Since its foundation as the “Free Academy” in 1870, CUNY has become the battleground for Black and Latino student militancy in this city.
The Free Academy, now named City College of New York, ensured the right to an education to anyone with little more than a literacy test or high school diploma.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century students attended any CUNY schools free of charge. However, the overwhelming majority of the colleges were white, which did not reflect the composition of the city at that time.
At City College, for example, only 2 percent of the students enrolled were black despite being in the middle of Harlem – the historically black Mecca of the U.S.
The Civil Rights Movement led to an impact so great that the fabric of the CUNY education system would change.
In 1969, several students held protests demanding that CUNY allow open admissions to expand the access to a college education to people of color in the city. The epicenter of this struggle was held in what the Amsterdam News called “the white Rhodesia in Harlem:” City College.
This fed off a series of small sit-in protests against inequality inside CUNY throughout the late 60s, which mimicked those protests in the South but with little impact on CUNY’s admissions policy.
As the Civil Rights Movement transitioned into the Black Power Movement, the militancy and organization of CUNY students of color picked up tremendously.
Several student groups such as the W.E.B. Dubois club along with members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords locked themselves inside several campuses as a form of protest. Their demands included open admissions allowing for students to enter with little or no restrictions, more senior colleges to fulfill the influx of an urban student body, and the addition of ethnic studies in CUNY’s educational system.
In April of 1969, ending a 12 week campaign, the CUNY Board of Trustees as well as state officials recognized the end of the strike and fulfilled its demands. Within a few semesters the student body became increasingly more diverse, better reflecting the racial composition of the city.
Then, in the 70s, tuition was implemented despite the “free academy” principles CUNY was founded on. Today, with the implementation of higher academic standards for admission, the numbers of Black and Latino students entering the top CUNY colleges has decreased.
“I think CUNY has been engaged in a long process of reversing many of the important reforms that came from that era,” said Benjamin Becker, City College professor of the modern civil rights movement. “CUNY is no longer free, admissions are not really open, fixed ‘tiers’ were implemented separating the schools; remediation funding and other services have been cut. As a result, City, Queens, Hunter and Baruch have become less accessible to poor Black and Latino students in particular.”
But the struggle to keep CUNY a public institution, since the entrance of Black and Latino students, has never ceased. Protest is at the heart of the history of CUNY, the leading and largest educational institution for non-white students across the country.
Student groups today fulfill this pattern of militant protest as they did 40 years ago. In late November of 2011, the BOT passed almost unanimously a tuition hike of $300 for that school year. State law allowed for the BOT to increase tuition every year for $300 until 2015.
At the public BOT hearing in Baruch – around which thousands of students gathered in protest – approximately ten students were beaten and detained by the police upon entrance to the meeting.
Student activist Armide Pierre of York College, who witnessed some of the events, said “Many of the students within the city [are] trying to obtain an education and these are ways of barring Black youth from a better life.”
Student groups throughout CUNY have focused on tuition hikes including right here at Lehman. The club Black Legacy, which is affiliated with the CUNY-wide organization Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee (RSCC), holds forums and protests on the subject.
Just last year, more than a dozen students gathered in protest at another regular BOT meeting in John Jay. Some of the protesters were also Lehman students.
It is no accident that the majority of the students here at Lehman come from low income and non-white backgrounds. CUNY’s diversity is not the result of affirmative action but rather the result of the militancy of the Black and Latino youth of the city.
The legacy of the struggle of the CUNY student body is seen here at Lehman in our ethnic studies programs and the composition of our student body itself, but some student activist feel this is under attack due to tuition hikes and higher requirements for standardized test scores.
“The giant accomplishments that took CUNY forward after 1969 have not been completely erased, but incrementally they are being chipped away,” said Becker. “It’s important to remember that it took a lot of student action, which really shook up the whole city, to make these changes in the first place, and I think it will likely require something similar to hold onto them.”