A Sympathy Inducing Reminder Of Basic Human Wants

A few years ago, a young union organizer stopped by my office to talk with me about an upcoming campaign of activism directed at CUNY administration. As we spoke, I felt increasingly impatient. I didn’t need to be ‘organized’; my participation in the activities planned by the union was a foregone conclusion; this young man was preaching to the converted. I tried to indicate as much so that his energies could be more usefully utilized elsewhere, but he was undeterred; it was quite clear he–a novice activist–was working with a script, and was going to stick to it to no matter what. Finally, struggling to keep my irritable disposition under control, I brought the meeting to a close, and ushered him out. Later, still put off, I commented to a friend of mine on how the young organizer needed to ‘get his act together.’

A couple of weeks later, walking through campus, I saw the same young man sitting by himself, eating a sandwich for lunch. My initial reaction on seeing him had been to hope that he would not catch sight of me and launch into his organizing spiel. But as I looked at him, quietly working his way through his solitary meal, an entirely different emotion ran through me, one that replaced the irritation I had come to associate with him.

I felt, most of all, a curious emotion that I can only describe as a hybrid of sympathy, pity, and affection; it might be the feeling that courses through us when we see a small child playing by itself. Strangely enough, as I looked at that young man, I felt protective of him. I felt too, regret at yet another failure of kindness, even if not overtly expressed; I had not been accommodating and understanding enough of his enthusiasm for his work, of his naiveté and sincerity. I felt ashamed I had ever thought so harshly of him, spoken so unkindly about him. I had been impatient and dismissive; he had merely been doing his job even if one could quibble with his tactical allocation of effort.

This change in my perception of this young man had been brought on, I think, by witnessing him at a moment of acute vulnerability. He was all alone, engaging in an act that all humans engage in,  eating a meal. Somehow the simple business of quietly eating a sandwich in solitude had reminded me of his humanity. When I had encountered him in my office, he had been a pesky irritant, diverting me from my work, subjecting me to an argument the contours of which I knew too well. Here, all that was gone; now, there was only a young man nourishing himself. All alone. Somehow, at that moment, he became just another person trying–imperfectly, at the best of times–to find his way in this world, all the while not free of his most basic human wants. Here, by himself, he was taking care of them.

At that moment, that little glimpse of that young man was all that was needed for me to see him in an entirely new light. My old feelings could resurface were I to encounter him in a similar context, but perhaps then, hopefully, they would be tempered by the knowledge of the sensations that I had just experienced.

The Deadly Self-Pity Of The Police

In 1997, as a graduate teaching fellow, I began teaching two introductory classes in philosophy at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Many of my students were training for careers in criminology and law enforcement. Some hoped to join the FBI, yet others, the New York City police force. And, as I had been told (warned?) some of my students were serving NYPD officers, perhaps hoping to become detectives, gain added educational qualifications and so on. In my first semester, I did not meet any of these worthies.

A few weeks into my second semester, soon after I had finished teaching for the night, a student walked up to me, asked me a couple of questions about the material I had just covered and then introduced himself. He was a serving officer in the NYPD, working in a Brooklyn precinct. We chatted for a bit, and then as I headed out to the subway station to take a train home, he accompanied me. At the station he indicated he could wave me through with his card, but feeling uneasy, I politely declined and said I would use a subway token instead. Shortly thereafter we said goodnight. From that night on, after the end of class, he would sometimes accompany me to the station; we would chat about his educational plans and of course, his work at the precinct.

1997 was the year that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been assaulted and sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by the NYPD after being arrested outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush. That incident had sparked angry demonstrations and the same old calls for reform of the NYPD, for an inquiry into race relations in New York City. (Incredibly enough, the officers who assaulted Louima would go on to serve time.)  That fall, that incident was something my new ‘friend’ returned to again and again. It made him ‘unhappy.’

