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1993-1999 End of Remediation and Open Admissions in Senior Colleges

The decade of the 1990s was a difficult one for CUNY students, faculty, and staff largely the result of simultaneous Republican control of the governorship (George Pataki) and the mayorality (Rudy Giuliani). In addition to the installation of conservative businessmen, political figures, and lawyers on the Board of Trustees over the course of the 1990s, both conservative politicians unleashed a series of ideological and financial attacks on New York’s public institutions and social services, of which CUNY proved to be a prime target. The first to attack CUNY was Pataki. In his 1995 budget message he singled out CUNY, calling for a massive $116 million reduction in its operating budget, a $500 tuition increase, and total elimination of the SEEK and College Discovery programs. As they had in 1989 and 1991 CUNY students mobilized to oppose this frontal assault, calling marches, rallies and hunger strikes across the CUNY system. (See the "CUNY Coalition Collection Against the Cuts, 1995" collection with numerous articles, pamphlets, and images on this struggle.) These organizing efforts culminated in March 1995 in a mass march and rally at City Hall (with the announced intention to march down to Wall St.). That event, which drew an estimated 25,000 college and high school students, most of color, ended in violent confrontations with city police. (See Village Voice article "Birth of a Movement")  Unlike Governor Cuomo in 1989, Pataki didn’t back down in the face of these demonstrations and his budget cuts, with some modifications insisted on by the state legislature, were largely implemented. (In the end, SEEK and College Discovery managed to survive). One important result of Pataki’s imposed cuts was not only a tuition increase of $750 but also a reduction in CUNY’s operating budget by $102 million. In addition, there was a sharp reduction in available classes offered at CUNY campuses. The students’ inability to blunt Pataki’s full-scale attack on CUNY’s budget in 1995 led to the creation of several ongoing student activist organizations, most notably the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM!), which continually challenged the governor’s next attempted budget cut against CUNY in 1996.

Mayor Giuliani launched his own attacks on CUNY, which were decidedly more ideological than budgetary (he controlled much less of CUNY’s budget than the state). Giuliani used his one-third share of Board of Trustee (BoT) appointments to install neoliberal supporters and advocates. These board members and the mayor bluntly and publicly attacked CUNY for its failures as a public institution of higher education, belittling the intellectual competence and educational achievements of CUNY’s diverse student body, and arguing that CUNY was “an Institution Adrift,” as the title of a critical 1999 Board of Trustees report termed it. The particular target of this report was Open Admissions and the continued remedial support provided to entering students, many of color, at CUNY’s four-year colleges. This 1997 Halloween-themed image is typical of some of the resistance and mockery exhibited by students groups.

Despite CUNY student, faculty, and staff efforts to fight the proposed ending of remediation, Mayor Giuliani got his way and 1999 witnessed the formal end of remedial instruction at CUNY’s senior colleges as well as an embrace by the BoT of centralized coordination and planning. (See SLAM! "Open Admissions Fact Sheet") By the end of the twentieth century CUNY had once again taken on the form of the pre-open admissions, two-tier hierarchical system that was increasingly starved of basic financial support by both the state and the city. CUNY had returned to the use of higher admission standards that privileged white and largely middle-class student applicants who applied to CUNY’s senior colleges, while its half dozen community colleges became the sole providers of remedial instruction in reading, writing, and math for the growing numbers of poor and working-class students of color graduating from city high schools who sought entry into CUNY. 

[This essay is based on Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education, by Stephen Brier and Michael Fabricant,  October, 2016.]

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10 Featured Items:

Voice of the Voiceless, April 20, 1998

In this issue of the BMCC student newspaper, Voice of the Voiceless, the topic of Open Admissions is given full focus with more than twenty articles contributed on the subject from students across the CUNY system. The topic was given special [...]

"Students Rally Against the Cuts"

This front page article in the Hunter College Envoy covers a march and rally organized by SLAM! on March 21, 1996 against that year's proposed budget cuts to CUNY. The paper estimates about 800 Hunter students, faculty and staff attended.

"Citibank: The Pawnbroker"

This article in the Spheric newspaper from Hunter College investigates the potential exploitation of students and campuses by the proposed CUNY Card. Citibank would get fees from students as part of this proposed ID card that would also be an ATM [...]

The Banner, March 30, 1995

Student newspaper from College of Staten Island, with coverage of March 23, 1995 CUNY Coalition protest at City Hall.

Tips for Giving Class Presentations

This flier was used by activists to prepare for giving short presentations—"class raps"—in classrooms to promote the March 23, 1995 demonstration at City Hall. It includes details about the planned tuition hike and cuts to financial [...]

"Bad Man Badillo: Butcher of CUNY"

This article by SLAM! member Sandra Barros for the Hunter Envoy investigates the role of CUNY Board of Trustees Vice Chair Herman Badillo in the plan to end open admissions at CUNY. This issue of the Envoy also includes an article about Hunter's [...]

Love and Rage: Special Anti-Cop Issue

This special issue of Love and Rage, written and published by anarchist CUNY students active in the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts, covers police repression of student activism at CUNY and police brutality in New York City neighborhoods. One [...]

Open Admissions Protest Flier, October 1997

This Halloween themed flier, from October 1997, calls for participation in an October 26th protest at CUNY’s administrative offices at 535 E. 80th Street. Depicted are Rudolph Giuliani, New York’s mayor, and Herman Badillo, the Vice-Chair of [...]

1993-1999 End of Remediation and Open Admissions in Senior Colleges