An Urban University Under Fire

For decades, City University of New York has opened its doors to thousands of immigrants, but now budget cuts are threatening the school's ability to provide a `passport to the middle class'

THE City University of New York (CUNY) is everything its supporters say an American university should be.

At CUNY, 66 percent of students are from families whose parents never attended college, more than 50 percent come from households with incomes of less than $23,000 a year, and 40 percent of the students are immigrants.

But supporters warn that CUNY is an institution under siege.

A 20-percent reduction in state aid over the last five years has forced CUNY to increase class size and double tuition. State aid increased slightly this school year, but CUNY administrators say a combination of limited state funding and enrollments that are expected to rise by 10 percent over the next six years are denying students basic opportunities and threatening the university's future.

``When you talk about budget cuts at a place like CUNY, it means cutting off the aspirations, hopes, and dreams of an entire generation of [immigrants] who are the city's salvation,'' says Jay Hirshenson, vice chancellor of university relations at CUNY. ``This place much more than any other institution in the city is the passport to the middle class.''

Students at the City College of New York, one of CUNY's 16 colleges and community colleges, see further cutbacks and tuition increases as inevitable. CUNY tuition doubled from roughly $650 a semester in 1989 to $1,300 a semester this year.

``I know they're going to raise it again,'' says Maggie, a Haitian graduate student studying bilingual education who chose not to give her last name. Tuition is so high ``you can't go full time. You've got to work at night and go to school during the day. Almost everybody here works.''

CUNY was formed in 1961 when eight existing public colleges in New York were combined into a university. The massive system now has seven community colleges, nine four-year colleges, a graduate school, 213,000 students, and is the third-largest university in the country. CUNY's better-known four-year colleges include Hunter College, City College, Queens College, and Baruch College.

City College, located in the center of Harlem, has been a focal point of protest over the cutbacks. Founded in 1874, City offered a free education to all who sought it, and thousands of German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other immigrants studied there free of charge. But the city fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s forced the college to begin charging tuition in 1976.

A new generation of immigrants now dominates CUNY. Over 100 countries are represented at CUNY, and Spanish, Creole, Chinese, and Arabic are as commonly heard on its campuses as English. Clothes range from the baggy pants and baseball caps of hip-hop black-American fashion to sandals and turbans.

With many students attending classes part time and working full time in order to pay tuition, some complain they have difficulty taking the classes they need to graduate if they work during the day. According to CUNY officials, 31 percent of student attended the university part time in 1977. Today nearly half do.

``[Financial] aid to part-time students should be increased,'' says Douglas Tenny, a City College junior, who is studying US history and works full time to pay tuition. ``There should be more effort put into [scheduling] classes for part-time students.''

CUNY administrators agree, but blame the state for the problem. ``The part-time students are discriminated against by the state. There should be no difference between part-time and full-time students,'' Mr. Hirshenson says. ``The statewide aid to part-time students pool is $16 million statewide; the full-time students pool is several hundred million.''

`Separate and unequal'

Along with eliciting student protests, the cutbacks sparked 250 faculty and students to file a lawsuit against the state of New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo and leaders of the Legislature in February 1992. (The university has not officially joined the suit.)

The suit, which is still in court, alleges the Legislature consistently gives more funding per student to the 82-percent white State University of New York (SUNY) system than to the 63-percent minority CUNY system.

The suit argues that the two systems are ``separate and unequal,'' echoing the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, and that the way the state funds higher education is racially discriminatory. The Supreme Court recently upheld a similar suit alleging that the state of Mississippi's lower funding of predominantly black state universities was racially discriminatory.

``You would expect this to go on in Mississippi or Alabama,'' says Sheldon Weinbaum, a professor of mechanical engineering at City College and a leading plaintiff in the suit. ``I think it's a prototype case for every state in the nation. I think this goes on wherever you have urban universities with a large minority enrollment.''

The state has repeatedly tried to have the suit thrown out of court and a ruling is not expected to go to trial until 1996. The suit alleges that SUNY received approximately $700 more per student in state aid, a difference that adds up to tens of millions of dollars. Nearly all of both schools' budgets come from the state.

State and SUNY officials argue the discrepancy is based on the fact that the SUNY system runs an expensive medical school, dental school, and technical programs that CUNY does not. SUNY, with 64 campuses and over 325,000 students, is the largest university in the country.

CUNY's administration has also come under fire for alleged racism. New chancellor W. Ann Reynolds took office in 1990 with a mandate from CUNY's board to revamp the sprawling organization. An initial proposal unveiled by Dr. Reynolds in 1992 that would have consolidated academic programs on several campuses sparked widespread student and faculty protests.

``That proposal was insanely racist,'' says Kenneth Sherrill, a political-science professor at CUNY's Hunter College and chair of Hunter's student-faculty senate. ``It targeted schools in direct ratio to the percentage of the student body that was [not] white.''

But Dr. Sherrill says the original plan has been reworked and tensions have diminished. ``At this point,'' he says, ``I think the problem is more with the [state's] political leadership than the leadership of the university.''

Future in doubt

CUNY's academic reputation is also under fire. Critics say the decision to adopt an open admissions policy for the university's community colleges in 1969 has lowered standards. CUNY officials say 45 percent of students graduate from the university within eight years of enrolling, but critics say the number is actually closer to 20 percent.

``It takes our students longer because many of them are so poor they have to work,'' says Richard Freeland, vice chancellor for academic affairs at CUNY. ``Many of them live with no savings, so if there is some kind of crisis they have to stop out for a while.''

CUNY administrators argue that the university produces a quality work force - a crucial economic resource for the city. They also say the university slows the growth of the city's burgeoning underclass. More than 22,000 students at CUNY come from families that are on some form of public assistance.

Others worry that New York's newest asset, its immigrants, will not be harnessed. ``This wave of immigrants is the most extraordinary opportunity this city has had in a long time,'' says Sherrill, who attended City College for $8 a semester in student fees in the 1960s. ``It would be short -sighted public policy to not allow us to translate this wave into our next leaders.''

Sherrill believes that state aid was not cut in 1994 because this is an election year but predicts that cutbacks will continue in the future.

``If you look around the country there's a good chance you're going to see a wave of anti-immigration fever,'' Sherrill says. ``Can you imagine raising taxes to teach immigrants? I can't. We won't even raise taxes to teach people who are here now.''

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