Home » Volume IV, Issue 2 / Spring 2016 » Ghettos and Gated Communities in the City University of New York: Is Democratic, Multi-Racial Access and Labor Justice Possible in Times of Shrinking Resources and Austerity Budgets?

Ghettos and Gated Communities in the City University of New York: Is Democratic, Multi-Racial Access and Labor Justice Possible in Times of Shrinking Resources and Austerity Budgets?

Chloe Asselin & Chet Jordan
The Graduate Center, City University of New York


The City University of New York (CUNY) enrolls over 274,000 students and serves as an intellectual home for close to 20,000 faculty (The City University of New York, 2012).  A rich history threads together the twenty-six campuses of the University system whose mission is to offer accessibility and excellence in higher education to the diverse students of New York City (NYC). In the 1960s, CUNY was a symbolic “beacon of open admissions for the city’s minority and working-class population” (Aronowitz, 2008, p. 69). Though persistent and deep divisions of class and race mark the City’s history, the University historically responded in noble ways to welcome students into a higher education that would otherwise be unimaginable. However, CUNY now is an institution divided along racial and class fault lines, has undergone a market-driven makeover that is prompted by the clamor for national prestige, and is enmeshed with the systematic corporatization of the American university at large. As CUNY Distinguished Professor of Sociology and longtime labor activist Stanley Aronowitz (2008) argues,

In the current environment… only the marketplace represents quality and anything connected to the public goods that does not submit itself to the business environment is a second-rate article. The effect of this persistent and merciless attack on public higher education has been to demoralize faculty and prompt conservative-dominated legislatures to impose a regimen of permanent austerity that… has resulted in the sharpening distinction between the… tiers of the academic system (p. 62).

CUNY’s history, though, narrates the story of a complex struggle to maintain a focus on its original mission.  When the colleges unified in 1960 under the emblem of The City University of New York, the institution served as the site of one of higher education’s most radical and promising reform efforts.

In 1969, the University voted to implement a policy of Open Admissions where students from across the five boroughs could attend one of the CUNY colleges free of charge and with the core commitment that high school graduates could attend a senior college of their choosing (with modest stipulations which will be discussed later).  Though much of the integrity of the policy was dismantled by the 1975 fiscal crisis in NYC, the focus on educational equity for the breadth of NYC’s minority and working-class populations serves as a significant reminder of the possibility of the University rekindling policies that are grounded in access and affordability.

Although once a national example of an open-door opportunity, CUNY now aims to be “a genuine competitor in in the elite game that has swept through higher education” (Aronowitz, 2008, p. 69) and hide systemic racism under a blanket of institutional unity and racial liberalism.  The Chancellor of The City University of New York, James Milliken (2016), purports that “affordability and access will always be fundamental to CUNY and its irreplaceable role in the life of the city and state.”   However, in the past ten years a concerning enrollment pattern has emerged that suggests a fracture in the traditional mission and function of the University.  Since the 2008 recession, the senior colleges (four-year institutions) of CUNY have incrementally raised basic admissions standards such as the minimum SAT score needed to enter and tuition at a time of deep economic inequity and insidious, rapid gentrification in New York. When tuition was raised in 2011, Domingo Estevez, a community college student who planned to transfer to a senior college stated in The Clarion, CUNY’s union newspaper, “The more expensive CUNY gets, the more exclusive it becomes.” Estevez was unsure he would be able to continue his education at CUNY (Tarleton, 2011).  As the senior colleges have become more exclusive, they have enrolled higher numbers of white students. At the same time, community colleges have enrolled higher numbers of Black and Latinx students (Appendix F). This stratification is problematic when considering that nationally the six-year graduation rate for community college students hovers close to only 20 percent (Bailey, T., Jaggers, S. & Jenkins, D., 2015). As student populations at CUNY face challenges due to the stratification of the University, so too are the faculty. Faculty are experiencing a long period of austerity financing going six years without a contract, high teaching loads in the community colleges, and, following national trends, an increasing reliance on underpaid adjunct labor (Appendix D).

Our interpretations of CUNY history, CUNY policy, and our participants’ comments are guided by a set of critical theories which help us make power structures and points of privilege visible to reflect on the fluid, enveloping, and interlocking issues at play in an institution we view as in peril. We ask, in what ways is CUNY reproducing inequality inside an increasingly stratified system and how are students and faculty living and resisting this inequality?  To understand the issues that sit on the fault lines of academic corporatization and racial stratification, we expand on theory and invite voices from our community to speak back to a mission in jeopardy.


Our paper uses critical theory, critical bifocality, critical race theory, social reproduction theory, and theories of resistance to examine the ways in which CUNY reproduces inequality within an increasingly stratified system and how students and faculty currently experience and resist this inequality. We use theory to analyze the structural constraints CUNY faces as well as to interpret our interviews. Chet conducted a one hour-long focus group with eight students from one community college. Chloe conducted five interviews with faculty across CUNY campuses; one full-time faculty at a senior college, one full-time faculty at a comprehensive college, two adjuncts from two different senior colleges, and an adjunct at a community college. Though a limitation of our study is that it includes only a few faculty and only the perspectives of students from one community college, we believe these interviews reflect distinct experiences within different tiers of the CUNY system. In following Lois Weis and Michelle Fine’s (2012) call for critical bifocality and a focus on both structures and lives, we highlight the larger structural challenges facing CUNY and use our interviews to bear witness to the daily experiences of the students and faculty subjected to inequality on a daily basis.

We are both CUNY faculty and students. Both of us are students at one of the elite CUNY colleges; Chet is an instructor at a community college, while Chloe teaches at one of CUNY’s professional schools. We are CUNY insiders. However, as white, intellectuals of privilege, we recognize that we are outsiders to the experience of low-income People of Color. While it may be easier to discuss insider/outsider identity in binary terms, feminist scholars argue for multiple and hybrid identities in which the researcher constantly negotiates being both insider and outsider simultaneously (Wolf, 1996). We acknowledge that our positionalities influence both our and our participants’ complex experiences of the CUNY system.

