Brooklyn College

Beyond My Ken

Brooklyn College, one of CUNY’s 11 senior colleges.

We teach heroes. As professors at Brooklyn College (CUNY), our students staff the local bodega, stock shelves at Target and Whole Foods, drive cabs, and deliver food to patients at Mt. Sinai Hospital. They work for the MTA, the DOE and EMS. They keep New York City running in this time of crisis.

Our students have always been persevering—working 30-40 hours a week, looking after family, and still taking five classes each semester, delighting in discussions from William Faulkner to physics, speech therapy to immigration policy to the history of Brooklyn’s civil rights movement. Hailing from Pakistan, Russia, Trinidad and the Dominican Republic, from Bed Stuy to Borough Park to Coney Island, they make the clichés of New York as a city of strivers and dreamers come to life.

But of course, we’re learning that the term “hero” can be a rhetorical sleight of hand—a form of praise (and applause every evening at 7:00), but not actual material recognition—no guarantee of living wages, health care, safe working conditions, or a fully funded education. Heroes, apparently, can make due with less.

Our rainbow of students (Brooklyn College’s student body in 2019 was 19 percent Black, 22 percent Latinx, 19 percent Asian and 25 percent white, many of whom are white immigrants) have long made due with less. The majority of CUNY students come from households making $40,000 per year, or less. Before the pandemic, a study showed 48 percent of students experienced food insecurity within the month and 14 percent homeless in the past year. And decades of underfunding CUNY have produced overflowing classrooms, broken bathrooms, packed computer labs, and leaking ceilings, another obstacle students confront as they try to work their way up.

While many CUNY students are laboring to keep the city functioning, most of the rest of their classmates have lost jobs. The jobs in service and retail that students worked to put themselves through school and support families are gone. Nearly a third of students in our classes have sick family members, and some have lost loved ones. Many have no health insurance. What this crisis looks like on the ground at CUNY is staggering.

And still they persist. They share wi-fi to show up on Zoom for lively class discussion, shower congratulations in the chat when a classmate announces his acceptance into law school, and send response papers in the middle of the night when the family computer is free. They apologize that a paper is late because their beloved was taken to the hospital, worry that they are “failing themselves” because altered family responsibilities make concentrating on schoolwork extraordinarily hard, and admit how much anxiety about lost jobs and loved ones overwhelms them. But still, over and over, they tell us how thankful they are for the opportunity to learn.

CUNY— originally founded in 1867 as theFree Academy (“Open the doors to all—Let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together”) and now comprised of 25 campuses across the five boroughs serving 275,000 students— has long been an engine of social transformation. Generation upon generations of New Yorkers, particularly white New Yorkers, have used the “poor man’s Harvard” as a stepping stone to the middle class. Indeed, in a survey of colleges providing social mobility to their students, nine of the top twenty in the nation today are CUNY schools.

But forty years of disinvestment has cut this prized public institution to the bone. This divestment began shortly after CUNY, in 1969, instituted a policy of open admissions and started to educate a much truer racial, ethnic, and economic cross-section of New Yorkers. Until then, CUNY had been over 90 percent white, in a city whose high schools by that point were half African American and Puerto Rican. Six years later, CUNY’s hundred-year practice of free tuition ended. And retrenchment began.

Cuomo, both father and son, have devastated the institution. Mario Cuomo, who served as governor from 1983 to 1994, demanded huge cuts in the early 1990s, including a $53 million cut in CUNY’s operating budget, a $500 tuition increase, and sizable cuts to state financial aid. Then in 1992, claiming financial exigency, he declared retrenchment and terminated employees on a number of campuses. Mario’s son Andrew, elected in 2010, has amplified his dad’s record of gutting CUNY. Increasingly, state investment has been replaced by rising tuition: it now costs over $6,000 to attend the senior colleges.

While Gov. Cuomo is currently enjoying national adulation with his commanding made-for-tv press conferences, beneath the gloss is a more malignant side. He has cut CUNY’s funding relative to increasing enrollments and rising costs every year he has been in office. One particularly shady maneuver is that New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) no longer covers the full cost of tuition. Cuomo makes colleges bridge the difference ….leading to broken-down buildings, burgeoning class sizes, and further tuition raises.

Gov. Cuomo consistently balances the budget on the backs of students. His persistent refusal to consider raising revenue by taxing the super-wealthy, or even thinking boldly in the moment, such as using CARES ACT provisions through which the Federal Reserve could buy debt fromstates and municipalities to avoid austerity, means that institutions like CUNY, and the vulnerable communities they serve, are set to take a debilitating hit. Indeed, on May 5, he announced a partnership with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine” education in the state and his task force includes no CUNY students or professors (or NYC teachers or high school students).

