More Information on Brooklyn College Worker Ed Center

30 Jul

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.

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