Knowledge Frameworks

Our work begins with critical scholarship that is integral to our shared beliefs about how research in educational settings should be conducted so that power structures are visibly seen, points of privilege are clearly articulated, and mechanisms for shared understanding are moved to the center rather than to the margins.  Our theoretical lens for this study is Weis and Fine’s (2012) concept of critical bifocality that nudges us to center our aims in a core belief that policy is enacted in institutions and “metabolized by individuals” (p. 174).  They argue, “structures produce lives at the same time as lives across the social class spectrum produce, reproduce, and, at times, contest these same social/economic structures” (p. 175). This paper interrogates policies enacted at CUNY which have promoted disinvestment and racial stratification and highlights the lived experiences of students and faculty within these structures.

CUNY’s policies must be seen in the context of neoliberalism. By neoliberalism, we mean today’s iteration of capitalism that is market-driven and encourages individual self-interest, privatization, austerity, free trade, globalization, and deregulation (Harvey, 2005). Neoliberalism has led to policies that decrease real wages, increase contingent labor, dismantle welfare programs, increase criminalization, and use the “notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ that obscure systemic inequalities” (Spade, 2011, p. 50). David Harvey (2008) describes the process of “creative destruction” in which capitalism restructures cities in the name of improvement and renovation by using “accumulation by dispossession” to displace entire neighborhoods and claim public terrain. This paper exposes the form that neoliberalism’s creative destruction has taken at CUNY: pristine gated communities within CUNY’s top tiers at the senior colleges and dispossessed /ghettoized lower tiers at the community colleges. We “believe[s] that research is an ‘ethical and political act’…to transform existing social inequalities and injustices” (Bogden & Biklen, 2010, p. 31), and attempt to engage in this transformation by drawing attention to the possibilities of formidable resistance from within the institution.

Within CUNY, we see a range of types of resistance across the stratified campuses. Critical race theorists Daniel Solórzano and Dolores Delgado Bernal (2001) share the behaviors of resistance—reactionary behavior, self-defeating resistance, conformist resistance, and transformational resistance—that are not discrete or static but illustrate the range of student critiques of social oppression and their burning motivation for social justice. The students and faculty we spoke with resist the structures of public schools, which have been overwhelmingly used to discipline children in order to produce subordinate adults that will serve the capitalist imperatives of profit and domination over human need, reproducing and perpetuating the class structure and system of sexual and racial power relationships found in U.S. society under the capitalist mode of production (Bowles and Gintis, 2011, 1976).

This work explores the extent to which CUNY reinforces reproduction, incremental change, or the radical transformation of public higher education (see Appendix A). Specifically, CUNY reproduces social oppression through the elimination of remedial classes at the four-year colleges and mandating higher SAT scores as an admission requirement. We notice only incremental progress towards social justice in specialized programs like the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) which provides structured supports, including MetroCards, for students to complete their degrees on time. While the University makes small adjustments to the curriculum and attempts to address extra-institutional factors that swirl in the political economy around the institution, these efforts are not transformative. A radical transformation would include providing free tuition and affordable housing and healthcare to all students. Instead, we find barriers that are increasing with height and preventing Black and Latinx students from participating in senior colleges that are becoming both whitewashed and elitist.

We also acknowledge the centrality of race and racism at CUNY as a reproduction of the centrality of race and racism in capitalism’s economic and social processes. Jodi Melamed (2006) argues that racial liberalism redefines race as culture promoting the idea of a racially inclusive U.S. national culture. However, it becomes a liberal freedom that works to designate some forms of humanity as less worthy than others. Reformers, rather than acknowledging racism, elevate schools as places for racial and class unity through market individualism and abstract equality. Racial liberalism conflates freedom of commerce and social freedoms so that economic rights become civil rights. In complicating the role of higher education, we show how racial liberalism and “diversity” perpetuate racial capitalism leading to massive inequalities in schools and society.

Ghosts of Open Admissions, Specters of Strange Times

During the height of New York City’s social democracy in the 1960s, Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the bill that created the City University of New York.  During the post-war period, vast sums were poured into higher education (Aronowitz, 1997). CUNY received large sums to expand and integrate its colleges so that it could educate the city’s growing number of municipal employees and serve veterans. The stratification of the CUNY system started with the extensive expansion of the institution in the 1960s. The elite senior colleges including the City College, Hunter College, and Brooklyn College were established in the fifty years leading up to the unification of the University. CUNY later grew to include five senior four-year colleges, six comprehensive four-year colleges (Bachelors and Associate programs), seven community colleges, The Macaulay Honors College, and five graduate and professional programs.

In the 1950s, New York City’s economy radically shifted and industrial modes of production were replaced by a rise in available service sector jobs. The post-War urban climate saw a sharp decline in booming Brooklyn waterfront industries and ads in local newspapers sought individuals with more sophisticated diplomas (Lavin & Hyllegard, 1996, p. 6). As New Yorkers marched into the 1960s, requirements for admission to a CUNY senior college “stiffened even further” than they had in the previous decade (p. 6). Much like contemporary rhetoric around college and workforce readiness, the 1960s demonstrated that “the combination of a changing labor market and the growing selectivity of New York’s public colleges” (p. 6) created a competitive environment that structurally excluded vast swaths of the urban demographic.  Gated communities were erected around the senior colleges as the minimum high school grade point average for entry was steadily ratcheted up at “a time when educational requirements of the labor market were rising” (p. 7). Built on already shaky cultural and economic terrain, this story bares frightening similarity to the present.

