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  • Contesting the Manufactured Crisis of Public Higher Education at CUNY
  • Francesco Crocco (bio)

Chanting “Education is a right! Fight! Fight! Fight!” a coalition of students, faculty, and staff from the City University of New York (CUNY) staged an act of peaceful civil disobedience at a CUNY Board of Trustees meeting on November 22, 2010, shortly after the board passed significant tuition increases for the spring and fall of 2011. With a huge fiscal crisis looming, New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called for austerity budgets that include broad service cuts, layoffs, and givebacks from public-sector unions. The tuition hikes are a direct result of these measures. Proponents of the cuts argue that an austerity budget is necessary to balance a budget that unions and public services have purportedly placed in the red. But the truth is otherwise. The fiscal crisis afflicting the city and state is a manufactured crisis caused, above all, by a crippling system of regressive taxation that serves the wealthiest individuals and corporations. This system has bankrupted the state and paved the way for the fast-track privatization of CUNY and other public services.

The cuts to CUNY are part of a national assault on the public sector caused by what various commentators have referred to as a “class war from above.”1 This assault can be traced back to the 1970s, when US businesses exploited a crisis of overproduction [End Page 219] to slash wages and benefits, bust unions, deregulate industries, and garner large tax cuts. In the long term, these tactics worsened the crisis by shrinking workers’ purchasing power. They also set in motion a cycle of chronic state fiscal crises by shrinking tax revenue. Elites have used these crises to push for the cutting of vital social services and the privatization of the rest. This pattern follows what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” whereby elites exploit moments of crisis to ram through the “shock doctrine” of devastating free-market reforms; it is also evidence of what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,” whereby the public commons are privatized in order to open up new markets for capital investment and accumulation.2 In other words, fiscal crises are the instruments used by private interests to pry open the oyster of the public sector.

In New York City, public higher education has been one of the foremost casualties of the class war from above. I hope to make this clear by focusing on CUNY, where I teach and organize. CUNY is a barometer for the attacks on public higher education nationally. My analysis begins with a description of the crisis at CUNY, followed by an explanation of its roots in the class war. I conclude by describing what organizers at CUNY are doing to transform the manufactured crisis of public higher education into an opportunity for progressive change.

The Crisis at CUNY

Like most public colleges and universities across the nation, CUNY, which consists of twenty campuses funded by the city and state, is facing severe budget cuts because of mounting city and state budget deficits. New York State has a $10 billion budget deficit in 2011. The mayor claims that New York City is facing a $4.6 billion deficit, but that figure excludes a $2 billion emergency fund that could be used to plug holes. Since 2009, CUNY’s budget has been cut by $205 million. Now, the governor and mayor are demanding another $95.1 million in cuts to CUNY senior colleges and $52.5 in cuts to CUNY community colleges, while also asking for deep cuts to state financial-aid programs and large concessions from workers. [End Page 220]

One way the city and state have tried to recoup these losses is by passing them on to CUNY faculty and staff. In the spring of 2010, then governor David Paterson attempted to enforce a mandatory furlough, but the Professional Staff Congress (PSC)—the union of CUNY faculty and staff—successfully defeated the mandate in court. A de facto hiring freeze was imposed, but only on full-time faculty and staff (as I write, CUNY is still filling new administrative positions). The showdown with...


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