Public Education–An Expendable Farce?

by Richard Elzey, via Flickr

On February 7th, the philosopher Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS movement, spoke at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY). The BDS movement (which stands for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions”) protests Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.

In her remarks, Butler stated that she had expected this to be like other campus events, “a conversation with a few dozen student activists in the basement of a student center.” Instead, Butler found herself in a political melee over whether the college could host the event at all.

Last month, a coalition of student groups asked the Political Science department at Brooklyn College (of which I am a member) to endorse or sponsor the panel. We decided not to endorse the event, but to co-sponsor it alongside student and non-student groups. On January 30th, Brooklyn College alumnus and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Post calling the event a “hate orgy.” Then, State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (yes, that of the current Purim blackface scandal in this week’s news) stated that BDS, a non-violent movement, “think Hamas and Hezbollah are nice organizations, and they probably feel the same way about Al Qaeda!” He asked that Brooklyn College President Karen Gould resign for allowing the co-sponsorship and the event to happen.

By January 31st, almost two dozen city officials, including quite a few notable progressive ones—including leading mayoral candidates and members of Congress—placed further pressure on our department to withdraw co-sponsorship, even as they maintained that “students and professors must remain free to… engage in open and vigorous debate.”

More disturbingly, several Council members threatened to withhold public funds from our university unless my department withdrew its co-sponsorship. They wrote, “We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong.”

These politicians argued that our department is implicitly endorsing BDS, though we explicitly stated otherwise. We reiterated our departmental willingness to co-sponsoring additional student-initiated events, regardless of the speakers’ political messages. The lawmakers also argued that a BDS panel necessitated an anti-BDS speaker. However, university panels regularly present just one or two speakers, partly so that audience members can then more carefully parse (and question) the nuances of the speakers’ arguments. In addition, Professor Dershowitz himself gave a talk at Brooklyn College in May 2008 in favor of torture warrants, with no respondents.

It is thus disingenuous, to say the least, to attempt to shut down an event in the name of “academic freedom.” On February 4th, our college President took a courageous stand in affirming that, “The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event.” The same day, the New York Times published an op-ed supporting President Gould, the college, and our department, pronouncing that, “Such intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom.” Several signatories to the letter threatening cut-offs to university funding rescinded their signatures.

Finally, on February 6th, the day before the event, Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed his support for the college’s decision, proclaiming, “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

Hours later, most of the politicians who demanded that we “balance” the panel with anti-BDS views or withdraw our co-sponsorship pulled back from their earlier position.

End of story? The event went on as planned. “The potential for a second Holocaust,” as Hikind so subtly warned us about, did not manifest. If anything, the event itself might have struck some as anticlimactic, for the event unfolded as university panels usually unfold—with students listening to speakers’ arguments, asking questions, and reflecting upon and debating these arguments. This might be a commonplace occurrence at elite institutions like Yale (where Barghouti spoke about BDS the day before), but they are relatively rare occasions at Brooklyn. The climax, then, lay in the anti-climax.

This is indeed a moment to relish, but I hesitate to celebrate. As Butler remarked, “You come here to exercise critical judgment, and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing view and to communicate that as you wish. In this way, your being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment… without coercion and fear.”

The fact that the event occurred does not mean that students and faculty can now engage in critical debates without coercion and fear. At Brooklyn College, no other department co-sponsored the event, and the media maelstrom might have convinced college administrators around the country to avoid such controversial events in the future.

Granted, Brooklyn College is certainly not an exceptional campus in experiencing fierce debates and protests, especially regarding Israel and Palestine. There have been several bitter tenure battles regarding “pro-Palestinian” professors at Columbia University, for instance. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner being denied an honorary degree at an elite, private university, as he was at CUNY (before public outcry convinced the board to reverse the decision).

Further, threats to academic freedom are especially pernicious at public institutions like CUNY because 1. They are perpetrated by public servants and lawmakers, rather than individual donors or private institutions, and 2. They disproportionately affect those with the fewest resources, working-class students and students of color. CUNY is the largest urban university in the United States, with roughly 540,000 students currently enrolled. Roughly three-quarters of students belong to racial minorities. Most hail from working-class households. Many have overcome significant barriers in their attempts to access a substantive, challenging education, critical analysis and intellectual skills-building, and the ability to engage in (and help to shape) policy debates and discourse.

The censorship of ideas at CUNY is therefore not just perpetrated by overt threats from donors and lawmakers, but by a slow-building climate of self-censorship. Untenured faculty might avoid controversial topics or certain texts (for fear of seeming biased), especially since conservative activists like David Horowitz publish blacklists of “dangerous professors” and beseech students to watch out for “liberal bias.” A growing reliance upon adjunct lecturers means that fewer and fewer instructors can speak out without worrying about endangering their jobs.

Students, too, are fearful. In late 2011, the Associated Press reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had helped the New York Police Department to set up a unit to monitor Muslims throughout the northeast region (even outside of New York), regardless of whether these citizens had been convicted, charged, or suspected of committing any crimes. In other words, while the CIA is legally banned from spying on Americans, it aided the NYPD to do so. From at least 2003 to 2006, undercover police infiltrated Muslim student associations at several universities, including Brooklyn College. The college’s President of the Islamic Society, a business management major, told a university newspaper that he sat silently through class discussions on US torture policy. After all, “if I say torturing terrorists is cruel, then I might be seen as a terrorist sympathizer.”

If members of the public cannot debate contentious issues on university campuses, where can they do so?

Also in late 2011, police rode motorcycles into crowds to scatter Occupy-related protestors at Baruch College, another CUNY institution. A Board of Trustees meeting legally mandated to be open to the public was instead conducted on a campus under lockdown, with all classes canceled. The entire city block surrounding the building was shut down. In such a democratic forum (an open meeting open to no one), no wonder the Board of Trustees easily passed more tuition hikes…. alongside an additional item, $15 million for private security. Meanwhile, at campus Occupy-related General Assemblies, students spoke repeatedly about feeling conspicuous, unsafe, and policed on campus.

Later this year, CUNY is slated to implement Pathways, an initiative that will reduce the number of classroom hours students receive, impose a uniform curriculum, centralize pedagogical decisions in the university-wide Chancellor’s office, and implement further cost savings. At first glance, the Pathways “austerity education” approach might seem unrelated to the BDS debacle, but it has similar implications for individual professors’ ability to conduct research, make arguments, sculpt rigorous syllabi, assign challenging assignments, and facilitate class discussions without fear of reprisal. It is a disservice to the students, for real academic freedom demands the resources to engage in critical inquiry.

We expect universities to effectively exclude their students from acquiring the necessary skills to engage in the public sphere—to govern watered down curricula, or to shutter their doors for fear of protests or unpopular views— in Damascus (or as Bloomberg said, in Pyongyang). We do not expect this in New York…. unless this is, in fact, how we view CUNY students and what they deserve—their ideas not as worthy as those of budding intellectuals at elite institutions, their education an expendable farce.


This article was first published in German by the newspaper Die Tagezeitung.


Celina Su is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, specializing in the cultural politics of education. She is a co-author Our Schools Suck (with Gaston Alonso, Noel Anderson, and Jeanne Theoharis, New York University Press, 2009) and author of Streetwise for Book Smarts (Cornell University Press, 2009).