The clouds of racial turmoil, the rejection of the Vietnam War, and armed takeovers of college campuses that permeated the late sixties catalyzed CUNY to “meet the broad demand for college” (p. 9) while simultaneously entrenching its culture in confused missions and mixed purposes. In 1963, Albert Bowker arrived as Chancellor of CUNY at a fiery intersection of social restructuring (p. 8). Bowker leaned into the challenging rhetoric of the tense moment and acknowledged “political support for the university might erode if it maintained its highly selective admissions policies” (p. 7).  Rather than raising the gates even higher, Bowker’s initial proposal promised 100 percent admission to residents of New York City and stated that the top 25 percent of New York City high school graduates would be offered admission to the senior colleges while the remaining 75 percent would be offered community college admission with the opportunity to transfer or enter the workforce with vocational skills (p. 9). Not only did open admissions promise access to higher education, it also continued its offer of free tuition to all students.  After a series of coordinated student protests on CUNY campuses, the university of the people threw open its doors. While the early, radical promise heralded unfettered opportunity to the city’s cordoned-off Black and Latinx populations, the 1968 blueprint offered access within a system of deep stratification (p. 7). However, as evidenced by the fact that “open admissions never meant that students with low grade point averages…gained entrance to public senior colleges” (Aronowitz, 2008, p. 65), CUNY remained entrenched in a hierarchical admissions process that shuttled Students of Color between impoverished high schools to the community college sector. CUNY was also criticized by state and local politicians for the level of academic rigor associated with open admissions and questions were raised around the effectiveness of remediation programs that required students to achieve proficiency in basic skills before entering credit-bearing courses (p. 9).  And, as questions were raised about standards and rigor, more ominous clouds appeared on the horizon that would not only destroy the egalitarianism of open admissions but would redesign the entire landscape of the university.

The fiscal crisis precipitated by a worldwide recession in 1973 severely undermined NYC’s social democracy and ended CUNY’s policy of free tuition. Political and financial leaders forced the city to institute tuition, lay off many city employees, end rent control, and jack up the transit fare through austerity budgets and the promise from banks to bridge city loans if certain budget reforms were in place (Freeman, 2000). CUNY suffered significantly from the cuts in funding and manpower. As Freeman (2000) states, “the imposition of tuition, in spite of tuition assistance programs, led to a 62,000 drop in student enrollment. The consequence was that by 1980 the university had 50 percent fewer black and Hispanic freshman than was the case four years earlier. The university halted capital construction, halted all library and laboratory acquisitions, and laid off 3,294 faculty members” (p. 271). Tuition was set at $925 per year at four-year colleges and $775 per year at community colleges (Malave & Hill, 2003). The admissions standards familiar to CUNY applicants today were born out of the dramatic shift to stricter entry requirements.  Jeanita Richardson (2005) reminds us that while the university rested easily on the wings of a message of equal opportunity after open admissions ended, Black and Latinx students did not hold substantial numbers of seats within the freshman classes at senior colleges, instead they were relegated to seats in the enrollment-saturated two-year colleges (p. 183).

Today, in yet another era of fiscal austerity and budget cuts, CUNY once again faces diminishing resources and rising tuition costs. CUNY’s operating budget is funded primarily through state aid, city support, and revenue from tuition and fees (see Appendix C). According to a fiscal brief from the NYC Independent Budget Office (2006), direct state aid to CUNY declined from 68 percent of CUNY’s operating revenue in 1989 to 48 percent in 2006. During that same time period, the city’s contribution to CUNY’s budget fell by 24 percent.  While tuition and fees only accounted for 20 percent of CUNY revenues in 1989, they comprised of 42 percent of revenues by 2006. They continued to be over 40 percent of CUNY’s revenues in 2010 (Bowen, 2011).

In his first budget proposal when taking office in 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo continued the trend of state disinvestment by cutting $95.1 million in direct state aid to senior colleges.  Moreover, he reduced base aid funding to community colleges by 10 percent which resulted in a $300 per year raise in tuition over five years to cover the deficit (Hogness, 2011) passed in the New York State Legislature as the “Rational Tuition Plan” in June 2011. Governor Cuomo’s most recent budget proposal further underfunds CUNY’s budget, once again shifting the financial burden onto students and faculty with the threat of rising tuition costs and a refusal to fund a just contract for all faculty.

Simultaneously, the university has redistricted privilege and opportunity within the tiered system. In trying to remain relevant and competitive in the global economy, universities are geared more and more toward the needs of the local labor market and workforce development through employment-focused academic programs and industry partnerships that bring in high-quality equipment, highly funded grants, and student work placements after graduation. Beholden to the demands of corporate capital, universities focus on downsizing, efficiency, and cost accounting marginalizing and underfunding anything that does not lead to profit (Giroux, 2002). The result is a permanent underclass of contingent adjunct workers in higher education (see Appendix D) that undermines the intellectual culture of higher education through deprivation, heavy workloads, and powerlessness (Aronowitz, 2000; Nelson & Watt, 1999). In his testimony to the state Assembly in February 2015, CUNY Chancellor James Milliken said, “We face new challenges and new demands to prepare the 21st century workforce. It is critical that universities attract students and enable them to receive a degree.” In trying to remain relevant, CUNY’s market-oriented policies are increasing the stratification of students and faculty on CUNY’s campuses.

