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A History of the City University of New York Student Movement 1969-99

When does the actual History of CUNY students start? At what point should this supposedly concise History begin? Every profession has its unique hazards. For student of History, it is the urge to trace the struggle of the 1969 take over of the City University of New York (CUNY), and its relationships to the student of colors as far back as possible. As Historian we are trained to see that every event or trend must have come from something, which in turn must have been caused by something else. But by the late sixty students of color decide to take fate and their education, and put it all on the line for a better future for those who were to come behind them. These students were extraordinary individual; they were beyond their time.

In 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students at the City College of New York fought and won an unprecedented victory of opening admissions at the City University of New York (CUNY) which resulted in a radical transformation of the whole entire university systems. The student body doubled within a year of the actions taken by these students, and within seven years of it the whole white body had become the minority, while the black students became the majority.

But little that they knew, by 1999 the CUNY Board of Trustees by a vote of overwhelmed majority voted to eliminate remedial classes at CUNYs Senior Colleges, thereby pinpointing and striking down a central pillar of the policy of open admissions and effectively ending what does student gain in 1969. It also remains to be seen whether their decision will ultimately be reversed after a review by the State Board of Regents, which is a body attached to the Board of education. For the moment Open admission at the CUNY is dead.

Nevertheless, this is the History of the CUNY student movement, which took place in 1969. In 1969 they won and defended open admission; expanded access for students of colors and defended education for all for the last thirty-three years.

CUNY was not the first institution to establish an Open admission policy, but the precise characteristics of this policy as applied to such a large institution serving such a large diverse city like New York had an extraordinary impact quite unlike its application at the Land-grant public State Universities in the Mid-West. Almost instantly CUNY became the single largest degree-granting University for Black and Latino students in the United States of America.

Federal civil rights laws prohibited discrimination in employment based on Race; and Affirmative Action policies promised the partial ratification of past injustices. Open admission at the City University of New York made the promise of greater equality of opportunity and an enlarge Black and Brown middle class a reality for the city of New York.

Open admission was won at the high tide of the civil rights Movement and students at CUNY started a liberation struggles for education in 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 believed and fear that this might result in a more radical sort of change. But before Open admission could even be implemented, the backlash to minimized students of colors into the university itself was underway. The attack on access to the City University of New York has taken a variety of forms over the years, tuition imposition when the university had been free for two World Wars, three Depressions. But politician have found a way through budget cuts and freeze which turn out to be a way for then to attempt to control the migration of students of colors into the City University. Elimination of ethnic studies programs and Departments; and changes in the admissions process through formula for seniors colleges. The overall result of this has been a thirty-three years battle over the identity of the University itself.

There have also been a numbers of studies done on the effects and implications of open admission at CUNY including several that have tracked the changes over time in the actual policy. Nevertheless, this is not the focus of this research, thought, while there is a general acknowledgement of the importance of student actions bringing about Open admission through the 1969 Open admission Strike, there have been less appreciation of the importance role student activism played in defending and maintaining the policy for almost thirty years. But to treat Open admissions primarily as a matter to be debated by policy makers and education experts is a denial of its political characters. When the students themselves arent even able to weight in their own opinion when they are the one being affected by whatever implementation this so call experts believed is best for CUNY students. Open admission was won as a result of the political mobilization of several constituencies in the context of larger political struggles, and it was this struggle that preserved for as long as it was a consequence of the continuation of the continuing organization and mobilization of those particular constituencies. The chief among these were the CUNY students themselves.

Open admissions have had very courageous faculty and administrators, and at times they have staked their professional careers on its defense. But since the mid 70s it has been the CUNY students who have been the most energetic and reliable defenders of the Open admission policy, and it was their militant actions, which have repeatedly the meter that have stopped and slowed down the roll back on the attacks on Open admission. Community support of student struggles has often been a crucial part of the external struggles itself. But it has been student whom has initiated actions that have called forth the great combination, and the working relationship of community mobilization.

There is no doubt that, if not for the efforts of the CUNY students activism, the collection of policies that together constituted Open admissions would have been dismantled much more quickly. Even thought at the present it seems that they have lost the fight to preserve Open admissions, the truth of the matter is that by making the fight a protracted one they have enabled tens of thousands of poor and working class New Yorkers, primarily people of colors and Latino, to enter, attend and graduate from an institution of higher learning and by doing so they helped to reshape the whole social structure of the City of New York.

The purpose of this website 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 the focus here are broken down into 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 less continuous over the entire thirty years. But for most of that time, the bodies responsible for the fate of the university were the Governor, the Mayor, the State Legislature, the City Council and the Board of Higher Education which became later known as (the Board of Trustees) could safely ignore student opinion and they 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 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 fight for it.

                        The first period is Open Admissions Strike itself that 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 special attention is given 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 protest 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 Admission to a close.