A Brief History of Struggle: CUNY and Hunter College
Founded in 1847 as the Free Academy, the City University of New York was created to educate the poor and working class people of New York City. Since then, it has seen many of its students fight for social justice, whether it is protesting against budget cuts and tuition increases, hegemonic and unjust wars waged abroad, or demanding open admissions to educate all the people of New York, including people of color. In order to provide quality education to poor and working class New Yorkers, CUNY did not charge tuition from 1847 until 1976. This means that throughout the 1930s (the financial meltdown of all meltdowns- the Great Depression), CUNY was free of charge. But after the 1969 victory of open admissions, elected officials and administrators found a new way to close the doors to New York, particularly blacks and Latinos. In 1976, the first year that CUNY’s demographics were a majority of non-white students, tuition was imposed for the first time in the history of the “Free Academy”. Legislators and administrators used the financial crisis of the 1970s to ram through tuition, but certainly it is no coincidence that once CUNY’s demographics were much more representative of New York City’s demographics, tuition was imposed (a back door way to end open admissions). And in 1999, Open Admissions effectively ended when remedial courses were no longer offered at the senior colleges; community colleges still have Open Admissions, until that is threatened. Since then, CUNY students have continued the traditions of our radical predecessors, particularly protesting budget cuts and tuition increases. CUNY is moving farther and farther away from its mission statement and increasingly becoming exclusive and privatized, closing the door on those it’s meant to serve. The following is a brief history of such struggles at CUNY and particularly Hunter College, with an emphasis on the fight to return to free tuition and open admissions.
1847– The Free Academy is founded, later known as the City College of New York of the City University of New York.
December 1966– Students at City College organized a sit-in at the placement office against the provision of class rankings to the Selective Service System (which would determine the draft status of male students in the Vietnam War). The sit-in ultimately led to the suspension of 34 students; it also led to more general protests against the war and campus complicity. On-campus groups throughout CUNY had organized citywide and nationwide protests against the war (including SDS chapters from Brooklyn College, Queens College, Hunter College, Queensborough Community College, Kingsborough Community College, and Hunter’s then Bronx campus). The three years up to the 1969 Open Admissions Strike saw much social upheaval on the campuses, the city, the nation, and internationally.
April 22, 1969– Black, Latino, and SEEK (program for economically disadvantaged students who do not meet the standard CUNY academic criteria) students commence the Open Admissions Strike. Several hundred Black and Latino students, with tremendous support from their communities, chained the gates of City College’s South Campus shut, occupied their school and renamed it the University of Harlem. Their main demand called for admitting non-white students in the same proportion to non-white graduates from New York City High schools. Prior to this, City College, in the middle of Harlem, had a matriculated student body which was 92% white and only 2% Black, which prompted the Amsterdam News to dub CCNY “the white Rhodesia in Harlem”. Other CUNY campuses were even more segregated than City College. Students took over 17 buildings in City College for two weeks to force the administration to accept minority students. Actions also spread to other campuses in support of Open Admissions, including Queensborough Community College, Brooklyn and Queens College, Bronx Community College and Hunter College. Through militant student struggle, Open Admissions was won, along with the creation of Black and Puerto Rican Studies Departments.
January 31, 1972– Coalition to Save CUNY formed in response to Gov. Rockefeller’s budget attacks (fundamentally his attack on Open Admissions); the Coalition boasted the support of 13 of the 20 CUNY college presidents.
March, 1972– 100 students from CUNY wearing black robes conducted a mock funeral procession from the Board of Higher Education offices on 80th Street, down Lexington Avenue, and to the governor’s office at 55th Street and 3rd Avenue.
March 23, 1972– About 1000 students and parents from the Hunter College High School and Elementary School demonstrate in front of then Gov. Rockefeller’s office in a second day of efforts to obtain enough money and political support to keep the schools from closing because of CUNY budget cuts.
April 20, 1972– “800 Hunter students rally against the intensified air war on Vietnam and joined the nationwide student strike the next day. A week later the Hunter Day Session Student Senate passed a resolution expressing ‘disgust and outrage over the continuation and now escalation of the war in Indochina.’”
