The CUNY Experiment

Bettmann/Getty Images

A student at the City College of New York watching smoke rise from a student center two days after the end of a student takeover of campus, May 8, 1969

Bettmann/Getty Images

A student at the City College of New York watching smoke rise from a student center two days after the end of a student takeover of campus, May 8, 1969

Like so much about New York City politics, the fates of the various Gaza solidarity encampments that sprang up throughout the city in recent weeks were in part a question of real estate. At the New School, which has no outdoor campus, protesters needed to set up the encampment indoors at the university’s main building on Fifth Avenue—good for rainy days but not as welcoming to a crowd. At New York University the administration acted within twenty-four hours to arrest students and faculty who sought to form a fledgling encampment on Gould Plaza outside the business school; it was more tolerant of a camp in a small alley that abuts faculty housing (though police eventually removed it as well). The first encampment was at Columbia University, where the famed library, imposing buildings, and grassy lawns soon drew journalists and politicians. The administration was desperate to clear the space partly because it wanted the lawn back for commencement.

But Columbia’s is not the only campus in upper Manhattan. On April 25, eight days after students set up tents on the South Lawn in Morningside Heights, those at City College, to the north, established an encampment of their own. Soon hundreds of antiwar and pro-Palestinian students, faculty, and staff from across the City University of New York (CUNY) system gathered there, along with people from the neighborhood. The encampment—which included food tables, a large free library, and artmaking stations—lasted until April 30, the same night Columbia called the NYPD to arrest protesters who had taken over Hamilton Hall. Hundreds of officers in riot gear arrested more than 170 people using what many observers described as significant physical force. Some of the protesters who had tried to occupy an administration building have been charged with burglary, a felony, unlike at Columbia, where it appears that no one arrested faces charges more severe than misdemeanors.

Most of the encampment’s five demands—including for CUNY to divest from companies with ties to Israel and boycott Israeli universities—focused on institutional complicity in the ongoing war in Gaza, much as students had at Columbia and at campuses around the country (although City College’s near $300 million endowment, established in 2019 by private donors, including alumni, is tiny compared to Columbia’s $13.6 billion). But the fifth was for “a people’s CUNY”—a demand that made an implicit connection between the students’ intense anger about the United States’ support for the war and their alienation from democratic politics at home. “There is plenty of wealth in New York,” the organizers wrote, “that could be taxed and redirected to make CUNY fully open and free for all.”

All colleges and universities, to varying degrees, are simultaneously places of individual improvement and collective ambition, of meritocratic striving and political rebellion. But that tension is especially pronounced at the city university, which from its inception has been intended to educate the whole city in the democratic interest. The largest public city university system in the country, CUNY enrolls about 225,000 undergraduate and graduate students in seven community colleges, eleven senior colleges, and seven graduate and professional schools sprawling across all five boroughs. More than three quarters of all CUNY students are people of color; 60 percent of undergraduates are first-generation college students. Study after study has demonstrated that CUNY is what a 2020 Brookings Institution report calls an “opportunity engine.” It has propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class as all Ivy League schools combined; when Brookings ranked the country’s most successful four-year and two-year colleges for social mobility, six of the top ten were CUNY campuses.

And yet CUNY is not just an opportunity engine or a path to middle-class stability. It has also long been a site of protest and civil disobedience, and the students who organized the Gaza solidarity encampment were drawing on that deep history. Just as Columbia’s protesters looked back to 1968, those at City College looked to 1969, when student activists took over the campus to call for greater racial equity in admissions and curriculum. (That movement, too, had issued five demands, including “that the racial composition of the entering freshman class” reflect the proportions of Black and Puerto Rican students in the city’s high schools.) By demanding “a people’s CUNY,” they were invoking a vision the city university has long nurtured of a higher education system accessible to all.


Under Mayor Eric Adams, the city university’s traditions of meritocratic uplift and radical dissent have both come under threat. In late January Adams delivered his annual State of the City speech at Hostos Community College, a CUNY campus at the intersection of Grand Concourse and 149th Street in the South Bronx. Hostos, founded in 1968, is by any metric a remarkable institution. It is attended by 5,400 students—59 percent Latinx, 28 percent Black, and many the first in their families to attend college.


Inside the main building is a children’s center for the families of Hostos students, faculty, and staff. Down the block is a public park named for the activist Evelina López Antonetty, a Puerto Rican political leader who in 1965 founded United Bronx Parents, which organized the parents of schoolchildren around such issues as bilingual education and the quality of school cafeteria food. Across the street is a massive post office that was a steady source of jobs and upward mobility for Black New Yorkers. Works Progress Administration murals by Ben Shahn can still be glimpsed inside.

