Students: Ally with the Working Class!
Smash Racist Purge of CUNY–
Break with the Democrats and Republicans–
In his annual “state of the city” speech last year, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani launched a campaign to exclude more than half of all incoming students from the City University of New York (CUNY). This year in his report the mayor ranted against CUNY, saying “that’s a system we would blow up.” A blatantly racist purge is being carried out in the name of “standards.” The door is to be slammed in the face of all those who fail even one of three entrance exams. Remedial courses for incoming students are to be eliminated, first from the four-year colleges and then from the two-year community colleges. Particularly targeted for exclusion are racial minorities, immigrants and women. As one student protester’s sign proclaimed at a January 4 hearing on CUNY, the aim of this purge is to introduce “educational apartheid.”
Last May the CUNY Board of Trustees rammed through the new policy in a closed-door meeting after police cleared out the public, arresting more than two dozen. When that was challenged under a state “open meetings” law, this past January 25 the Board voted the exclusion resolution again, this time with several hundred protesting students and faculty shouting their opposition after navigating through a maze of police barricades, metal detectors, bag searches and pat-downs. With a majority of the trustees appointed by Giuliani and Governor George Pataki, the result was foreordained. But that does not end the struggle. It means that defenders of open admissions must escalate the fight and wage it not in bogus “hearings” but on the terrain of mass working-class action.
The government of the city and state of New York have declared war on CUNY. This not a local issue but part of the broader attack on the minority and working people of NYC and around the country and the world. Schools fall into disrepair while billions go into new prisons. Meanwhile, the strongarm tactics of CUNY’s campus cops reflect the methods of the New York Police, who work hand in hand with CUNY’s gun-toting “SAFE” cops. The Board of Trustees meeting at LaGuardia College on January 25 was barricaded in the same way the NYPD locked down central Harlem last September when a court ordered the city to permit the Million Youth March. And barely a week after the NYPD Street Crimes Unit gunned down black African immigrant Amadou Diallo in the doorway to his Bronx home (see page 10), four people were arrested at City College in Washington Heights at a conference demanding freedom for black radical death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The aim of the war on CUNY is to eliminate what remains of “open admissions” in this huge institution of 200,000 students on 20 campuses. Open admissions was a gain of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1969 the student population of CUNY’s senior colleges was 96 percent white. The next year, after an explosive student strike that demanded the right to a university education for every high school graduate, under the new guidelines the number of black, Latino and Asian freshmen increased seven times. It is no accident that the drive to purge this public university began just as the CUNY student body became majority non-white. Particularly targetted are those whose native language is not English. In May 1997, the regents denied degrees to over 500 prospective CUNY graduates, including more than 100 at the bilingual (Spanish-English) Hostos campus, by springing a punitive exam on them at the last minute. At Hunter College, for 55 percent of the students English is a second language.
The assault on open admissions at CUNY has national implications. Since 1970 close to half a million students have earned degrees from the City University, and over this period the CUNY system has graduated more black and Latino students than any other university in the history of the United States. It’s not surprising, therefore, that open admissions at CUNY has been the target of racist attacks from the outset. Today Giuliani sneers, “By eliminating any meaningful standards of admission and continually defining down standards for continuation, the entire meaning and value of a college education has been put in jeopardy.” In 1971, Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew said the same, denouncing the CUNY plan as a giveaway of “100,000 devalued diplomas.” A study by CUNY professors David E. Lavin and David Hyllegard, Changing the Odds: Open Admissions and the Life Chances of the Disadvantaged (Yale University Press, 1996) notes that open admissions more than tripled the number of bachelor’s degrees for blacks and doubled the number for Hispanics. It is this that has the racists incensed.
In fact, the purge at CUNY is an attack on the entire working class, aiming to exclude working people from the student body. Open admissions at CUNY opened the door for working-class white students as well: the number of white freshmen went from 16,000 in 1969 to an average of 26,000 over the next three years. Now, in his 1999 state budget, Governor Pataki has announced plans to eliminate TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) grants for all students who take less than 15 credits (five courses) per semester. Tuition for the four-year colleges is already over $3,600 a year, and $3,200 for the two-year colleges–making them about the most expensive community colleges in the country. Already in the last three years more than 18,000 CUNY students receiving welfare have been driven out as the city implements the slave labor “workfare” program. Now anyone who isn’t a full-time student is to be denied state tuition aid. And since a huge percentage of CUNY students are working people who scrimp together enough to take a couple of courses a semester–almost 150,000 out of 350,000 CUNY students are part time–this new regulation will eliminate thousands more.
