Brooklyn College’s Disrepair And The Attack On Public Education

Over the past two weeks, I’ve sent the following emails to my departmental faculty list, complaining about the state of classrooms at Brooklyn College. First on Thursday, September 7, I wrote:

Once again, this semester, I’m teaching in 4145 and 4219 Boylan. These classrooms are a disgrace. The air conditioner is so loud we cannot hear each other in class, and if you switch them off, you swelter. Yesterday, while teaching in 4145 Boylan, there was loud construction going on elsewhere in the building; no one knew what was going on. It took two phone calls to get someone to respond. That consumed 30 minutes of my class time. Meanwhile the airconditioner was not working at all, and my students and I were sweating profusely. This happens every semester in these classrooms. This is a ludicrous situation.

Then, yesterday, after further aggravation, I sent an angrier email:

In my initial email I had forgotten to make notice of 3150 Boylan. That classroom has destroyed my Social Philosophy class this semester; every class is hijacked by the noisy generators/cooling units outside; if you close the windows, you have to have the AC on; if you have the AC on, we can’t hear each other; if you open the doors and windows it’s too noisy. My students were walking out to get water, fanning themselves, talking to each other, complaining; and they were right.  Discussing Arendt’s critique of Marx seemed besides the point.

I refuse to teach in that classroom. Either Brooklyn College changes my classroom, or I’m not teaching. Or we can just meet there and hang out for 100 minutes if the college insists. But I won’t be teaching. If this college cannot provide working conditions that meet some minimum standards they should refund our students their tuition, and shut down this disgrace.

I’m so livid right now; every class of mine is an exercise in futility.

Meanwhile on September 12th, my colleague in the Sociology Department, Carolina Bank Munoz, wrote (on her Facebook page):

In 2016 Brooklyn College had a 5 million dollar budget cut, in 2017, 8 million, and now in fiscal 2018 we are facing a 10 million dollar cut. This is simply unsustainable. [New York state’s governor Andrew] Cuomo is literally killing CUNY. Yet undergrad enrollments are 25% higher than last year.

Brooklyn College’s state is quite typical of the institutions of public education in this city (public schools included)–that includes other colleges at the City University of New York, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse systems of college-level public education. Tuition continues to rise; administrator salaries continue to rise; the size and comfort of administrator offices grows; faculty share offices that are often equipped with printers that don’t have cartridges, but the place where the actual learning happens, where teachers and students meet continues to fall apart. The strategy being followed at CUNY is quite clear, has been for some time, and follows a pattern of declining public investment nationwide geared toward one goal: to make public education, like other public institutions, so broken, so unsustainable, that the only viable alternative will be their privatization, to be sold off to the highest bidding carpetbagger.

My options are limited: I’m reluctant to ask for an official room change for fear I will get a room that is worse–that might sound hard to believe but trust me, it’s possible; my class sizes–ranging from 25-30 students–is too large to allow the use of my office or the department lounge; and noise and commotion prevents the using of the school quad. I intend to escalate this confrontation by approaching the administration. I expect to be met with a shrugged shoulder and some muttering about ‘budgets.’

This is not the first time I’ve complained about CUNY classrooms. I did so last year following a New York Times article on the sad state of CUNY. Read my post–which also contains a rant about classrooms–and the New York Times article and weep if you care about public education and public institutions. My conclusion then is the same one I’ll draw today:

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.


CUNY And The Public University That Couldn’t

In the fall of 2015 I taught my philosophy of law class in a hostile environment: my classroom.  With windows and doors open, it was too noisy to be heard; with windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on, it was too noisy. With the air conditioner turned off, it was too hot. We–my students and I–struggled with this state of affairs into November, till the time it finally became cool enough to allow us to conduct the class with the door and windows closed. Till then, sometimes we shouted, sometimes we sweated; mostly we fretted and fumed, irate and vexed by this latest evidence of the City University of New York’s inability to provide a working infrastructure to facilitate its educational mission.

Over the weekend, the New York Times finally brought to this city’s attention a state of affairs at CUNY that for its students and staff has been a grim reality for too long: a severely underfunded educational institution that has gone from being an ‘engine of mobility’ to the little public university that couldn’t. A crumbling physical foundation; no contracts for its staff and faculty; overpaid administration; reliance on underpaid contingent labor; all the pieces for eventual failure are here.  A strike might yet happen in the fall.