Not because he felt for Louima. Not because he sympathized with a man who had been beaten and raped by the police. Not because he felt for the mothers of the black and Latino men who had been shot dead or assaulted by the NYPD. Not because he thought that communities of color were unjustly targeted by the police. None of that that bothered him. What bothered him was something else altogether. Now, the people of the borough didn’t ‘respect the police’. They were ‘disrespectful.’ They walked by the precinct waving broom handles at the police, shouting angry slogans, reminding the police of the night that another  broom handle had been used to commit sexual assault on someone like them. It was so ‘hurtful’ to see that kind of contempt, that kind of language directed at policemen, who were after all, only trying to ‘do their jobs.’

I was talking to a man who seemed curiously consumed by self-pity. He was not happy his profession was being maligned, but he didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with the way his colleagues–other than a few bad apples, who he wanted to disown all too quickly–behaved with the communities they policed. The police were the real victims here, unfairly made to bear the brunt of a community’s wrath. Louima might have suffered one night, but all the agitators and demonstrators–sometimes folks who didn’t even live in Brooklyn!–were now making life oh-so-difficult for the rest of the police, forced to deal with this daily reminder of their brutality.

What makes policemen really dangerous, I think, is that their implements of destruction do not end with the deadly firearms that they discharge so easily and so carelessly. They carry around too, a toxic mix of self-pity, righteousness, and resentment at a deliberately obtuse world. When they walk the streets, they do not see a ‘community’ around them; they see the sullen, non-compliant subjects of their policing. They are convinced of the rightness of their actions; if they are ever subjected to critique then it must be flawed, infected with an ignorance of the nature of police work. They are mystified and angry. They seek to bring ‘these people’ law and order; why don’t they encounter more welcoming behavior? My ‘friend’ was caught up in this mystery. He could not fathom how the folks who said the police were ‘pigs’ could not separate out the good from the bad, how they could not exercise a discrimination finer than the one they put on display.

In this attitude, urban police forces in America today are very much like occupying and colonial forces elsewhere: they are puzzled why the occupied are not more grateful for the benefactions of the armed forces that stride through their neighborhoods, stopping and frisking, getting young men up against the wall, stamping out ‘disorder’, showing by their body language and their voices that they are armed and dangerous and will not tolerate dissent in any form. And just like those forces the police  ask again and again: Why do they make us hurt them so? Why do they make us do the things we do?

Is there anything more deadly than self-pity, the conviction that you have been sinned against, and the right to use arms?



The New American Dream: Becoming An Academic Administrator

Go West, young man; or perhaps, go into plastics. And now, go become an academic administrator.

The City University of New York’s new chancellor, James Milliken, will soon be drawing upon his $670,000 salary. When he does so, he’ll be able to entertain guests in style at his $18,000 a month apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan–paid for by CUNY (they did set aside 3.7 million dollars for his housing budget). His predecessor, Matthew Goldstein, is still making $300,000 a year in his emeritus position; perhaps offering sage advice to future presidents on how to make sure they come away with a really good retirement package.

Meanwhile, tuition rises, our classrooms continue to decay, faculty remain jammed into small offices, often four at a time. Our network connections remain glacial; journal subscriptions are cancelled every year for lack of funds; book budgets shrink; travel funds for conferences are routinely denied to even those who make presentations.  Full-time faculty are being steadily replaced by part-time adjuncts who make slave wages, receive no health benefits, and do not have an office or a phone. And there has been a freeze on wages for four years–at CUNY–because the contract expired that many years ago. (At Brooklyn College, I share a two-room office with three other faculty members; we ask for staggered teaching schedules so that we can, when needed, conduct conversations with our students in private. A dirty pool of reddish liquid appears to have seeped into our office and despite two calls to facilities to clean it up, the stain remains. Meanwhile the Dean for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences works in a three-chamber, wall-to-wall carpeted office, complete with attached conference room and multi-person secretarial staff).

There is an old joke about private universities which continues to make the rounds: they are real estate companies and investment houses that award degrees on the side. Their rent-seeking disease appears contagious: public universities want in on the act. They want to raise tuition and hire ever more administrators, who delight in walking into meetings with faculty, armed with the latest anti-tenure, anti-liberal arts education screed penned by a management consultant wanna-be, and telling them what time it is.  They want to hobnob with the rich and famous; sometimes they invite those who only recently strode the corridors of power, hoping that they will build networks of influence that will secure them well-paid lectures on the speaking circuit.

