BY AARON BARLOW
New York City College of Technology, the City University of New York campus where I teach, has now spent more than a decade improving itself on the cheap. When I first taught here in 2001, it was a joke of a college, seen by many as undeserving of the name. Now, its faculty (over half hired within the last ten years) publish regularly and teach the diverse student population deftly and with dedication. The students have improved, too: For their final, my Law Through Literature students were each asked to select a passage from the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion of their own philosophies of the law. When I joined the full-time faculty in 2006, such an assignment would have proved disastrous.
But, as I said, the change has been effected on the cheap. And that is not sustainable.
The fault isn’t the college’s. The fault is a system wrung dry and tossed on the rag pile by city and state governments more interested in the glamor of Wall Street and luxurious high-rise apartments than in the people of New York, especially its next generation.
New York is experienced a renaissance like nothing ever before seen, but it sometimes seems like it is only for show, for the tourists and for the millionaires from around the world now investing in Brooklyn pied-à-terres.
New York City’s middle class is shrinking. Unable to afford housing in the city, those whose incomes don’t reach the one-percent but are too high for public assistance are being forced out of the five boroughs. For the poor, the situation is worse, of course. They have nowhere to go.
For both the middle class (always pressed, financially, in the city) and the poor, CUNY has been a lifeline for generations, providing (at most of the campuses—the old City Tech was something of an exception and, even here, strong programs did exist) a viable college education at an affordable price. However, that has changed. Today, according to David W. Chen in The New York Times, the problems “throughout the entire CUNY system… are representative of a funding crisis that has been building at public universities across the country. Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital, governments have been pulling back their support.”
The problem problems are so bad that:
Faculty and staff members represented by CUNY’s biggest union, the 25,000-member Professional Staff Congress, have not had a raise in six years. They have vowed to walk out in the fall if the contract dispute is not resolved — knowing that a strike could lead to arrests and fines.
We are serious about that, even though New York’s Taylor Law will force fines we cannot afford to pay and even jail time upon us if we strike. Our governor seems more interested in petty political payback than in serving the population of New York City. He controls the budget process and the contract negotiation and has made it clear that faculty do not have his ear. A strike may prove the only way to make him pay attention.
It’s going to take more than higher faculty salaries, however, to return CUNY to a sustainable position as the city’s primary higher-education vehicle. Chen quotes a (scrapped) proposal for a lab fee at the system’s flagship City College of New York: “‘It is not possible to meet the needs of the undergraduate program,’ the proposal read, ‘without a reliable new income stream as a means to address the shortfall.’” This is true of every program throughout the system.
If we strike, it will be for more than pay, but for reversal of years of neglect and to make sure that the colleges of CUNY never return to the state I discovered at City Tech, sixteen years ago, when I walked into my first classroom there as an adjunct.
I’m proud to be part of the improvement seen since; I fear that, though, if the state does not fulfill its commitment to its people, the work we’ve done will be, ultimately, for naught.
Like most of the faculty at CUNY, I will put myself on the line for an institution and students I believe in.
I will strike, if need be.