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Racialized Austerity: The Case of CUNY

Austerity policy-making over the past 50 years has been racialized, withering services in public agencies ranging from K-12 schooling to hospitals to higher education. Matters of race must be made more visible, placed at the center of policy-making.

Bronx Community College students,photo: @CUNY

In the aftermath of the covid outbreak and in a moment of Black Lives Matter national organizing in response to police brutality the issue of racial justice has lit up cities and towns across the country. Racist policing practices have had a huge impact on public opinion, with polling data showing that even more white suburban voters favor policy reforms. The shift has been public, sudden, and potentially electorally-decisive during this political season.

What remains less visible are racialized and racist choices to deepen state disinvestment in institutions critical to the health and welfare of Black and brown communities, what we term racialized austerity. 

Austerity policy-making over the past 50 years has been racialized, withering services in public agencies ranging from K-12 schooling to hospitals to higher education. Matters of race must be made more visible and placed at the very center of both past and present austerity decisions and policy-making.

Disinvestment in and privatization of public services incorrectly assumes three things: 1) the state can no longer afford earlier levels of public investment in public services; 2) increased progressive taxation is not a solution to austerity because the wealthy can and will migrate themselves and their money elsewhere; and 3) the reduced quality of services matters little because basic access to public services rather than the content and quality of those services is the most important factor in assessing the worth of public goods in a democracy. 

Reliance on public services by Black and brown communities grew at exactly the moment austerity policies produced one wave after another of public disinvestment. The conjunction, for example, between shifts in the composition of the student body at CUNY from largely white to Black and brown, which began in the 1970s, and deepening public disinvestment in CUNY cannot simply be explained solely as a specific byproduct of fiscal austerity. The roots of racialized austerity policy-making also grew out of choices about the degree to which specific groups are deserving of public investment. 

Over the past 50 years there have been periods of economic expansion in the United States that have produced sharply-growing wealth and income inequality. Despite growth in wealth and income in the top tier of earners, redistributive tax policies have been deemed all but off the table. These political decisions have not been driven alone by austerity policy making to cut public budgets but also by the concerted political opposition of dominant economic interests to any kind of new taxation. Politicians of both major parties have made and continue to make real choices, deferring to the needs and desires of powerful economic interest groups, rather than embrace policies for the common good. 

The issue of race, although not the only factor driving austerity, is central to these fiscal decisions. What has been created over the past half-century is the latest iteration of “separate but (un)equal” policy-making. Basic access to public services is consistently privileged over higher public investment to assure the quality of those public services. The policies of “separate but (un)equal” as seen through the prism of the defunding of the City University of New York reveals a regime of racialized austerity. 

CUNY: Race and Austerity

Despite the city’s commitment in 1847 to provide free tuition for all New York City residents, a commitment it maintained for nearly 130 years, the student body in the municipal colleges remained overwhelmingly white and increasingly middle class until the 1970s. Even in the decade after CUNY was formally created in 1961, the city’s policy of providing free tuition proscribed its ability to respond to the vocal demands of the city’s growing Black and Puerto Rican population for increased access to CUNY’s senior and community colleges.

The Brooklyn College student body in the tumultuous year of 1968 was still 96 percent white and middle class. CUNY as a whole remained overwhelmingly white and middle class until the spring of 1969, when student-led struggles for “Open Admissions” erupted across the system. Over the next half-dozen years CUNY became the model of how a major public university system could rapidly diversify its student population.

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By 1971, CUNY’s Black and Puerto Rican overall student population had already more than doubled to 24 percent. Half-a-dozen years after open admissions, however, the state forced the city, in the midst of a fiscal “crisis,” to impose tuition for the first time on CUNY students in exchange for enhanced state support of the system. While the student population of CUNY continued to be radically recomposed racially over the next three decades, students of color, unlike the largely white student body that had preceded them, had to pay tuition for the privilege of attending the city’s public colleges.

