Please do not sign Brooklyn College Worker Ed Petition

26 Jul

A petition titled “Save Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education” is currently being circulated on the internet. As the interim director of that center, a former union organizer, a vocal advocate of labor rights, and a firm believer in worker education, I am asking people NOT to sign this petition.

By way of background, the Graduate Center for Worker Education (GCWE) was historically run by a small group of faculty in my department (political science). In 2011, the department elected a new chair and a new executive committee, including myself. We discovered that the GCWE was suffering from severely compromised academic standards. We also found evidence of financial wrongdoing.

The Brooklyn College administration took immediate action and removed the director of the GCWE. I was appointed interim director in 2012 by Kimberley Phillips, then dean of the humanities and social sciences and a prominent labor historian in her own right (Phillips is also a past president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association). As per my agreement with the administration, I will be stepping down from this position at the end of August so that I can finish my sabbatical, which I had to interrupt in order to take on these responsibilities.

CUNY has since conducted an investigation of the GCWE and pursued disciplinary charges. The Attorney General’s office of the State of New York has also launched an investigation, and I have been questioned by members of that office. I am not privy to the details of these investigations and charges, so I won’t speak about them here.

But here is what I can say about the GCWE prior to my tenure.

The centerpiece of the GCWE is a masters’ program in urban policy and administration (UPA), which is housed in the political science department. Prior to the election of our current chair and executive committee, that program was run with no oversight by the chair or the executive committee. There was no formal admissions committee constituted by the chair and comprised of department faculty. Admissions rates ran from roughly 85 to 95%. The UPA program had no exit requirements such as a masters’ thesis or comprehensive exam, as is the case with other masters programs at Brooklyn College and elsewhere. The program’s curricular offerings and adjunct faculty were not vetted or evaluated by the chair or the executive committee.

Since the election of our new department leadership and my taking over the Center, we have taken the necessary steps to address these problems, including tightening our admissions standards.

Though the GCWE is described by the creators of this petition as possessing an “incredible legacy” of worker education, the fact is that it has not been a worker education center for some time, if ever. In 2000, an external evaluation report, which was co-authored by one of the leading labor scholars in the country, declared that “the program itself has little labor emphasis or worker education components….There is no clear focus around the implicit labor and worker orientation of the program.”

Despite that report and its recommendations, little at the GCWE changed in subsequent years, as I discovered when I became interim director. A report in 2012 that I co-authored with nationally recognized labor scholars Dorian Warren, Stephanie Luce, Josh Freeman, and Carolina Bank-Muñoz found that:

None of the six course requirements of the program has anything to do with labor or workers. The GCWE does offer two labor-oriented courses, but only infrequently. Any student could get through the MA program without having read, written, or spoken about a labor-related topic.

Unlike other labor-oriented programs—for example, the Murphy Institute [at CUNY]—the GCWE does not have an agreement with labor unions to recruit and help fund potential MA students from unions or government agencies. And unlike Murphy, the GCWE does not have a labor advisory board that would help inform and guide curricular decisions to benefit workers.

Though nearly 90% of GCWE students are over 25 and thus probably work (almost 100 percent are part-time students), Brooklyn College’s political science masters’ program as a whole has an even higher ratio of over-25 students, and more than 80% of all Brooklyn College masters students are part-time students. There is little in the demographics of the UPA masters program that could be characterized as worker-oriented and that distinguishes it, in that regard, from any other masters program run by Brooklyn College.

Whether the issue is curriculum, demographics, recruitment, or governance, there is no distinctive labor dimension to the MA program.

Our report went onto make several recommendations as to how the GCWE could be reconstituted with a stronger labor focus; those recommendations were given to the Brooklyn College administration.

In the past year, the political science faculty has had to make some difficult decisions about our involvement with the GCWE. It is our belief that, given the interests and strengths of our department, the UPA program, for which we are responsible, ought to focus on urban politics (indeed, we have just hired a specialist in urban politics). Although academic disciplines like history and sociology have flourishing sub-fields in labor studies, political science does not, which makes recruitment of full-time faculty in that field difficult. Given the troubled history of the center itself, we also believe faculty and students would be better served if our UPA program were housed on the Brooklyn College campus rather than at 25 Broadway in lower Manhattan, where it is currently housed.