Distorted Missions: Student Voices Between the Ghetto and Gated Community

An ad for CUNY currently in the NYC subway states: “‘The powerful combination of quality academics, remarkable affordability, financial support and 24 modern campuses in the five boroughs of New York…makes CUNY a singular value in higher education today’- James B. Milliken, Chancellor.” Such public pronouncements come off as naïve against the backdrop of higher SAT scores needed for admission, the staggering drop in the number of Black and Latinx students enrolled in the freshman classes at senior colleges, and the shifting dynamic and augmented salaries of the emboldened administrator-class. In the stories of the three students who coexist with the policies problematized in this paper we see hope and desire fused with fear and oppression. Their tales are shaped and weathered by the societal gentrification of a whitewashed New York City, and we find common threads in their experiences that map to more pervasive educational trends. As they speak, we hear echoes of David Harvey (2003) who reminds us “free markets are not necessarily fair” (p. 940). They dream (always with one eye open), and we cringe, thinking about how their dreams are deferred as CUNY falls victim to the annals of privatization. We are sobered by Wendy Brown (2006) who not so delicately reminds us to “remove the scales from our eyes about the innocence of tolerance in relation to power” (p. 11). Those in positions of power define our fascinatingly dynamic institution as “One CUNY.” The stories we share tell us that our university is far from unified.  In fact, our community colleges have been structurally ghettoized and that access to our senior colleges has been walled off by institutional policy.

Desire and Imaginings: A New Urban Commons

I (Chet) sat down with a group of five community college students from varied social and economic backgrounds to discuss the stratification of the University.  We quickly shared life stories and talked about life inside the community college and how each student decided to enroll.  One young woman from East New York, the only woman in our group, began the conversation in frustration, saying, “I mean I don’t know why CUNY is being so selective when you have out-of-state schools that are willing to accept these kids but CUNY is being, I feel like CUNY shouldn’t be selective because it is a network of different colleges.”  As I listened to her question policy and daydream with Harvey (2003) about the possibility of the “creation of a new urban commons” (p. 941), I sobered when she acknowledged that “when I was in high school my senior year most of the people said I’m not going to even apply there because I know I’m not going to get in.  So maybe that is the mentality they have.” Kathleen Shaw (1997) illuminates the double bind in the voice of my student.  She tells us that the “likelihood of attaining a baccalaureate degree diminishes significantly when students begin their postsecondary education at a community college rather than at a four-year institution” (p. 287).  The woman from East New York speaks from behind both the structural plywood of racial stratification and the soundproof drywall of a community college system that sees more attrition than graduation.  A graduate of a high school that rushed students through college visits during their senior year and offered no Advanced Placement courses or SAT preparatory classes, she enrolled in a community college in a last ditch effort to see if she could make it.  To make it, she defied the rhetoric and convictions of those who told her college was out of her league and discouraged her from the needed preparatory work.  To make it, she had to go out into the unknown.  And, so she did.

David Harvey (2003) impresses upon us that “cities become more ghettoized as the rich seal themselves off for their protection while the poor become ghettoized by default” (p. 940).  In many ways, the contemporary cultural narrative we echo, with concern, is strikingly similar to the period that preceded open admissions.  The national landscape gasps and gurgles with racial tension, police brutality, and protest movements in New York, Ferguson, and Baltimore.  We see years of the adjectival ghetto cuffed onto Black and Brown bodies in nouned ghettos spawned from decades of decaying policy. At the same time, politicians tout sweeping education policy reforms that promise free tuition for those who attend community college (and live up to the president’s standards).  Since 2000, the national percentage of Black students who graduated from a community college in three-years declined from 17.8 percent to 10.8 percent.  Conversely, White and Asian students graduate within three years at a rate of close to 23 percent and 25 percent respectively (NCES Data).  Harvey rightfully rebuffs the celebratory balloons that color our paths, telling us that there are “contradictions within the capitalist package of rights” (p. 941).  While the front doors are being flung open at community colleges, we watch and worry as access to the university’s senior colleges takes a turn toward unfortunate fortressing as the outer ghetto walls are built higher and higher (but with a Welcome wreath on the front door).  The data indicate a sharp increase in the national enrollment of Black students in the community college and a modest increase in the enrollment of Latinx students since the beginning of the 2008 recession (Appendix F).  A brief analysis of the CUNY enrollment data from 2001-2014 indicates a sharp rise in the number of Latinx students who matriculate into the community colleges and modest growth in the number enrolling in the senior colleges.  More importantly, however, is the steady decline in Black students who have enrolled as first-time freshmen since 2001 (Appendix G).  While the community colleges in CUNY enroll a compelling majority of Black and Latinx students, the national landscape of dismal graduation rates forces us to reckon with the question of the University’s commitment to low-income Students of Color.

Understanding Plywood: Structures of Silence and Disappearance

Jodi Melamed (2006) sings a Du Boisian song that whistles to us that “race continues to fuse technologies of racial domination with liberal freedoms to represent people who are exploited or cut off from capitalist wealth as outsiders to liberal subjectivity for whom life can be disallowed to the point of death” (p. 2).  Behind the ghetto walls we find both stories of segregated high schools that are not cultural apparatuses of college preparation as well as tales of resistance against CUNY’s admissions requirements.  Richardson (2005) nods to Melamed and acknowledges that “students who fail to pass entrance exams or their equivalent (e.g. SAT and Regent examinations) will be relegated to CUNY‘s community colleges for coursework and will subsequently be required to test out of remediation before earning credits toward college degrees” (p. 184).  Remediation limits transfer opportunity, dries up federal aid, and imprisons students within a perpetual cycle of zero-credit courses.  Since the lion’s share of share of Black and Latinx students begin in the community college and require more remedial courses to achieve CUNY’s baseline competency benchmarks, it is not surprising that “community colleges had a net negative influence on educational attainment” (Lavin & Hyllegard, 1996, p. 241).  As the plywood is nailed together, access is limited further by “splintering whiteness and blackness into privileged and stigmatized forms based on normative cultural criteria” (Melamed, 2006, p. 7).  Richardson (2005) writes of the stigma of remediation and its banishment to the community colleges in 2001 by Chancellor Matthew Goldstein.  She tells us that Goldstein’s vision was to raise academic standards in the senior colleges and to remove remedial classes from the catalogue.  Nonetheless, she also reminds us that the State University of New York (SUNY), “which serves predominantly middle-class Whites, was allowed to continue to offer remedial coursework” (p. 184) in its senior colleges while CUNY’s top-tier institutions severed ties with zero-credit courses.  Shaw (1997) alerts us to cultures that develop behind the ghetto walls.  Her belief is that remediation “reflects a gatekeeper mentality in which four-year colleges and universities are meant only for those who, by virtue of their performance on an array of standardized tests” (p. 286) meet the norms of mainstream academia.