In fact, in fear of Cuomo’s budget revisions (the state has reserved power to make three budget adjustments over the next year in response to expected revenue shortfalls), the Brooklyn College administration, where we teach, demanded that all departments and programs preemptively slash their course offerings by 25 percent and raise class sizes. Other campus administrations including the College of Staten Island and John Jay College are similarly following suit, in some cases demanding blanket firings of hundreds of adjunct instructors. If they follow through, adjunct faculty, lab technicians, and other staff members would lose work—and health insurance. Class sizes will skyrocket. The threat of Cuomo’s budget will further devastate the education of the hundreds of thousands of students who attend CUNY.

We are at a crucial juncture in this country. These cuts don’t have to happen; in fact, this could be a moment to reverse the decades of debilitating disinvestment— lifting up the very people whose labor, smarts, and persistence make New York what it is. CUNY, in many ways, embodies the ideals of opportunity and transformation through education that this society holds dear. And yet, this history of disinvestment and devastating current budget cuts also reveal how shallow our commitments to equality and honoring our essential workers seem to be.

This must begin with Governor Cuomo’s assurance of no budget cuts to CUNY. New York state lawmakers must close the TAP gap, commit funds to hire 1,000 new full-time faculty, increase CUNY’s capital budget to pay for long-needed repairs and green retro-fit our crumbling campuses and move aggressively toward atuition-free model. Doing so should be coupled with a demand for Congress to enact a higher education-specific federal relief package for academic workers and students.

This is not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. During the Great Depression, local, state, and federal policymakers refused to cut and invested instead, building three new CUNY campuses. As President Franklin Roosevelt explained at the 1936 dedication of Brooklyn College: “We not only have to put to work many thousands of good people who needed work; but we are also improving the educational facilities of this great Borough, not just today but for generations to come.”

Doesn’t the present moment call for similar visionary action for public institutions like CUNY and the people they educate for generations to come?


Jeanne Theoharis is a distinguished professor of Political Science; Alan Aja is an associate professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies; and Joseph Entin is a professor of English and American Studies at Brooklyn College.

9 thoughts on “Opinion: Spare CUNY, and Save the Education our Heroes Deserve

  1. As a CUNY grad I sympathize with your. But neither the city nor state are in a position to give CUNY all it wants.

    • Maybe not. But what about giving the university *some* of what it wants? Especially when part of what they’re asking is just that the governor stop cutting resources.

  2. Thank you for a powerful statement. This should be circulated everywhere in NYS and made the basis of our PSC-CUNY campaign.

  3. Save CUNY! Save the jobs of the people who teach the next generation of New York State and New York City Leaders! Action, equity and solidarity is needed now more than ever! CUNY helps to educate students whom may not otherwise have the opportunity for higher education due to the high tuitions of private colleges. CUNY serves the people and the people believed that the Governor served them! What the governor doesn’t realize in the equation, is that if the underserved, underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals cease to have the opportunity for a quality, reasonably priced education, there will be considerably more citywide unemployment. That translates into New York State and City taxpayers. He fails to realize that it will trigger an avalanche of public assistance, SSI/SSD and SNAP applications. This will ultimately result in a loss of millions of tax dollars for both NYS and NYC. We will go right back to the NYC of the 1970’s and 80’s. Not to fund CUNY is a grave mistake!

  4. Thank you for this op Ed. It clearly outlines the harsh reality in CUNY endures under the austerity plan Albany imposed on. This shortsighted policy hurts our students and threatens the future of the city. Glad that we have PSC to push back and defend our students and the future if the City we love.

  5. It is difficult if not impossible to think of NYC without a diverse and academically robust university. CUNY is not a luxury, it is essential to the communities it serves and to the City where it contributes its talents, its teachers and the buying power of its constituents.

