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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