The new career path for those looking to make some serious bucks in academia looks something like this: get tenure; slowly work your way into administration, taking on one of those responsibilities that grant you release time from teaching and research; build up a portfolio of administrative accomplishments; indicate your desire to do this work full-time; work your way up to becoming a provost or a dean, ideal springboards for more senior positions; make a lateral move to accomplish this if necessary; the big prize, a university presidency will hopefully soon be yours.

Normally, this state of affairs would be a scandal. But this is a new America: bloated and bureaucratic and too-big-to-fail.

Sweatshops below; swank above. USA! USA! USA!


NYPD to CUNY Students: Drop Dead

Corey Robin has an excellent post on the latest twist in the ‘General Petraeus at CUNY‘ fubar situation: students protesting Petraeus’ presence at CUNY are treated, first, to a tongue-lashing by various CUNY administrators including the University Faculty Senate, and then, when six of them are arrested, manhandled, and have the book thrown at them by New York City police, the same folks shrink into stony silence.

I don’t have anything to add to Corey’s perspicuous analysis of CUNY administrators’ continued kowtowing to the powers that be. I do, however, want to make a few remarks about what this incident shows about CUNY students and their relationship with New York City police and the rest of the city.

When videos of the CUNY students’ arrest first became available, angered by what I had seen, I posted a link to the video on Facebook and added the following intemperate status:

NYPD’s thugs are back in action. At :33 you can see four of the City’s finest holding down a student while one punches him in the back [addendum: to be more precise, in the kidneys]. And for sheer porcinity it’s hard to beat that thug at 1:44.

Unsurprisingly, when the same video made the rounds of many other sites, opinions on the police’s actions were split roughly evenly between reactions like mine, which see these actions as yet another instance of heavy-handed policing, and others, which amounted to describing the students as scruffy hooligans, not fit to lick Petraeus’ boots, who needed the ass-whipping that had been sent their way by New York’s Finest.  This contrary reaction is, as noted, hardly noteworthy.

What, I think, is more problematic, is that New York’s police force, which is, I think, drawn from the same demographic as most CUNY students are, seem to hold the same blinkered opinion about them; they do not, now–having made it through the police academy, and become part of the Grand American Correctional Apparatus–feel any solidarity with them.  They are committed now to protecting the Powerful and manning their barricades; they see no resonance in the struggles of these students, not even on behalf of their own children, who in all probability will attend the same city university. Surely, they aren’t dreaming that their salaries will enable them to climb up this American ladder, whose rungs are disappearing upward quicker than ever, and allow them to pay the tuition at one of those swanky schools that the plutocrats’ children go to?

The police is a unionized force made up of working class folks; its struggles should be seen by them as existing on a continuum with those of the students who attend a public university like CUNY.  But so successful has the brainwashing and indoctrination of the police been, that every time they step out, booted, uniformed, swaggering and strutting on a city street, swinging their night-sticks, and see a ‘long-haired punk,’ they fail to recognize a little bit of themselves. With every blow they hand out to a protester, they merely ensure that their miserable state of endless precinct-centered resentment and bitterness will continue.

The pity is that they don’t suffer alone; they make the rest of us bear the burden of their anomie too.

General Petraeus at CUNY: Poor Judgment Under Fire

General David Petraeus‘ $200,000 deal with CUNY is no longer on; he will now teach in the fall at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College for the princely sum of $1. Yesterday, I participated in a Huffington Post Live segment–along with Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and Kieran Lalor of the New York State Assembly–to discuss this development in the Petraeus at CUNY saga; like everything else in the sordid tale that preceded it, this latest bit of news, announced by the New York Times, merely adds to a picture of confused communication, insensitivity, and poor judgment.

