A participatory project to collect and preserve the histories of the City University of New York

Student Strikes of 1991: Graduate Center Student Takeover

In the Spring of 1991, proposed tuition hikes, cuts to the university’s operating budget, and reductions in student aid prompted system-wide student strikes at CUNY. Spurred into action by student activists at City College, groups of students began taking over their campuses throughout the CUNY system. By the end of the occupation more than two-thirds of CUNY was under student occupation.

This collection includes flyers, photographs, manifestos, and other primary source materials from the Spring of 1991. They were gathered and assembled by Katherine McCaffrey, then a Graduate Center (GC) Anthropology doctoral student, highlighting the role of the GC in the system-wide movement, and providing the lens through which the struggle is understood.

The 1991 strike at the Graduate Center was born in the Anthropology PhD program and reflected the progressive education doctoral students received in a program rooted not only in Marxist theory, but also in practice. This training recognized the nature of the interconnected and unequal world that we inhabited and encouraged students to use the tools of Anthropology to change it. Several documents reveal early organizing efforts of Anthropology doctoral students that laid a foundation for the strike. A key element of the program’s identity and dynamism emerged from the public nature of the City University system and neoliberal threats to the material basis of this public education that CUNY faced. Austerity ultimately had the effect of unifying students and faculty alike in opposing this direct assault against such a crucial public good.

A key argument of the material included in this collection is that student mobilizations that emerged from the CUNY system from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s were not narrowly framed simply to oppose tuition hikes but rather were more broadly conceptualized as resistance against austerity measures and the expanding war economy. Documents in this collection reveal these linkages.

Student solidarity across campuses was a crucial character of the system-wide strike. Documents reveal efforts to promote solidarity and build coalitions with labor unions, community organizations, and elected officials to redirect state and city taxes towards education, healthcare, housing, and mass transit. For example, one flyer appeals to NYC labor movement members to join CUNY student strikers on an April 24, 1991 rally at the World Trade Center, arguing that the attacks on CUNY were part of city-wide attacks on city workers, public schools, health care, worker safety, child care, public transit, and beyond. Demonstrations expanded beyond individual campuses to the streets of Harlem, Lower Manhattan and Albany. Protest tactics included strikes, demonstrations, teach-ins, and takeovers of multiple buildings across campuses. The protestors also called for the restructuring of the CUNY Board of Trustees and implementing a progressive state tax structure.

Protest movements cross-pollinated. One of the documents in this collection is a poster from the Latinas/os Caucus of ACT UP/NY which drew parallels between cuts to education and cuts to health care. The flyer emphasized that when "basic rights are at stake, radical responses are in order.” Another flyer ironically juxtaposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with New York Governor Mario Cuomo and CUNY Chancellor Ann Reynolds, pointing both to the dubious nature of the US war on Iraq and the harm perpetrated by local officials against the public at home.

Documents within this collection include dissenting opinions and analyses of the efficacy of the strike. Stanley Aronowitz, who taught in the doctoral program in Sociology, noted that the event's main success was the direct democracy that it practiced and the possibility that CUNY could become a leading "innovator in pedagogy and curriculum." Katherine McCaffrey, now a Professor of Anthropology at Montclair State University, curated the collection.

Go to all 33 Items in collection.

7 Featured Items:

“Graduate Center Student Strike Update”: 16 Demands

On April 18th, a "Graduate Center Student Strike Update" document confirmed the students' 16 demands and announced that a negotiation process had begun with Graduate Center administrators. Some of the demands were tied directly to [...]

Revised and Expanded In-Process Agenda: Cultural Anthropology Meeting

This “Revised and Expanded In-Process Agenda” based on minutes from a May 18th Cultural Anthropology graduate student meeting emphasized that the document was not a manifesto but rather a collection of ideas that were open to discussion and [...]

Who's the Real Enemy?

Featuring images of Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds, Governor Mario Cuomo, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, this two-sided flyer from 1991 asked, "Who's the real enemy?". "All of the above" was the answer because "they are [...]

The Splinter

The Splinter described itself as a supplement to The Advocate (the Graduate Center student newspaper) and a “space for the analysis of social environment.” Published in April 1991 Vol. 1 No. 2 of The Splinter featured editorials, book reviews, [...]

The Graduate Student Advocate, vol 2 no 6

This 1991 issue of  The Graduate Student Advocate , the newspaper of the graduate students at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). Published six times per academic year, it included editorials, articles, interviews, and [...]

Etceteras Newspaper Volume 0 Number 0

Following the Graduate Center takeover, Etceteras Vol.0 No.0 featured reflections and commentary on the "Occupation 1991," which had lasted over a week. Various students from multiple programs not actively involved in the takeover of the Graduate [...]

ACT UP Flyer: Education is a Right, Fight, Fight, Fight

In this statement of solidarity with City Unversity of New York (CUNY) Student Strikers, members of  Activistas Latinas/os Contra SIDA of ACT UP/NY  drew parallels between cuts to education and cuts to health care. The flyer emphasized [...]

Go to all 33 Items in collection.

Student Strikes of 1991: Graduate Center Student Takeover