In our community college, zero-credit courses have been abandoned in favor of increased seat-time in credit-bearing courses. Our conversation has twinkles of Shaw’s (1997) proposition that “when a single ideological stance has not yet attained dominance, competing ideological stances can and do exist within a culture or organization and are reflected in inconsistent practices, policies, and belief systems” (p. 285).  While the specter of remedial coursework has been removed from the institution, the culture of remediation is embodied, reified, and reproduced by students, faculty, and administrators.  At one point, I asked the students if community college was a barrier.  The student from East New York was the first to speak. She silenced the room saying, “it is like purgatory and you are just stuck here.”  Another, a white male from California, shared “there is a barrier for people of color that White and Asian people are not experiencing.  They are hitting a wall after high school that White and Asian people are not experiencing and they are forced to go down route B instead of route A.  It’s not that route B is bad but just something else they have to climb out of.” These students, despite not having to endure zero-credit, remedial courses, view the community college experience itself as remedial.  It is a barrier that has to be surmounted, one that denies them access to what they really want, and further symbolizes their disenfranchisement from mainstream academic culture.

We turn back to Melamed (2006) to acknowledge that CUNY models itself as a single, united system in a similar way that the United States promotes “America as a universal nation and a model of democracy” (p. 7).  We hear senior administrators attempt to debunk the realities of racial stratification in the same manner by which “racial liberalism’s cultural model of race as one” has become a dominant ideology in the strengthening of white supremacy in the United States.  We stretch Melamed’s (2006) proposition that “to be American is to occupy the place of universal subject, for which whiteness was once the synecdoche, with the authority to intervene, order, and rationalize that such universality entails” (p. 8) and attempt to reposition it to provide lamplight for a university experiencing an identity crisis.  In the next section we chronicle the how SAT and cutoff scores function as a race- and class-based gatekeeping system.

Like Tara Yosso (2006), we affirm that “in high stress standardized testing situations (e.g., SAT, GRE), societal stereotypes about race, gender, and intelligence become more salient for Students of Color, and pose a ‘stereotype threat’” (p. 101).  In the 1999 report, The City University of New York: An Institution Adrift, Benno Schmidt (now chairman of the Board of Trustees) remarks that minimum SAT scores should be raised at the most selective institutions in order to compete with other top-tier colleges.  More boldly, though, he states that “although CUNY clearly attracts some top students” it was also not “attracting a student body that would fall into the top half of college student bodies nationwide” (p. 24).  This is when, as Yosso (2006) says, “the ‘stereotype threat’ becomes a reality” (p. 102).  Rhetorical caulking is squeezed between the plywood as slivers of possibility and sunlight is obscured by the search for the perfect body.  Yosso (2006) contextualizes the movement of unwanted bodies as “a negative campus racial climate” that “exhibits and cultivates racial and gender discrimination” (p. 101). In the search for the perfect body, CUNY has ratcheted up the SAT score that privileges white, middle-class students.  In fact, the report goes on to say that in the time since open admissions “CUNY has done far too little to tailor the traditional college model to its ‘non-traditional student body’” (p. 25).  In other words, it has failed provide cosmetic surgery to its imperfect features. Rather than embrace its mission of providing access and high-quality higher education to the students of New York City, CUNY entered the market of competition and shifted admissions standards so that low-income Students of Color were forced to break through the barriers of the community college before being eligible to join their white counterparts in the senior college.

As I listened to my students I thought about how wonderfully imperfect we all were.  I thought about how perfection eliminates the need for stories and relationships.  I wondered if the true reason for relationships was so that we could share our imperfections with one another.  I thought that maybe love developed through this process of sharing.  One of my students responded to the question about the SAT with a little vignette.  He said, “I went to three different high schools. I did five years of high school and graduated as Salutatorian in my class of 300. I didn’t realize that colleges look at your cumulative GPA not just how you end so I applied to a bunch of senior colleges and got 1500 on my SAT but 1200 on reading and 300 on math it was completely skewed.  I applied to senior colleges not knowing that they looked at cumulative average. I wasn’t in school for anyone to tell me for most of it.  My community college was my sixth choice and the first five rejected me.”  He explained that his GPA was a tapestry of lows and highs threaded by five years of laughter and hard times.  Dotted with stains of life, his record was rejected by the senior colleges because he didn’t fall into the mainstream set of standards.  His body was too weathered, too worn down, too different for the university to take a chance on him.  In that moment, I could sense an emergent identity that craved “examining racialized layers of subordination” (Yosso, 2006, p. 6). We close our eyes and imagine a sprawling urban commons filled with beautiful faces and a bounty of conversation and laughter. our students tell stories steeped in conflict, desire, and perseverance.  They tell tales of layered walls where cries for help are silenced from inside.  But in these dark and deafened spaces, there are also images of clasped hands, whispered chuckles, and blankets made out of warm hugs.  The clasped hands of hope are joined with the resilience of the faculty who create spaces of community, author radical dreams alongside their students, and who work in a university which seems to value efficiency and inexpensive labor over quality and nurtured support.