At the start of his speech Adams cited Hostos as proof that New York City is “a place to find your way forward with a world-class education.” But as part of his general program of belt-tightening, the mayor has pushed through $95 million in cuts for CUNY since January 2022. Now the system is confronting a new problem: more than $100 million in federal funds it received during the pandemic are about to run out.

In mid-January, right before the State of the City speech and as students and faculty were getting ready to start the spring semester, the CUNY administration informed nine colleges (including the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Adams’s alma mater) that they were “colleges of concern” and would need to find ways to cope with looming funding shortfalls by pushing through additional midyear cuts. (The senior colleges are primarily funded by the state, but the cuts mandated by Adams’s Program to Eliminate the Gap affect the entire system.) At York College in Queens, more than 270 course sections, about 18 percent of all classes offered, disappeared from the schedule. At Queens College, twenty-six full-time faculty were laid off. According to the comptroller’s office, the number of full-time faculty at community colleges fell from 2,353 in 2017 to 2,153 in 2023.

The mayor’s Executive Budget proposal, released in late April, restored spending to other areas of the city budget: NYPD funding, for example, and some money for the city’s early childhood education program. But it does nothing to make up either the earlier declines in city funding for CUNY or the impending federal losses. The city university’s current fiscal difficulties reflect larger uncertainties about New York’s future—especially regarding what place the Adams administration sees for public investments that embody economic vitality and give life to a larger democratic ethos.  


CUNY was founded in 1847 as the Free Academy of the City of New York, a tuition-free college meant to provide higher education for New Yorkers regardless of their ability to pay. At its opening the college’s first leader, Dr. Horace Webster, said: “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

An academic procession at the dedication ceremony for the City College of New York’s new campus, 1908

Despite this idealism, for its first sixty years the Free Academy (which changed its name to the College of the City of New York in 1866) derived its curriculum from West Point, where its first two presidents had been educated. As the historian Conor Tomás Reed argues in his recent book, New York Liberation School: Study and Movement for the People’s University, what transformed the college was the migration of Eastern European Jews to New York City in the early years of the twentieth century.1 Columbia—founded in 1754 as an Anglican institution and retaining its ties to the city’s WASP elite into the twentieth century—limited the number of Jewish students, designing its admissions policies to exclude them (and, some historians suggest, encouraging applicants to go to City College instead).2 NYU was expensive; academically talented poor and working-class Jewish students went to City College at no cost.

In 1907 the college moved uptown to its present campus on 138th Street. In the following decades the school became colloquially known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” During the 1930s it nurtured radical politics, sending at least sixty students to fight in the Spanish Civil War. For many years it only admitted men; its sister institution, Hunter College, created in the late nineteenth century, admitted women, mostly for training as teachers in public schools. In 1930 Hunter’s Brooklyn campus was renamed Brooklyn College and opened as a free coeducational institution. Its campus in Midwood was built starting in 1935 with Public Works Administration funds; FDR spoke at the opening.

As American higher education expanded in the postwar years, so did CUNY, adding community colleges and four-year campuses. The city’s public schools had a high proportion of Black and Latinx (at the time mostly Puerto Rican) students, but the populations of CUNY’s most prestigious four-year campuses were overwhelmingly white—especially City College, despite its location in the center of Harlem. In April 1969 a group of Black students there took over the campus, requesting more equal admissions policies and an expansion of Black and Puerto Rican history and literature courses. The city and state responded by introducing an “open admissions” plan that guaranteed any high school graduate in the city a place somewhere in the CUNY system. It also ended tuition at community colleges, where students had needed to pay a small amount. In effect the new policies established that New Yorkers had a right to a college education. Black and Puerto Rican enrollment immediately doubled, jumping to 24 percent the first year the new policy took hold; white working-class New Yorkers benefited as well. Between 1969 and 1975 the system’s enrollment grew by 55 percent.


But the influx of students was not accompanied by additional funding, and the new rules were contentious. For some faculty, open admissions exposed the tension inherent in the ideal of free college education. Was the goal to create a more rigorous meritocracy, to make it possible for the most brilliant students to access higher education even if they were poor—the “Harvard of the Proletariat” model? Or was the real purpose of free college to make higher education and its benefits available to as many people as possible?

Among the adherents of the latter vision was the poet Adrienne Rich, who taught in the Basic Writing program at City College in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reed quotes a statement Rich made at an emergency City College faculty meeting the day after the 1969 campus takeover began:

We are not admitting simply a collection of social and emotional problems, remedial problems. We are admitting a wealth of intelligence, tough-mindedness, and motivation…. There is a whole resource of brains, talent, and courage which we have hitherto excluded from the American educational system; if we can begin to admit and absorb these gifts, the educational process for both whites and non-whites, teachers and students, will become, in my opinion, vastly more meaningful.3

June Jordan, another poet who taught at City College at the time, agreed: “We thought that if we could make democracy come to City College,” she remembered in 1994, “probably we could have an impact on the concept and perhaps even the practice of public education throughout the country.” 

