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.

 

A Strike At CUNY: The Work Yet To Be Done

Over at CUNYstruggle.org Sean M. Kennedy strikes a sharply critical note of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress’ tactics in their ongoing struggle with CUNY, New York City, and State administrations. Kennedy takes as as his starting point, the recent civil disobedience action staged last week, and on a couple of occasions, calls for a not-ersatz civil disobedience:

[M]any rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law. [link added]

[W]hat does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

[M]any of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Given Kennedy’s explicit and implicit concern for CUNY students, I thought I would offer some notes on my experiences as a student whose faculty went on strike. That experience, I think, highlights my greatest concerns with a union strategy that includes a strike. I’ve voted in favor of a strike, so I’m not against a strike per se; rather, I think, a great deal needs to be done to prepare the ground for a strike. In that sense, I join in Kennedy’s critique of the PSC’s tactics because that work has not been done yet, and neither does it seem to have been planned for; I just come at it from a different perspective than he does, in the hopes of highlighting a concern that is not raised in his post. (The costs of going on a strike do not, for instance, include a mention of the losses to students: delayed graduation, derailment of educational plans, loss of income dependent on graduation etc.)

During my undergraduate days at Delhi University, the faculty went on strike twice. First in my ‘freshman’ year, for thirty-six days; and then, in my second year, for sixty-six days. The local press, as can be imagined, was hostile: the usual complaints about faculty indolence and self-indulgence–these should be familiar to Americans–came flooding in. More importantly, the students responded with anger and confusion: they did not know why the strike was being called; they had not been supplied with any information about the nature of the negotiations between the university administration and the faculty union; university faculty were subject to the same critical view that school teachers in the US often are–those who can’t, teach; and so on.

The result was that university faculty had practically no support–rhetorical or practical–during their strike. (The first strike failed precisely for this reason, thus necessitating a second strike, but it seemed the lessons of the first time had not yet been learned.) Moreover, the students developed an intense  antipathy to the faculty; this came to a head in the second year, for on that occasion, when faculty returned to teach, students boycotted classes. This boycott did not last long but the bad feelings did.

If the PSC wants to call a strike, it must do much more to communicate to the students–and their families–why such a strike is necessary and how it would benefit students and faculty alike. A strike will not succeed if the students don’t support it.

Note: Here is an older post responding to a New York Times article on the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.

The CTU Strike: Facile Reliance on Evaluation Won’t Work

Reading responses to the CTU strike has dismayed me: that there is so much hostility directed at teachers and their unions in a country where the path to middle-class success used to be understood as a good public education, but which is now directly under attack from a shrieking horde of carpetbaggers and rent-seekers. (Thankfully, the good folks of Chicago seem to be squarely behind the CTU.)

I’m stunned too by the  unquestioning reliance on the notion that teacher evaluation is the key to resolving the supposed crisis of public education.  When so much remains to be done for school students how can evaluation, a poorly understood notion at the best of times, become the centerpiece of reform? And indeed, given the pedagogical controversies that surround testing as a means of evaluating students, how can those scores be turned into a vehicle for evaluating their teachers? If someone had suggested to me that my 8th grade teachers be fired because of my scores in tests that year, I’d have been shocked; their teaching had nothing to do with my poor performance. And the idea that Aziz Akhtar, my high school chemistry teacher–a maestro whose explanation of the structure of benzene rings attained an almost poetic quality–should have been blamed for my slacking off and scoring poorly in the 11th grade chemistry exam fills me with horror.

What a student ‘gets’ from a teacher is not the kind of thing that is easily measured in quantifiable scores; more often than not, if a teacher is to be evaluated, it is best done by another teacher, by a process of observation, peer mentoring, and consistent, constructive feedback and criticism. Teaching is part science, part art; we are still a long way from understanding how learning proceeds and how teaching succeeds. To shoehorn this process into a ready-made quasi-Taylorist template is sheer folly. If school reform is to be carried out, it will be a necessarily slow and expensive process, and not one that can be hurried along with a slap on its rump from Michelle Rhee and her cohort.

Note: I’m often asked, ‘Would you like to teach in schools’? (i.e., high school or lower). My answer has always been, ‘Not on your life.’ It’s too hard: I simply cannot imagine dealing with the kinds of issues school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. (Disciplinary for instance; I like dealing with students that are a bit more ‘mature’, ‘more adult’). Selfishly, I would like to be able to teach material that sometimes impacts my so-called ‘research.’ Thus, I stand back, and admire those that can take it on. I’ve met plenty of school teachers over the years and I’m impressed by their grace under fire, their careful navigation of the shoals of disciplinary issues, their deep commitment to their wards, their working in poorly equipped and funded school districts. Right from the time I was first offered an opportunity as a substitute teacher in Newark, NJ, I have turned away from school teaching. It’s fundamental to our society, but on this one, I have let others take the bullet.

