By Eric Bilach and Matthew Romano
The following article was featured in the December 2019 edition of The Campus.
At the 1849 inauguration of the Free Academy (now known as the City College of New York), the institution’s first President, Dr. Horace Webster, famously described the first free institution of public higher education as an experiment created to serve the “children of the whole people.” Now, with over 150 years of history, it is not surprising that this term has experienced several periods of definition, redefinition, manipulation, vociferous liberal interpretation, and a more conservative brand of constraining perspective. By mapping these two interconnected and opposite eras in CUNY and CCNY’s recent history (the open admissions era of the 1970s and the remediation debate of the late 20th to early 21st century), we hope to expound the complex, ever-changing, yet deeply entrenched relationship that our historical institution shares with this foundational tenet of our educational philosophy. Finally, as we embark on a new decade, we look to the past, present, and future role of CUNY as, “committed to academic excellence and the provision of equal access and opportunity…” (emphasis added).
Early 1960s :
Mounting political and racial tensions during this period led to a rapid paradigm shift in the concept of “the university” within American academia. Universities across the nation began to subscribe to the notion that the classroom could be used to achieve more than just education. As a result, higher education quickly morphed into a vehicle for combatting social turbulence within urban cities by improving minority enrollment. Admission requirements in America would be shaped by this new model over the following three decades, particularly within the CUNY system.
The surge in student activism throughout the latter half of the decade coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the widespread opposition to the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War. On City College’s campus, African-American and Puerto Rican student protestors, along with their Caucasian cohorts, clamored for the institution to introduce affirmative action programs that would effectively raise minority enrollment totals.
In compliance with student demands, CUNY’s first affirmative action initiative was established in 1966 in the form of the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) Program. Still running strong today, the program provides, “economically disadvantaged,” and “academically unprepared,” students with the support services needed to succeed in college.
Following the 1969 student occupation of City College’s south campus, the University’s immediate response was to implement an “open admissions” policy, which granted every New York City high school graduate, who had either maintained an 80% grade point average or finished within their class’ 50th percentile, entrance into CUNY’s senior colleges. Though then-City College President Robert E. Marshak claimed that the open admissions policy was the, “most complicated, controversial, and long-term issue,” confronting the institution during his tenure, CUNY hypothesized that the policy would afford academic opportunities to large quantities of students from low-income households. This prediction was ultimately correct, which was reflected in the statistics regarding the ethnic breakdown of freshmen classes at City College between 1969 and 1971. In two years, African-American enrollment escalated from 149 to 804 students (a 16.5% increase), while Puerto Rican enrollment also grew from 86 to 318 students (a 9.9% increase).
As the decade progressed, City College drew heavy denunciations throughout academia for its open admissions policy. The institution’s reputation as the “Harvard of the proletariat,” began to diminish under the premise that it had, “dropped all entrance standards in 1969.” As it follows, freshmen enrollment figures proliferated by 83% between 1969 and 1971 as a direct result of open admissions. With this steady expansion of City College’s student population, it is estimated that nine out of every ten newly admitted students from 1970 onward required remedial instruction due to the “inadequacy” of their high school educations. This burgeoning student body necessitated CUNY’s hiring of over 1,200 remedial course instructors. The strain that open admissions had placed on the University’s financial resources (approximately $35.5 million in 1970 alone), coupled with a myriad of other budgetary issues, culminated in the closure of the entire CUNY system for two weeks in May of 1976. To supplement its losses, CUNY began to impose tuition charges soon thereafter for the first time in its existence.