Giuliani makes no secret of his aim. “Open enrollment is a mistake,” he declared last year. “Its consequences have been cruel.” And what is “cruel” about allowing hundreds of thousands of poor, minority and working-class students to gain a university education? According to the mayor, “It has created in CUNY students false expectations which the realities of life inevitably leave unfulfilled.” The mayor echoes those who declared that it was cruel to teach slaves to read and write. A newsletter of the United Literacy Workers at CUNY (In From the Margins, April 1998) quoted Frederick Douglass’ description of the outburst of the slavemaster who caught his wife teaching a young slave to write: not only would this “spoil” the slaves and make them “unmanageable,” but “it could do him no good...it would make him discontented and unhappy.” These are exactly the sentiments of the modern slavedriver Giuliani as he forces unpaid labor on welfare recipients and bars tens of thousands of wage slaves (as Karl Marx described “free” workers) from CUNY. Enforced ignorance is always the gospel of the oppressor.
A revolutionary civil war was fought to abolish chattel slavery, yet a century later the descendants of the slavemasters were still vowing massive resistance to school integration. Today Republican NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani imitates Dixiecrat Alabama governor George Wallace, standing in the doorway of CUNY vowing to kick out minorities, immigrants, women in rolling back the minimal gains of the civil rights movement. It took a stormy struggle to win open admissions at CUNY as a partial corrective to the segregated and grossly unequal high schools and the virtual exclusion of minorities from the colleges. It will take no less today to stop the resegregation of higher education everywhere from UCal Berkeley (where eliminating “affirmative action” has decimated minority enrollment) to CUNY (where the last vestiges of open admissions are being scrapped).
Across the U.S. there is an onslaught against enrollment of minorities in universities, particularly of blacks, and more particularly of black men. Over the last two and a half decades, the proportion of expenditure on public education at all levels has sharply dropped. Internationally, as well, there are mounting attacks on public higher education as the capitalists seek to slash “unproductive” (not profitable) government expenditure on welfare, pensions health care and schools. This all-out capitalist attack has escalated in the wake of the counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state and toppled the deformed workers states of East Europe.
The privatizers feel they have the wind in their sales and are laying waste to one social program after another. Certainly this drive is spearheaded by a hard right wing, but it is the program of the entire bourgeoisie. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have all supported the cutbacks, only “differing” on how much to slice off. They all join hands in voting to deny food stamps to immigrants, to throw moms and kids off welfare, to replace schools with prisons, to extend the barbaric, racist death penalty and speed up the machinery of state murder. And while feuding over the impeachment spectacle in Washington, they unanimously support war criminal Clinton in raining bombs on Iraq. This is, after all, the era of imperialist decay, in which the bogus “American dream” (which was always a nightmare for black people) is seen as an anachronism, “unrealistic expectations” that must be done away with.
All Cops Off Campus! Abolish “SAFE”!
In New York state, according to a December 1998 study by the Justice Policy Institute, annual spending on prisons has gone up by $761 million over the last decade (to $1.6 billion), while funding of the State University of New York (SUNY) and CUNY is down $615 million (to $1.3 billion)–an almost perfect dollar-for-dollar match. Liberals and reformist pseudo socialists often argue for “butter vs. guns” (although in this case the biggest increases in prison funding came under liberal Democrat Cuomo). But this is not about a trade-off, it’s about the capitalist state. For the capitalist ruling class, its military hardware is for use against its perceived enemies, including the “enemy within.” And the prisons are an essential part of the increasingly paramilitary policing of America’s inner cities, particularly as part of the racist “war on drugs” which is really a war on the ghettos and barrios.
