Restoring the People’s Universities

tags: higher education, colleges and universities, Public College, State Colleges

Alejandra Marchevsky is professor and director of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and has published widely on the subject of gendered racism, poverty, and policy violence against Latinx immigrants in the United States.

Jeanne Theoharis is distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the award-winning author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.

On October 28, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt journeyed to Brooklyn to lay the cornerstone for a new college campus of the City University of New York. Speaking at the dedication of Brooklyn College, FDR made clear the reasons for investing in new CUNY campuses at a time of national economic uncertainty: “We not only have to put to work many thousands of good people who needed work; but we are also improving the educational facilities of this great Borough, not just today but for generations to come.” 

During the Great Depression, New York State and federal policy makers resisted pressure to cut services and invested in higher education instead, building three new CUNY campuses—Brooklyn College, Queens College, and Hunter College in the Bronx (which is now known as Lehman College)—a tremendous outlay that put people to work and expanded educational opportunities in the city. In Depression-era California, a similar initiative unfolded. Lawmakers transformed four existing teachers’ colleges into state colleges and opened the new 150-acre campus of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, laying the groundwork for the California State Universitywhich would grow into the nation’s largest public university system.

In 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill, which funded free college for more than ten million veterans during the following decade, radically expanding higher education in postwar US society. Once reserved for the elite, college access became a cornerstone of social citizenship and economic advancement for high school graduates, rural to urban, middle-class to poor. The New Deal thus set forth a philosophy that investing in the intellectual capital of the people extended security and prosperity for the nation as a whole. 

Today, at a moment rivaling the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression, after decades in which both political parties have pushed austerity and at a time when public and private universities face severe financial crisis, the New Deal is a crucial model of a very different and necessary approach. As we confront unemployment and stark inequality not seen since the 1930s, we again need a significant public investment in higher education to spur economic recovery and nurture more scientists, artists, teachers, and community organizers who can envision solutions to our global crisis. 

But the New Deal also provides a cautionary lesson. The people—the public—in whom the government invested were predominantly white. Many African American and Latino veterans were unable to access their GI Bill benefits for college (or homes) because of widespread discrimination in higher education and the real-estate industry across the country. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ratings, intended to enable banks to make more home loans, expanded white home ownership while institutionalizing racial segregation through the practice later known as “redlining.” The 1935 Social Security and National Labor Relations Acts excluded domestic and agricultural workers, a large percentage of whom were Black or Latino, from unemployment insurance and union protection. The New Deal transformed the fortunes of an entire generation of working-class white families. Yet, by making whiteness an unwritten prerequisite for access to public goods, it also widened the racial wealth and opportunity gap that continues to imperil higher education and US democracy in the twenty-first century.

Read entire article at AAUP

comments powered by Disqus