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Where Do We Go From Here? Building Community in the Post-COVID Public University

Where Do We Go From Here? Building Community in the Post-COVID Public University

Like many people, I feel that my world has turned upside down. But has the world turned upside down? Yes, lots of things are very different today than they were three months ago--we no longer enter stores without masks on, go to cafes, or ride the subway at night. However, much remains the same. 

The coronavirus is not “the great equalizer” but rather an epidemic that strengthens the pre-existing structures of medical apartheid, economic inequality, and patriarchy, among others. In New York, as wealthy white people leave the city for summer homes in the Hamptons, the city’s frontline workers (nurses, delivery workers, food service workers--largely Black and Brown working class women) are made to risk their lives everyday. In the richest city in the richest nation in the world, many are made vulnerable to coronavirus due to a lack of healthcare access, an issue that remains unresolved 50 years after the campaigns of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. And many people in neighborhoods that are predominantly low-income or Black have pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma. Meanwhile, far too many of us in New York shrug as “backward” Southern states reopen, condemning people in the nation’s poorest and Blackest region to die. 

In higher education, many of these same dynamics are playing out. Some right wing state legislatures are mandating classes resume in person while banning the use of masks by professors--something that would be more shocking if they hadn’t already passed laws forcing campuses to allow for the open-carrying of guns. 

At CUNY, the public institution I attend in New York, the transition to online learning was made difficult by a lack of access to necessary things, such as internet, computers, and the time to study and attend class in a quiet space. It is also challenging to focus on academics in the midst of a pandemic when zoom classes begin with students recalling aunts and grandfathers in the hospital and dead and are set to the haunting tune of neverending sirens. CUNY will also face challenges in the eventual transition back to in person instruction as our campuses lack the appropriate facilities with cleanliness being a longstanding issue and the infrastructure being overcrowded (at Medgar Evers College they still use decades old temporary trailers). 

The crisis is also bringing CUNY to a place where many students, staff, and faculty are ready to abandon the status quo of the university. Some claim that it would be unfair to grade students like any other semester, as they face severe and uneven struggles in their lives right now. Because of this, the university is implementing an option CR/NC policy and many professors are choosing to give all of their students As. However, particularly at a school like CUNY, students have always faced significant struggles in their lives outside of the classroom, and grading has never been a fair form of assessment where everyone enters on an even playing field. Could this be the time we do away with grades for good? 

With the state and city’s economy in shambles, the university’s budget is likely to be cut upwards of 20% next year, even as enrollment is expected to increase at CUNY. To make up for the budget shortfall, thousands of already underpaid adjunct workers are being fired. Additionally, the Board of Trustees is likely to continue their decades-long project of increasing tuition which has been ramped up under Governor Andrew Cuomo. However, students find the idea of raising tuition at a primarily working class institution in the middle of an economic crisis absurd. Could this be the time we reject the logics of austerity and instead make CUNY a free institution funded fully by the state and city--a truly public university (with all of the problematic aspects of being a public institution in a settler colonial state)?

Cover image courtesy of Free CUNY




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