Today the capitalists and their politicians are slashing away at public education at every level. Tens and hundreds of thousands of young people who want to study are being told , “Forget it, you’re not wanted.” That alone is a stark indictment of this society and the entire capitalist system, where the drive for profits is counterposed to the most basic human needs. The fight to make decent education available to all can only go forward as part of the struggle against the irrational and decaying profit system of racism and class oppression. It is necessary to build a workers party to lead the fight for socialist revolution, which is what it will take to secure genuine access to free, quality public education from preschool to university.
The Battle for Open Admissions at CUNY
Open admissions at CUNY was legislated in 1969 in response to a strike and building takeover at City College, initially by a couple of hundred black and Puerto Rican students. The student strikers’ demands were focused on raising black and Puerto Rican enrollment and instituting black and Puerto Rican studies. But the powerful city unions pushed for opening admissions to all high school graduates, and this was eventually adopted. The next freshman class grew by 75 percent, with significantly more white students as well as dramatically increased numbers of minorities. It was still not full open admissions, for the university was stratified into community colleges (today enrolling 160,000 students) and “senior” colleges (currently 40,000 students), with “placement” decided by rather arbitrary tests. Extensive “remediation” was introduced with non-credit courses preparing students to pass the exams.
Already a century and a half ago, the 1848 Communist Manifesto called for “free education for all children in public schools.” Communists fight for freely available public education at all levels as a gain for the working class, even as the content of that education under capitalism inevitably reflects the dominant bourgeois ideology. Marxism is based on the highest scientific achievements of capitalist society, and we demand that the exploited and oppressed have access to those achievements as necessary tools in their fight for emancipation. Open admissions in higher education is a basic democratic right. By itself, it is hardly incompatible with capitalism, any more than public primary and secondary schools are. (Some U.S. states had opened universities to all high school graduates in the 1930s, then with minimal or no tuition.) Even that is not enough to overcome poverty and the effects of entrenched educational segregation, which is as bad (or even worse) today in much of the North as it was before school integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954.
In the struggle against the war on CUNY, the Internationalist Group calls for open admissions and no tuition, as well as for a state-paid living stipend for all students and special programs to overcome the effects of years of educational deprivation suffered by students in run-down, understaffed, underfunded inner-city schools. The whole history of the fight to win and defend even an approximation of open admissions demonstrates that it is crucial that students must ally with the working class in struggle against the cutbacks and takebacks that affect all poor, minority and working people. A student strike can be a spark of militancy; a citywide strike by New York workers can stop Giuliani cold.
We fight for full and free access to public education at all levels, against tracking and elite secondary schools, and against stratified (two- or three-tier) college systems which are inherently discriminatory. As for “remediation,” the very term reflects an ideology that puts the blame on the student, as if they are the problem. Yet students from Bushwick, East New York, Harlem and the South Bronx are taught in schools where classes are held on gym floors, in bathrooms and often in “temporary” trailers which occupy playgrounds for years. Forget about computers in the classroom, there is often no chalk for the blackboard and no books for students to take home. This state of affairs is a result of systematic discrimination against city schools. According to statistics presented by a member of the NY Board of Regents at a recent weekend meeting sponsored by the Black and Puerto Rican/Hispanic Caucus of the state legislature, New York City spends an annual average of $8,213 per pupil in public schools, compared to $12,052 per pupil in affluent districts–that is, one-third less. Not only does the funding of education by local property taxes mean that poor districts have less money, New York state contributes $2,000 less per pupil to NYC schools than to other districts.
In order to ram through the attack on the remnants of open admissions, Giuliani and his flunkeys on the Board of Trustees (first and foremost Herman Badillo, who like his boss seems to derive sadistic pleasure out of keeping Latinos, blacks and Asians out of the City University) spread a lot of lies. The first concerns graduation rates, with the claim that only 1 percent of community college students graduate “on time” in two years. Yet almost no community college students attend school full time (only 47 students out of 16,000 new admissions in 1995)! And the average age of CUNY students is 25, far older than the average nationally. The fact is that CUNY is a university for working people, in which the vast majority go to school while also holding down a job, struggling to make ends meet. Some 72 percent of community college students at CUNY are from households earning less than $25,000 a year, compared to 29 percent of community college students nationally.
