The “State” of Higher Education






Here in New York, we are in the midst of a heated debate over “academic freedom.” The Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, a student club, has organized an event for Thursday, Feb. 7, to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is a non-violent movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In recent weeks, numerous ideologues and politicians in and outside of our city have come out in opposition to this event. Specifically, what many oppose is the “sponsorship” of the event by the college’s Political Science department. Others contend that even just by providing space for this event without providing equal space to those with opposing viewpoints—a spurious charge easily refuted by college officials and faculty who have rolled off their tongues the names of pro-Israel speakers invited to speak at the college—that the college administration itself, even the college president, are guilty of “endorsing” the views of the BDS movement.

The Free University of NYC has not formally weighed in on this debate. What I’d like to point out here, then, is the diversity of views that many of us hold regarding one central actor in this debate: the state.

Regarding public higher education in the United States, the state—variously defined as local, state, and/or federal governments, but also all those who purport to speak for the state—holds enormous power and influence, and presents a formidable obstacle to achieving student control. Here in New York, the SUNY and CUNY university systems, financed (at least partially) with public taxpayer funds, were and are the creation of state legislative bodies that continue to make decisions regarding the “state” of public higher education, with or without student input.  Sometimes the state is determined to become less responsible for providing low-cost, accessible education to the people—by decreasing subsidization of tuition, for example, and by proposing the privatization of increasing sectors of the university system—but the state also, hypocritically, sometimes wants to be more involved in our education. Just look at how many state representatives have decided to weigh in on the “morality” of the Brooklyn College event. The state wants it both ways: against the things that students want, and for the things that we don’t want.

What a sorry sight to see so many New York City politicians come out publicly last week in opposition to the Brooklyn College administration and faculty. And why did they all weigh in? Because they are public officials, they said, and Brooklyn College, as a public place of higher learning (part of the CUNY system), is therefore their responsibility. There is Dov Hikind, New York State Assemblyman from Brooklyn, who came out saying: “the college being used by a group with a racist agenda is a flagrant misuse of the tax dollars.” As a representative of the state, he apparently feels responsible for determining how our tax dollars are spent within our schools. (Never mind that our CUNY and SUNY systems are overrun with administrators who are paid to make those exact decisions—no, never mind that, for Assemblyman Hikind knows exactly what is best for New York taxpayers and students. That is why he unilaterally demanded that the college president step down over this one issue.) And these are not empty threats, either: these are the guys that control the purse strings of the university system.

Even “progressive” politicians in New York City have come out against Brooklyn College. Here’s a statement signed by 19 NYC-area politicians; some of them are even familiar names to us, because they are traditional allies of our movement. So what’s going on here? Why does the state want to exercise responsibility now, in regards to one singular event hosted at just one campus, when they have shirked their responsibilities to the lower-income students and families of New York State for years?

We might look at other recent examples in order to better understand how states interface with public higher education. During the Wisconsin uprising of spring 2011, for example, after historian William Cronon started publishing critical examinations of the role of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) in legislation then under consideration at the state house, Republican politicians in Wisconsin called for an investigation into Cronon’s conduct at the University of Wisconsin. They called on the university administration to release Professor Cronon’s emails to the public, suggesting that since he is an public employee, all his correspondence is therefore public property. They wanted to determine whether or not he had used any taxpayer-funded spaces, times, or technologies (like his office computer, for example) in order to discuss political issues or activities. What they really wanted was for him to resign.

As an alternative example, consider the discourse circulating in so many circles today in the wake of Aaron Swartz‘s tragic suicide. Swartz was under federal investigation, and facing serious jail time, for having downloaded the contents of JSTOR, an online database of scholarly journals, and allegedly seeking to make those materials available to the wider public. Those who justify Swartz’ actions—and many in the academic community do—argue that because most scholarly work is publicly funded, then everyone should be entitled to open access to that scholarly work. I think of my own case, as a public employee of the State of New York. Part of what I am paid to do is research. So how come when I publish my research in scholarly journals only ivory tower academics, with exclusive access to JSTOR, are able to read it?

This latter example demonstrates one area where the state has failed to uphold its responsibilities to the public. If you add subsidized tuition to the issue of “open access”—or perhaps we might re-define “open access” as a demand for both open classrooms and open research—it is clear that the student movement has a lot to fight for in order to make public higher education truly public.

But to do so, to push the state to take greater responsibility for providing “free education,” might also threaten to erode the power of students in “freeing” education ourselves. And here, the debate between the more socialistic and anarchist tendencies in our movement bubbles up to the surface.

Members of the Free University of NYC appear to be of many minds on the role of the state in higher education. Many want to see the state fully subsidize education for all, and many perhaps desire for the state to be more proactive in defending the “publicness” of our universities, by supporting “open access” not only to university classes but to university research. But many in our movement also want to see the state back off from higher education. Most of us oppose the intervention of state representatives and authorities who intimidate student groups and faculty members simply because of their political beliefs. We oppose the current actions of our politicians who have rushed in to denounce Brooklyn College rather than embrace a more “public”—democratic, horizontal, participatory—understanding of how colleges and universities should work.

Together, we fight to free education—with “free” as an active verb, not a passive adjective. But how do we do this? How do we free education? Do we ask the state to provide it for us? Or do we create it ourselves? The answer to that question will likely determine the “state” of higher education in years to come.

[Just a friendly reminder that the views expressed in this blog are sometimes those of individuals and sometimes that of a collective body. Today’s post reflects the views of one.]

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