Hostos was a perfect example of this new vision of higher education. The college, founded in 1968 and opened in 1970, enrolled a remarkably diverse student body, and its faculty included many left-leaning scholars for whom working there was part of a larger political project. The historian Gerald Meyer, for example, who wrote an influential study of Vito Marcantonio, the left-wing Congressman who had represented East Harlem in the late 1930s and 1940s, was drawn to Hostos because it offered a chance to teach working-class students. Hostos’s location in the South Bronx—it opened in a former tire factory—symbolized public investment in the neighborhood at a moment when it was swept by industrial disinvestment and fires, some resulting from arson-for-profit schemes whereby landlords paid people to torch buildings so they could collect insurance.

In its early years Hostos was a bilingual community college, one of the few of its kind. This generated intense loyalty from the neighborhood. When the college was threatened with a shutdown during the city’s severe fiscal crisis in 1975, the community launched a public campaign to keep it open, writing letters to public officials, organizing demonstrations, and even at one point taking over the campus. Protesting women students set up a daycare center in the president’s office, near where the Children’s Center is today.


Hostos remained open, but the fiscal crisis brought profound changes to CUNY. When the system started charging tuition in 1976, ending the era of free higher education, the state took over much of the funding of the four-year schools, while the city continued to pay the bills for the two-year community colleges. In this period CUNY transformed from a democratic experiment into a poor relation of the city’s private institutions.

Its financial straits can make teaching at CUNY today a demoralizing experience, as public testimony, union reports, and my own interviews with faculty reveal. Xerox machines are always breaking. Computer terminals in the library don’t work. Understaffing means that students must deal with long waits and overstressed advisers. At one college in the Bronx, broken lightbulbs in the library require students to search for books by flashlight.

Jennifer Gaboury, who teaches at Hunter, told me that one of her classes was interrupted when a ceiling tile “with a suspicious odor” fell in the middle of the room. (I have taught at private universities in New York for the past two decades, and my students have never had to dodge ceiling tiles.) Testifying in April to the CUNY Board of Trustees, Carolina Muñoz, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, described buildings riddled with mold and related that a colleague had found “black goop” dripping from the ceiling on lab equipment. When she reported the issue, facilities told her to “bring an umbrella.” Muñoz is leaving CUNY after two decades for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

In recent years the system’s financial difficulties have only grown more severe. Over half of CUNY’s total budget of $4.27 billion comes from New York State, but this funding has grown unpredictable. Under Governor Andrew Cuomo, state support was erratic—flat one year, decreasing or barely increasing the next. The senior colleges found themselves increasingly strapped. Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, student enrollment fell, especially at the community colleges. It remains more than 14 percent below that of 2019, and has just started rising again.

A look at the city budget leaves no question that CUNY is a major year-to-year expense: in Adams’ Executive Budget proposal for the 2025 financial year, its costs to the city amount to nearly $1.3 billion. (The NYPD’s, meanwhile, amount to $5.8 billion.) It costs money to provide classes, pay professors, hire advisers, and maintain campuses. But in the long run the university is an excellent investment for the city. Roughly 80 percent of CUNY graduates remain in New York City ten years after graduation, working in health care, education, social work, technology, finance, and many other fields.

Those with an associate degree from CUNY earn, on average, more than 67 percent more than those with only a high school diploma; graduates with a baccalaureate earn more than double. Cumulatively they contribute billions of dollars in tax revenue to the city and the state each year. A well-resourced city university, like other city services, gives people a reason to stay in New York. But unlike investing in libraries, parks, and cultural institutions, as valuable as these are, investing in CUNY literally helps create a middle-class city. Before attending John Jay, Adams himself started his educational career at the New York City College of Technology, a CUNY campus in Downtown Brooklyn.

CUNY has also been a crucial site of research and intellectual work about the city itself. Ari Paul, who edits the newsletter of the Professional Staff Congress (the union for CUNY faculty), told me in an email that some of the crucial research that has shaped city policy in recent years—such as the work that documented racially discriminatory patterns in “stop and frisk” policing or scholarship on how the city might adapt to deal with climate change—has been produced by faculty at CUNY.


The recent cuts have helped inspire a wave of labor and political organizing. Since 1972 the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) has sought to connect the working conditions of faculty and staff to the public good of the city as a whole. As Sharell Walker, a librarian at Borough of Manhattan Community College, told me, “CUNY is not Columbia, not Princeton, not Harvard. We do not have the type of funds that they do. We rely on the city to help us help our entire community.”

