CUNY Union: Challenge Gratz?

I have written elsewhere on how academic unions tend to attract the most extremist voices even in an academy that overwhelmingly tilts to one side ideologically. Within the category of extremist academic unions, however, the CUNY union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), stands out.
Since 2000 headed by a faction called the New Caucus, the PSC has seemed to be far more interested in play-acting as 1960s radicals than in doing to hard work of negotiating or building popular support for higher education. The union leadership criticizes Israeli national security policy. It demands a return to the disastrous open admissions policy of the 1970s. Its president, Barbara Bowen, was the only New York union head to oppose military action against the Taliban in 2001. It has spent countless hours advocating for striking Stella D’Oro workers, or striking teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, or various other causes that have nothing to do with what’s supposed to be its central mission—ensuring the economic well-being of CUNY faculty and staff.
Yet even given this record, the PSC’s latest initiative is off the wall. The union leadership (whose president and vice-president are both white), has just announced that it :has convened an advisory group on CUNY and Race . . . to investigate the impact of racism and racial inequality within the University and without – as a possible factor in the history of public funding for CUNY.”

The PSC conceded that “the proportion of white employees is three or four percentage points lower than in 1997.” The union also recognized that “CUNY’s instructional staff is relatively diverse in comparison to many private universities.” These facts, having been presented, were quickly dismissed.
In a special comment (p. 12 on this link) on the initiative, Bowen went even further.
“Is there a connection,” she mused, “between the sharp decline in CUNY funding after the mid-1970s and the dramatic shift in CUNY’s student population following the introduction of open admissions in 1970?”
Bowen seems unaware of the nationwide decline in funding for public universities during this period—or, for that matter, the sharp decline in CUNY standards following open admissions, which persisted into the early 1990s and which doubtless prompted some legislators to wonder about the wisdom of throwing good money after bad.
Moreover, since the mid-1970s, New York has had five governors, four of them (Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, Eliot Spitzer, and David Patterson) Democrats from New York City. Is Bowen really suggesting that Mario Cuomo made it a priority of his dozen-year administration to lower funding for CUNY because of “the dramatic shift in CUNY’s student population”?
Bowen’s chief goal, however, is to use her rhetoric to impose a de facto quota in faculty hiring. “Should CUNY,” she asked, “hold itself to a higher standard than mere compliance with affirmative action laws?” Her answer is clearly yes, to fulfill her “dream that an antiracist university was possible.” (This, I suppose, is in contrast to such hotbeds of anti-black racism as Duke, Harvard, and Cal-Berkeley.)
Bowen wants a “dedicated hiring fund” to ensure that a teaching staff that reflects the composition of the student body—a goal that could only be met through quota hiring. (It should be noted, again, that the largely white union leadership doesn’t come close to reflecting the composition of the CUNY student body.) Moreover, the quota would have to constantly shift—in the 1990s, for instance, when the Russian immigration to New York peaked, the quota for Russians would have been much higher than today. How would these quotas be adjusted to reflect the realities of tenure? Bowen doesn’t say.
In any event, the PSC’s proposal is almost certainly a violation of Gratz v. Bollinger, in that it would mandate a de facto quota even while—according to the union’s own statistics—the number of white faculty at CUNY is falling. Perhaps Bowen’s real goal is to trigger a court challenge that would allow the Supreme Court to revisit Gratz, under the belief that Anthony Kennedy, having opposed quotas as recently as 2003, will suddenly discover the merits of overt racial preferences.
In the meantime, as we suffer through a deep recession, when hiring has slowed to a trickle, the CUNY administration is faced with the embarrassment of having to plead with the legislature for more money for new personnel, even as the head of its faculty union wants this money to go to an unconstitutional scheme that will fulfill her personal dreams of creating “an antiracist university.”


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

    View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *