VICTORY AT HOSTOS

By Peter Hogness

 

CLARION

MAY 2001

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After a month of protests from students, faculty and staff, the president of Hostos Community College cancelled plans to drop the school’s lowest-level courses in English as a Second Language (ESL) and Spanish composition from the fall schedule. The action came on the heels of an on-campus confrontation between students and the New York Police Department.

“Action by students, the PSC chapter and college governance told the administration that they were out of sync with the rest of the campus,” said PSC Chapter Chair Lucinda Hughey. “Free speech, in more than one language, is alive and well at Hostos.”

PSC First Vice President Steve London said, “We had clear indications that there was pressure from 80th Street to implement the proposal.” But as a result of faculty, staff and student action, he said, “That was turned around.”

The idea of dropping the two courses, ESL 1315 and SPA 2221, goes back to last fall, when a four-person team appointed by Chancellor Matthew Goldstein completed a confidential report on proposed changes for Hostos, which has seen a decline in enrollment over  the last five years. The report concluded that Hostos could expand its “market share” through “redirecting some of its academic programs.” Among the changes recommended was that the college “eliminate the lowest ESL level,” as well as developmental instruction in Spanish, moving these students into the noncredit College Language Immersion Program (CLIP).

But CUNY’s central administration was not the only player that was looking at Hostos’s future. For the last five months chapter members and PSC officers have been back and forth between the campus and the union’s office, in ongoing meetings on how to deal with the loss in enrollment, curriculum issues and the overall direction of the college. Since February, union officers have raised Hostos issues with CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein in the monthly Labor-Management Committee meetings and urged him to come to the campus and meet with the college community. PSC officers discussed the cancellation of the two courses with Goldstein just hours before both were reinstated.


Students protesting at Hostos on May 10                 Picture Credit: Gary Shoichet

Students had also been speaking out, meeting with college administration and voicing their concerns about where Hostos is headed. “Whatever we’ve accomplished, it never would have happened without the students,” said Juan Preciado, chair of the college’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Hostos President Dolores Fernandez did not announce her intention to drop the two courses until early April, said the PSC’s Hughey. The move had “enormous implications,” she said, and the union had to respond immediately. Along with other chapter leaders and  London, Hughey met with Hostos administration to express the union’s opposition.

“The administration said that they were going to ‘suspend’ the two courses for the fall semester,” Hughey told Clarion, “and that later on in the fall they would bring this action to the College-wide Curriculum Committee and the Hostos College Senate for their approval.” In other words, she said, “They wanted to push it down our throats and later go through governance and have us rubber-stamp it.”

“That’s what had everybody so upset,” said Preciado. “How can this just be a proposal when you already took the action?” Preciado, members of the counseling department and other faculty members formed a committee to develop an alternative proposal, while students, faculty and staff began organizing against the move to axe the courses.

“The removal of these courses from the college means the removal of these students from the college, thereby violating the principle of open admissions,” said a resolution passed by both the Hostos PSC chapter and by the College Senate in late April. Both bodies called for a moratorium on the suspension of the two classes, an idea that was a joint student-faculty initiative. “The moratorium was a proposal that I made together with Professor Gerry Meyer,” said Oscar Paul, president of the Hostos Student Senate and president-elect of the school’s Student Government Organization (SGO). The point, he said, was that “President Fernandez cannot remove the class before consulting with students, faculty and staff.”

The growing opposition led to a special forum on May 3, sponsored by the College Senate, that drew close to 300 people. “The only person who spoke in favor of suspending these two courses was the college president,” said the PSC’s Hughey. Student leader Paul made what many described as a potent—and high-risk—threat: “I said at that meeting that if students do not receive this ESL course, we will not register in the fall—we will boycott.” Hughey called it “a heavy-duty thing to suggest,” but something that the administration could not afford to ignore.

Paul explained that “this was not for ourselves, but for the people who are coming behind us,” noting that most students taking these courses next fall would be new to the college. “We want the people coming from our communities to have the same opportunities that we did,” he said. “If Hostos didn’t open up this opportunity to me, I would not be able to speak to you in English today.”

By the following week President Fernandez said she was “reconsidering” the idea of dropping the two courses in the fall, but would not make a clear commitment. And so on May 9 students organized a demonstration to demand that the two courses be retained.

They began by circulating through the halls of Hostos, stopping at different classrooms and inviting other students to join them. Eventually a crowd of about 60 headed for President Fernandez’s office to demand a meeting. Fernandez, they were told, was not on campus. The students turned back down the hall—and that’s when Lieutenant Joseph Dowling of the NYPD entered the picture.

Dowling, who was reportedly on campus to take part in a seminar on domestic violence, had followed the protesters to the president’s office. When they left, students say that Lt. Dowling tried to grab hold of Oscar Paul. A press release from the Student Government Organization charges that Dowling was attempting an arrest—and that he drew his gun.

While Paul himself would not comment on the incident, his attorney, Ron McGuire, said, “There are plenty of students who were witnesses to the gun. I’ve talked to several and their stories are very consistent.” McGuire said that “Oscar will be pursuing his legal remedies.”

Sergeant Gerry Falcon of the NYPD’s Department of Public Information denied that Lt. Dowling’s gun had ever left its holster, saying that the object in his hand was a walkie-talkie. She told Clarion that Dowling had not attempted an arrest, but had approached Oscar Paul because he was a leader of the demonstration. By all accounts the protest was loud but peaceful—but according to the police spokeswoman, Lt. Dowling “intended to tell them that if this group continued to act in a disorderly fashion, they would be subject to arrest.” The crowd of students would not let Dowling move closer, she said—and with students “closing in” around him, the lieutenant radioed for backup.

According to Hostos Security, Lt. Dowling acted without any request or authorization from Hostos officials—an apparent violation of both CUNY and NYPD policies. Several officers raced to the campus in answer to Dowling’s call and entered Building A, where the president’s office is located. By that time students had reassembled outside, and the protest continued all afternoon and into the night.

The next morning, PSC officers met with CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. about the cancellation of the two courses, and formally repeated the request that Goldstein come to Hostos and meet with faculty, staff and students. “The union questioned him on who had called police the day before, on who had the authority to do that,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “We made it clear that this was of grave concern.” Goldstein promised a report on the incident, and said it would be made available to the PSC.

Thursday afternoon students demonstrated against the plan to cut the courses—and against the police action the day before. “¡Somos estudiantes, no somos criminales!” they chanted—we are students, not criminals. “We are not delinquents, we are working,” Oscar Paul told Clarion. “The people who go to Hostos are mothers who have two, three children. They are students who are working very hard in factories, who want the opportunity to do something in their lives.”

Later that day students met with President Fernandez—and learned that she had shifted her position. Reading from a prepared statement, Fernandez said, “The Hostos community has spoken and their voices have been heard. As a result, it has become clear that we all need time to discuss and analyze the problems confronting Hostos at greater length.” Fernandez pledged that ESL 1315 and SPA 2221 would both be offered—at least for this fall.

“We are extremely happy for this victory,” declared a student government statement. But student leaders also warned that many issues were still unresolved, and that they were prepared to return to protest.

The bottom line, said the PSC’s Hughey, is that decisions of such importance must be made with the input of the college community as a whole. “Eugenio María de Hostos Community College is not a site to be colonized by 80th Street or anyone else,” she said. “Neither faculty nor students are to be disrespected by others who sneer that we can’t do it right. We are to be heard—and at last our administration is listening.”