Restoring the People’s Universities

CUNY, the CSU, and the promise of socially transformative education.
By Alejandra Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis

Cal state

On October 28, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt journeyed to Brooklyn to lay the cornerstone for a new college campus of the City University of New York. Speaking at the dedication of Brooklyn College, FDR made clear the reasons for investing in new CUNY campuses at a time of national economic uncertainty: “We not only have to put to work many thousands of good people who needed work; but we are also improving the educational facilities of this great Borough, not just today but for generations to come.” 

During the Great Depression, New York State and federal policy makers resisted pressure to cut services and invested in higher education instead, building three new CUNY campuses—Brooklyn College, Queens College, and Hunter College in the Bronx (which is now known as Lehman College)—a tremendous outlay that put people to work and expanded educational opportunities in the city. In Depression-era California, a similar initiative unfolded. Lawmakers transformed four existing teachers’ colleges into state colleges and opened the new 150-acre campus of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, laying the groundwork for the California State University, which would grow into the nation’s largest public university system.

In 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill, which funded free college for more than 10 million veterans during the following decade, radically expanding higher education in postwar US society. Once reserved for the elite, college access became a cornerstone of social citizenship and economic advancement for high school graduates, rural to urban, middle-class to poor. The New Deal thus set forth a philosophy that investing in the intellectual capital of the people extended security and prosperity for the nation as a whole. 

Today, at a moment rivaling the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression, after decades in which both political parties have pushed austerity and at a time when public and private universities face severe financial crisis, the New Deal is a crucial model of a very different and necessary approach. As we confront unemployment and stark inequality not seen since the 1930s, we again need a significant public investment in higher education to spur economic recovery and nurture more scientists, artists, teachers, and community organizers who can envision solutions to our global crisis. 

But the New Deal also provides a cautionary lesson. The people—the public—in whom the government invested were predominantly white. Many African American and Latino veterans were unable to access their GI Bill benefits for college (or homes) because of widespread discrimination in higher education and the real-estate industry across the country. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ratings, intended to enable banks to make more home loans, expanded white home ownership while institutionalizing racial segregation through the practice later known as “redlining.” The 1935 Social Security and National Labor Relations Acts excluded domestic and agricultural workers, a large percentage of whom were Black or Latino, from unemployment insurance and union protection. The New Deal transformed the fortunes of an entire generation of working-class white families. Yet, by making whiteness an unwritten prerequisite for access to public goods, it also widened the racial wealth and opportunity gap that continues to imperil higher education and US democracy in the twenty-first century.

Expansion and Disinvestment

From 1936 to 1968, CUNY’s four-year colleges remained nearly all white. (Enrollment at Brooklyn College was still 96 percent white in 1968, in a city where half of the high school students were African American or Puerto Rican.) Long-standing community pressure and burgeoning student movements led CUNY in 1969 to institute a policy of open admissions and begin to educate a truer racial and economic cross-section of New Yorkers.

But six years later, faced with a possible city bankruptcy, many politicians and white residents targeted CUNY’s expansion as a cause of the city’s woes—and ended CUNY’s hundred-year practice of free tuition. And retrenchment began. Four decades of disinvestment, led by Governors Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew, have cut CUNY to the bone. With the complicity of many in the state legislature, Andrew Cuomo has reduced CUNY’s funding relative to increasing enrollments and rising costs during every year of his administration. At the same time, CUNY’s student body has become much more diverse. In fall 2019, only 23 percent of the 275,000 students who attended CUNY were white.

On the opposite coast, the California State University followed a similar trajectory. By 1972, the “People’s University” had grown to nineteen campuses that guaranteed tuition-free college to the top third of California high school graduates. Three years after San Francisco State’s 1968‒69 Third World Student Strike and the creation of the nation’s first pan-African studies and Chicano studies departments at Cal State Los Angeles, white students made up 79 percent of the CSU. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the CSU system reflected the diversity of California’s high school graduates, as people of color constituted more than 60 percent of Cal State students.

Immediately, equity of access was met by disinvestment. Or, as the California Faculty Association (CFA) put it in the 2017 report Equity Interrupted, “As the student body of the CSU became darker, funding became lighter.” In the early 2000s, liberal governor Jerry Brown famously instructed the CSU system to narrow its range of offerings like Chipotle: “What I like about Chipotle is the limited menu. You stand in the line, get either brown rice or white rice, black beans or pinto beans. You put a little cheese . . . and you're out of there.” Brown and the Democratic-controlled legislature continued to slash the CSU budget over the next decade and a half, demanding that the system spend less to graduate more students more quickly. By 2015, when three out of four Cal State students were nonwhite, per-student funding was 59 cents for every real dollar spent in 1985, according to data in Equity Interrupted.