It is common, among progressives, to bewail the continued under funding of public education as an act of class warfare, one animated by racist prejudice. It is worth making that claim explicit: public education is a threat to established social, economic, and political orders; it threatens to bring education–not just textual knowledge, but critical thinking, reading, and writing–to the disenfranchised and politically dispossessed; that fact, on its own, paints a bulls eye on public education’s back, inviting pointed assaults by a surrounding neo-liberal order. Make no mistake about it: public education is under attack because it seen as serving the wrong communities for the wrong reasons.

New York City’s financial health is considerably better than it was during those periods of time when the university was fully funded by the city and the state, when it was able to educate the children of immigrants and send them out to work the engines of the nation’s economy and move themselves and their families up the rungs of American life. But priorities have changed over the years. Now city and state budgets must attend to: university administrators and their desires for bigger salaries and plusher offices; management consultants and their latest pie-charted dreams for ‘process’ and ‘best practices’ and ‘unique selling propositions’; capital projects that do not advance core educational missions; and a host of other diversions that have nothing to do with learning. Run education like a business: shortsightedly, with an eye to the next quarter’s profits; learning be damned.

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.


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.

Contra Ed Smith, Plain and Clear Language is Still a Virtue

In the New Statesman Ed Smith pushes back at Orwell‘s classic ‘Politics and the English Language‘:

When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction ‘Let’s be clear’, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored….There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion. (‘Don’t be beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue‘, New Statesman, 9 February 2013).

Smith is right (in a way), but his invocation of Orwell is misleading; the point that Smith wants to make can be made without suggesting that Orwell’s thesis is up for contestation. The politician or corporate shill is not ‘speaking with misleading simplicity’; rather, he is not being simple at all. There is nothing ‘misleading’ about his ‘simplicity’ for there is none to speak of. Mere conciseness or brevity does not equal simplicity, for otherwise a straightforward reductio of Orwell’s thesis would present itself: speak and communicate as little as possible. When Orwell spoke of writing simply, he had in mind a very particular kind of economy and clarity: use the most felicitous combination of words that express your meanings, no more, no less; there is a Aristotelian golden mean to be determined here, one that a good writer aims for constantly. Sometimes he overshoots and bores his readers with loquaciousness; sometimes he undershoots and leaves his readers mystified.  And it is not just the numerical measure of his writing–in words or length of description–that Orwell had in mind, but the particular choice of words. The bullet-pointed list can be extremely vague too.

The dabbler in lists and bullet points is engaging, not in simplicity or conciseness, but in obfuscation; he is peddling in the modern version of the jargon that Orwell deplored. The management consultant that puts up Powerpoint slides full of concentric circles, arrowheads, and other members of the geometric menagerie is not relying on the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ compaction thesis; rather, he is relying on distraction: look at these fancy, beguiling figures, while I indulge in some artful bullshit peddling. The bullet pointed-list and the consultancy chart shorten descriptions, but they leave out a great deal, giving us not just a skeleton but a misleading one.

If Orwell were to be brought to a corporate boardroom and subjected to the execrable management consultant presentation, he would rewrite his essay to include this modern abomination as an example of the bad ‘writing’ he had in mind.

Note: Yet again, a H/T to Corey Robin (and Doug Henwood) for pointing me to Ed Smith’s article.

Gus Fring: Breaking Bad’s Management Consultancy Guru

Yesterday, while writing on the corporate deadliness of The Wire‘s Stringer Bell, I noted in passing, some structural resemblances between that character and Breaking Bad‘s Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring. But, in many ways, Gus goes well beyond Stringer in bringing the corporate to the corner. In particular, in his channeling indiscriminate violence into murderously well-directed and precise outbreaks of mass murder, his attention to the crystal meth manufacturing process, his deference to the men of science, his marriages of the industrial engineer, the accountant, and the factory foreman to the military general and the assassin, Gus outdoes Stringer. Gus builds his empire by an energetic, quietly confident, and slick union of corporate manufacturing schedules and assembly line management with the trade of the traditional drug dealer and thus imbues the brutal, paranoiac violence of the perennially threatened drug trade with a strategic shop-floor vision.  Stringer is merely a dealer; Gus owns the means of production, the machinery, and the workers.