Giuliani’s smears are particularly cynical as the city is legally required to pay one-third of the community college budget, but instead it is only paying 23 percent, putting it tens of millions of dollars in arrears. Concerning remediation, a fact sheet put together by Professor Bill Crain noted that “nearly two thirds of associate degree [community college] students and three quarters of bachelor’s degree students complete remediation in one year, and most of the rest do in three terms.” As for graduation rates, “after 5 years, the graduation rates at our community colleges exceed the national average for public institutions (28 percent vs. 24 percent). After 8 years, CUNY bachelor’s degree students graduate at a higher rate than the national average for public institutions (45 percent to about 40 percent).”
Moreover, some 78 percent of all colleges in the United States (and 81 percent of all public colleges) offer remedial courses. But no longer at CUNY, decrees the Board of Trustees. At the January 25 Board meeting, one trustee (George Rios) argued that by eliminating remediation CUNY would be setting the trend for the rest of U.S. higher education. The ruling class enemies of CUNY students, teachers and workers are conscious of their aim of sharply “downsizing” (gutting) public higher education, particularly for minorities, immigrants and working people. To defeat them, it is necessary for their intended victims to be fully conscious of the nature of the threat they face, and the revolutionary program needed to combat it.
A Communist Program for Free, Quality Public Higher Education for All
How can the onslaught against open admissions and the racist purge of CUNY be defeated? Various lame proposals have been floated ranging from setting up a counter-commission to the Schmidt/Giuliani operation, appealing to alumni, going on talk shows, appealing to Democrats in Albany like Attorney General Spitzer (who first made a name for himself as a supporter of the death penalty). The “Friends of CUNY” and “CUNY Is Our Future” coalitions call for writing letters to the state Board of Regents will step in to block the end of remediation. Yet this is the same Board that is proposing to cancel diplomas for 80 percent of NYC high school students!
All these schemes are based on the illusion that there is some kind of “dialogue” about educational policy going on, when the reality is an unadorned class war. The New Caucus of the Professional Staff Congress (the AFT-affiliated teachers union at CUNY) has collected testimony given before the Schmidt Commission. Yet it’s worse than useless to try to “reason” with this wrecking crew. Giuliani’s “task force,” is on a search and destroy mission to drive minority and immigrant students out of CUNY! We say the Schmidt Commission should be driven off campus through protest and exposure of their reactionary program!
A leaflet put out by SLAM includes the program of the CUNY Coalition for Open Admissions calling for “democratic election of CUNY trustees.” But the Board of Trustees and CUNY administration are the representatives of the ruling class whose task is to keep students, teachers and campus workers in check. Communists call for abolishing the Board of Trustees and CUNY administration. We fight for student/teacher/worker control of the universities. Against those who would further privatize higher education, we call for expropriation of private colleges, universities and technological institutes.
Meanwhile, CUNY’s highly paid (more than professors) campus police go about arresting faculty members, strip-searching student protesters and turning campus facilities into police pens. Last June, students were tipped off to a surveillance camera disguised as a smoke detector outside the main office for political activists at City College. In response to their exposure of this atrocity, the Graduate Student Council and its newspaper, the Messenger, were suspended. The “SAFE” unit was formed as a little red squad, compiling lists of campus activists, videotaping student activities. When students protested tuition increases in 1995, scores were arrested and brutalized by these grotesquely named “peace officers.” The biggest threat to “peace” at CUNY are these provocative thugs. Students, faculty and campus workers should demand all cops off campus–abolish “SAFE”!
The CUNY trustees, administration and cops are stand-ins for the bourgeoisie, and any serious struggle against the racist purge plans will quickly face the concentrated power of the capitalist state. To fight this battle, it is necessary to mobilize a greater force, namely the power of the working class. There are hundreds of thousands of organized union members in New York City, who make the city run and who can also make it stop. There is an awareness among those fighting the attack on CUNY of the need for broader “labor and community support.” But this usually amounts to appeals for empty declarations by union bureaucrats. Some hailed the recent formation of a “New Century Movement” by the SEIU, Local 1199 and the United Federation of Teachers. Yet the present misleaders of labor supplied phone banks for the Democrats to elect welfare-slasher Clinton and rammed through wage freezes for Giuliani, rigging membership votes to squelch opposition, while the “dissidents” bring in the feds and courts who subject union after union to capitalist government control in the bogus claim of “fighting corruption.”
