Top > Media > [Ministry of Information] vol.09


Ministry of Information

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor makes things happen and watches people in New York City and Budapest. Founding member of the Open University and of Think Tank X, artist and situation-maker, she teaches anthropology at Hunter College and Cooper Union in New York.

[Ministry of Information] vol.09



Report from the center of The Economic Crisis, or How Utopian Myopia can kidnap Free Education

Lately there has been student unrest at the anthropology department at the City University of New York (CUNY), from which I earned my PhD.  Students are "up in arms" about a number of issues, many of which they should rightly be disturbed by. Their intentions are good, but their "demands in the making" seem somehow to be missing their own point.  I can't help but think that the lack of coherence in their demands, for example their desire for more transparency about how and how much students in the department are funded, their concern about the treatment of minority, female and migrant students, a heightened concern about the institutional patterns of inequality, and their lust for "professionalization", strikes me as somehow an allegory of our time, here at the center of the world (economic crisis).

This department, at a public university, has earned a reputation as a bastion of Marxist thought for decades.  Faculty are firmly devoted to both the theorization of political and economic processes that contribute to inequalities, as well as the documentation of the effects and experiences of such conditions.  In the last decade, despite the constant threat of budget cuts to the City University of New York, the anthropology department has been able to offer scholarship packages to students that appear luxurious to those of us whose experience in the department preceded this fortuitous turn.  We had seen it as a good thing that these later students would have to work less as they made their way through the program.  Don't get me wrong, some of my contemporaries had full funding-from the university or even outside sources; many had partial funding; others had none at all. Although we all knew that, we seemed to all agree that we should not try to know exactly just how large the disparities were. What was important was that students were open and helpful with one another-they were academically generous with one another-in contrast to the fierce competitiveness of other "top" departments, where rumor has it, students did not tell each other their thesis topics, even.

So when one student stated that what his classmates are concerned about is "the ad hoc dispersal of department funds to some students" without "a formal application process", and contrasted it with the legitimacy of "official grant or fellowship process[es]", I could not help but want to shout out loudly that all funding is discretionary, unless all students are funded equally -unless attending university is free. Free tuition has up until recently been considered a right in many parts of the world. And it strikes me as very telling that this is happening as students are speaking out all over the world about the state of their universities. Indeed, at the very same moment as Croatian students are blockading the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb and twenty other faculties in eight cities around Croatia to demand THE RIGHT TO FREE EDUCATION!  And I can't help thinking that if these "leftist" graduate students at CUNY really want what they claim they want, they too should be demanding FREE PUBLIC EDUCATION. So why is it that students in a supposedly "leftist" department are taking a moral stance about the department alone when students around the world are taking a stance against a broader structural shift? Its not that the CUNY students don't recognize this structural shift, it's that they believe that the desired outcome will be achieved through their attempts to transform the department.  And in the act, their analytical lens follows a different path than their activism. The structural view of the transformations to "the University" under conditions of neoliberalization and financial crisis, to CUNY in its 150 year lifespan, to its elite institution, The Graduate Center, becomes somehow obfuscated in their localized and presentist narrative about the anthropology department at the CUNY Graduate Center

Founded in 1847 as "the Free Academy", The City University of New York provided free education for students until the mid 1970s. Tuition was imposed for the first time under the pretext of the fiscal crisis in 1976, the very same year that (thanks partly to the introduction of an open admissions policy) white students ceased to make up the majority of the incoming class. Enrollment dropped drastically. This year CUNY students were not even able to rally successfully to stop NY state from raising their tuition $600.00 this coming semester.  They do not recognize, or only in some kind of abstract historical narrative, that the fact of tuition is one root cause of the disparities both in the support they receive and in the representation of different populations in their departments. Take, for example, the sharp drop in the number of African American students at CUNY. From 1999-2005 African American student enrollment dropped from around 40 percent to about 30 percent at City College, from 20 percent to 15 percent at Hunter College, and from 24 percent to 14 percent at Baruch.  Exposing the funding disparities in the anthropology department will not serve to counter inequalities, and it may cultivate a lack of trust and suspicion that exists in other "top" departments.  If the students in the department would "turn left" and chisel away at the root of the problem by demanding a free education for all CUNY students, they would be doing justice to the legacy of the department and of the school, and to the larger questions of inequality that brought them to this particular moment in the bigger picture.

For information on the Croatian student movement:

Sign the petition for the right to higher education free of charge for all

For discussions of the state of higher education at the turn of the Millenium and efforts to combat it:


Mary Taylor