CUNY On The Brink

Today the New York Times published a startling (if you haven’t been inside a CUNY campus lately) exposé on the shameful financial state of the City University of New York. Reporter David Chen describes an institution with a “proud legacy” in severe decline. Thanks to state budget cuts, tuition has risen 33% since 2008 and campuses are falling apart. Writing about City College, Chen tells of “leaking ceilings [that] have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper.”

I am familiar with such conditions. As an adjunct at Hunter College, I and dozens of other part-time teachers toiled in dirty, overcrowded offices with mice droppings scattered around.

Crumbling buildings are not the only sign of a university on the brink. The NYT also reported that courses have been cancelled due to lack of funds. One campus library received a book budget of only $13,000 for the entire year, down from $60,000 ten years before.

While reports about what austerity has wrought at CUNY are usually welcome, the NYT piece promotes a mythology about higher education that requires some correction.

Chen laments the neglect of a storied institution because he worries that an atrophied CUNY can no longer be the democratizing force that it once was. “Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital,” he explains, “governments have been pulling back their support.”

One hears these sorts of claims all the time about higher education as an engine of mobility. In polite company, it is practically a criminal offense to question the assertion that college is the tide that can lift all enrollees to the middle class, or better. After the Great Recession, politicians and policy makers of every stripe insisted that the solution to our economic woes was more education (preferably the kind geared narrowly to the needs of employers).

That’s why it’s unfortunate to see people who should know better beating the same drum. Brooklyn College Professor, Corey Robin, lamented CUNY’s lost golden era by telling the story of his former grad school roommate, Greg Grandin, who entered CUNY via open admissions (when college was free and all NYC high school graduates were guaranteed a seat) in the early 1970s. “A working-class kid from Brooklyn,” Robin wrote, “[Grandin] got radicalized in college and interested in Latin American … [He] went onto Yale to do graduate work, and is now, at NYU, one of the preeminent historians of Latin America . . . That’s the kind of thing CUNY used to do for students. It still does, often against the odds.”

The truth is that CUNY never did that “kind of thing” for students on its own, and it’s disingenuous (and a little lazy) to say that it did. Higher education could never have been an engine of upward mobility for Grandin or anyone from his background absent a broader context in which Humanities degrees held value and in which students’ ambitions and interests could be realized.

The Grandin story as story is doubly troubling. Like many such bootstrapping narratives, it’s told as if the ultimate success that education can offer is to reproduce itself: a Humanities degree is a good thing because you can become — a Humanities professor! And for that “working-class kid” success meant becoming a world-class scholar at a private university, one of the most expensive in the country, and one with the highest rate of student debt. There are just too many problems with the poor-kid-goes-to-CUNY tale of triumph to take it seriously as a model for anything we might want to celebrate or reclaim.

The glory days of CUNY – just like the years of post-war prosperity that built the American middle class – were an historical anomaly. Yet, many of the people who benefitted from that era like to see it as containing universal lessons for public policy. It’s a dangerous anachronism.

The reality is that Grandin’s trajectory could only be possible in a society that believes Latin American historians should exist and get paid for what they do. That society existed for a moment that – lucky for Grandin – coincided with his coming of age. But we are very far – and getting farther – from those values today. The ruling class simply doesn’t need historians anymore than it wants anthropologists or a broadly educated working class.

Lamentations about CUNY’s tragic decline continued long after Rudy Giuliani had led a transformation of the college into an institution actively hostile to the working-class students that it claimed to serve when it was the “poor man’s Harvard.” During my days as a grad student at CUNY, Attewell and Lavin’s Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay off Across the Generations? was lauded as providing data finally proving that CUNY had paved the way for a generation of students, especially women of color, to move up the economic ladder.

A closer look at the evidence reveals a more complicated outcome, one that all of us who care about the future of public education must come to terms with. Thirty years after open admissions, Attewell and Lavin found that women who graduated took as many as 15 years to do so and reported an average annual economic benefit of $7,525. For black women the figure was $5,002. This modest increment was perhaps worth the enormous time and energy these women devoted to college study. Nothing in the book, though, demonstrates that degrees alone produced those gains or that other tactics, such as starting a union in their workplace, might not have had the same effect.

Economic gains made by college grads have declined in recent years. As a study by EPI reveals, the regression-adjusted college premium has been flat since the latter 1990s for women (it has risen more slowly for men). It’s unclear how a degree from even a fully funded CUNY could change the basic structural problem that there are fewer and fewer middle-class jobs for everyone, including college graduates. Other studies have confirmed that the college premium, especially when disaggregated for class, race, and institution type, is largely a myth.

It may sound like I’m saying it doesn’t matter whether CUNY’s funding is restored or not. That couldn’t be further from my point. All students deserve to learn and all teachers deserve to teach in well-funded institutions where they are nurtured and valued.

But defenders of the public should also insist on accurate representations of what public higher education can do – and what it cannot. College doesn’t produce upward mobility en masse absent other factors, including an economic system that values and rewards the contributions of humanists as well as coders and financiers.

The real weakness of the rhetoric of reclamation (“bring back the glory days!”) is that it poses no challenge to the powers that have stripped the public of its public-ness. As the NYT reporter noted:

The University of California system relied on state funding for almost a quarter of its budget as recently as 2002, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Now, that figure is 9 percent, after $1 billion in cuts.

I contend that, at 9% public funding, the CA system is “public” in name only. This shift is the outcome of years of disinvestment. It is also the outcome of just-so arguments about education’s ability to move individuals up the economic ladder. The so-called “college premium” is, in the words of Bob Meister, a concept that serves the agenda of privatizers.

The idea of an ‘education premium’ that would keep on rising was also, of course, the basis for making degrees from public universities tuition-funded rather than taxpayer-funded. Why should those taxpayers who have been left behind continue to pay for a system of public higher education that has become an engine for reproducing and expanding the income disparity between the college-educated and everyone else?

Meister critiques a neoliberal discourse that has been utterly normalized: if college provides upward mobility for individuals, then those individuals should pay for it. While we’re pushing back against disinvestment schemes from recalcitrant administrators and state governments, we must commit to not talking about things in the same old way. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, sentimental defenses of CUNY – or any other public college – are seriously misplaced. What is actually required is letting go of the illusion that there ever was anything to defend in the first place and figuring out what that means about the way we organize now.

 

 

 

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