Toward a Renewed CUNY Movement

This text was composed in early 2016 to outline the principles driving CUNY Struggle.


Tuition is rising across CUNY, while wages for faculty and staff are stagnating. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which represents 25,000 CUNY workers, has been unable to secure a fair contract for over five years. Student life and campus activism are increasingly suppressed and policed, while facilities crumble and student movement gains of yesteryear like the Morales/Shakur Center are lost. Professors dedicated to educating working class young people are teaching huge courseloads in overcrowded classrooms, while many adjunct professors face insecure futures, stretched thin across multiple campuses and struggling to get by on low wages. Like Higher education more broadly, CUNY is in the midst of a crisis and nothing will change for the better until we learn to work together to fight for both ourselves and our institutions.

While New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly vowed support for the mission of CUNY, his policies tell a different story. Like other governors before him, he has continued the decades long process of slowly privatizing the university through strategic cuts and underfunding that have divided and split those who work and teach at the campuses. And that is why many of CUNY’s biggest problems actually begin at home, not in Albany. Hardworking student protesters find little support from faculty and staff, and often their own classmates, when they organize and take to the streets. The PSC is hitting a wall in its contract negotiations because administration knows the union has no substantive base in the student body, or even among their own members, and therefore there is no need to take them seriously in negotiations. Adjunct faculty are demoralized and feel disrespected and abandoned, while the two tier system has allowed a further attack on the rights and wages of the full time faculty. The only way we can end these attacks on faculty, as well as on other CUNY workers and students, is by uniting our common demands and fighting to together. Organizations like the PSC offer rhetorical support for a variety of political issues like rising tuition and adjunct precarity, but fail to meaningfully address them in practice. As we struggle to build the mass movement CUNY so desperately needs, the internal obstacles seem almost greater than the external difficulties.

The fragmentation of CUNY into so many particular struggles, fought and lost in isolation, is not an accident, however; it is by design. Budget cuts and multiple tiers have created a faculty divided among itself, while tuition increases, and campus police suppression have left students with little time or space to reflect upon their learning conditions or act to change them. Many CUNY undergraduate students come from precarious economic backgrounds and face uncertain futures and are often unwilling to take risks or rock the boat, while graduate students are increasingly focused on preparing themselves to fight for a dwindling number of tenure track jobs. And perhaps worst of all, while the college primarily serves students of color, the faculty is predominantly white, with women and people of color disproportionately represented among the precarious positions of part-time faculty, reflecting a similar trend nation-wide.

These divisions are real, but so is the need for common struggle. A CUNY movement capable of fighting back cannot be built on the basis of subordinating one group’s demands to those of another, or telling the most exploited members of the community to just wait their turn, as the PSC has done with adjuncts and students. Instead, we must be honest about what divides us and what unites us as a means of building a concrete collective power, not just empty statements of solidarity. We must ask ourselves hard questions about how and why it came to be that imposing austerity on CUNY is like taking candy from a baby for free-marketeers like our governor, who will slash public spending wherever it is easiest, and for our Board of Trustees, who are accountable to nobody so long as they do not fear a CUNY movement that could oust them altogether. We must ask why so many PSC members we talk to see no reason to authorize or support a strike believing it will have no bearing on their material situation. And we must ask why there is not broader support in NYC for a university system on which so many New Yorkers have relied for education and employment. And we must also ask why there is not more meaningful, material solidarity with other public sector employees, or other public educators waging similar battles. To the point, we must inquire, in theory and practice, how can we reverse this tide, and put ourselves in a position to not simply wage defensive campaigns in isolation, but go on the offensive for free public education and secure well-paying jobs for all in the CUNY system.

The ad hoc coalition CUNY Struggle believes that the only way forward is a rejuvenated, independent, CUNY-wide mass movement, built on transparency and real material solidarity, and rooted in common demands. We believe that the form of this movement and its pathway forward do not come to us readymade, but must be built by cooperation and experimentation. And we are not starting from scratch — the makings of a vibrant CUNY movement already exist, in so many fragments. The work facing us today is to bridge these struggles, strengthening them in their particularity, while building the power of a unified fighting force through cultivating new connections and building trust. To this effect we must be independent of the PSC, of the student governing bodies, and of the various political sects. This does not mean we all can’t work together, only that the task ahead of us is bigger and broader than any of these single institutions.

CUNY Struggle is calling for a CUNY-wide popular assembly on March 12th to develop a common set of demands and a strategy for how to get what we want. The location will be announced very shortly. Everyone in the CUNY community is invited and encouraged to come, to participate in respectful discussion and debate, and to help build a plan for moving forward. The launch of this website as an independent, nonsectarian source of news, analysis, and debate, is our first offering to the CUNY community in this direction. Over the course of February we will be holding meetings to prepare for the popular assembly at every campus possible. Get involved.