  6. Ok, nice OP Ed and all of what the author says about the student body and it’s struggles are on point but and I say this with great passion, this article is truly about CUNY funding nothing about the struggling students. Unfortunately the students (soft violin playing) are cards being used to push their political agenda. If you want to talk about how CUNY students are treated from these schools, I’m more than happy to speak my truth. I am a struggling student and no I don’t want a free A like those rich and privileged folks who pay for their kids Harvard acceptances. What I really want to address is the way we are treated at these so called colleges that uses our image of brown, poor, struggling kids as a front and a project to fulfill their egos. Their fake egos in which they project to society how caring and nuturing they are towarss these poor folks. Want to hear some of my reasons? How about this one. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time hearing about this. I had to take a math class for my Science Major but since I came from a country that did not give me the opportunity to afford me a math teacher in school, I self taught myself math. Upon the second week in class I emailed my professor to ask him if he help me find or if he has knowledge on additional resources because I taught myself math. Immediately he responded and ask me to see him during office hours. So I went into his office feeing great, “I can do this” but was asked, ” why aren’t you wearing your traditional clothing, what was my major and why do immigrants feel that when they come here to America, that they want to be scientist, doctors, lawyers and engineers!” I did not respond to him and knew from that day I was going to fail his class. Well, at the end of the semester I got me my good fat F as I rightly deserved for being a poor, brown, immigrant. Still need to hear more? I have tons of stories. My USSO history class during covid-19 issued an online test and their system BB had technical issues. The system did not allow any of my work to be saved let alone move in to the other questions. When I approach my professor and told her about the issues and how can we fix it she said there is nothing she can do and would not give me a makeup exam. She also lied and told me no one else experienced any technical difficulties but I soon learned about her lies on Monday during our schedule online class when other students were scared about finals because of what they experienced during midterm!!! The professor even stated that she don’t a repeat of another midterm in which 30 plus students emailed her in a panic. She also stated, ” I’m not an IT expert!” And discuss your issues with BB support services. Oh, and to add fuel to the fire, she graciously gave us and assignment worth 10 points in which a student asked, ” would these 10 points be added towards our final grade?” She said that’s none of his business and that grades is for her concern not his! Oh, let’s not forget my wonderful French teacher! Oh, please let’s not forget about her… I had my 3 year old baby with me in which my best friend, who usually looks after him while I attend class was running late. Guess what! Yes, I’m sure by now you know how this might go down. She told me to leave her class even though my friend was 5 minutes away. After her length lecture and got kicked out of her class, I lost 75% of my tuition, which I 3 jobs over the summer just to pay off my fall semester tuition.
    I know all of these experiences have a negative undertone but my mantra for each of these I’ll behaved professor’s I repeat daily say, I only have to deal with you and your biasness for just one semester!!! I have had some wonderful professor’s though, there was this grad student that thought English and boy was he a wonderful professor! He thought that class so great that it payed the foundation for other college writing classes. Also, another great professor was an elderly English professor which made scholarly books, articles and complex poetry a joy to read! Talking Shakespeare or other poets and combining it with a piece of art at the MOMA and creating a 12 page essay with ease. Sad to say, but these wonderful people are just a minority in which I relish each semester to have another and another and another.
    Poor and brown does not mean we are less human. Poor and brown does not mean that we have no worth. Poor and brown does not mean we should be treated like garbage and we’re deserving of it.
    Is it fair to assume that being poor and brown is a stain in the eyes of society of which bleach cannot rid off. Is it fair to say that being poor and brown is a burden that their backs would not dear carry because our poorness carries masses which are far heavier than those of the privileged. My questions are not for you to answer because I live it and I know the answer. As for CUNY, and their lack of support for the sudden covid-19 attack they decided to give us a great option to put on our transcripts credit/no credit options. Looks good on their end because they did their jobs and the students can figure their stuff out in the future! Bravo CUNY and yes, I’ll rally for you so you can keep your jobs because you’re so great at teaching these people of very little to no worth. Yet we seem to resurface into your realm only when its needed and quite honestly the need is only just yours and never ours. Your picturesque portrait of various hues of browns with struggling imagery that immediately takes your audience to the rotten stench of landfills sure do captivate the attention of the big fat cheque book you desired. Please stop using us on your canvases of the doting institution and paint your true agenda which is all about you and your buddies.
    Thank you.

  7. There is no question that there COULD be enough money for education – if we as a nation prioritized it. Look at corporate executive salaries and corporate bailouts. Look at the plan to re-vamp the entire infrastructure of nuclear weapons when their use would be the end of our life-supporting planet. Let’s fund education, healthcare and the environment. Not killing machines.

  8. Drs. Theoharis, Aja, and Entin raised important points about the heavy load so many CUNY students carry, rising tuition costs, the TAP gap, and CUNY budget cuts. However, they did not address a major reason why so many students have incredibly demanding schedules and find it increasingly difficult to afford the rising costs of college. Programs such as TAP are inaccessible to the many students who do not meet the strict requirements, but struggle to afford the cost of a degree.

    These programs also effectively force eligible students to balance a full-time course load with a full-time job. TAP recipients must be full-time students each semester, and New York’s highly touted Excelsior Scholarship also has this requirement. Many students can’t meet these requirements because they are already juggling multiple responsibilities. While I (under normal circumstances) work part-time and attend City College full time, that’s not an option for my peers who need a full-time job–especially since financial aid often does not cover the full cost of college.

    CUNY four-year colleges get 40% of their operating budget from tuition. A fully funded CUNY system would enable its universities could reduce or even tuition. Fewer students would have to juggle demanding schedules in order to meet onerous financial aid requirements that shouldn’t even exist. If Governor Cuomo wants CUNY to be financially accessible, he should increase its budget, rather than slashing funding so much that universities are laying off adjuncts in anticipation of budget cuts and will probably increase tuition during a global pandemic.

    It’s time to tell our elected officials to stop underfunding CUNY. Past generations of CUNY students received their education at affordable, fully funded universities. My classmates and I deserve the same opportunity.

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