Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn Colege and the CUNY Graduate Center, argues that this is the time to resurrect public colleges and 7ni ersities.

Writing in The New Yorker, Robin points out that most commentary in the media pertains to elite institutions, and public universities are stepchildren or forgotten.

For decades, a handful of boutique colleges and powerhouse universities have served as emblems of our system of higher education. If they are not the focus of discussion, they are the subtext, shaping our assumptions about the typical campus experience. This has remained true during the pandemic. The question of reopening has produced dozens of proposals, but most of them are tenable only for schools like Brown; they don’t obtain in the context of Brooklyn College. The coronavirus has seeded a much-needed conversation about building a more equal society. It’s time for a similar conversation about the academy.

In academia, as in the rest of society, a combination of public and private actors directs wealth to those who need it least. While cuny struggles to survive decades of budget cuts—and faces, in the pandemic, the possibility of even more—donors lavish elite colleges and universities with gifts of millions, even billions, of dollars. Sometimes these donations fund opportunities for low-income students, but mostly they serve as tax-deductible transfers to rich, private institutions, depriving the public of much-needed revenue. What taxes federal and state governments do collect may be returned to those institutions in the form of hefty grants and contracts, which help fund operating budgets that Brooklyn College can only dream of. This is the song of culture in our society. The bass line is wealth and profit; the melody is diversity and opportunity.

Yet, for all the talk of the poor and students of color at the Ivy League, the real institutions of mobility in the United States are underfunded public universities. Paxson [the president of Brown University] may believe that “a university campus is a microcosm of any major city in the U.S.,” as she told NPR, but CUNY is no microcosm. With nearly two hundred and seventy-five thousand students and forty-five thousand staff—a population larger than that of many American cities—it is what the Latin root of the word “university” tells us higher education should be: the entire, the whole. More than seventy-five per cent of our undergraduate students are nonwhite. Sixty-one per cent receive Pell Grants, and the same percentage have parents who did not graduate from college. At City College and Baruch College, seventy-six and seventy-nine per cent of students, respectively, start out in the bottom quintile of the income distribution and wind up in one of the top three quintiles. For hundreds of thousands of working-class students, in other words, a cash-starved public university is their gateway to the middle or upper-middle class.

Beyond opportunity, institutions like CUNY offer a vision of education that is less about credentials than about the deep contact—and conflict—between reading and experience that is the essence of culture. On most élite campuses, undergraduates are eighteen to twenty-two years old. At cuny, more than twenty-five per cent of undergraduates are twenty-five or older. Our campuses are not cloisters; they’re classrooms out of the pages of Plato and Huey Newton, where philosophy is set in motion in and by the street. Like other public colleges and universities, cuny is a mustard seed of intellectual life, a source of reinvention and renewal. If we are to endure this crisis—and, later, to learn from it—some of our most original thinkers and leaders will come from schools like City College…

During the Depression, the New York municipal-college system opened two flagship campuses: Brooklyn College and Queens College. These schools built the middle class, took in refugees from Nazi Germany, remade higher education, and transformed American arts and letters. In 1942, Brooklyn College gave Hannah Arendt her first teaching job in the United States; an adjunct, she lectured on the Dreyfus affair, which would figure prominently in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In the decades that followed, cuny built more campuses. Until 1976, it was free to all students; the government footed the bill.

What prompted this public investment in higher education was neither sentimentality about the poor nor a noblesse oblige of good works. It was a vision of culture and social wealth, derived from the activism of the working classes and defended by a member of Britain’s House of Lords. “Why should we not set aside,” John Maynard Keynes wondered in 1942, “fifty million pounds a year for the next twenty years to add in every substantial city of the realm the dignity of an ancient university.” Against those who disavowed such ambitions on the grounds of expense, Keynes said, “Anything we can actually do we can afford.” And “once done, it is there.”

Public spending, for public universities, is a bequest of permanence from one generation to the next. It is a promise to the future that it will enjoy the learning of the present and the literature of the past. It is what we need, more than ever, today. Sending students, professors, and workers back to campus, amid a pandemic, simply because colleges and universities need the cash, is a statement of bankruptcy more profound than any balance sheet could ever tally.