We see this trend across the nation: when students of color finally began to gain access to higher education, disinvestment and the shrinking of educational opportunity followed. Although students of color today attend college in unprecedented numbers, the vast majority are concentrated in for-profit schools, community colleges, and public four-year regional comprehensive universities that spend far less per student than do liberal arts colleges and private and public research universities where white middle-class and wealthy students predominate. This inequity is apparent in California, where the state’s two four-year public university systems, the University of California and the California State University, serve the majority of college-going high school graduates. Yet, in 2017‒18, the more prestigious UC system, where more than 60 percent of incoming students were white or Asian American, invested $8,000 more per student than did the CSU, where half were African American or Latinx. Racial disparities in higher education funding also prevail at the national level; a 2018 study by the Center for American Progress estimated that the United States would need to invest $5 billion more annually to ensure that each African American and Latinx student receives a college education equal to that provided to white students. This racial funding gap will only widen in the financial wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Undergraduate funding and the opportunities that it affords—higher faculty-student ratios, specialized classes taught by full-time faculty in their areas of research, opportunities for hands-on learning and independent research—mirror our society’s confidence in the student’s value and potential. When lawmakers and the public accept billions less in funding for students of color than for white students, it reflects a widespread belief—even among liberals—that African American and Latinx students can make do with a “basic” college education on the cheap.

Having taught for twenty years at Cal State LA and Brooklyn College, respectively, we have witnessed firsthand the costs of cheapening Black and brown students’ education. Instructional budget cuts mean that one of our departments has not hired a tenure-track professor in eight years (despite losing seven full-time faculty members). Over 60 percent of students at both institutions are taught by underpaid lecturers who teach four to five classes per term, often at multiple colleges, with few chances of moving onto the tenure track. Cuts to the number of sections mean that students often cannot get into the classes they need to graduate and are forced to take classes unrelated to their major or risk dropping below the number of credits required to continue receiving financial aid (and then run out of aid before completing their major requirements). Funding for faculty and student research is virtually nonexistent. Crumbling campus infrastructure means perennially broken elevators and bathrooms, overcrowded classrooms that are alternately freezing or infernal, and leaky pipes and asbestos ceilings that collapse on our desks and classrooms. 

Slashed funding and rising tuition costs have made college less and less accessible for low-income students. CSU tuition has increased 1,000 percent since 1980. In response to state cuts, more than one-third of Cal State campuses have declared “impaction,” reducing admissions and requiring higher test scores and GPAs to attract middle-class and out-of-state applicants. From 2015 to 2019, the system turned away eighty-one thousand qualified applicants, resulting in far fewer incoming Black and Native students. 

Lawmakers in Albany and Sacramento also deploy stereotypes of CUNY and CSU students as underprepared and unfocused in order to justify further budget cuts. Lawmakers eliminated remediation at CUNY in 1999. Rudy Giuliani demeaned the quality of CUNY students for years as mayor, and in 1999, the CUNY board of trustees voted to end open enrollment. “We are cleaning out the four-year colleges and putting remediation where it belongs,” the head of the board of trustees pronounced—even while Governor George Pataki, along with Giuliani, was sitting on a $5 billion surplus.

The CSU system also began to eliminate remediation in 2011 as part of a sweeping “Graduation 2025” initiative that has narrowly focused on increasing graduation rates through larger class sizes, pressuring students to take five classes per semester (even though most of them work more than twenty hours per week), forcing out “super seniors” who have “excessive units,” and placing limitations on repeating courses. Valuing completion over excellence in learning, such policies undermine educational equity for first-generation, low-income students.

Often voiced by well-intentioned liberals, concerns about improving Black and Latinx graduation rates are framed around public savings and workforce needs. Heralding his 2016 bill to raise CSU graduation rates, Democratic state senator Steve Glazer proclaimed, “It will free up seats for new students, save the state money, and get better-qualified students into the workforce sooner. It is projected that we will be one million degrees short in meeting industry demand in the next ten years. This program will help us meet that need.” Tellingly, graduation initiatives at public comprehensive universities rarely fund faculty-student mentoring, curricular innovation, small seminars, or more opportunities for independent undergraduate research—all of which are proven to increase retention and completion and help students excel academically. At base, austerity and the obsession with getting students quickly graduated and employed stems from a racist imagining of low-income students of color as workers rather than thinkers and national leaders.

What Our Students Deserve

A new New Deal for the City University of New York (which comprises twenty-five campuses with more than 275,000 students) and the California State University system (which comprises twenty-three campuses with more than 480,000 students) would need to begin with seeing our students as the intellectuals they are. (There is currently a “New Deal for CUNY” bill, sponsored by Senator Andrew Gounardes, before the New York state education committee that would begin some of this crucial work.)

The commitment of our students to education can take our breath away. Over and over, they tell us how much a class we are teaching means to them, how they share the readings with their parents and kids, how they continue to treasure the course reader even years after the class is over. Many of our students work thirty or forty or fifty hours outside of school, take care of families, and face harrowing times in their lives—homelessness, the death or deportation of loved ones, unsafe living situations—but still they show up prepared to learn.

