Op-Ed | Stop putting CUNY on the chopping block


The future of the university I have worked at for more than half a century is at risk and it makes no sense. The City University of New York (CUNY) serves more than 220,000 students and lifts more people out of poverty than all the Ivy League colleges combined. Despite the fact that colleges in the CUNY system have among the best returns on investment in the entire country,  CUNY has announced plans to slash the budgets of nine CUNY colleges, including mine, John Jay College of Criminal JusticeThese colleges apparently have the greatest deficits thanks to historic underfunding from the state and city, under enrollment that is now turning around, and recent severe cuts by Mayor Adams, a John Jay College graduate.             

In my decades teaching at John Jay and at the Graduate Center, CUNY has provided the inspiration and quality education for millions of students to fulfill their dreams and those of their parents. We educate the teachers and the techies, the lawyers and the historians, the nurses, and yes, the police. Our students not only achieve social mobility, but they also have the opportunity to explore new ideas and interests, leading to richer, more meaningful lives.

When the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action last year there was justifiable criticism of this decision because it would make it more difficult for students of color and students of limited financial means to attend elite institutions. But what was lost in that discussion was the fact that for decades, John Jay College and the 24 CUNY colleges and universities have been providing opportunity for advancement and success for significantly more such students. 

With one vital difference!  The elite institutions have the resources to ensure their students of color have access to small classes, well-paid professors, sufficient support staff, enough mental health counseling, career advising, and extramural activities to ensure that their students graduate on time and go on to their careers of choice. 

At private universities, famous and wealthy graduates contribute their name and their funds to support their alma mater. Columbia University, for example, has a massive $14.3 billion endowment and spent $2.3 billion on instructional expenses last year. The fact is John Jay and CUNY are not provided with this same level of funding. In fact, Mayor Adams, the CUNY graduate, has turned his back on his alma mater and repeatedly slashed this university that was a source of success for himself, his peers and for so many generations of New Yorkers.  Should our students at CUNY who are largely poor, immigrants, and students of color be singled out as unworthy of investment? They should not.

It is not possible in the short term to reverse the decision on affirmative action by the Supreme Court, but if we, as a society, are serious about our commitment to redress the racism and underfunding directed at our students, then the mayor and the City Council (and the governor and State Legislature) must provide the funding that CUNY needs to provide the same educational experience that students at elite institutions receive. And the CUNY administration should fight for that funding, instead of self-harming the institution with repeated cuts to our colleges.

In my 53 years at John Jay College and at CUNY I have seen several periods of budgetary challenges. I have also seen that disinvestment does not make sense as a short- or long-term solution. Our students surmount serious obstacles to succeed. For future generations and for even greater societal benefits, let’s make it easier, not harder, for our amazing students to thrive.

Gerald E. Markowitz is a Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and History at John Jay College and The Graduate Center, CUNY