Democracy at CUNY

The relationship between liberation and democracy is complicated. I am much more interested in liberation, which I view as a goal worth fighting for, than democracy, which I view as a potentially being one strategy to get free. As these are such broad topics, I will focus specifically on the field of education and my experiences at CUNY as a lens through which to think through these concepts.

In higher education, I believe that when discussing equity, democracy, and liberation, who is in the university is not a bad place to start. In this regard I think that community colleges are among the most democratic formal institutions of higher education in the country today as they aim to educate anyone who would like to attend the college without setting academic entrance requirements which not only exclude people in general from the university, but serve to disproportionately exclude students of color,* students for whom English was not their first language, low income students, etc. However, from my experience as a student at 7 CUNY campuses and Wits University In Johannesburg, South Africa, I’ve seen that there are many more barriers to students entering universities. Student activists in the #FeesMustFall Movement in South Africa use the term financially excluded to describe students who are unable to enter (or continue) university studies because they are unable to pay the tuition of the institution, or the other expenses associated with university studies, such as books, transportation, university fees, food, and housing. This is something the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab and her research team does an excellent job of explaining, and shows why plans such as those recently implemented in New York and proposed in New Mexico do not fully tear down the financial wall surrounding the ivory tower.

The university is not only made up of students, but of many workers as well. Activists at CUNY, both students and workers, have shown me the importance of connecting the struggles of students and workers in the context of the 7K or Strike and Free CUNY campaigns, specifically through a rejection of the politics of austerity. South African activists strengthen this notion for me and contextualized it, both by situating this (possibly democratic) project of empowering workers and students in the university with a wider frame of decolonization, but also by telling me about the university struggles in Chile and the way students there have framed austerity as part of a larger project of neoliberalization.

These are very large topics that I hope to write about and discuss with you all much more extensively throughout the rest of the year. However, for the end of this post I would like to move from theory and global politics to a more personal level and talk a bit about my experiences at CUNY and how I hope to contribute to this struggle to create a liberatory future within the university.

In many ways CUNY is a phenomenal university. Its student body is incredibly diverse in any number of ways, brilliant, and driven. Its faculty has a passion for teaching and a belief in what they are doing to a degree I haven’t witnessed in many other institutions. However, there is more to a university than simply its students and faculty. I have seen too many brilliant driven students struggle to stay on track and graduate from CUNY simply because of the university’s lack of financial support and advising. I know a student who experienced a death in the family, and instead of offering him support when his academics suffered in the months afterward, the university revoked his scholarship. Many more students that I know simply struggle to work full time and still succeed academically, a difficult task that is caused by the excessive costs of education. Seeing all of these ways that students fail to graduate due to institutional structures (most of which could be improved greatly by being adequately funded), has made me driven to work in higher education and help the university to better serve all of its students.

*https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/how-ut-used-standardized-testing-to-slow-integration/597814/

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  1. Lucien, thank you for highlighting and providing insight of the CUNY and universities in South Africa. After reading your post, I just realized that the non-existent barriers at the community college level may correlate to the supportive academic culture that many students experience! On the other hand, CUNY is a great establishment, but like any other academic industrial complex, it has teeth as well, and navigating your way through the mouth of the beast is a course on its own.

    Also, thank you for the article link about integration of higher education. Not surprised.

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