When We Betray Our Students

A couple of months ago, at the beginning of the semester, I posted on Facebook a plea to my fellow faculty that they not post complaints there about their students. I said that I considered such public commentary a kind of betrayal, even when the students weren’t named.

Yesterday, Gothamist reported that an undercover cop had been spying for months, if not years, on a group of Muslim students at Brooklyn College, leading to the arrest of two women last spring for allegedly planning to build a bomb.

Set aside the problem of entrapment with these schemes. Set aside Mayor de Blasio’s promise to stop this kind of surveillance of Muslims in New York. Let’s focus instead on the leadership of CUNY that either knowingly allows this kind of spying on our students to continue or does little to nothing to stop it.

Tolerating, actively or passively, undercover officers of the state on our campus, allowing them to spy on our students, to report back to the state what our students say, as they meet with their friends to share in their studies, swap their stories, figure out their faith, shoot the shit, or whatever it is that students do when they believe themselves to be among friends, is a betrayal. Of the worst sort.

I posted my comment on Facebook because I believe we, as faculty, have a trust to uphold with our students. That when they come to our campus, they will be allowed to try on new clothes, nudge themselves away from who they were toward who they will become, make a stab at independence, that they will be allowed to make mistakes—in full knowledge that their fumbles and foibles are safe with us.

As my friend Moustafa Bayoumi, who’s also a professor at Brookyn College, writes in his book This Muslim American Life, which is just out with NYU Press:

Americans of all types are expected to acquiesce to intrusions into their private lives, supposedly for greater security, while any objection is interpreted as “having something to hide.” But having something to hide—or having the right to hold an inner life and to be free to determine how much of yourself you show to others—is not only a guarantee of our democracy but also a necessary part of being human. Losing that right is troubling and dangerous for the same reason that Elaine Scarry identifies as the dark innovation of the Patriot Act. “The Patriot Act inverts the constitutional requirement that people’s lives be private and the work of government officials be public; it instead crafts a set of conditions in which our inner lives become transparent and the workings of the government become opaque.”

The same applies, even more so, when we are talking about students.

When we allow officers of the state onto our campus to monitor and surveil our students as they make their way into the world, to troll for trouble (even creating the circumstances for that trouble), we betray that trust. We simply cannot build a campus that is true to its mission if we allow this kind of practice to continue.

There’s a petition being circulated calling on CUNY Chancellor James Milliken to stop this practice. I urge you to sign it. And to share this post, and the petition, widely.

23 Comments

  1. Catherine Rudder October 30, 2015 at 11:28 am | #

    Terrific column today, Corey. Very important message. Thank you.

  2. Tom Shapiro October 30, 2015 at 11:56 am | #

    How does society best balance its individual’s Right of Privacy and the collective Right of that society to protect and preserve itself? Consider the bombing of Sterling Hall, University of Wisconsin in 1970 by 4 white, middle class, native born American university students as a protest of the Vietnam Nam War. There weremillions in property damage, several deaths, promising research careers damaged or destroyed. There is no absolute right to be left alone. Society has no realistic right to absolute security. As a pragmatic matter, tell us how to create a general rule before another such tragedy happens that preserves as much unsurveiled privacy as is consistent with preservation of society and the public welfare.

    • Lichanos October 30, 2015 at 3:39 pm | #

      What’s your solution? Provide every student with a government minder? Are we become the United States of Fear?

      There may be no absolute right to be left alone, but neither is their any possibility of absolute security. Spying on students because they’re Muslim doesn’t seem like a pragmatic or balanced approach.

      • a random internet person October 31, 2015 at 11:48 am | #

        This is called the “straw man” argument. Tom Shapiro clearly was not saying that we should “provide every student with a government minder.” Nor did he say that we should spy on students “because they’re Muslim.” He’s just pointing out that there may be cases in which such police activity may be justified, despite its obvious downsides. How anyone could disagree with him is beyond me.

        It amazes me how radically different assumptions about human beings have become since 9/11 on the right and the left. The right verges on (and often goes over the edge of) paranoia, convinced that evil people (half the country, half the world, at least) are constantly plotting to do us harm. Much of the left, however, seems to have no sense these days that people can be dangerous, and that having any sort of society means using force to protect ourselves. I mean, this investigation resulted in an arrest, apparently with evidence that these women were trying to build a bomb. If a bomb had gone off at CUNY, and the govt. had not acted on actionable intelligence, would people be applauding it for producing a “safe” space for students to “try on new clothes, nudge themselves away from who they were toward who they will become, make a stab at independence”? Allowing these students to “make mistakes” could have had terrible repercussions.

        Finally, I know Dr. Robin wanted to “set aside the problem of entrapment.” However, there is no problem of entrapment to set aside. Even if the undercover agent were the instigator of the plot, that still wouldn’t be entrapment. See: http://thecriminallawyer.tumblr.com/post/19810672629/12-i-was-entrapped

        • KM November 2, 2015 at 2:48 pm | #

          What an amazingly puerile and condescending cartoon.

          “Entrapment is concerned with whether the police (the state) *corrupted* you to commit a crime you weren’t otherwise inclined to commit.”

          Of course, to make such confident pronouncements about there being “no problem of entrapment to set aside”, our Random Internet Person must know an awful lot about this particular case. Moreover, s/he must also be well aware of the sordid history of terrorism charges brought against individuals (to loud public proclamations of “Terrorist plot thwarted!”) by the FBI and U.S. police forces since 9/11. A history in which corrupting individuals to commit crimes they clearly had never even previously entertained has indeed been a recurrent theme.

          As an aside, gotta love the cartoon’s implicit distinction between “good” vs. “bad” agent provocateurs.