March 25, 1976– The beginning of a 20-day takeover of Hostos Community College by students, faculty and South Bronx community members to save the school from closure (under the organizations of Save Hostos Committee and the Community Coalition to Save Hostos). Hostos opened in 1970 in the South Bronx and it served primarily a student body of Spanish speakers coming from poor and largely immigrant backgrounds. “Hostos was born in the context of the radical mass movement for open admissions that reshaped CUNY in 1969. As part of the open admissions transformation, CUNY developed much closer links with community-based activists and institutions throughout New York.” Prior to the takeover, 20,000 CUNY and SUNY students marched on Albany, six buses from Hunter alone, in very militant fashion, preventing the closure of Hostos Community College and John Jay College and the transformation of Medgar Evers and York College into community colleges.
June 1, 1976– The Board of Higher Education voted 7 to 1 for the imposition of tuition. Vinia R. Quinones, the only Black member of the Board, was the lone dissenter. In front of City Hall, 5000 students were protesting the imposition of tuition, but the vote had already come down. The entering freshman class of this year was also the first majority non-white class.
April 24th, 1989– Students at City College begin protests against Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts to CUNY and SUNY and likely $200 tuition increases to help close an $18 million budget deficit. Students took over an administration building (with the leadership of the student organization Students for Educational Rights- SER), boycotted classes and demonstrated outside the Governor’s office at World Trade Center to negotiate the budget face to face.
April 28th, 1989– About 500 Hunter College students blocked traffic at Lexington Ave during rush hour in increased actions against Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts and tuition increases. That same night, about 100 students locked and occupied 14 floors of the East Building, which houses the administration. Protests had also spread to Hostos, BMCC, Lehman, Medgar Evers and John Jay Colleges.
May 1st, 1989– Occupations at Hunter and throughout CUNY and SUNY protesting tuition increase of $500 and Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts; 13 of the 20 campuses were occupied, including LaGuardia Community College, Queensborough Community College, the College of Staten Island, BMCC, Baruch, SUNY Purchase, and SUNY Albany, and Hunter students took over the administration building and library.
May 2nd, 1989– A march through downtown Manhattan of 5,000 to 10,000 protestors blocking the street from sidewalk to sidewalk, with at least 16 CUNY campuses represented. Gov. Cuomo vetoed his own proposal for tuition increases for both CUNY and SUNY. The next day, students gave up 6 buildings but held on to 10 demanding no budget cuts and meaningful negotiations between the Governor’s office and students.
May 4th, 1990– Students from Hunter College demonstrated against a $26 million budget cuts in CUNY, the arrests of 8 students who had participated in a protest on May 2nd (30 students blocked entrances to an administration building, vowing to keep it closed until the proposed cuts were withdrawn).
May 9th, 1990– Students took over North Hall at John Jay College to the denial of tenure to Professor Torres (a popular Latino professor of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice) and the proposed $50 million budget cuts to CUNY (though no tuition increases were proposed this time). This time, police were quickly called in and removed the students in often brutal ways- the administration was no longer afraid to step up their repression of student activism and their right to protest. The next day, students retook North Hall and issued 20 demands. 200 students at La Guardia Community College also seized their administration building and chained the doors shut; police also broke this occupation up.
May 21st, 1990– About 50 students from John Jay, Lehman, BMCC, La Guardia, and Baruch occupied CUNY Central Administration offices. When the CUNY administration initiated disciplinary proceedings against the students on May 24th, students responded by completely closing the building to administrators who had previously been allowed entrance. The next day students gave up the building in return for negotiations on demands for amnesty and stronger voice in minority hiring and tuition issues.
March, 1991– 3,000 CUNY and SUNY students joined labor and community organizations in a 25,000 strong march on Albany opposing state budget cuts, including a $52 million cut to CUNY, an additional $500 tuition hike per year (on top of the $200 increase the Board of Trustees had voted for in December 1990), and cuts to Tuition Assistance Program awards.
April 8th, 1991– Students at City College occupied the North Academic Complex (NAC) at 5:30 in the morning. The next morning, students at Hunter College had occupied the East Building. At Bronx Community College, Colston Hall was taken over. The actions continued to spread throughout CUNY campuses, ultimately 15 of them, and 2 SUNY campuses, Purchase and Stonybrook.
April 24th, 1991– 8,000 students rallied outside Gov. Cuomo’s offices in the World Trade Center and then marched for 3 hours through downtown, briefly blocking traffic on West Street.
April 25th, 1991– A group of CUNY administrators, faculty members and nursing students gathered outside BMCC to disband the ongoing occupation. Nursing students had been told by administrators that they would lose course hours needed to take the licensing exams if classes remained cancelled. This tactic of divide and conquer proved to be successful in breaking up the occupation when a group of nursing students broke in the school and forced the occupiers out. These events had been carefully planned by the administration to display and emphasize divisions in student ranks. Other occupations were broken up, often brutally, by police forces called in by the administration. However, 5 campuses continued their occupations: Hunter, CCNY, City Tech, John Jay and Hostos.