Opponents of the racist purge at CUNY are not powerless. There are millions of poor, minority, immigrant and working people who will find their educational opportunities or those of their children canceled by the drive to slam the door on public higher education. They can be mobilized in struggle when they see that their interests are at stake, but that will take a leadership with a program to fight and win this class struggle. That poses above all a political task, to oust the present pro-capitalist misleaders of labor and break the ties with the Democrats and Republicans, to undertake the forging of a revolutionary workers party. “Education is a right–fight, fight, fight!” goes one of the student chants. Yes, free public higher education is a democratic right, but this fight must be part of the struggle to sweep away the capitalist system that in its epoch of decline is waging relentless war on the rights and gains of working people. The marauding cops who murdered Amadou Diallo, tortured Abner Louima and patrol CUNY are the symbol of a system that is flailing about in its death agony.
Above all, it is necessary also to understand that the battle at CUNY is not just against Giuliani and his cohorts. Democratic state assemblyman Ed Sullivan speaks today against the elimination of remediation at CUNY, but the fact remains (as cynically pointed out by Schmidt commission member and former Republican state senator Manfred Ohrenstein at the January hearing) that Sullivan has long headed the assembly committee on higher education and thus he–along with his fellow Democratic assemblymen and women–is co-responsible for approving the cutback budgets which have steadily slashed CUNY budgets and raised CUNY tuition for years. In fact, according to statistics of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), public expenditure on education in the United States has dropped from 5.7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1975 to 4.9 percent 20 years later. As capitalists push to drive up profit rates and slash spending on social programs, this trend is accelerating.
In recent years there have been sharp struggles waged in a number of countries against attacks on public education, and not just from governments of the right. In semi-colonial countries, the International Monetary Fund and local bourgeois rulers have sought to implement sharp increases on student fees and tuition while imposing restrictions to admissions. A battle is looming over this in Mexico. Currently, Greek university students are fighting pitched battles with the police, protesting against government plans to restrict access to higher education by imposing exclusionary exams. In Europe as well as the U.S., influential capitalist circles see education (on which OECD governments spend a trillion dollars a year) as a profitable new “market” to be milked. Social-democratic education minister Claude Allègre in France declared last year that it was necessary to “instill a spirit of enterprise” and that educational services constitute “the great market of the 21st century” (Le Monde Diplomatique, June 1998). In response, French secondary school teachers and students mobilized in more than a dozen marches against Allègre’s educational counter-reform, demanding increased resources for poor regions. But their struggles were hamstrung by the fact that teachers union leaders are tied to the same popular-front government that is carrying out this “reform.”
In the rising period of capitalism, the U.S. was a pioneer in mass public education, with free public libraries, land-grant colleges and other innovations unknown in Europe. The name of Horace Mann is famous worldwide as an architect of progressive education (and opponent of slavery) along with that of the liberal educator John Dewey. The Russian Bolsheviks paid great attention to public education in the U.S. Lenin wrote articles on U.S. schools and in praise of the New York Public Library, pointing out that ordinary workers could go there after work to gain knowledge, and vowing to introduce such institutions in a workers Russia. Today, in the era of capitalist decline, many European countries still do not have public libraries, the NYPL is closed most evenings, and now the New York city government is planning to “blow up” the City University by cutting its size in half.
The bourgeoisie and pro-capitalist reformists seek to adjust the educational system to the needs of capital. This produces the spectacle of cutbacks in enrollment in higher education, particularly of black and Latino youth, at a time when technological developments require more skills not less. A chauvinist drive is underway against bilingual education and English as a Second Language instruction just as the immigrant population is exploding. In opposing the butchering of CUNY, liberals argue for a more “rational” educational policy. Yet the offensive against mass public higher education is an expression of the fundamental irrationality of the capitalist system, which destroys millions of jobs in the name of profitability and educates youth only to use them as cannon fodder in its wars.
Today, as 150 years ago with the dawn of scientific
socialism, it is the communists who are the only consistent defenders of free
public education for all. n
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