediately almost quadrupled by 1975. And over the course of the 1970s CUNY went from virtually all white to a majority Black and Latino student body.
Most students correctly associated the policies of Open Admissions with their opportunity to attend college. In 1969 the policy of Open Admissions commanded the support of a minority of CUNY students. That minority was well organized and supported by larger social forces and therefore able to prevail. But by the early 1970s a majority of CUNY students clearly supported the new policies and constituted a reliable social base for organized political activity in their defense. On most campuses, student governments passed into the hands of activist students of color and became resources for the defense of Open Admissions, with student government leaders sometimes constituting the actual leadership of the student movement on their campuses.
There were other significant changes as well. Many faculty left CUNY during the early-70s because of their displeasure with the new policy. This included many ostensibly progressive faculty and not just conservatives. This faculty were replaced largely with faculty who, to one degree or another, supported or accepted the new policy. There was also considerable upheaval in the administration of the various colleges and the University as a whole. The SEEK program was expanded considerably and Ethnic Studies programs and departments established on many campuses. There was widespread vision of the university as a resource of the community and campus facilities were made increasingly available to community based organizations. The overall result was what might be called a situation of dual power in which the public resources of the university were utilized by progressive social forces based in insurgent communities of color to develop a new layer of college trained and educated community leaders.
There was a temporary convergence of two visions of the university: an essentially liberal social-welfare vision committed to improving the lot of poor communities through improved access to education and what could be called a liberationist vision that viewed that education as a means for building the capacities of oppressed communities to wage further social struggles. The SEEK and ethnic studies programs in particular became centers for the latter liberationist vision. In the face of an almost immediate backlash against Open Admissions these two trends were effectively forced to make common cause in defense of the policy. Initially this de facto alliance was to the benefit of the liberationists, who until the advent of Open Admissions had essentially no institutional power. Over time however as the backlash slowly gained ground it would be the conquests of the liberationists that would often be sacrificed. An early indication of this tendency was the resistance of the CCNY and other senior college tenured faculties to the automatic transfer of community college credits and admission of community college students as upperclassmen.