Authors’ Picks: Reading lists from World Voices Festival authors

This spring, students in Michael Yarbrough’s research colloquium at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice—one of City University of New York’s 25 campuses—embarked on a project not anticipated in the original course syllabus: to catalogue the number of people affiliated with CUNY whose lives had been claimed by coronavirus.

By April 17, Yarbrough reported the deaths of at least five full- and part-time faculty members and six staff members in the New York Daily News. On June 23, Inside Higher Ed reported that the total had risen to 38. These numbers don’t reflect experiences like that of the administrator I know who—while herself hospitalized with the virus, which she survived—said goodbye over the telephone to each of her parents, who both spent their final moments alone in hospital beds among masked and shrouded strangers.

While precise figures are not available, the impact of COVID-19 on CUNY’s 275,000 students has also clearly been massive. Some have died, some have spent weeks in the hospital, others have been desperately ill at home under quarantine for weeks, and all are confronting the ongoing economic catastrophe precipitated by the pandemic.

A powerful essay in The New Yorker by another colleague, Corey Robin of Brooklyn College, argues that now is the time to fund schools like CUNY more fully than ever. A landmark 2017 study, led by economist Raj Chetty, found that among the 10 colleges in the United States that most effectively combat income inequality by lifting students out of lower-income backgrounds, five are part of CUNY. Yet, in the aim of enhancing socioeconomic diversity in higher education, a former mayor of New York recently gave $1.8 billion not to CUNY, but to his alma mater in Baltimore—a private institution with an undergraduate population of about 6,000. Given the billions in lost tax revenue to the state this spring, massive cuts to the always shoestring CUNY budget are very likely, and layoffs are already happening.

No statistic can do justice to CUNY’s history, stature, and contributions. “Its diversity represents a wealth that transcends any fiscal metric,” Ben Lerner, also of Brooklyn College, wrote in his anti-austerity clarion call in The New York Times. Jonas Salk, born in New York City in 1914—a child of immigrant parents without much formal education—graduated from CUNY and went on to develop the polio vaccine. The poet Ocean Vuong, the first literate person in his family, graduated from CUNY and won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018. One of the things that has uplifted me most this spring is a CUNY music video in which faculty at the Bronx Community College took to Zoom to hearten their students with a reworked Gloria Gaynor hit.

What follows is a reading list of books connected in some way both to CUNY, where I’ve taught since 2007, and to the forces within New York City—past and present—that built and sustained this great urban university. There are many books that deserve to appear on such a list. These are the ones that happen to be on my mind just now.
—Esther Allen