On the basis of data collected by CUNY about 70 percent of CUNY’s student body is students of color and almost 60 percent of all CUNY students’ family annual incomes are below $30,000. Current tuition at CUNY’s senior colleges is almost $7,000 annually while at its community colleges it is nearly $5,000, exclusive of student fees.

The changes in the composition of CUNY’s student body and rising tuition have been accompanied for decades by the steady erosion of public funding support from New York state government (which has provided the lion’s share of CUNY funding since 1976) and New York City government (which supports the system’s seven community colleges). Between 2008 and 2020 there has been a 21 percent reduction in the full-time student equivalent (FTE) investment by the state adjusted for inflation in CUNY senior colleges, according to the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) of the City University of New York (the faculty and staff union of CUNY). 

The state’s level of disinvestment in CUNY has resulted in larger class sizes, a growing number of courses taught by underpaid and overworked part-time faculty, the decay of much of the physical plant, labs that cannot meet even the most basic needs of science students, and ever greater reliance on too-large online classes. As a point of comparison, California’s three-tier public university system, which is similarly racially stratified from top tier (the UC system) to the bottom tier (the state’s community colleges) as CUNY’s senior and community colleges are, has experienced a striking differential level of public investment based on race.

In our book, Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Educations, we showed that California’s community colleges, which have the highest concentration of Black and brown students (nearly 45 percent), state aid per FTE student in 2011-12 was less than $4,000 while in the UC schools (where only 21 percent of students are Black and brown) FTE student aid is more than $7,200. This associative relationship between race and disinvestment is highly suggestive and compelling in both New York’s and California’s public university systems. Yet race has essentially been ignored by policy makers in California and New York as even a partial explanation for declining investment in public higher education.

Unsurprisingly, economic explanations, absent race, have dominated the discourse about CUNY.

What has remained consistently positive in the public discussion and perception about CUNY is its role in raising its students out of poverty and into the middle class. According to Raj Chetty’s 2017 national study of higher education CUNY moved more students out of poverty than every Ivy League school, MIT, and the California Institute of Technology combined. The ability of CUNY to fulfill this part of its historic mission is in jeopardy, however, as deepening state and city budget cuts undermine the quality of instruction and support services like counseling and advising. 

COVID and CUNY: The Intensified Fallout of Budget Cuts on Black and Brown Students

In the midst of the intensifying economic and health crisis triggered by COVID-19, CUNY management announced it was laying off 2,800 part-time faculty members. The budget cut was not a consequence of revenue loss but rather the anticipation of that loss.

Institutional Stimulus 3 (the federal CARES Act) money totaling $132 million publicly allocated to CUNY has been reserved, according to CUNY management, as a revenue buffer despite its stated purpose to sustain employment for university faculty and staff. As estimated by the CUNY Professional Staff Congress the cost of retaining the 2,800 faculty members is estimated to be $30 million annually, or a fraction of the $132 million in CARES Act funds allocated to the university system. Equally important for CUNY’s future, additional money may be dedicated to CUNY as part Stimulus 4, currently before Congress. 

The implication of this decision is significant, both economically for the CUNY part-time faculty who have been “non reappointed” and lost their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic, and educationally for the largely Black and brown student body of CUNY. Laying off 2,800 part-time faculty represents a loss of about 25 percent of the adjunct faculty workforce at CUNY, which already comprises nearly 60 percent of the overall teaching workforce in its senior colleges.

CUNY courses will almost certainly be fully online during the upcoming fall semester and perhaps even through the spring semester in 2021. The cuts ensure that the size of online classes will grow substantially. During the Spring 2020 semester, a survey of campuses by faculty chairs of the PSC estimated that many of CUNY’s online classes will average about 29 students. The standard for online course sizes nationally is 12 students per class because of the greater pedagogical and other teaching and learning demands of virtual classrooms as compared to in-classroom learning. in-classroom learning. The course enrollment ceilings for online classes at CUNY are likely to rise as high as 35 students per class or almost three times the national suggested ceiling. 

