CUNY protests tuition hikes

December 1, 2010

NEW YORK--Students and teachers at the City University of New York (CUNY) gathered for two protests last week in an attempt to stop plans for a new round of tuition hikes in 2011.

The proposed increase comes on the heels of a 15 percent tuition hike that was imposed on students last year. This time, it comes in two different forms--a 5 percent increase for all of CUNY, which is equivalent to a $125 increase, and a separate tuition hike of around $500 for Hunter School of Social Work students.

The first protest targeted a board of trustees' public hearing on November 15. At a speak-out before the hearing, students pointed out the unfairness of the proposed budget and asked why students were being forced to bear the burden of the economic recession.

A faculty member from Hunter College brought up the fact that CUNY used to be a free educational institution, from 1847 until 1976--through two world wars as well as the Great Depression. He also explained why the faculty union's strategy of lobbying politicians in Albany has been ineffectual.

The police let small numbers of students into the hearing in intervals, but not before unfairly allowing university administrators the first chance to get in and take up space. This limited the number of angry students who could attend the hearing. Despite this, the majority of attendees were students from all over the CUNY system, and from the Hunter School of Social Work in particular.

Speakers were allotted three minutes each to voice their opinions about the proposed budget. Nearly all of the administrators, including some faculty members, praised the board of trustees' budget proposal. They claimed that the success of their campuses, in terms of expanding their campuses and increasing their enrollment of "high quality" students, justified the unfair tuition hikes and faculty cutbacks.

Each administrator who gave this kind of statement only infuriated students more. Students openly heckled and jeered administrators and the board of trustees.

Every student that spoke to the board told them to reject the proposed budget, with many citing examples of the hardships that students face. Several speakers said that the proposed tuition hike would force students out of CUNY midway through their journey to attaining a college degree, as well as push CUNY further from its mission statement as an educational institution for the working class.

Some speakers pointed out that this was class warfare on the poor, with one speaker pointing out the board members who were investment bankers, CEOs of non-education-related businesses and a president of a for-profit college.

Every anti-budget speaker was followed by resounding applause and chants of "They say cut back, we say fight back!" from students. Their militancy reached a high point when CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein walked out halfway through the hearings. Students heckled him on the way out, demanding that he come back and sit through the hearing until the end.

Roy Ben-Moshe, a student from the Hunter School of Social Work, said of the hearing, "This meeting is a farce. They don't really want to hear our voices. They just want to shove the recession on our backs."

AFTER THIS sham "public hearing," students decided to protest and disrupt the board of trustees' next meeting on November 22 at Baruch College, where it planned to vote on the budget.

At this meeting, security officers once again limited the number of students who could get in the room, but those who did get in disrupted the vote by chanting, "Whose school? Our school!" and "We're young, we're poor, we won't pay anymore!"

Security responded by ejecting the students and pushing them back to the lobby, where they joined students who had been denied entry. This united contingent continued to chant and protest in the lobby, in front of a line of campus security, for 15 minutes before they urged Baruch student onlookers to join in the protest.

Realizing that other student protesters joining in would overwhelm them, the cops formed a circle around the protesting students and muscled them out, threatening those who pushed back with arrest. Before the protest was done, more than 50 students had amassed around them.

"They can bail out the banks and they can bail out the corporations, but when it comes to the students, they don't do anything," Tanvir Hossain, a former Baruch College student government president, said. "They want us to pay for it."

Although the board of trustees continued with the vote after the student protesters were ejected, the two demonstrations have awakened activism and invigorated students. Student organizers are expecting groups organizing to fight the budget cut to flourish in response to the continuing rise in tuition.

Since 2003, tuition has gone up 44 percent, with very little response in comparison with students fighting against cuts and hikes in Europe. In this way, the board's tactic of incremental increases in tuition has been effective at blunting the student backlash in New York City.

At a speak-out before the vote, students connected their fight to ongoing attacks on students across the world. "Education is a human right," Dwight Peters, president of the Bronx Community College student government, said. "This is what we're saying; this is what we're demanding. We're in solidarity with students all over the world and we're not going to stop until we win."

Frances Villar, executive vice president of Lehman College student government, emphasized the need for student solidarity. "Until we hit the streets, this is going to continue," Villar said. "This is an attack on poor students. This is a collective struggle, we can only win it together."

Future actions and organizing meetings are being planned throughout the city. There is an organizing meeting on November 30. If you would like to get involved or learn more, e-mail [email protected].

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