In accepting a salary of $1, Petraeus is now posturing as the Magnanimous Public Servant[tm] showering the largesse of his knowledge and experience on the unworthy at CUNY. This is the same man who could barely contain his glee at salaries elsewhere–‘you won’t believe what USC will pay per week’–during the course of his grubby-enough negotiations with CUNY. What accounts for the change in heart? You, dear reader, get precisely one guess. (It has something to do with exposure in the press.) This sort of rapid retreat to an untenable position, under fire, does not speak well of Petraeus’ judgment. But it should not be surprising; this is the same man, after all, who thought it would be a good idea to try to negotiate a swanky deal, not with a private think-tank or consultancy group, but with a budget-deficient urban public university. Slipping into this condescending role should come easily to him. (As has been pointed out by many, Petraeus should have indicated a willingness to teach for the same salary that all adjuncts draw at CUNY: approximately $3000, with no benefits.)

The elitism does not end there, of course. Enrollment in the class is limited to sixteen students, and Petraeus, gallingly enough, will be assisted by, count ’em, two graduate students, at a university where faculty members have no teaching or research assistants that are not paid for by their grant funds. But it gets worse: three additional graduate students not from CUNY’s Graduate Center, its doctorate granting institution, will help him ‘assemble the syllabus’. These students are from Harvard. Nothing but the best for the General. Why would he ever deign to have a syllabus ‘assembled’ by the lowly students of the Graduate Center?  What could they offer this shining Messiah, descending from on high?

As I noted on the Huffington Post Live segment yesterday, this deal, and the sensibilities that underwrote it, have been dreamed up and implemented by an unholy blend of the management consultant and the corporate executive. It’s all there: the importation of  the rainmaking CEO, the inflated salary and perception of self-worth, the content-free mumbo-jumbo of the ‘value’ that Petraeus will bring to CUNY.

General David Petraeus does not strike me as a very smart or perceptive man. He–along with CUNY administrators–seems to lack the most elementary knowledge of the realities of public education, something that would have helped him adjust the parameters of the deal he could negotiate with CUNY: the content of the course, his salary, his assistants. And his response to a bout of sustained public criticism resembles nothing as much as panic.

CUNY students could, and should, take their leadership lessons from elsewhere.

General Petraeus Goes to CUNY: Nobel Prize Winners, Eat Your Heart Out

The initial reaction to the hiring of General David Petraeus to teach at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College was one of astonishment at the salary–$150k for one semester–offered; this has since devolved into looking askance at the source of the funds and an inquiry into whether such expenditure was the best possible for a public university that is always struggling to make ends meet. (For a full round-up, please check Corey Robin‘s posts on this subject.). And since the course description for Petraeus’ course has been made available much skepticism has been directed at what seems like an exceedingly skimpy course, at best a generic international relations elective.

Petraeus is not teaching a specialized seminar for graduate students, or faculty, or anything like that. He is teaching sixteen undergraduates a senior year special topics elective. Presumably, his salary is a function of what CUNY perceives his worth to be, based on his experience and education. The weekly rate for Petraeus is not unheard of when it comes paying very accomplished academics; for instance, last year, the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, as part of its Hess Scholar in Residence program, brought Sean Wilentz, the distinguished Princeton historian to the Brooklyn College campus for a  week; the amount paid to him–from the Hess Foundation–worked out to about the same rate as paid to Petraeus. But in that one week, Wilentz attended half-a-dozen faculty panels, some undergraduate classes and three working luncheons, and delivered a talk. In sharp contrast Petraeus will teach his regular class, once a week, just like any other adjunct would. (I presume he will have a TA, unlike adjuncts.)

With that in mind, here are some alternative scenarios for CUNY to ascertain what its market pricing for highly skilled and experienced teachers might be. Bear in mind we know nothing about Petraeus’ teaching abilities; he is just a highly educated and experienced military man.  So, what would CUNY pay for a distinguished academic , the winner of the highest honor in his or field, to teach a class in their special domain?

Consider the following examples:

A Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry to teach Concepts in Nanochemistry

A Nobel Prize winner in Physics to teach a Quantum Mechanics seminar

A Nobel Prize winner in Economics to teach Special Topics in Microeconomics

A Nobel Prize winner in Literature to teach Creative Writing: Advanced Techniques

A Noble Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine to teach Recent Advances in Genetics

A Fields Medal winner to teach Advanced Algebra: Groups, Rings and Fields

An Academy Award winning director to teach and direct a film in co-operation with Film Studies majors.

