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Free CUNY? Renegade City Councilman Starts Hearing on Restoring Free Tuition After Years of Austerity

Pandi Hopkins Sep 9, 2003

A free CUNY? Sheer lunacy? Perhaps not, says City Councilman Charles Barron.

Amid the strenuous objections of students, last June, the City University of New York Board of Trustees voted to raise tuition for the first time since 1995.

“If free tuition makes fiscal sense, what is standing in the way?” he asks before providing his own answer, “Institutional racism!”

Councilman Barron is using his position as Education Committee Chair to announce two public hearings: the first, on Sept. 24, will cover the effects of the new tuition hike; the second, on Oct. 21, will consider the reinstatement of a free CUNY.

CUNY was a free educational institution for 129 years, from its founding in 1847 to 1976 when it succumbed to political pressure. Open admissions were instituted at CUNY in 1969 in response to a student demonstration against an alleged racist admissions policy.

In 1975, President Ford threatened to withhold federal funding to New York City unless free tuition and open admissions were eliminated from CUNY, complaining that one of the largest universities in the world was offering free tuition to “any high-school graduate, rich or poor, who wants to attend.”

But open admissions lasted until the Board of Trustees voted in 1998 to eliminate remedial instruction from the senior colleges and sharply curtailed it in the community colleges.

That decision was greeted by a chorus of protesters, 24 of whom were arrested, after public hearings at CUNY’s administrative headquarters had drawn outraged faculty, students and alumni to speak out. Two of the most prominent were Arthur Miller and Wendy Wasserstein, who said they would not have been able to graduate from CUNY without remedial instruction.

Most CUNY trustees were and are intimately involved with such right-wing think-tanks as the Empire Foundation, the Scaife Family Funds, the Olin Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

As pointed out by H. Bruce Franklin, professor of English at Rutgers University, CUNY served for over a century as “a boulevard for success” until left-wing activists, the Black Power movement and multi-cultural ideals invigorated the campuses and infuriated the power structure.

In March 1998, an Empire Foundation report was released that demanded a return to a CUNY-wide curriculum focused on Western Civilization and the elimination of such “fluff courses” as Sociology of Women, African Literature and the Third World in the Modern Era.

Tom Carroll, an officer of Change-New York (part of the Empire Foundation) explained, “Loony professors shouldn’t be able to force grievance courses like those based on racism and feminism on students.”

This past March, New York Gov. George Pataki appointed Benno Schmidt as Chair of the CUNY Board of Trustees. Schmidt has spent the last 10 years as CEO of Edison Schools, a corporation devoted to the privatization of the public school system.

The greatest obstacle to college entrance and graduation for immigrant, Hispanic, and African-American students are two CUNY-wide English tests, graded for structural correctness only, thus eliminating the need to acquire skills of intellectual inquiry.

Councilman Barron points out that linguists know there is no “bad language,” only different ones. He attributes failure of many African-American students to pass standardized English tests to disrespect for their mode of speech.

A teacher should not “correct” an African-American construction, but advise the student to translate it into standard English.

“No one advocates teaching Ebonics, but those who teach black students should be taught the history of black language and culture.”

Unfortunately, little has changed since Vice President Spiro Agnew complained three decades ago about too many black college students, and President Richard Nixon’s educational adviser, Roger Freeman, warned about “producing an educated proletariat.”

Today, President Bush opposes permitting college work to fulfill welfare requirements because it would cost “a bunch more money and some people could spend their entire five years on welfare going to college.”

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