The New York Times Joins the CTU-Bashing Party

This morning, I posted the following on my Facebook status:

I wouldn’t use today’s NYT Editorial on the CTU strike as a window-cleaning schmatta.

Unfortunately, editorials in influential newspapers cannot be dismissed so easily. So let’s take a closer look.

The editorial begins unpromisingly:

Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea.

Notice how it is the ‘idea’ that is problematic, thus indicting the agent of the strike i.e., the union. A more promising start might have been:

City administrations should never let negotiations with teachers get to the point where they feel compelled to strike.

Because, you know, city administration policies can also hurt the ‘children’ that the New York Times is so worried about. Let’s move on. (The next sentence, incidentally, undermines the seriousness of the situation by putting it down to a personality clash between Rahm Emanuel and Karen Lewis.)

The Times is quite sure that the union is opposed to ‘sensible policy changes,’ ones that,

[A]re increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out.

Well. I hadn’t realized aping bad policies implemented elsewhere was such a good idea. And perhaps the Times could evaluate these ‘sensible’ changes for us? Thankfully, it does tell us that Mr. Emanuel rescinded a 4-percent pay raise last year, and that he, in keeping with the current fashion of diminishing organized labor in every way possible, by-passed the collective bargaining process to implement a longer school day.

The Times’ ‘why don’t you follow the lemmings’ query is on display again when it comes to noting the union’s resistance to ‘an evaluation system in which a teacher’s total rating depends partly on student test scores’:

Half the states have agreed to create similar teacher evaluation systems that take student achievement into account in exchange for grants under the federal Race to the Top program or for greater flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law. Such systems are already up and running in many places.

The Times does not stop to consider that such evaluations and ratings might be flawed and that the CTU’s stance might make more pedagogical sense. No sir; this is a fait accompli, fall in line!

The primary beef, in any case, over and above everything else, is that the union is ‘holding the city hostage’ by not bringing forward its ‘legitimate suggestions’ (if any) for improving the evaluation system in the right way. I hate to break the news to the New York Times, but the power to strike is organized labor’s weapon of last resort, one only to be used when faced with a recalcitrant and obdurate management. That same management, if not confronted with that threat, can all too easily stonewall its way into a resolution that favors it alone (and not the city’s students).

The editorial continues,

What stands out about this strike, however, is that the differences between the two sides were not particularly vast, which means that this strike was unnecessary.

But it is only the union that is required to make concessions.

Moreover, Ms. Lewis, who seems to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system, seems more inclined toward damaging the mayor politically than in getting this matter resolved.

Pardon me, I thought this was about a ‘personality clash’ between two folks. Why is Ms. Lewis’ personality the only one to be indicted?

If the strike goes on for much longer, the union could pay a dear price in terms of public opinion.

And the editorial page of the nation’s most prominent newspapers is helping that process get started.

Blaming Unions: The Easiest Game in Town

And so, here we go. A teacher’s union is on strike–more specifically the Chicago Teacher’s Union–and the bewailing begins: the strike is hurting students; the teachers should put their selfish interests last; get back to work, don’t you know you are hurting the students? As I pointed out a few days ago, if there is one thing that unites our political parties and leads to a great, Kumbaya, sea-to-shining-sea holding of hands across party divides it is this: teachers are to blame for the supposed educational crisis in public education, and they, and their unions alone, should reform if our schools are to get back to work and get on with the business of making our students into the finest, able to compete globally with all those busy eating their lunches.

I have no doubt students are being hurt by the strike. I was the ‘victim’ of two teachers’ strikes myself: once in my first undergraduate  year when faculty at Delhi University went on strike for two months, and then again, in my second undergraduate year, when they went on strike for three months. By the end of the second one, I had lost interest in going back to attend classes, and skipped the rest of the year to study on my own for final exams. I did the same thing in the third year (there were no strikes, but I skipped most classes anyway). Needless to say, I did terribly in my undergraduate degree. (I wasn’t a terribly diligent student in any case, but I’m going to blow past that for now.)