These decisions, it should be stressed, are the decisions of the political science faculty. They are not, nor should they be, the decisions of the Brooklyn College administration.

By calling on the Brooklyn College administration to “fully restore the Urban & Policy Administration…programs at the Downtown Manhattan campus of the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education,” this petition and its signers are asking the administration to overturn the faculty’s deliberations and decisions, to force upon us curricular and admissions policies we have foresworn, and to tell us who we must hire.

That such a petition is being circulated by union activists and faculty who in any other circumstance would decry—and rightly so—such administrative interference as a violation of academic freedom is troubling. For that is what this petition is: a call to compromise the academic freedom and educational integrity of my department.

The petition also claims that the “dismantling of this long-standing program ranks with other attacks on working people across the country.” As someone who has watched that attack and reported on it here, who has close friends and colleagues in other worker education centers across the country—which are being attacked by anti-labor politicians—I find this language cynical in the extreme. It uses people’s legitimate concerns about the status of workers and worker education as a cover under which to smuggle a call for the restoration of a worker education program that has long since ceased to be a worker education program (in fact, the petition explicitly and repeatedly uses the language of restoration).

If people wish to have a discussion about the creation of a legitimate worker education program at Brooklyn College—rather than the restoration of a program that never was—I would welcome that. I’m sure that many of the individuals who signed this petition sincerely believed they were contributing to that end, which I share. Indeed, throughout this past year I have tried to have such a discussion.

But that discussion will not be advanced by this petition, which is far more concerned with restoring the lost privileges and prerogatives of a few individuals (“Reinstate the quality faculty members who previously taught at the center”; “Restore a full-time academic advisor”; “full restoration of the educational and support services”) who benefited from the old regime than it is with the creation of a genuine labor studies program or worker education center.

I urge you not to sign this petition, to ask MoveOn.org to remove your name if you have, to declare publicly that you wish to remove your name if MoveOn.org can’t or won’t, and to circulate this statement widely.

I’m told that if you email petitions@moveon.org and ask that your name be removed, they will do so promptly.

Update (August 3, 8 pm)

I wrote a second post on this issue, which provides more details and background. For folks who didn’t see it, I’m reproducing it here in its entirety.

David Laibman, a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College, has been circulating a critical response to my post about the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education. I’d prefer not to get into the weeds of his various allegations; as he admits several times, he has no knowledge of most of the facts and events that led the Brooklyn College administration and the New York State Attorney General’s office to take the actions they have taken.

But Professor Laibman does make two claims that merit a response:

I have personal knowledge about the vicious and irresponsible behavior of the Department, in summarily firing the former Director of the CWE, and his secretary, and depriving the faculty and students, in Spring 2012, of all continuity, information, support and guidance.  The place was literally abandoned.

It is not possible for Professor Laibman to have personal knowledge of the political science department’s firing of the former director for the simple reason that the political science department did not fire the former director. As anyone with personal knowledge of this case knows, it was the Brooklyn College president who removed this individual from his position as director (he has not been fired as a professor, though disciplinary charges are currently being pursued). Two other full-time employees, neither of whom was the director’s secretary (both were administrators at the Center), were also removed from their positions by the administration.

Though Professor Laibman does not raise this issue, I should add that in addition to two full-time administrators, the Center had on its payroll approximately 25 part-time employees. By way of comparison, the political science department, which serves twice as many students on campus, employs only one full-time administrator and one part-time employee.

As for the Center being “literally abandoned,” I can understand why Professor Laibman might have had that impression. Much of the daily activity at the Center that he had been witness to prior to my tenure was the coming and going of the students, faculty, and staff of a French management school to which the Center’s leadership had been quietly renting space. (Indeed, when I became director I found written instructions to the Center staff telling them to remove the management school’s signs from its offices at 5 pm, when the worker education students and faculty began to arrive for their classes.) Those hundreds of people that Professor Laibman saw in the center’s classrooms, its computer lab, its conference room, and offices—Monday through Friday, 9 to 5—were not Brooklyn College or CUNY folks but management students, faculty, and staff from abroad.

One of the first actions the Brooklyn College administration took after I became interim director was to remove this management school from the premises so that our Brooklyn College students and staff could use the computer lab, conference room, and classrooms that previously had been occupied by management school students and staff. The administration simply did not believe that renting out space to a management school was consistent with the mission of a worker education center.

In addition to this French management school, the Center’s former leadership had also been quietly renting space to a French film school. In order to house this film school, the former leadership took away a spacious office from Working USA, which is a prominent labor journal edited by Professor Manny Ness, and relocated Ness and his journal in an office that was about the size of a large broom closet.

Once the French film school was removed by the Brooklyn College administration (for the same reason it removed the management school), I promptly returned that larger office to Working USA and to Professor Ness so that he could meet with students and union activists, conduct his research, and edit his labor journal in a proper space. (Professor Ness is currently spearheading this petition drive on behalf of the old center; I have not spoken with him, so I have no idea why he wishes to return to a regime that put the needs of a French film school above those of his labor journal, his labor research, his students, and his work with the labor movement.)

On a different note, one response I’ve heard from defenders of the old regime at the Center is that it serves working students, students of color, immigrant students, and union members. As any faculty member throughout the CUNY system will testify, most if not all of our students work, and many are immigrants and/or of color. Many of our students are union members; that has certainly been my experience on the Brooklyn College campus. To the extent that defenders of the old regime trumpet these demographic characteristics of the Center, they are merely stating that the Center is no different from CUNY as a whole.

Fair-minded defenders of the Center also argue that older students who work need a space in lower Manhattan where they can pursue an MA. That is a fair and legitimate point. If that’s the goal, however, proponents should simply demand that of the administration and not conflate that demand with either a return to the old regime or with the call for a worker education center (there is a higher proportion, after all, of MA students in political science on the Brooklyn College campus who fit this profile of older students who work than there is at the Center).

Nor should proponents of this vision conflate that demand with the political science department running an extensive MA program in lower Manhattan. If what people want is the opportunity to get an MA in lower Manhattan, there is no reason it should be restricted to political science. Why not petition the administration to provide opportunities to seek an MA in multiple disciplines like history, English, and sociology? In other words, what people seem to really want is for Brooklyn College to set up a satellite campus in lower Manhattan, much as City College has done with its liberal studies program at 25 Broadway. They should simply ask for that—and understand that a satellite campus, with all its facilities and requirements, must be managed by an administration, not a department or member of the faculty.

There is no going back to the old regime; we need a clean break with the past. The best thing people who do care about a labor center can do is to formulate a new vision for labor-related programs and worker education at Brooklyn College, to organize and agitate for that vision, and to press the administration to carry it out. Thus far, very few of the full-time faculty (five, at last count) and very few students at Brooklyn College or members of our faculty and staff union have signed onto this petition. But I know there are many more faculty and students on campus who care about the ideals and mission of worker education and labor. I strongly encourage all of you who do care to start a fresh discussion and campaign, one not tied to this old regime, and to create something that lives up to the ideals that so many of us share.

Because I will be stepping down as interim director in a matter of weeks, and because I do not believe it is productive to continue a public back and forth with defenders of the old regime, this will be my last post on this matter. I’ll leave it to the members of Brooklyn College and the wider CUNY community to debate and discuss where we go from here.

2 Responses to “Please do not sign Brooklyn College Worker Ed Petition”

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  1. More Information on Brooklyn College Worker Ed Center | Corey Robin - July 30, 2013

    […] a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College, has been circulating a critical response to my post about the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education. I’d prefer not to get into the weeds of his various allegations; as he admits several times, […]

  2. More News on Charges Against Brooklyn College Worker Education Center | Corey Robin - January 13, 2014

    […] New York Times today has a lengthy article on the corruption charges associated with the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education, about which I blogged twice last […]

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