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At the beginning of November, Cooper Union students held an "Open Forum" outside their Foundation building on Cooper Square. They didn't want to call it a walkout. For an afternoon, students and professors sat outside and huddled under blankets while doing homework and writing on a chalkboard. The issue: the suggestion by Cooper Union's president that the school might, for the first time in its history, have to charge tuition like other schools do. The walkout wrapped up later on indoors with a speech from new president Jamshed Bharucha.
Later that month, City University of New York students threw down with police during a rally at Baruch College, a few subway stops north of where the Cooper Union walkout had occurred. It was timed to coincide with a hearing of the CUNY board of trustees to discuss a new round of proposed tuition hikes. Students refused to leave the lobby of Baruch as the trustees met upstairs, and the police moved in. "We could hear the screams of people getting beat," says Fernanda Pardo, 23, a student organizer at John Jay College who was upstairs waiting outside the hearing. "We were hysterical and crying." Fifteen were arrested and detained.
Both protests were part of a current resurgence in student activism in New York that has coincided with the Occupy Wall Street action—there was also a short-lived New School occupation, and there has been some activity from something called NYU 4 OWS. The activism at New York City colleges is filling the void as OWS struggles to find its way, but it's taking different forms across town.
A large portion of Cooper's money comes from its real estate holdings, the value of which has been dropping. The school has had to resort to selling off assets and skimming off the principal of its endowment in order to continue its no-tuition policy.
Cooper senior Ryan Evell told the Voice last month that "if Cooper starts charging tuition, that would be as radical as Harvard saying that everyone who gets in gets a full scholarship." Evell also referred to the possible tuition charges as a "sad loss not just for New York but for the entire nation." But the school that's "as free as air and water" is the only one of its kind in the country, and its policy is starting to look quaint, especially for a small private school in the middle of an economic downturn.
A public institution designed to serve New York City's working class, CUNY hasn't been free since 1975, and it is increasingly less free as time goes on. The board of trustees approved a new set of tuition hikes on November 28, which will raise tuition by 31 percent over five years. This will manifest as a $300 increase each year.
Students at CUNY campuses saw the writing on the wall months ago and formed Students United for a Free CUNY over the summer. Their timing matched up to the origins of Occupy Wall Street, which in its early phase was a series of General Assemblies attended by organizers in Tompkins Square Park. The CUNY group consists of around 20 organizers from campuses across the city, including Pardo and Venetia Biney, a 22-year-old junior at Hunter College.
"I work full-time and go to school full-time," says Biney, a third-generation CUNY student. Of the tuition hikes, she said "it's going to affect me immensely because I don't have my mom and dad to rely on."
That's a common story at CUNY, where many, if not most, students are working one or multiple jobs on top of classes, like Sarah Pomar, 25, a junior sociology major at Hunter, who has two jobs and pays out of pocket for school. She has had to move back in with her parents.
"CUNY is a working-class public institution," Pomar says. "You can justifiably assume that a lot of students are experiencing a lot of financial hardship."
CUNY says it gives financial aid of some kind to 70 percent of full-time undergraduate students—but the 30 percent left over in a system that includes close to 500,000 people is considerable. And under the new rules, qualifying for financial aid will become more difficult. As an aside, it's worth noting that CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein's salary has nearly doubled in the past decade.
These are specific and targeted complaints directed toward a single entity, the type of messaging that Occupy Wall Street has famously never managed nor wanted to come up with. Pomar and others involved in Students United for a Free CUNY cited OWS as an inspiration, but not as a cause, for their actions against what Pardo called the "gentrification of CUNY."
"Occupy Wall Street provided a place for all these social justice movements to intersect and build," Pomar says. This has been on display at the CUNY protests, which lately include a strong union presence and a smattering of original Occupy Wall Streeters.
At the end of November, those unions and OWS people joined up with CUNY students for a large rally at Baruch while the board of trustees voted on the tuition hikes. The hikes passed. Meanwhile, students at Cooper Union organized an art show at the Foundation building about free tuition. It ran for four days to little buzz.
Even without better results, Fernanda Pardo, the John Jay student, feels encouraged. "People are starting to get the hint."