In two decades of teaching, we have taught dozens upon dozens of students who stock shelves and do home health care full time while attending college, graduate, and then head to graduate school, law school, or jobs in nongovernmental organizations or city government. Over and over, students say their college experience changed how they saw themselves and what they imagined for their futures. “Thank you for believing in me,” “I feel like I have a future now,” and “I now believe in myself as a scholar” are common refrains we hear from African American, Latinx, and immigrant first-generation students. These are not just the “exceptional” ones but a broad swath of our students.

Part of the magic of the CUNY and CSU classroom is its radical inclusivity, where recent immigrants and English-language learners engage with valedictorians, seasoned community leaders, C-average students, returning students with years of experience in other careers, and transfer students from community colleges and elite private colleges. The kinds of conversations we have; the ways we talk about issues across lines of ethnicity, age, experience, and race; the caliber of questions and breadth of research that students pursue; and the ways they listen and imagine the best for one another model what this country could be. Those who champion the United States as a pluralistic democracy need only to step inside a CUNY or a CSU classroom to see this in action.

When CUNY and CSU students are given the chance to see themselves as intellectuals, pursue independent research, or bring their own lens to the most urgent questions of our time, the results change the conversation in profound ways. Their expertise regarding systemic racism, the labor market, immigration issues, the social safety net, and social inequality is desperately needed in our national discourse. At Brooklyn College, we saw the contributions our students can make through our pandemic autoethnographies project last summer (supported by a small grant from the Social Science Research Council’s research initiative on inequality and COVID-19). Eighteen students wrote autoethnographies foregrounding their family and community experiences of the pandemic. Taking us behind the numbers, their narratives documented perilous working conditions and job loss, food insecurity, and lack of health care that pummeled New York’s poor communities of color; their research foregrounded the preexisting social conditions in place before the pandemic hit and the organizing and mutual aid that sustained New Yorkers as the state failed to provide adequate basic support. They collected data and told stories that weren’t being shown in the media, by people who weren’t being interviewed. (In the fall Black Perspectives published the work of eight of these students.) This project demonstrated what we have known all along: because our students live in and are deeply connected to marginalized communities, their learning and research is often achieved in collaboration with and service to their communities. While buzzwords like community engagement and public service pervade higher education today, CUNY and Cal State students demonstrate the transformative potential of university learning and knowledge production that is continuously replenished by and brings forward the perspectives of marginalized communities.

The situation facing our students and their educations has grown even more urgent since the pandemic began. CUNY and CSU students and their families have been the essential workers who stock shelves at supermarkets, work in nursing homes and childcare centers, drive ambulances, and deliver food. As they exceeded forty-hour workweeks, grieved family members who died from COVID-19, faced food shortages, and fought the virus themselves, they continued to show up for their education. Students logged on to class from McDonald’s or parked cars where they could catch a free Wi-Fi signal, completed assignments in the middle of the night when the one family computer was available, and—when they did not have a computer—wrote papers on their smartphones. And yet the state did not step up to meet its professed commitment to “essential” workers—escalating a pattern of cuts to their education instead.

The real travesty of the underfunding of CUNY and the CSU is not some abstract devolution of public education. The actual travesty is that it is possible to create genuine spaces of opportunity and rich intellectual inquiry, and yet as a society we haven’t summoned the collective will to do so consistently. Instead, we have a two-tier system—where Research I public universities, private liberal arts colleges, and Ivy League institutions are understood to be laboratories of greatness but public universities where we educate low-income students are treated as degree mills to meet our states’ needs for nurses, social workers, and cops. Just get them through, we are told. 

Our universities don’t just need working elevators, nonleaky ceilings, better advising, and more sections of general education courses to help students graduate faster. Our students deserve not a more efficient education but a more luxuriously intellectual one, with small seminars, specialized “boutique” courses, enhanced research opportunities and chances to pursue specialized study over multiple semesters with full-time faculty members. In other words, they deserve what their counterparts at more prestigious colleges across the country receive.

As in the 1930s, the country needs a massive infusion of resources to revitalize our higher education system. But in contrast to the first New Deal, policy makers and university administrators—as well as the faculty unions and leaders calling for a national “New Deal for Higher Education”—must recognize the dangers of deploying those resources in ways that maintain or even exacerbate the hierarchies and deep inequalities already embedded in higher education today. Rather than spend equally across public higher education, progressive spending must prioritize community colleges and comprehensive universities that serve a majority of working-class students of color, and we must commit to challenging the widespread racist and classist assumptions of what sort of education these institutions should provide.

Decades after the New Deal introduced the notion that higher education should not be the preserve only of elites, when the Cal State University system and the City University of New York actually began educating “the whole people,” the privileged few almost immediately began pushing a policy of disinvestment and deintellectualizing these universities. And the broader public allowed it, comfortable in the idea that working-class students of color merit a basic college education but not an expansive one. A twenty-first-century New Deal for Higher Education could fix this—but only if we first recognize the dangers of this two-tiered system and prioritize investment in comprehensive universities as engines for intellectual greatness and radical democracy.

Alejandra Marchevsky is professor and director of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and has published widely on the subject of gendered racism, poverty, and policy violence against Latinx immigrants in the United States. Jeanne Theoharis is distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the award-winning author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.