New Paltz Students Discuss SUNY Struggle

Students of the Final Cut and Students United for a Free CUNY (SUFC) hosted a panel discussion on Feb. 22 in Lecture Center 104 titled “The Struggle for CUNY.” It explained the history of the City University of New York (CUNY) and to inform students on the tools needed to fight social injustice.

“You have to be willing to challenge everything,” said Louis Reyes Rivera, a former CUNY student leader and member of the panel at the discussion. “Even the assumption that you have to go to school and pay for it.”

The event was spearheaded by third-year sociology and Black Studies major Jonathan Espinosa said the goal of organizers was to inform students of the possible fate of public institutions, to encourage student involvement and to show that Students of the Final Cut are in solidarity with SUFC.

SUFC is a student-led organization composed of a multi-campus collective of students who want the CUNY system to revert back to a tuition-free system. Some of the issues they tackle include racism, sexism and immigration rights.

SUFC member Domingo Estevez said the main goal for this organization is to “fight for people who are misinformed and miseducated.”

Three members of SUFC served as panel members at the discussion forum. The other two panel members were Rivera and Esperanza Marte. They are community leaders who were students fighting for public higher education in the past.

Rivera was a part of the student movement in 1968 and 1969 which led to an open admissions policy for all CUNY schools, a policy created to reduce discrimination in college admissions and allow Black and Latinos to have equal opportunity being admitted to CUNY schools. He said this action forced state universities to do the same.

He said the key to a strong student movement is to organize into groups and talk to other students about what they want to do and then to act on it.

Marte was a part of the 1989 and 1991 CUNY-wide student strikes against proposed tuition hikes and budget cuts. Her suggestion for creating and maintaining a student movement is to educate others and strategize. She also said it is essential to “understand and learn your enemy.” In order to convince students to organize, she said students must communicate with each other to find a common struggle.

Jason Javier, a member of SUFC [and the People Power Movement] the problem is corporate America said it is essential for students and the working class, especially those of color, to not only be activists but also organizers and to seize power.

“If you want to be free you need to make freedom happen,” said Marte.

Topics also included saving public institutions in higher education and the concerted attack on the working class and underprivileged.

Espinosa,  also a member of Students of the Final Cut, started the event off with a YouTube clip featuring high school students speaking about social injustice and the national movement to phase out public higher education.

CUNY schools were free institutions until 1976 when New York state and the CUNY board voted to impose tuition on these schools. These institutions were founded on the principle that “every person has a right to excellent and accessible free higher education,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

They discussed at the forum how they felt CUNY and SUNY institutions burden their students with loans as a result of tuition hikes, which they believe is not what SUNY or CUNY’s were designed to do.

“[Students] leave either through the front door with a degree in one hand and a debt in the other or the leave through the backdoor with no degree but a debt,” said Rivera. “That makes you an indentured servant.”

Rivera said CUNY and SUNY schools exist so the working class can have access to higher education.

The open admissions policy established at CUNY schools in 1969 had a huge impact. According to panelists, the number of people of color attending CUNY increased rapidly and it became the single largest degree-granting institution for Black and Latino students in the United States.

Within seven years of its passing, the CUNY board voted to impose tuition on CUNY schools.

Marte said there are many similarities between the CUNY student movement of today and those in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

“Things have not changed much,” said Marte. “The only difference is that there’s this illusion of social justice curriculums which are bullshit, they don’t exist.”

Maria Reyes, recent CUNY grad and a member of SUFC, said institutionalized and systematic racism is a major issue in public higher education. She said this is based on the fact that tuition was implemented just years after the representation of student of color in CUNY’s increased. Also because students of color are less likely to afford tuition hikes, they either opt out of attending school or they end up with an exorbitant debt from student loans.

She also mentioned there aren’t enough courses in academia that provide an alternate perspective.

“We want a truthful education that reflects [more than just] the European worldview,” said Estevez.

Rivera said white students should also be alarmed because “[they’re] being screwed over too just like the rest of us because they don’t matter either.”

Espinosa said SUNY students should be concerned with what’s going on in the CUNY system.

“[SUNY students] are [also] facing the same battle,” said Espinosa. “We’re organizing to protect public higher education.”