May 1st, 1991– Occupiers had left all campuses, except where the strike began- CCNY. At 8am community leaders descended on the campus to defend the occupation from any police action. Students and community leaders entered into negotiations with CCNY President Halston, which resulted in amnesty for the students. On May 2nd, occupiers handed over the NAC building and shortly after the state legislature passed a budget that reduced the tuition increase from $500 to $300 and restored a significant portion of the proposed cuts in the original budget.
February 27th, 1995– 8,000 CUNY and SUNY students attended a rally in Albany by NYPIRG against Gov. Pataki’s proposed budget cuts, which included $116 million in cuts, the elimination of the SEEK program and College Discovery (programs to help economically disadvantage students who do not meet the academic CUNY criteria), the reduction of the maximum TAP award to 90% of tuition and $1000 a year increase in tuition. These cuts were much more draconian than Cuomo’s and would meet similar resistance. Several of the protestors in Albany occupied the rotunda for half an hour rushing past police and took over the first floor lobby of the SUNY central administrative offices.
March 15th, 1995– CUNY faculty across the university organized speak-outs against the budget cuts. At Hunter the speak-out in front of the West Building turned into a confrontation with the police when about a hundred students poured into the street and were attacked by the police without warning. Eight students were arrested and one was hospitalized.
March 23rd, 1995– The newly formed CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts planned a rally at City Hall with a march to Wall Street. This demonstration was perhaps the largest single political protest by young people of color in the history of New York City. Over 25,000 students came out to protest the budget cuts along with 14,000 energetic high school students. These protestors were, however, met with police in full riot gear ordered there by the “tough on crime” Mayor Giuliani, though the crowd was able to fight back against the cops. 40 students were arrested and several injured, but in a matter of days of tuition increases and budget cuts were scaled back.
April 11th, 1995– About 20 students at City College initiated a hunger strike in the NAC building. CCNY President Yolanda Moses called in the police that night to arrest the hunger strikers and their supporters when they refused to vacate the building at 11pm; 47 people were arrested. The next morning the hunger strikers returned to CCNY and were joined by hundreds of students from across CUNY as well as a number of community-based activists.
March 21st, 1996– The newly formed coalition of radical CUNY activists, Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM), organized a 1,000 strong rally at Times Square that marched to Madison Square to protest Gov. Pataki’s new rounds of budget cuts. SLAM grew out of the 1995 protests and was committed to being an independent direct action group that boasted the leadership of people of color, particularly women; it also played key roles in other struggles as well, not just around the issue of budget cuts.
Late 1998, early 1999– CUNY Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Herman Badillo proposed elimination of remedial classes at CUNY senior colleges in a stark attack on Open Admissions (Badillo has come out publicly stating that Open Admissions is the reason why CUNY is not a more prestigious university system). Massive student and faculty protests erupted outside the CUNY Board of Trustees hearings; many were arrested. On January 25th 1999, the Board of Trustees voted to eliminate remedial courses at senior colleges, effectively ending Open Admissions.
June 3rd, 1999– Hunter College graduates boo and turn their backs on Herman Badillo in protest of cuts to remedial courses at senior colleges. Queens College graduates wore signs saying “Tell the Mayor: Stop the Slander! & Celebrate Queens College/CUNY!” The PSC, CUNY’s faculty union, distributed these signs, along with a “report card” on Gov. Pataki’s CUNY budget for the 2000 fiscal year, giving him an “F” or incomplete in all categories (specifically protesting the proposed $116 million cut in TAP assistance- a back door tuition increase).
August 15th, 2001– 3 students (2 from Hostos and 1 from Hunter) had been arrested and charged with disorderly conduct in a protest against the cuts to the English as a Second Language Program and Spanish-language Courses at Hostos Community College.
January 30, 2003– More than 100 students gathered at Hunter College to protest Gov. Pataki’s proposed budget cuts, tuition increases and cuts to financial aid.
2003– Rallies, speak-outs, protests, and a takeover of Hunter College President Raab’s office (against Pataki’s budget cuts and the war in Iraq).
March 5, 2009– About 300 students walk-out and rally at Hunter College and joined protestors at BMCC and other schools and marched to City Hall to join a citywide union protest against budget cuts and recent failing financial institutions’ bailouts (about 50,000 in attendance).