Thirty-three good people stood up for our future
When I was young, people who were committed to a cause did something about it. Recently, 33 outstanding, committed people were arrested for protesting outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. They were students, union leaders and professors who just couldn’t stand to see what is happening to the City University of New York. They are not alone in their concerns. The State University is also on the chopping block. Once the gateway into the middle class for many, CUNY and SUNY have been left gasping for breath because of draconian cuts in recent years. Parents who were counting on these two institutions to give their kids a chance in life are worried, and justifiably so. I attended Hunter College between 1959 and 1963 at no cost to my parents who did not have much. I owe a great deal of the rest of my life to the education I got there. I was pretty proud when Hunter put me on their Wall of Fame.
Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly, told me that his brother was the first one in his family to go to college. He went to Baruch College, a part of the city university. His family, too, had a better chance in life because of the city colleges and he would not allow anything to happen to CUNY and SUNY. Clearly, legislator Silver is in the fight of his life with Cuomo who will not even agree to continue a law insisting that millionaires pay a few bucks more in their income tax. That would go a long way toward finding more dollars to even things out between the rich and the far less rich. Cuomo has a 76 percent approval rating while Silver and his legislature are lower than a hounds belly in their approval numbers. I hope the parents in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Long Island remember who was helping them and who was selling out to curry favor with the rich.
When I went to Hunter, there was absolutely no tuition — nothing, nada, nunca. Today’s CUNY and SUNY colleges may be a relative bargain, but every time the tuition is raised or it gets harder to be accepted because the colleges can’t serve the same number of kids, some broken-hearted young person who might otherwise have found a place in society will be left out. The other night I gave a talk at the John Jay College and I watched the students filing in and out of the institution. They were truly a rainbow. They were every color and representative of New York’s ethnic tapestry. Their clothes weren’t much but they had made it this far. Their high school averages were high enough to get them in. You could see the intensity in their faces. They were on the success track. It made me both sentimental and sad because I knew what they were facing.
So what makes 33 good people from the City University travel to Albany and allegedly block access to the governor’s office? What made Gandhi do it? What made the folks in Selma do it? Why do people who protest unneeded wars that cost thousands of lives do it? Why does Pete Seeger at age 92 get out in the cold every weekend and hold up a sign that says, “Bring them home?” So these good people got arrested. They will probably get a slap on the hand, if that, but you never know. Would you do it to make sure that your kids had a chance? This stuff is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts. It takes principles.
I have taught at the State University for over 40 years and I always ask the kids in my classes how many are the first person in their families to go to college. In most classes, a majority of the students raise their hands. In the same classes, I’ll ask who has college loans to help pay their way. In most classes, every hand goes up. Our young people are our future, not our millionaires. Trust me — those with the most just don’t understand what is at stake. I hope you do. When the CUNY thirty-three go before the judge, I hope I can be there to applaud them for their guts.
Originally published by the Legislative Gazette, 3/29/11