Back then, like most around me, I blamed the teacher’s union. I knew little about the university administration and the prolonged crisis in negotiations between teachers and them, about governmental funding for higher education. My view of the world was narrow, immature and restricted: the teachers were the ones not reporting to work, they must be lazy, they must be selfish, they must, surely, bear all the blame.  I knew little about the poor salaries paid to my faculty (though I had an inkling of the poor conditions they labored under).  The teachers were visible; the university administration was not. There was a bull’s-eye painted on their union banner, and I aimed for it.

My memories of this reaction to the 1984-1985 strikes colored my responses to any mention of the possibility of a strike during union chapter meetings here at Brooklyn College. (A strike at CUNY has always, always, been a very distant possibility.) I remembered, all too well, the visceral, angry, poorly-directed backlash against them. But by then, I was a teacher myself, and had found out just what hard work it was (and the work of schoolteachers is orders of magnitude harder than that of university faculty), I had grown up, and understood a little more of the ecology of the university, its embedding in broader socio-economic-political realities. I had come to understand that if a teacher’s union went on strike, it represented a desperate, backs-to-the-wall measure of last resort.  Teachers would always find a way to keep coming to work, somehow, precisely because we knew students depended on us.   What they hoped for, more than anything else, was that those that paid their salaries, and controlled the destiny of students just as much, would participate in some, even if not all, of that concern. The burden of caring for the students rested on them too.

The reaction to the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike will be revealing: those that lazily trot out the ‘teachers need to get back to work’ line in preference to mounting any critique of the Chicago city administration will show, to me at least,  that facile scapegoating is still the easiest game in town.

Labor Relations in Low Earth Orbit: The Skylab Strike

Three weeks ago,  the world celebrated the twenty-eighth anniversary of the end of the manned portion of the Skylab mission. Well, not really. Enthusiasts of manned space exploration certainly did; others had to be reminded. Students of the history of science can edify us about the scientific value of the three Skylab missions (meant to replace Apollo 18, 19, and 20). My interest here is to note the significance of Skylab for labor relations in space: the crew of the third Skylab mission, which lasted eighty-four days–Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson–went on strike for a day during their stay before relenting and going back to work.

Their story remains a fascinating one, one illuminative of the dynamics between a rigid, controlling, science-regulating administration and a group of workers ostensibly selected for their discipline and the psychological wherewithal to resist the stresses of space. (By noting this incident, I do not mean to diminish the crew’s activities, and to reduce their twelve-week stint in space to this story.)

From the moment the crew went into orbit, their lives were a blur of experiment and regulation, tightly controlled by NASA at Houston. For every single second of their waking days the crew was prodded, poked, telemetered, scanned, and required to work through long, tedious check-lists of activities; every bodily function had to be recorded and regulated; this was, after all, a mission whose primary objectives included the study of the effects of long-term habitation in space. The interior of the Skylab space station might have been 350 cubic meters but there was nowhere to hide from Ground Control. This was a scientific experiment, on taxpayer expense, and NASA intended to get its money’s worth.

The trend of excessive, panopticon-like control of the crew had been set from the very beginning, when Bill Pogue had vomited shortly after arriving at the station, and decided, in collusion with the other members of the crew, to not  report the incident back to Houston. But the crew were being monitored and eavesdropped on, and soon they were being castigated like a triplet of hand-in-cookie-jar-schoolboys and being warned that all such incidents had to be recorded and reported. That early ‘eavesdropping’ incident was by far the most trust-destroying interaction between the crew and Ground Control.

Faced with remote discipline at its extreme, the crew asserted resistance. The crew acquired notoriety for ‘complaining’; they certainly had the most combative, unvarnished conversations ever with Houston, a far remove from the usual, sanitized excerpts that read, ‘Houston, all systems go, we are ready to go spacewalk and provide wonderful visuals’. Finally, matters came to a head, as Pogue, Carr and Gibson ‘took a day off’. I do not remember what Pogue and Carr did on their self-enforced furlough but Ed Gibson, the Caltech solar physicist, retired to the solar observation station and spent the entire workday recording images on his own sweet time, not bothering to make any detailed entries in his lab handbooks. ‘Negotiations’ followed; work schedules were altered; expectations adjusted, and work went on.

The Skylab story prompted much discussion about the regulation of work in space including suggestions the ‘revolt’ really wasn’t one. But these do not discount the contentious, irritable, edgy relationship between Houston and Skylab-IV, and they certainly do not refute the notion that even highly motivated, highly trained, military types and scientists, fully convinced of the value of their work, when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment, are likely to find conditions oppressive and push back.