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Students file lawsuit against CUNY tuition hike

Interview with plaintiff Frances Villar

On Dec. 17, six City University of New York students filed a lawsuit to stop an impending tuition hike. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against CUNY Board of Trustees include Frances Villar, Dwight Peters, Christian Peruyero, Lamont Oyewale Badru and Anthony Hang. Villar—who is also Executive Vice President of Lehman's Student Government and a member of CUNY's University Student Senate—sat down with Liberation to discuss the lawsuit and the potential for a revived student movement.

Frances Year in Review
Frances Villar

1.What is the nature of the lawsuit?


The lawsuit against the City University of New York Board of Trustees requests an injunction to counter parts of the illegal 7 percent tuition hike. I say illegal because under the state’s education laws, it is illegal to propose an increase outside the state budget.

At its November meeting, the Board of Trustees increased tuition 5 percent for Spring 2011. It further raised the tuition 2 percent effective Fall 2011, and also gave power to the Chancellor to increase it an extra 3 percent. Our lawsuit challenges these last two Board acts.

2. What has happened recently at CUNY with respect to tuition hikes or cutbacks?

CUNY is becoming more and more like a private institution, where the burden of education costs falls on the students. Since 2002, tuition has gone up 44 percent. Keep in mind that 38 percent of CUNY students come from families with household incomes of less than $20,000. So over time they are shutting out these poor and working-class students, who are disproportionately people of color.

To make matters worse, state and city assistance has also been cut. While the state has a Tuition Assistance Program, part-time students are ineligible, and the rules and regulations make it difficult to access.

In addition to the tuition hikes, the Board of Trustees is trying to increase entrance requirements, even for the community colleges. This is an attack at the open admissions mission of CUNY and the gains made in favor of access for Black and Latino students since 1968.

3. So now that they have been challenged by the lawsuit, how has the administration reacted? Have they tried to communicate with you directly?

They have not communicated with me directly. The administration of course has a huge team of lawyers to defeat the lawsuit and make sure the tuition hike goes through. But they have also met and arranged meetings with other members of the student government to discuss why the tuition increase is “so important” to CUNY.

I think it’s clear that they are scared of students rising up. They know what happened here in the 60s when students like us were fighting to open up admissions. They know about how students fought to defend Hostos Community College. They remember the mass rallies and campus takeovers in the 1980s and 90s. That’s what they are afraid of.

4. The student movement against education cuts has gone up and down quite a bit in the last two years. How do you account for this, and as a student activist, how do you see the CUNY struggle moving forward?

CUNY’s history is one of struggle, of students fighting to expand the university system, and make it fulfill its historic mission—which is to serve poor and working-class communities.

Of course, the student movement goes up and down. We have some particular difficulties in that there’s such a high turnover, so it’s harder to build continuity from one group of students to the next. Many students aren’t aware of that long history of struggle to expand CUNY, and so they think there’s nothing we can do.

The majority of students in CUNY are poor and working class, so we are more bombarded with personal and survival issues. We have a lot of family obligations. There are a huge number of immigrant students too—about 45 percent of CUNY students speak a native language other than English—and many are afraid that they will lose their access to higher education if they challenge the cuts.

Despite these obstacles, we are doing everything we can to revive the student movement. This tuition increase is connected to the overall struggle that’s going to heat up against cutbacks and layoffs, as well as the privatization of education. Just look at what’s happened recently in Britain, France and Greece. Students have been out in front saying “no” to all the cutbacks that are supposed to be inevitable.

Young working-class students see a job market that’s not getting better. We’ve been told our whole lives just to apply ourselves, work hard and it will pay off down the line. Right now people are frustrated that the system’s not fulfilling its side of the deal. It’s our job as activists to turn that frustration into action.

5. How does the lawsuit fit into that perspective?

The lawsuit is just a small step—one way to organize and show students that we are not powerless if we stick together. Of course we want the lawsuit to succeed, and we think it should, but the courts are not ultimately where working-class students have our strength. History has proven time and again that you need a political strategy, an organizing strategy, a movement—not just a legal strategy in order to affect meaningful change.

We hope the lawsuit will be one step in empowering the hundreds of thousands of CUNY students to mobilize and defend what is ours.

6. If people want to support the lawsuit, or get involved with that movement, what should they do?

We need to get organized. When we go back to school this semester, we need to go to our friends, and all the clubs, tell them about the lawsuit and ask them to get involved. Ask groups to hold meetings and forums about the tuition hikes. Pass out flyers. Students are always busy—and clubs have their own activities—but this affects all of us. If we don’t do anything now, this trend towards privatization will only increase. Anyone interested should also email us at [email protected] so we can coordinate, and share experiences and resources. Even if you’ve never been an activist before, this is a time you need to become one, and you can be.

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