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.

 

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!