1997 – 1998 :
By the 1997-1998 academic year, twenty-seven years after the advent of open admissions in 1970, City College and the CUNY system as a whole, had succeeded in fulfilling its previous mission of diversifying the campus: 90% of City College students were either Black, Hispanic, or Asian. Despite their success, CUNY was shaken by dipping enrollment totals (CCNY endured a decline of 62,000 students since 1970); scrutinization of perceived non-existent or low-bar admissions standards (mostly unchanged since their near-eradication in 1970); rising concerns over a manifested culture of remediation (over 70% of City College entrants required remediation); derisory 4-year graduation rates (just over 4% at the Senior colleges) and, resulting in part from these mounting criticisms, crippling budget cuts implemented just two years prior by the Governor of NY George Pataki (suffering a $102 million dollar operating budget cut)
After these budget cuts and the mounting pressures and plummeting reputation of CUNY, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in his State of the City Address, disparaged CUNY as a “disaster” lobbying for control of the desired redirection. January of 1998 marked the conception of Giuliani’s vociferous pursuit of a total reversal of the former era’s open admissions policy, an imposition of standards and CUNY assessment tests, a return to a focus on ‘excellence’ over the ‘equity’ ideal that had predominated during the previous three decades, and the privatization or eradication of all remedial courses at CUNY institutions. Giuliani’s cause was espoused and executed by CUNY’s Board of Trustees, most notably Herman Badillo.
1998 – 1999 :
Following from what was roughly a year and a half of staunch and heated remediation debate, Giuliani’s tactics, ultimatum politics, power, and influence over the Board of Trustees proved insurmountable for insurgency efforts led by the then chairwoman of CUNY, Anne A. Paolucci and a cadre of “equal opportunity” minded faculty, staff, and students. In a vote of ten to five, the Board of Trustees phased out remedial classes from all CUNY Senior Colleges in a three-year process, with City College doing away with remedial courses in September of 2001. (It should be noted that, at the time, 81% of public 4-year institutions offered at least one remedial course).
Despite the result, some key moments from the months leading up to and proceeding the indoctrination of the policy had shed light on the contention surrounding the issue of remediation reform that found itself at the intersection of race, merit, equal opportunity, and socioeconomic status. In May of 1998, responding to a decision to bar entry of students who fail CUNY’s relatively new placement exams, CUNY reported that a disproportionate 55% of those affected would be Hispanic, 51% Asian, 46% black, and only 38% white. In December of the same year, six civil liberties groups counter-litigated against the CUNY Board of Trustees’ incubatory policies. In September 1999, following the final ratification of these revisionary admissions policies, students, faculty, and parents alike jointly filed grievances to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights over what they saw as exclusionary actions taken by the Board of Trustees. Finally, Sandi Cooper, Chair of the University Faculty Senate, encapsulated the indignation and abhorrence of many of Giuliani’s most fervent opponents in regarding the end of open admissions and imposition of entrance examinations as, “cruel and unnecessary punishment on students.”
On the surface, since our most recent uprooting of admissions policy, CUNY and CCNY seem to have carved out a comfortable and prominent niche that bisects the binary framework that it was built on, “academic excellence,” and “equal access and opportunity,” straddling, promulgating, and sustaining both. For example, per 2018 “fast facts” on enrollment as published by City College, Hispanics make up approximately 36.9% of all matriculated students, followed by Asians at 22.7 %, whites at 16.5%, and blacks at 15.2%, with another 6.7% being non-resident aliens. Academically, per CCNY’s most recent City Facts records, the four-year graduation rate of the 2008 freshman class was 10.4%, reaching 44.2% by the end of year six. However, as the historical accounts above prove, these facts are only the beginning of the story. For a deeper understanding of the current state of CCNY’s student population, one must only look around at the students walking the same grounds once serving as our new home in 1907 Hamilton Heights and proudly representing the same institution that was founded 60 years before that. For foresight on the future of CCNY’s admissions, the trends of the diversity and graduation-rate statistics demonstrate a gradual uptick since 2001, as CUNY has seemingly returned to its prominence as a source of affordable and high-quality education, bolstered by the fact that the overwhelming majority of its students graduate debt-free (CCNY eclipsing a 78% debt-free graduation rate).
Sources below :
Academic Renewal in the 1970s: Memoirs of a City College President (c. 1980), Robert E. Marshak, Cohen Archives
“Downward Mobility” (1994), Heather MacDonald, City Journal
“These colleges turn low-income students into middle-class earners—but how?” (2018), Jill Barshay, The Hechinger Report