Last Monday, February 10th, over 100 Hunter College students stormed the office of college president Jennifer Raab to protest what they deemed to be a “war budget,” after she refused to speak to them.
The students demanded that Raab acknowledge the link between the threat of war in Iraq and the proposed cuts to CUNY, financial aid and the tuition hike included in Governor Pataki’s proposed budget. They called for her to make a statement against both.
The new budget includes $82 million in cuts to CUNY, $161 million in cuts to the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), and cuts to funding for the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) Program by 50 percent. The budget also calls for the Board of Trustees to raise tuition by as much as $1200.
“We had planned to go up to Jennifer Raab’s office and asked her to state her position on tuition hikes. We wanted her to state that she was opposed to the tuition hikes, the war, and that she saw the connection between them,” said Tamieka Byer, a Hunter College senior and the assistant project coordinator for the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM!), which organized the protest. “Over 100 students came, we tried to speak to her, and she made a speech completely irrelevant to our topics and then ignored many of the students and walked away. She didn’t respond to any of the demands.”
One of those demands was a call for an open forum where students,faculty and administrators could meet to openly discuss their opinions on the war, whether they were for or against it. According to Byer, after they were unable to speak with the president, 20 students made the decision to spend the night at Raab’s office and attempt to speak with her the following morning.
“She refused to meet with the students, despite the statements she made that day to the media about creating an open dialogue,” Byer said. “The next morning she refused to even take our list of demands, and threatened arrest for the 20 students present.”
According to Byer, 9 of those students chose to risk arrest and were confronted by approximately 17 police and campus police. The situation was only resolved when another dean spoke to Raab, expressing that the students posed no real threat. Raab then agreed to take the proposal for an open forum, but not the list of demands. The members of SLAM! gave her until this past friday to respond to their demands and call for an open forum, which she did in a five-page written response addressed to the Hunter College community.
In that response, Raab expressed that Hunter was indeed opposing the cuts in the tuition assistance programs.
“Hunter will take a leadership role in lobbying vigourously in opposition to proposed reductions in tuition assistance programs,” Raab said in her statement. “Specifically, we are opposed to proposed reductions in funding for CUNY, and are particularly distressed about the proposed cuts in TAP and SEEK programs.”
The statement went on to describe the importance of both the TAP and SEEK programs to Hunter students, and encouraged students to be active in writing to officials and politicians in opposition to the cuts. Raab also outlined how the administration was working to both increase private donations as well as researching possible alternative ways for students to fund their education.
“At Hunter, we will also do all we can to use our limited funds to support teaching and learning student services,” Raab said, in the statement. “We have frozen administrative hiring and will continue to find ways to cut costs and increase savings in administrative areas.”
However, on the issue of the war in Iraq, Raab expressed concern over taking a firm stand on the issue.
“As President, I have worked hard to ensure the campus is a safe space for people to speak out and air differing views … Many have told me it would be inappropriate for me to take a public position on this conflict,” Raab said. “I have been meeting with groups of students over the past few weeks and it is clear that there is no consensus about the prospect of war and the difficult questions that factor into the debate.”
Byer criticized Raab’s refusal to either express a view or hold the open forum requested.
“She wrote a 5-page response to our proposal, and totally ignored and went around our request for the open forum,” Byer said. “Yet, she talked about how she wanted to facilitate discussion.”
Byer explained that in the past, CUNY presidents have signed on to student demands, expressing opposition to budget cuts or even the war in Vietnam. Byer said that some of those presidents with less influence were fired for expressing those views.
“The ones that were fired did not have a lot of connections. Raab does,” Byer said. “She wasn’t democratically elected as president. She was eliminated in the first round of the selection process. She was re-nominated at the last minute and elected over the other two finalists. So, there is already a history of not respecting student voices. The committee electing her was staff, faculty, and students, and that democratic voice was taken away.”
The University has decided not to pursue any action against the students who participated in the protest. No Hunter official was available for comment at press time.
Byer did say that she felt the response from the student body had been very positive.
“Honestly, its been a predominately positive reaction. One of the downsides to being a NYC student is that you have to commute, you have to work and exist in the real world while trying to maintain a 4.0 average. In that rigamarole, you get apathetic, and it’s hard to break out of that routine. For a lot of Hunter students, this was a wake up call. Know about the war, Know about the tuition hikes.”
Archived article by Gautham Nagesh