Gus is modern in a very particular way: he facilitates his projects with the precision, efficiency and sterile beauty of technology, relying all the while on the powers of science and its practitioners to sustain and realize his vision.  It is never too subtle a point in Breaking Bad that some of Walter’s initial allegiance to  Gus is underwritten by his acknowledgment of the scientific and technological excellence of the manufacturing unit Gus has put together. Morally corrupt scientists in hock to those who facilitate their deadly work; think, perhaps, of German scientists in the employ of the Third Reich; science and efficiency, in the service of perversion.

Gus is thus too, a classic bureaucrat, deploying science to bring about the most desired and deadly of outcomes. He conspires, arranges, sets up the blade and makes it fall; and yet, while he is a wheeler and a dealer, he remains smooth, never greasy, mannered, never affected. Interestingly enough, Gus is entirely desexualized, and even here, his sexual austerity sets off the rigor of his management style. His attention to careful detail and his measured responses, conquer, or at least keep under control, the awesome, murderous brutality of the cartels. That management style ensures that one of Breaking Bad‘s most floral and lurid moments–the mass poisoning of the Mexican cartel–possesses a curiously contained edge. For the true genius of the mass murder of the cartel’s top leadership did not lie in Gus’ use of poison, his deceit, his willingness to expose himself to deadly risk, it lay in its logistical details, in Gus’ planning for the aftermath: the medical supplies, the doctors, the getaway mechanisms. Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. Indeed.

In Gus Fring, we were brought face to face with a business talent par excellence. When he finally meets his match and is killed, we recognize it was because for a brief, fatal moment, Gus allowed his anger to get the better of him, to let passions rule where dispassionate calculations had always held sway.

Election Season Debates: A Modest Proposal

My only contribution, thus far, to the ‘conversation’ about this year’s election season has been a rather facetious celebration of the continued viability of Newt ‘The Professor’ Gingrich’s candidacy. My reason for disdaining seriousness in that comment was not so much contempt as much as it was weariness. The curve of the quality of election season conversation and ‘debate’  has shown a remarkable downward incline over the years; much as I celebrated the potential for levity in the continuation of the Republican primary battle in that post of mine, I did so knowing that there was very little chance that I would actually be able to tune in for more than a few minutes of the debates (so far, I have watched some 45 seconds of one debate last year).

This weariness finds its roots in an acknowledgement of the vapidity of the interactions between the candidates, of course, but its real provenance, lies, I think, in the knowledge that the candidates’ conversation appears to be mere epiphenomena, mere misleading froth above the surface of the domain of the real powerbrokers, the real puppeteers: the landed, moneyed, corporate entities that control political discourse and action in this nation of ours. This knowledge produces a certain sense of futility: Of what use public declamation and proclamation, when the real action is happening off-stage in corporate boardrooms and lobbyist offices? That’s where future political strategies and maps are being currently charted, where tactical and strategic syllabi are being drawn up, to be distributed to the cartel of political figureheads that will execute them and bring them to fruition. The vassals of our obedient media will supplement this activity with a crescendo of faithful echoes, amplifications, and hosannahs of approval.

So I have a modest proposal to make, one grounded in the hope that it will be seen for what it is: A call for honesty. Let us dispense with these faux-debates, these performances by political grandstanders, forced to master talking points and spin strategies, and to enter domains of discourse that seem so clearly beyond their limited intellects.  In instead, with the real wheelers-and-dealers: Let us have real debates and question-and-answer sessions with CEOs and lobbyists. They could articulate to us their vision for America; they could, armed with Powerpoint and video, point us to the map of their future courses, perhaps even distribute brochures and prospectuses of planned activities for, say, the next five years, the next ten years and so on. Management consultancy aides could supplement these with a series of presentations involving concentric circles, looping back arrowheads and intersecting rectilinear figures.

A conversation like this would bring some refreshing honesty to the American political landscape. It would dispense with this bizarre charade of middle-aged, besuited white men–in this age of supposedly rapid, bewildering change, it is good to know that some things are stable and enduring–exposed to the harsh glare of studio klieg lights, forced to mumble inanities for television audiences.

A great nation can do better than this.  Becoming more honest about its elections would be a good start.