Faculty in Managerial Universities: Dangers of Academic Capitalism

In their own ways, faculty also experience CUNY’s gated senior colleges and ghettoized community colleges. As Stanley Aronowitz (2008) notes,

[In 1999, a mayoral] commission found the 200,000-student CUNY to be ‘adrift’ and in need of reform. It recommended major changes, among them further administrative centralization to assure that the reform program would be effective; erosion of faculty governance because the faculty was judged to be a leading obstacle to changes anticipated by the report; provisions to undermine the university’s professional autonomy; ‘mission differentiation,’ a code term creating several new tiers in the system to assure that the top tier is protected against the community colleges; and a hard look at tenure with a view to abolishing or severely restricting it… The report… became a blueprint for the new university administration that took office at the end of 1999 (pgs. 68-9).

CUNY’s blueprint is reminiscent of what is happening across the country as higher education administrators have pivoted from the ideals of faculty governance, collegiality, and professional self-determination towards corporate management principles of efficiency, revenue maximization, and cost containment.  Aronowitz (1997) argues that “universities have blatantly marketed themselves to business as knowledge- and human-capital producers and to students as cultural-capital providers” rather than as an independent community of scholars (p. 196). Moreover, administrator pay has skyrocketed while “in the past four decades, tenured and tenure-track positions have plummeted and adjunct instructor jobs have soared, second only in growth to administrators” (Machado, 2015). Increasing the number of administrators increases faculty subordination and oversight (Aronowitz, 2000).

In contrast, the majority of college faculty work on an adjunct, part-time, or non-tenure track basis in the United States. According to the study Changing Faculty Workforce Models (Kezar, 2013), “adjuncts comprised 20% of the workforce in 1970; today, they represent 50% of the faculty in higher education. In community colleges, part-time faculty now average 70% of the workforce, although roughly 11% of community colleges have 80% or more part-time faculty.” Adjuncts make close to $2,500 a class which nets less than $20,000 annually when teaching a full-load of eight classes without benefits (Bousquet, 2008). According to a study by the University of California–Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, “25 percent of part-time college faculty and their families now receive some sort of public assistance, such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps, cash welfare, or the Earned Income Tax Credit” (Weissmann, 2015). Adjuncts are generally hired on semester-to-semester contract with no health insurance or retirements benefits, no office, and no professional development. Many teach at multiple universities and are often too overwhelmed trying to make ends meet to further their own academic work. Those in solidarity with part-time labor (Bousquet, 2008; Aronowitz, 2000; Bérubé, 1998; Nelson, 1997) argue that the problem is not the lack of intellectual quality or commitment of part-time faculty but the insecurity, low wages, and overwork imposed on them by higher education management and the academic-capitalist ideology.

Institutions of higher education have accepted that there is no alternative to corporate partnerships or the marketplace and have chosen to reproduce the market’s competitive nature. Marc Bousquet (2008) argues that job-market theory now dominates institutions of higher education creating managerial relationships between students and faculty, legitimizing tiering of the workforce, and undermining solidarity. With the pressures of competition and the threat of becoming contingent labor, unions of tenure-stream faculty have collaborated with management in the creation of multiple tiers.

However, the fact that nearly two-thirds of all full-time faculty at public institutions are unionized (Bousquet, 2008) having taken advantage of the rise in public-employee unionism and professional unionism of the 1960s and 1970s shows that faculty can see themselves as part of a larger collective workforce fighting for labor justice and equality. Even in times of austere academic management, higher education has a potential for massive coalitions of resistance. In order to create solidarity, higher education must be viewed as a collective labor force and community of scholars that includes clerical, service, and administrative personnel, as well as instructors, graduate student instructors, and undergraduate student campus workers. Together, all members of the higher education community must ask: What is the mission of the university? What does it mean for a university to teach social responsibility in its courses and then refuse to practice it? What is the relationship between the university and the community in which it is located?

Faculty Fractures at CUNY

Since the mid-1970s, CUNY has followed the national trend in higher education in increased contingent labor and a multi-tiered workforce. “Academic planning” has shifted the authority over curricular decisions from local campus communities to the central administration. The voices of CUNY’s faculty highlight deep inequalities and injustices that must be addressed but also show spaces for radical possibilities that redefine the mission of the university, what social responsibility means for higher education, and the relationship between the community and the university.

In 1975, the last year that CUNY offered a free education, there were 11,500 full-time faculty members teaching 250,000 students. Today enrollment is at an all-time high of about 274,000 students. Meanwhile, there are only 7,500 full-time faculty employed at CUNY, according to testimony given by CUNY Chancellor James Milliken to the state Assembly earlier this year (2015). CUNY relies on poorly paid, part-time adjunct faculty to teach the majority of its classes. The large majority of CUNY campuses employ more part-time adjunct faculty than full-time faculty (See Appendix B). In exposing the tiers, there are 69 percent more part-time adjunct faculty than full-time faculty at the community colleges compared to 42 percent more part-time faculty than full-time faculty at all four-year colleges.

According to CUNY’s 2014 Staff Facts there is an estimated 7,700 tenure and tenure-track faculty and about 11,700 adjuncts across CUNY’s campuses. However, the full-time faculty workloads differ drastically at each of the colleges (see Appendix E). According to the Adjunct Project at CUNY, while adjuncts make up 59 percent of CUNY’s total faculty, they are only paid 29 to 38 percent of what full-time faculty earn per class. Faculty at the four-year colleges make about $44,504 teaching four courses (many teach seven) while faculty at community colleges make $34,614 teaching four courses (many teach nine) when compared to the $13,100 adjuncts make to teach the same four courses (Kennedy, 2015).

In order to better understand this stratification within CUNY, I (Chloe) spoke with CUNY faculty at different CUNY campuses. One faculty member taught at a four-year comprehensive college for ten years and has now been teaching at a senior four-year college for the past eleven years. She explained that at the four-year comprehensive college there were not enough funds to create an honors program, the library was very small, the alumni association weak, the grant office was poorly run, and there were few academic opportunities and few majors for students. She left the comprehensive college because there were little opportunities for faculty to obtain grants or release time, she had many administrative duties, and there was a lot of instability at the college for faculty and students with a new administration almost every year with little oversight.