The Gaza solidarity encampment had no organizational connection with the PSC, which disavowed an unauthorized one-day “sickout” called by some faculty and staff the day after the arrests, but it gained some of its strength from anti-austerity organizing at the university. In their fifth demand the organizers called on the city to restore CUNY’s tuition-free status and on the university’s administration to accept “all the demands for a fair contract made by the Professional Staff Congress.” In this respect, too, they were drawing on the institution’s history. The last time students launched a high-profile occupation of an academic building at City College was in 1991, in a protest against budget cuts.

Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

CUNY faculty and staff organized under the Professional Staff Congress marching outside the university’s headquarters for a new contract, February 27, 2023

Some legislators at the state level, meanwhile, are starting to move to protect the city university. In 2021 the Democratic state senator Andrew Gounardes introduced legislation calling for a “New Deal for CUNY,” which would provide free tuition and expand the hiring of faculty and academic and mental health counselors. Gounardes, whose Brooklyn district includes Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, is a proud graduate of Hunter College, where he studied political science and history. He credits his education, he told me in an April phone conversation, with setting “me up for everything I’ve been able to do in my life since then.” For him the city university matters because it serves every kind of student, from Rhodes scholars to the newest New Yorkers. “The university is struggling because we never fully fund it,” he says. Imagine all the students who do not go to college but who might; all the ideas and research and scholarship that doesn’t exist but could. With the proper resources, Gounardes dreams that the city university might become the “premier public urban university” in the country.

This past December State Senator John Liu and Representative Zohran Mamdani introduced legislation that offered another way to resolve the problem: repealing the two-hundred-year-old property tax exemption enjoyed by New York University and Columbia University, two of the largest property-holders in Manhattan. (Columbia, with 320 properties worth close to $4 billion, is the largest.) The New York Times has calculated that Columbia saves about $182 million annually through these exemptions; NYU, which recently spent more than a billion dollars building a glass-wrapped tower on which it will pay no property taxes, saves $145 million. Simply collecting this tax money and giving it to CUNY would more than wipe out the public system’s budget shortfalls. This would also bring New York in line with many other cities, where private universities—including all seven other Ivy League institutions—make more significant fiscal contributions to the common good.

Columbia and NYU are both deeply entangled with the city in countless ways, and both—like all private universities—benefit from a wide range of public funds, from research grants to tuition support programs. But unlike CUNY they increasingly do not serve New Yorkers. This past September the Times reported that in 2010 a quarter of Columbia’s student body came from New York City; by 2022 only 15 percent did. High school guidance counselors at the city’s public schools complained on the record to the paper that few of their students are able to gain entry. Seventeen percent of NYU’s student body hails from New York City. Whether graduates stay here is anybody’s guess. At a moment of fiscal pressure, it is hard not to see a statement of priorities in the decision to keep giving these schools tax breaks while cutting CUNY’s budget—a sense that the city’s health depends on bolstering the prestige of private institutions, with their networks of donors and their ability to appeal to a wealthier student base.

It often seems these days as if the city imagines itself as a magnet for the rich. Its leaders repeat that to fund social programs for the poor they have to craft policy around the preferences of the wealthy, who pay the lion’s share of personal income taxes. Theirs is an unequal New York: one city of well-off people living in spacious apartments, attending private schools or public ones with lavish PTA budgets, jogging in well-maintained parks; and another of working-class people, mostly Black and Latinx, who labor in service occupations, dwell in the outer boroughs, go to badly funded schools, and scrape by. The poor are either servants or a menacing underclass who might frighten the wealthy away.

Who is the city for? In a memo from 1972, Rich wrote about the pleasures and challenges of teaching Basic English at City College:

When we speak the word “childhood” in a C.C.N.Y. classroom in 1972 we may unconsciously be evoking a period that took place in Puerto Rico, North Carolina, Israel, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Queens, Haiti, Germany, or 125th Street. The richness of this variety is staggering, the problems it presents complex.

There were many frustrations then: “Conditions at a huge, urban, overcrowded, noisy, and pollution-soaked institution can become almost physically overwhelming at times, for the students and for the staff,” Rich wrote in an essay the same year. And yet the promise, too, was overwhelming. She ended by saying that what “held” her in Basic Writing were the “hidden veins of possibility” in students who might not know that this skill could be part of who they were, that it might enable them to “bear witness” to their lives. Elsewhere in the essay she wrote of her faith that life in the city might be “a life more edged,” one “more charged with knowledge, than life elsewhere.” That promise might still be true of a city university, a university of and for New York.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in