Tensions of austerity

I share Cathy Davidson’s love for community colleges. Within CUNY, they continue the tradition of open admissions, carrying on the legacy of the student movement of 1969 and one of the most radical experiments in the history of higher education in the United States, and community colleges across the country open their doors to students who are kept out of baccalaureate institutions. 

To a certain degree, I think she paints an accurate picture of community colleges like LaGuardia (which I agree is an exemplary institution). Yes, there are students who overcome great obstacles and make significant sacrifices to become the first in their family to attend college. There are absolutely phenomenal professors, including many who are more pedagogically focused than their senior college counterparts. The student centered peer mentorship programs and exceptional experimental theater productions do exist. 

However, decades of austerity have done extreme damage, at CUNY and elsewhere, as Steve Brier and Michael Fabricant make clear. Beneath the exuberance, I think this is present in Davidson’s chapter as well, for example the story of students walking from Flushing to LaGuardia and back could be seen as a policy failure as much as a personal triumph. The tension in this story, and perhaps within and between Austerity Blues and The New Education, is one that exists in CUNY. 

I found myself agreeing with a key point made by Davidson (and Mogulescu) and Brier and Fabricant, which is that it really does make a difference how much money is invested in the university, its students, and its workers. ASAP is a clear example of a common sense program (though a nonsensical one in a society dictated by neoliberal common sense) that costs money and achieves its intended results. The decision to cut funding for ASAP (and ACE) then is not due to the program’s failure, but rather it’s mission not being a priority in Albany. Without adequate funding, there’s only so much students, faculty, staff, and administrators can do, something i grapple with as I prepare to TA a seminar this spring at Guttman Community College that is overenrolled with 30 students. 

The last point I would like to make is about employment and the purpose of community college and CUNY. Mellow emphasizes that LaGuardia is not a jobs program, and its primary purposes are around critical thinking, citizenship, and humanism—essentially the values guiding a liberal arts education that are often seen as necessary for the rich but not the poor. From a slightly different perspective, Mogulescu concurs, arguing that CUNY does prepare its graduates for the workplace, however their inability to find jobs with decent salaries and benefits is a failure of employment policy and not education policy, a point I agree with. The likes of Cuomo disagree, however, tying student aid and scholarship dollars such as TAP and Excelsior to career oriented courses/majors and post-graduation employment. This brings me to my concluding question: should we highlight CUNY as an engine of social mobility when/if we make arguments for the university, and if so how? 

2 thoughts on “Tensions of austerity

  1. Katina Rogers (she/her)

    Great question, Lucien. It sometimes feels we have to enter capitalist logic (productivity, return on investment, etc) in order to advocate and make space for a system that resists that logic. Maybe tonight we can talk about things like the role of labor unions in bridging this divide.

  2. Matt Brim

    Lucien, I’ll repeat here my reply to David’s post. I’d love to hear how you negotiate these tensions for yourself and, perhaps especially, with your students.

    One of the real tensions at CUNY is trying to tell the story of what we do well and having to face the fact that we can’t do nearly as much as we could if the university was properly supported. It’s easy to tell either the “uplift” narrative or the “disinvestment” narrative, but the truth is that both narratives (and others) are always in play and in tension at CUNY. What are the stories that seem most important to weave together and why?

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