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

2020 and Beyond: CUNY in the Era of COVID and Racial Reckoning

CUNY continued to be buffeted by fierce political and economic headwinds, even after the signing of the new five-year labor agreement in August 2016 that included modest salary and hourly wage increases for all CUNY staff.

Despite the new contract, Governor Andrew Cuomo continued his unrelenting assault on NYS funding support for public higher education across New York State, including his unwillingness to have the state contribute to the increased costs associated with CUNY’s new labor contract and his ongoing efforts to impose additional tuition increases on already strapped CUNY undergraduates.

CUNY faculty, staff, and students responded to the governor’s assaults on CUNY by developing political collaborations with a broad coalition of community organizations in NYC, including helping found and sustain the CUNY Rising Alliance, which actively fought against CUNY’s austerity underfunding by the state and the city governments.

The dawn of the new decade in 2020 also brought to the fore both new and old struggles that challenged the entire CUNY community in unprecedented ways in the next several years. In March 2020 the city, state, nation and the globe were wracked by the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, forcing the shut down of schools, government agencies, and businesses across the country and internationally in the face of the ensuing global pandemic. CUNY, in the midst of the Spring 2020 semester, was forced to cancel all face-to-face classes on its 25 campuses in mid-March, closing all of its campuses, and requiring students, faculty and staff to work remotely via teleconferencing software. This presented enormous logistical, financial, and pedagogical challenges for the entire CUNY community including unequal access to digital technology and the Internet, housing and food insecurity, heightened racial disparities, and financial precarity. These problems were worsened by the unilateral decision of CUNY’s central administration to lay off hundreds of graduate student and hourly staff workers in response to uncertainty about CUNY’s future budget. Despite having to work and study remotely because of COVID, CUNY students, faculty and staff, led by the PSC-CUNY and the CUNY Rising Alliance came together to fight for faculty, staff, and graduate student positions, undertaking a series of public demonstrations that challenged the CUNY administration and state and city politicians to do more to support CUNY during this unprecedented crisis.

And two short months after the COVID lockdown, Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, an African-American city resident, on May 25, 2020, a shocking death recorded indelibly on cellphone video that galvanized the nation and the world to confront the systemic racism and white supremacy that undergirded the racist treatment of citizens of color. George Floyd’s murder was just the latest in a string of murders of Black men and women at the hands of police forces across the country over the last decade. the unprecedented outpouring of public demonstrations and rallies to protest these racialized murders, including by CUNY faculty, staff and students, marked a growing awareness that U.S. society needed to confront and reject the unbridled white supremacy and racist policing practices that constrained the lives and liberty of citizens of color.

CUNY’s future prospects in the third decade of the 21st century hinged on the ability and willingness of its faculty, staff, and students to confront the worst excesses of neoliberal austerity, racialized capitalism, and white supremacy. As this is being written (August 2021) the various CUNY colleges are only just beginning the process of reopening their campuses to face-to-face instruction and work for the Fall 2021 semester. CUNY’s future will also be shaped by the infusion of nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus funds in response to the pandemic as well as by the recent resignation after more than a decade in office in the face of sexual harassment charges of Governor Andrew Cuomo, one of CUNY’s most powerful opponents. The shifting dynamics of state and city politics in response to Cuomo’s departure open up interesting possibilities for the resuscitation of CUNY, the nation’s premier urban public institution of higher learning whose founding purpose and mission 175 years later remains “to educate the children of the whole people.”

10 Featured Items:

Cuomo's First Announcement

Posted on March 11, 2020, this landmark tweet was the first official notice from Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State of New York that the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY) would be transitioning to remote [...]

Tweet: #CloseCUNY Nationwide

This tweet pointed out that the #CloseCUNY hashtag had received national circulation among Twitter's userbase during the early days of the pandemic. This hashtag expressed a growing desire for CUNY to cease in-person instruction, begun early in [...]

Tweet: CUNY Announcement of COVID-19 Infection at John Jay College

Posted on March 10, 2020, this tweet represented the official announcement from the City University of New York (CUNY) administration regarding the exposure of John Jay's student body to COVID-19. While many other tweets in this collection show [...]

Welcome to Distance Learning

The City University of New York (CUNY) traditionally has sent out regular newsletters to inform its community of significant events and accomplishments by its faculty and students. For the first week of remote learning, these newsletters would focus [...]

Safety Measures at The Graduate Center

Taken by Charles Scott, Director of Facilities at the CUNY Graduate Center between March 2020 and May 2021, these pictures showed some of the ways in which administration and staff worked towards creating the conditions for a safe working and [...]

"Online classes = more work"

Posted on September 28, 2020, this Reddit thread featured a discussion among City University of New York (CUNY) students about how instructors have disproportionately compensated for the limitations of distance learning by increasing the rigor and [...]

John Jay College of Criminal Justice Law and Society Class Project: COVID-19 at CUNY

Developed at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice during the Spring 2020 semester, this Law and Society class project documented the ongoing relationship of student contributors and the broader City University of New York (CUNY) [...]

"Having a breakdown falling behind in online classes"

In this Reddit thread, posted on April 2, 2020, one student wrote about their experience of falling behind in their coursework, leading to "having a breakdown" during the Covid-19 pandemic. The student attributed their problem to the lack [...]

Petition in Opposition to Turnitin for Plagiarism Detection Software

This petition – opposing the CUNY Central administration's resolution to approve a contract with Turnitin for Plagiarism Detection Software – was crafted by Lisa Rhody, Luke Waltzer, and Roxanne Shirazi and circulated on December 3, 2020, [...]

Considerations for Instructional Continuity

Distributed in March 2020, the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) at The Graduate Center compiled this preemptive guide on navigating the midstream shift to distance learning, along with associated forms of campus-based guidance from other City [...]

2020 and Beyond: CUNY in the Era of COVID and Racial Reckoning