However, she also noted the struggles of teaching at a senior four-year college that has become increasingly managerial. She states, “It is the corporatization of the university because if you look at the cost, the expenses here have gone up so high, and faculty are making less in real dollars than they were twenty years ago. But the administrators are making much, much more, and there are many more administrators.” Making the campus more efficient has resulted in part in savings and in pushing through courses with over one hundred students and only one professor “to really make it more factory like.” She then added that many campus faculty are complicit in the corporatization that “really encourages people to tune off and check out,” thus allowing the University to make changes without a fight from faculty.

Even with the complacency academic management has caused, there have been moments of solidarity between students and faculty at the four-year colleges over the past few years. This professor participated in the big fight about ten years ago when the four-year colleges stopped providing remedial math and English courses thus forcing many students who had previously attended four-year colleges into the community colleges. Another fight ensued in 2011 when tuition was raised and then again in 2014 in the joint struggle focused on the standardization of curriculum across CUNY with a common core curriculum. Currently, in 2016, students, faculty, and staff have come together to fight against Governor Cuomo’s drastic defunding of CUNY in which he attempted to shift the costs for one-third of CUNY’s budget from the state to the city and refused to pay the retroactive pay for faculty and staff who have not had a contract in six-years.

I also interviewed adjunct professors about their experiences at CUNY. Most adjuncts have taught across CUNY’s different campuses. Like many across the nation, CUNY’s adjuncts are also subjected to the stress of job insecurity.  They must sign new contracts every semester, take on many additional roles on campus in order to cobble together a salary, are isolated from full-time faculty, learn about their teaching schedules (including if a class has been cancelled) only a few weeks ahead of time, depend on department chairs for jobs, are paid a standard rate regardless of the size of the class, and depending on the department or college, may be entitled to space or compensation for time spent with students outside of class hours but never time spent out of class grading or holding conferences. One adjunct who has taught on multiple CUNY campuses over the past ten years said,

Essentially it is an arbitrary measure of not paying half of the faculty properly and to humiliate them by saying that you are not receiving the same pay because you don’t deserve it because you do not have qualifications because you are not good enough. The thing is that after a while it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When adjunct faculty are not paid properly they lose interest in teaching well and they are not available to students outside of class, so the students will suffer. Adjuncts are also assigned their classes a week before the semester begins and therefore they are not prepared to enter the classroom properly and because of perpetual anxiety they become short tempered and have no patience for students in the classroom. You know all of these adversely affect students.

Moreover, as contingent labor with lower salary contributions, adjuncts, represented by CUNY’s faculty union, feel that the union focuses primarily on full-time faculty who pay larger dues. Adjuncts must thus advocate for themselves despite having limited time to volunteer for their own cause. Notwithstanding these difficulties, all adjuncts interviewed said it was the students and their love of teaching that made the job worth it.

Even with the struggles faculty face as CUNY has become more and more of a managerial university, faculty interviewed remain committed to higher education’s mission to educate a democratic citizenry. One full-time faculty member said that she believes tuition should be free and that there should be more full-time faculty and fewer administrators. She also believes there should be strong connections between CUNY and NYC’s public high schools to prepare future students before they enter CUNY. Another adjunct proposed that the faculty union should fund undergraduate campus-based student organizations. The purpose of such an organization would be relationship building, student organizing, and connecting with families of students supporting their children through college. In short, the partnership of the union, faculty, students, and parents would greatly benefit the university.


In the stories of faculty who have worked in CUNY’s different tiers, we hear stories of tiered faculty positions with adjuncts at the bottom. Adjuncts articulate the need for welfare supports on low salaries, the perpetual anxiety of job insecurity, humiliation and blame for their “lower teaching status,” and unpaid remuneration for hours spent with students often in hallways for lack of space. Faculty at comprehensive four-year colleges and community colleges speak of massive teaching loads, endless administrative duties, lack of grant offices, and limited time to publish. These cumbersome demands on itinerant faculty adversely affect students who face tired, stressed, and overwhelmed professors who have little time for their many students. Moreover, the Black and Latinx students overwhelmingly located in the lower tiers of the CUNY system are more likely to be taught by these overworked and underpaid professors. In extending Harvey’s (2008) right to the city to the right to public higher education, CUNY is dispossessing a subset of its students’ access to an excellent education and faculty to just working conditions.

Faculty see a vision for CUNY’s future that includes free tuition, strong and meaningful connections between public high schools and CUNY’s colleges, a faculty union that organizes with students and NYC communities, multiyear contracts for contingent faculty, and fewer administrators. Faculty resist in a wide range of ways including organizing to block unjust CUNY policies, building solidarity with students, and creating equal faculty spaces for full-time and part-time faculty within their departments  (Interviews with Faculty, Spring 2015).

Our students fantasize about experiencing challenging coursework, space in their schedules for choice and electives, lower tuition costs, and professors who care.  They imagine the possibility of a college experience committed to helping them grow, challenging norms, and reimagining themselves.  They crave the permission to desire (Focus Group with students, Spring 2015). Students and faculty resist by exposing that CUNY’s tiers reproduce race and class inequalities rather than resist and transform them.

