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City Tech Library Exhibits

This guide is an archive of past and present City Tech Library Exhibits..

CUNY’s Open Admissions Strike of 1969

CUNY’s Open Admissions Strike of 1969

1969 protest at CUNY

Open Admissions Protest

 

The Open Admissions Strike of 1969 was a dramatic event that radically transformed CUNY. In 1969, a group of City College of New York (CCNY) students occupied campus buildings. CCNY was 97% white despite being in Harlem. Students demanded that the college reorient towards Harlem’s communities of color. They also demanded an education that valued and reflected their diverse backgrounds. Other CUNY campuses were shut down in solidarity, buildings were set on fire, and the police were called in to quash riots. In the end, CUNY students fought for and won change. Their persistence forced CUNY to negotiate their demands, and their protest led to a new open enrollment policy.

CUNY had a reputation for student activism before 1969. In the 1930s and 40s, the colleges that would become CUNY, were major centers of student activism. Many students had Eastern European and Italian immigrant backgrounds that embraced trade unionism and social protest. During the 1950s, CUNY was one of the few places where students on the left in the United States dared to organize openly and in the turbulent 1960s, CUNY became a focus of student protest.

Before 1964, CUNY’s faculty and students were almost totally white. In 1965, CCNY initiated the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) program with 105 Black and Puerto Rican students. SEEK gave under-represented students support in the form of tutoring, financial assistance, etc. By 1966, SEEK was established CUNY-wide, and by 1968, 1500 students were enrolled.

The Black and Puerto Rican students in the new CCNY SEEK program had been selected because of their promise but were treated as second-class. Although small in number, these students were extremely organized, and supported by a group of Black and Puerto Rican faculty.

In January 1969, Governor Rockefeller proposed slashing SEEK and reducing CUNY admissions. On February 13, leaders of Black and Puerto Rican student organizations occupied the office of CCNY President Gallagher and presented their demands:

  • That a School of Black and Puerto Rican Studies be established.
  • That a separate orientation program for Black and Puerto Rican students be established.
  • That students be given a voice in the administration of the SEEK program.
  • The number of minority freshmen in the entering class reflects the 40-45 ratios of Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the total school system.
  • That Black and Puerto Rican history be compulsory for education majors and that Spanish language courses be compulsory for education majors.

In March, the State Legislature passed a budget incorporating most of Rockefeller’s cuts. In response, President Gallagher submitted his resignation. He wrote:

“I am now asked by officers of government to stand in the door and keep students out. I shall not accede, I will not do it. I will not turn my back on the poor of all races. I will be unfaithful to none of my brothers, black or white. Is this to be the final word from the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in the world? Instead of serving as a lackey of political expediency and fiscal timidity, I want to be free to fight the battles and for freedom and justice and brotherhood.”

On Monday, April 21, almost a thousand Black and Puerto Rican students marched across campus, closing entrances and seizing buildings. Over the next week, actions spread across CUNY campuses. Queensborough Community College students held a sit-in, and Brooklyn College and Queens College students staged large rallies. As the occupation continued, increasing pressure was put on Gallagher to call in the police. On May 1, he was served with two orders to show cause for closing, and the next day, he was ordered to re-open the college. Gallagher ignored the orders and called for a faculty meeting. An agreement was reached on meeting student demands on May 4, but negotiations were interrupted when students were served with injunctions.

Over the next several days, fights broke out between Black and white students, and the police were called in to occupy the college. On May 8, while fighting between students continued, the police targeted Black and Puerto Rican students and their white allies for arrests. Fires were set around campus in response. The following day, the Board of Higher Education reversed its previous position and promised to meet the students’ demands, including Open Admissions. They realized that there would be no peace until they acted.

In addition to Open Admissions, CUNY agreed to expand the SEEK program and to establish more Ethnic Studies programs. CUNY quickly became the largest degree-granting institution for Black and Latino students in the United States. The student body doubled within a year, and soon became majority people of color. The Open Admissions Strike enabled thousands of New Yorkers, primarily people of color, to pursue educational opportunities previously out of reach.

For more on this fascinating episode of CUNY history, check out the CUNY Digital History Archive’s online materials about the Open Admissions Strike.