Would CUNY pay any of these 150,000 dollars to teach the class specified? Remember that CUNY does not have, like some other universities in the US, Nobel Prize winners in its ranks. If it was to secure the services of such a luminary, it would almost certainly hold it out as an attraction for its ‘best’ students–as it seems to be doing in the case of this Honors College seminar. My guess is that if CUNY was feeling generous, it would pay the folks above $20,000.  Maybe.

So, why the special treatment for Petraeus? As I said yesterday in my last post on this subject, it’s because bringing Petraeus, a powerful member of the governmental-military-corporate complex, to CUNY, will open the doors for folks in CUNY administration to get close to cushy consulting gigs in Washington DC, with the Pentagon, with the military, with all those folks in industry that Petraeus is, as we speak, networking with right now. They will have Petraeus here for a semester, and that is plenty of time to give him a copy of their CVs over a cup of coffee or dinner. Once he goes back to his regular tramping of the corridors of power, he will be able to take care of those who took care of him.

So, it bears repeating: this hiring decision has nothing to do with the students at CUNY; it has everything to do with folks in power taking care of each other.

CUNY Board of Trustees and General Petraeus: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

The ‘General David Petraeus is teaching at CUNY for a ludicrous amount’ scandal has been brewing for a while now. To catch up on its all its salacious, rage-provoking details, you could do worse than check out Corey Robin‘s coverage. In brief: cash-strapped urban public university invites retired US military figure to teach one course for an astronomical salary–the funding source for which remains dubious. This is the same university whose infrastructure is in disrepair, which cannot adequately fund research conducted by its faculty members, nor keep tuition for its students from rising every year. (To add final insult to injury, check out the poorly-written, skimpy course description of the Petraeus dropping, er, offering.)

A few years ago, I attended a CUNY Board of Trustees meeting. (I have attempted, in the past, on this blog, to provide some background on these worthies.) During the meeting, the subject of the generous pay packages for CUNY top administrators, which were in sharp contrast to the meager raises then being offered to CUNY faculty, came up. The faculty union representative pointed out the impropriety of sharply increasing salaries for adminstrators at a time when faculty were not even being paid cost-of-living increases. Benno Schmidt, now Chair of the Board of Trustees, and possibly Chair back then as well, spoke up sharply: ‘The faculty needs to learn that in order to get good work done at the university, you need to pay good money. If they think that’s expensive, they’ll find out just how expensive it is to not pay good money’. (This outburst was followed by an anti-union rant by the notorious Jeffrey Weisenfeld, which was met with much head-nodding by those seated around the table.)

I’ve never forgotten that meeting or that statement. There was no way to efface the memory of the belligerent, pompous expression on Schmidt’s face, simultaneously suffused with the smug satisfaction of the worst kind of sanctimonious hybrid: the businessman-priest.  There, in that attitude, that defiance, that anger at the union representative who had dared speak up, was encapsulated a great deal.

Higher education is a cash cow; there’s gold in them thar hills. University administrators know this, which is why, in recent times, they have swelled their ranks and their salaries at the expense of everyone else in the business. All those MOOC companies lining up to get the fat online education contracts from soon to be privatized public universities–once the greatest advertisement in the world for public education–know this. And like any other sector of the American economy the educational one showcases economic inequality: students, adjuncts, faculty all make do with very little, while the ‘management’ gets richer and richer.

And most importantly, this management class takes care of its own. They ensure generous retirement packages for each other and when they see a brother looking for a new gig, especially after a scandalous hiccup or two, like Petraeus, they run to help. Besides, the backscratching will go the other way too. After all, won’t Petraeus, down the line, take care of, somehow or the other, his new buddies on the CUNY Board of Trustees too? Connections to the halls of power, perhaps some consulting at the Pentagon or the CIA, down the line?

CUNY administrators and the members of the Board of Trustees aren’t just doing this to raise the university’s profile; they are doing this because they are good networkers.