    • David Green October 31, 2015 at 2:12 pm | #

      @Tom Shapiro: To be factually accurate, ONE death, however reprehensible:

      From Wikipedia:

      Robert Fassnacht was a 33-year-old postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. On the night and early morning of August 23/24, 1970, he had gone to the lab to finish up work before leaving on a family vacation.[20] He was involved in research in the field of superconductivity. At the time of the explosion, Fassnacht was in his lab located in the basement level of Sterling Hall. He was monitoring an experiment when the explosion occurred.[21] Rescuers found him face down in about a foot of water.

      He was survived by his wife, Stephanie, and their three children, a three-year-old son, Christopher, and twin one-year-old daughters, Heidi and Karin.

      Injured in the bombing were Paul Quin, David Schuster, and Norbert Sutler. Schuster, a South African graduate student,[22] who became deaf in one ear and with only partial hearing in the other ear,[23] was the most seriously injured of the three, suffering a broken shoulder, fractured ribs and a broken eardrum; he was buried in the rubble for three hours before being rescued by firefighters. Quin, a postdoctoral physics researcher, and Sutler, a university security officer, suffered cuts from shattered glass and bruises.[2] Quin, who became a physics professor at U. W. Madison, always refused to discuss the bombing in public.[23]

      As far as I know, this was the ONLY death attributed to anti-Vietnam War violence other than Weathermen blowing up themselves.

      Let’s have some perspective please. This is the Vietnam War and Cointelpro we’re talking about here.

  3. Mushin October 30, 2015 at 12:33 pm | #

    Corey,

    I was 19 years old in the US Army stationed 23 miles from Kent State University and refused a direct order to enter the campus on May 4th 1970. I paid a heavy price for saying “no.” Since then I have observed in American public discourse the Declaration of Independence and Constitution having been buried at KSU. We now have the Patriot Act empowering Corporate Plutocracies to operate without any restraints an arrogant aggressive deceptive regulatory capture rent control as the standard praxis of democracy. We do not live in a Democracy rather a 21st century enlightened media entertainment show devolving into who can trump “Jerry Springer Reality Shows” of trailer trash insanity. The founding fathers of America would not even recognize the lying, cheating and stealing going on in this shadow governance.

    I am extremely critical of higher educational institutions supporting this patriocracy bullsh$t. I have already elaborated on my mood of indignation in previous posts. Simultaneously, I am a Veteran for Peace and any sectarian religiosity including scientists claiming to do God’s Will with a sacred text in one hand and gun in the other needs an EMT not a seat in governance. The current public discourses of Jewish, Christian and Moslems politicians is a covert deceptive arrogant aggression regressing humanity into the Middle Age Crusades. Even more relevant to the so called “followers” is the diabolical clerical politicians including President George Bush that are an embarrassment to Abraham, Christ and Mohamed. I am sure the three of them are disgusted with this political nonsense scaring the living daylights out of children. Maybe we Americans can bring back popular public hanging of politicians and Wall Street criminals. I am sure the attendance will surpass Super Bowl ratings and Janet Jackson’s tit flashing episode in “Tell The Truth Reality Show.” The problem with suicide is its the sensitive ones while the bullies continue to rule the playground.

    My question to you as an American Liberal Progressive Philosopher is how do recommend protection of the non-violent peoples in the world (children) from the MBA neoliberal narcissistic bean-counters running governments, corporations owning the judiciary law making apparatus, and technological glittering twittering universe gaming turning 2 year olds into Cyborg Terminators of consumptive insanity? In my assessment it is not enough for CUNY to say anything goes with students running the insane asylum, especially with biosynthetic discoveries and 3D printing on the horizon where an isolated fruitcake can create pandemic diseases overnight. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean ethically, it is OK to do it. Professors have a lot to answer for in my judgement. So learning is a social responsibility and the entire educational system is operating in Plato’s Militaristic Cave where the Professors are the prostitutes creating the shadow governments for money. Children love to learn and are curious. Learners need interviewed in appreciative inquiry and dialog, and mentored by creative wise people. Unfortunately it is not part of the curriculum in American education. Becoming a mentor requires creative critical thinking and respect in dignifying conversations in collaborative learning. Most Professor’s are interested in moving up the ladder in priesthood of militaristic bullsh$t.

    Please note: I have no gun, no knife, no weapons and am lectured daily on how and why I should immediately arm my six year old grand daughter to keep her safe. I live on a campus where guns are prohibited and you must pass security to enter. Now that notion of arming my grand daughter is a serious collective mental health discussion in America, and everyone I know is avoiding the conversation and living in denial. Trust is the key to learning anything and I pray your students trust you, and you mentor them in designing their young lives. Of course, I am considered crazy and probably by you as well, which at my age I have no expectations of being validated by an American Professor. Therein as a beginner in learning is the freedom of this student of philosophy that may authentically speak honestly and use the term bullsh$t as a part of the American lexicon that is growing by leaps and bounds today.
    Later

    • Will October 31, 2015 at 9:29 pm | #

      I didn’t realize regular US Army troops from the Ravenna Arsenal, rather than Ohio National Guard, were present at Kent State on 4 May.

  4. wtimberman October 30, 2015 at 12:38 pm | #

    Bravo!

  5. xenon2 October 30, 2015 at 2:12 pm | #

    Bravo, indeed!

  6. Glenn October 30, 2015 at 2:15 pm | #

    The pitiful state of US democracy today demands that students be read their Miranda Rights before exploring possibilities with hypotheticals.

  7. gstally October 30, 2015 at 5:25 pm | #

    I’ll sign.

    • gstally October 30, 2015 at 5:26 pm | #

      Awesome post btw!

  8. Qwert November 1, 2015 at 9:00 am | #

    U do realize the fact that they were being monitered probably saved lives right?

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