Ta-Nehisi Coates Attacks One Privilege, Defends Another

Last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly took Dylan Byers to task after the latter’s snarky response to Coates’ anointment of Melissa Harris-Perry as ‘America’s foremost public intellectual’:

What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking.

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like “Geniuses of Western Music” written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

Good stuff. But as part of his defense, Coates also said:

This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is “America’s foremost public intellectual.” I made this claim because of Harris-Perry’s background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.

Again, mostly good stuff. The bit that bothers me is the bit about ‘background’, which abides by another conventional sort of privilege: the credentialing capacities of the Ivy League. (In my mind, almost synonymous with ‘expensive private university privilege.’)

Duke, Princeton, Harvard. (There is Tulane too, another private school; I’m aware Duke is not Ivy League.) Coates deploys these names as any other exponent of Ivy League privilege might: the mere fact of association with them is evidence enough of intellectual quality. What was the Ph.D on? Was the dissertation any good? Did it make dissertation-level contributions to its field or was it pretty perfunctory stuff? Coates also mentions ‘two books’. What were they on? Were their arguments any good? (They were published by Yale and Princeton University Presses incidentally.)

What if Melissa Harris-Perry had done exactly the same work, but had gone to the University of North Carolina with stints at San Diego State and the University of Illinois? And had her books published by Florida University Press and University of Texas Press? Would Coates still be citing her ‘background’? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Ivy League privilege is real. Presidents, Supreme Court justices, the list goes on. Remember that old football chant that Ivy League students use when their teams are losing to a state school: ‘It’s alright, it’s OK, you’re going to work for us someday’?

Why not just concentrate on the intellectual quality of her work and forget about her credentials? Like you know, we should forget about race and just concentrate on the quality of her work? Down with all privilege, right?

There is something problematic, also, about turning the business of being a ‘public intellectual’ into some sort of competition, but more on that later.

Note: I didn’t attend the Ivy League.

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.

With Trustees Like These, Who Needs Enemies? Part One

The City University of New York is a public university. Presumably, its Board of Trustees is staffed by those who have the interests of their constituency–students and teachers–first and foremost. Not so. As faculty and students find out, the Trustees includes many members whose qualifications for this job appear radically antithetical to this university’s mission. The staff union for the City University, the Professional Staff Congress, has started to publish a series of articles on their blog, detailing these folks’ backgrounds, careers, and achievements, all of which make for very sobering reading. I intend to link to these posts and post excerpts here.

Some background:

The CUNY Board of Trustees has 17 members, including two ex officio members: the head of the CUNY University Student Senate, and the head of the University Faculty Senate (who cannot vote).  The other members are appointed by either the Mayor or the Governor. Eight members were initially appointed by Pataki, four by Bloomberg, and one each by Giuliani, Patterson, and Cuomo. They serve seven year terms and can be reappointed for additional terms. The Chairman of the Board is Benno Schmidt, the only educator appointed to the Board, though his interests in for-profit education and corporate led “reform” movements will be discussed in a later post. Official bios can be found at http://www.cuny.edu/about/trustees/board.html.

Now for today’s exhibits. First up, a ‘union-busting lawyer’, Peter Pantaleo:

Democratic Governor David Paterson appointed Peter S. Pantaleo, a top professional in the lucrative field of anti-unionism. The Board of Trustees website (http://www.cuny.edu/about/trustees/board.html.)  identifies Pantaleo as a “Partner at DLA PIPER,” adding: “Mr. Pantaleo represents both domestic and international employers in labor, employment, and civil rights matters. While he has substantial experience litigating cases before courts, administrative agencies, and arbitration panels, the principal focus of Mr. Pantaleo’s practice is advising employers in complex, politically sensitive labor and employment matters.”

DLA PIPER is the largest law firm in the U.S. by attorney headcount, reportedly representing half the Fortune 500. Its website includes a “Labor and Employment Alert” giving employers step-by-step instructions on how to use a recent decision of the anti-labor NLRB to “prohibit use of email for union organizing purposes.” This is remarkably similar to what happened at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College, which banned faculty from using email to discuss union business until this gag rule was defeated by the union. http://archive.psc-cuny.org/Clarion/LAGCCfreespeech.pdf.

Pantaleo has worked for the Las Vegas MGM Grand hotel during its campaign to stop a unionization drive (New York Times, 10 March 1997). His old firm Pantaleo, Lipkin & Moss represented Las Vegas bosses at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) who banned three workers from handing out pro-union leaflets at the entrance to a casino/hotel complex.

In May 1998 Pantaleo co-authored an article in Gaming Law Review describing strategies for “lessening the power” of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.  Another Pantaleo piece, from 2004, tells employers in non-union workplaces how to use a NLRB rulings to prevent employees from having a coworker present during “investigatory interviews” (Monday Business Briefing, 5 July 2004).

 So in sum, we have a trustee appointed to the board on the basis of his experience in attacking unionized workers. The staff of the City University are unionized; this trustee’s role is a purely antagonistic one toward them. How reassuring.

In tomorrow’s post, we will consider another stellar member of this elite group. Stay tuned.