Radical Possibilities for Public Higher Education

In thinking about radically transforming public institutions of higher education so that they are motivated by social justice and have a strong critique of social oppression (see Appendix A), we must be able to envision radical possibilities. Aronowitz (1997) states, “On the whole, the educational imaginary of faculty and students has been limited to preserving the existing state of affairs… rather than being devoted to generating ideas for a different kind of restructuring of the university that would not diminish access but would radically improve the curriculum, pedagogy, and school governance” (p. 209). During the student movements of the 1960s and the faculty movements of the 1970s, gains were made through collective action rather than individual achievement. As Jean Anyon (2014) argues, “economic justice, this important precursor to systemic urban school reform, will not be achieved without concerted, sustained political struggle. Thus, although activism for economic opportunity is necessary, educational reform must be a target of sustained contention, as well” (pg. 129). To resist academic capitalism, faculty and students must find spaces of solidarity as a community of scholars in which there are open public discussions around political economy, access, labor, curriculum, tuition, and social, economic, and racial justice. As we have shown throughout this paper, faculty and students are experiencing the stratification of the university in similar ways. The fight against dispossession and walls, created by academic capitalism, should be a strong uniting force for students and faculty against the oppression they live every day. CUNY’s history has shown that when students and faculty together oppose tuition hikes, standardized curriculum, and the defunding of the public university, they are a strong force demanding the transformation of the public university. This transformation sought is radical in that in their protest students and faculty demand free tuition, open admissions, academic freedom, faculty autonomy in curriculum development, and student and faculty participation in university governance (personal experience).

Teacher working conditions must be student-learning conditions (COCAL, 2014). Students and faculty must work together to reject budgetary austerity and diversify the university. They must also focus on shared areas of concern including free tuition, drastically reducing student debt, having students and faculty that represent the diversity the United States, and in short, ensuring the provision of better quality public education. The government of Chile announced that tuition will be free at all of its public universities starting this year using a corporate tax hike to fund its higher education system. CUNY in the 1960s also had a huge amount of funding from the state government and free tuition for its full-time students. In her testimony before the CUNY Board of Trustees in November 2014, Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC) mentioned there was a $5.1 billion surplus in Albany going to corporate tax breaks rather than public education. In demanding the state fund public education, student and faculty must fight to ensure the money goes to supporting socially, racially, and economically just university programs rather than to the managerial university. If we are to be inspired by the social movement unionism in public schools, such as the 2012 Chicago Teacher Strike, then higher education faculty unions must negotiate contracts that demand fair wages and just teaching conditions for all staff. They must also demand racial justice for their students, speak against policies that create high poverty and racially segregated schools, support the neediest students with social programs, and fully fund public education by taxing wealthier citizens and corporations, as articulated in Chicago Teachers Union’s The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve (2012). Working together, faculty and students can build long-term relationships in the community to forge solidarity across workers.

Due to its unique position in once socially democratic NYC, its history of free tuition and open admissions, and being the only public urban university system in the country, CUNY has a key role to play in shaping the future of public higher education. As Cary Nelson states, “To theorize the contemporary university is to recognize that there was nothing inevitable about its formation. It did not have to be, and it can still be dismantled” (intro to Bousquet, 2008, p. xviii). In a recent forum in the Boston Review, Robin Kelley (2016, March) analyzed the struggles of the recent Black student protests on campuses of higher education. He questions the call for inclusivity and acceptance in a university culture that he states “is incapable of loving them–of loving anyone perhaps.” Though he acknowledges in his final reply that symbolic changes and small reforms, such as changing names of buildings, are needed, his essay celebrates students who are radically transforming the university. For example, he writes,

Likewise the demands from protesters at UNC, Chapel Hill are a model for radical global politics. They include ending ties to prisons and sweated labor; retraining and disarming campus police; offering free childcare for students, staff, and faculty; and paying a minimum wage of $25 per hour for workers, with the addendum ‘that all administrators be compensated at the same rate as workers.’ Many will say these are not winnable demands, but winning is not always the point. Unveiling the university’s exploitative practices and its deeply embedded structures of racism, sexism, and class inequality can be profound acts of demystification on their own.

While small-scale reforms are an important step towards transforming the public university, we cannot be satisfied with reproduction or incremental changes but strive for the radical transformation of higher education. The CUNY community has a lot of work to do, but we are not imagining the impossible. As Anyon (2014) states in response to critics of utopian dreams, “the utopian thinking of yesteryear becomes the common sense of today” (pg. 6).

We hope to build a trellis of peace and hope woven together with breathy lattices that move beyond research pathologies and toward what Eve Tuck (2009) calls a “theory of change” (p. 413).  Moving this theory forward, we are committed to beginnings more than ends.  We understand that when we listen to and engage with student and faculty stories we enter into complex negotiations of lives, policy, empowerment, and imprisonment.  The popular research perches safely above the fray, examining outcomes from an upstream vantage point and often misses the brilliance dancing inside the fractals.  We stand firmly by the authenticity of the stories of our friends and colleagues whose voices punctuate this paper.  When Michelle Fine & Jessica Ruglis (2009) lay the groundwork suggesting, “neoliberal education policies slowly dispossess poor students of color from quality education,” (p. 21) we believe dual research commitments to the cohabitation of lives and policy will slow the tide of privatization and global capitalism.  We invite our colleagues to join this endeavor and move out of the safe estuaries of evaluative research.


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Appendix A

Inspired by and adapted from Daniel Solórzano & Dolores Delgado Bernal. (2001). Examining Transformational Resistance Through a Critical Race and Latcrit Theory Framework: Chicana and Chicano Students in an Urban Context

LatCrit quadrant

Appendix B

2013 CUNY Workforce Demographics: Instructional Staff

* Office of Human Resources Management (2013, Fall). CUNY Workforce Demographics by College, Ethinicity, and Gender: Instructional and Classified Staff. The City University of New York. Retrieved from http://www.cuny.edu/about/administration/offices/ohrm/WorkforceStatistics/Fall2013FINALCUNYWorkforceDemographicspagenumberedtestoflink03032014.pdf.

Appendix C

*New York City Independent Budget Office. (2006, July). Fiscal Brief: Tuition a Rising Share of CUNY Revenue as State Share Falls. Retrieved from http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/CUNY_FBjul2006.pdf

Appendix D

*Retrieved from http://www.aaup.org/file/2012-13Economic-Status-Report.pdf

 Appendix E


Appendix F


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