For every CUNY student this is part of a continuing, historic degradation of their learning environment at CUNY. The opportunities to build working relationships with faculty, empirically validated as a key indicator of students’ academic development, will become even less available. Equally important, larger online classes are less able to meet students’ basic needs to develop competency in areas ranging from basic writing to scientific exploration and experimentation.  

To enact policies that dramatically reduce CUNY’s instructional workforce is at best short-sighted and at worst underscores a lack of will by CUNY management and state and city leaders to protect instructors’ jobs and students’ quality of education. Other courses of action including, but not limited to, reallocating institutional dollars to protect the instructional workforce, utilizing Stimulus 3 money to close the budget gap, or short-term borrowing against Stimulus 4 monies as a hedge against workforce disruption might have been taken while awaiting both state and federal budget decisions.  

Shortly after New York City became the epicenter of COVID-19 infection and while Governor Cuomo was delivering politically-popular daily national briefings on the spread of the infection, the governor simultaneously announced there would be deep budget cuts (as high as 20 percent) to state-supported public services in the absence of federal aid. The game of “Who blinks first?” between Cuomo and the Feds continues.

For three months New York State public agencies have been faced with both huge prospective cuts and the governor’s decision to delay state distribution of public revenues to localities. At the same time, many groups have pressed state leaders to tax the very wealthy to close the state budget gap of $15 billion. Cuomo has repeatedly indicated his opposition to imposing additional taxes on the very wealthy despite mounting pressure from a cross-section of unions, non-profit agencies, and more than 100 state legislators, among others.

This is only the most recent example of state and institutional policy-makers choosing to compromise the quality of Black and brown students’ higher education rather than commit additional public funds. It is important to reiterate that these decisions have occurred historically in both good and bad economic times. They occur despite CUNY’s stellar record of moving students out of poverty and into the middle class. They occur as the proportion of Black and brown students in CUNY’s student body has grown to nearly 70 percent. Policy-makers laud the greater access of students of color to CUNY at the same moment that they choose to unravel the basic fiscal underpinnings of what is needed to provide the kind of quality education students need and deserve. These contradictions are profound and race is a critical, if not the critical, factor in these decisions.  

It is time to name these policies and choices and their relationship to race. The disinvestment in CUNY is influenced by many factors. But we should not allow complexity to cloud the fundamental relationship of the past 50 years between race and public disinvestment. These trends are not specific to CUNY. Across the country, spikes in Black and brown college attendance have been accompanied by similar levels of public disinvestment. To call these policies anything other than racialized austerity is at best a misnomer and at worst a calculated evasion of the forces driving such public policy and fiscal choices.  

A New Deal for CUNY

What might an alternative approach to racialized austerity at CUNY look like? A New Deal for CUNY, with significant new investment of state and city tax funds over a five-year period, would help to bring CUNY back from two decades of systematic erosion of public funding. This New Deal for CUNY would be justified as part of New York City’s, New York State’s, and the nation’s long overdue response to the fundamental need of all students attending public universities for a quality, fully-funded public good.

A New Deal for CUNY would have an immediate and positive impact on all of our 275,000 students, especially the 70 percent who are students of color, and 60 percent who have annual family incomes below $30,000. Despite the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, many CUNY students presently pay full or partial tuition. Expanded investments in CUNY would also require:

  • Increasing the ratio of full-time faculty to students; dedicating a substantial number of new full-time positions and making them available to adjunct faculty; and incentivizing the hiring of a new generation of faculty of color across the system; creating new labor standards for part-time faculty that ensure a livable wage.
  • Expanding the number of academic advisors and mental health counselors to support all CUNY students.
  • Eliminating all student tuition and fees, returning CUNY to its tuition-free roots.
  • Providing a significant increase in capital renewal and investment across the 25-campus system to allow CUNY to modernize its facilities and make them fully safe and accessible.

Spread over five years we believe a New Deal for CUNY will help to overcome decades of racialized austerity, fundamentally returning CUNY to its 1847 founding ideal of creating a public institution of higher learning that is by and for “the children of the whole people.”

[Michael Fabricant is a professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work. Stephen Brier is a professor in the Urban Education Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center.]