Interview with Brooklyn College Professor Manny Ness on the crisis at the Graduate Center for Worker Education
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Introduction: For two years I taught as the Belle Zeller Visiting Professor in Political Science at Brooklyn College-City University of New York. As part of my work, I taught a graduate class through Brooklyn College’s Graduate Center for Worker Education which is based in downtown Manhattan. The program was targeted at adults, most of who worked, who sought to secure a graduate degree. The student population was as fascinating as it was diverse. They had varying experiences in the “real world.” Some of these students were activists, but most were not. They were working class New Yorkers who were not only trying to better themselves, but wished to involve themselves in a progressive academic environment. It was an honor to have been associated with the program.
It was, therefore, with great distress that I began to hear rumors of efforts to deconstruct the program. These efforts began with allegations against the head of the program, Professor Joseph Wilson, that were soon followed by what can only be described as a purge of the Center. The Center soon became nothing more than a shell of its old self.
A struggle has unfolded aimed at saving the Graduate Center. The following is an exchange with Professor Manny Ness who, for years, was attached to the Graduate Center. I asked him to help us understand what has been transpiring at Brooklyn College as well as the broader implications.
Bill Fletcher: There has been a crisis unfolding at the Graduate Center for Worker Education at Brooklyn College-City University of New York. Please tell us about the nature of the crisis? Also, why do you believe that anyone outside of Brooklyn College should be concerned about these events?
Manny Ness: The crisis is the retrenchment and effort to close a landmark worker education program at Brooklyn College, the Graduate Center for Worker Education (GCWE). For more than 30 years, the GCWE provided graduate education in the humanities and social sciences to working people, who went on to transmit their knowledge as leaders in trade unions, within under-served and impoverished communities, health care institutions, and through government service. Crucially, many have gone on to work in the labor movement as educated and informed activists and trade unionists.
The attack against the GCWE is part of a broader offensive against the working class by the capital and the right wing. Worker education programs are not considered income-generating institutions within the academy, but as a remnant of the workers, civil rights, and women’s movements. What is alarming about the dismantling of the GCWE are the culprits who are avowed liberals in Brooklyn College and City University of New York (CUNY). But as we know, today’s liberals are also supporters of free market and profit-driven solutions. Some have used neo-liberal excuses: the former dean told an elected official that CUNY was seeking to eliminate redundancy. This logic supported those who are simply ignorant of the program’s purpose: the interim director, a self-described labor activist, said the GCWE accepted too many students and wanted to create a labor research program. In effect, the interim director sought to change the goals and mission of the program without any consultation. For 30 years, the objective and mission of the GCWE has been to train working people in the humanities so they also may have the chance to influence society from the perspective of the working class. Indeed the interim director of the GCWE did not even know that the program he ran was intended to broaden knowledge in the humanities and social sciences to workers who would go on and serve unions and community groups. As worker education programs are undermined by conservative and liberal opponents, civil society and our way of life is diminished as those in higher education seek to insulate their professions from the daily lives of the majority of people in the world. Let’s face it: worker education programs in New York serve primarily working class people of color.
The Committee of Concerned Students, Alumni, Faculty and Staff to Save the GCWE, formed in the fall of 2012, is distressed that students who want to apply knowledge to create a better world will no longer have the same opportunity that their predecessors had; leading to the further evisceration of the labor movement in the USA. I have heard many rumors that it is being replaced by a US State Department funded Iran democracy project, or, ultimately, an extension of Brooklyn College’s film school.
The defense committee believes that worker education is crucial to the development of an equitable and just society through developing and sharpening the intellectual skills to low-wage working people who only have time to attend evening classes. For the past two centuries, under capitalism, the upper-class and elitists have always considered working people unworthy for the academy that has been dominated by the wealthy and the ‘gifted.’ As historian David Brody writes, business will always act like ‘beasts of the field.’ An educated worker is anathema to a plutocratic society. Sociologist Joseph Schumpeter and his acolytes in the social sciences were comforted that an uneducated working class is a necessary bulwark against the creation of effective democratic institutions in society. The GCWE was created as a means to educate working people and was organized in the tradition of the Workers’ Educational Association in the UK, Ruskin College at Oxford University and other programs established and guided by the opposing idea that cultivating worker-intellectuals is essential to promote an equitable society which provides knowledge to the majority who are denied access to ivory tower universities.
BF: The attack against GCWE appears to be illustrative of a process unfolding all over the USA. What makes the situation at Brooklyn College noteworthy?
MN: As noted, the attack at Brooklyn College is taking place in the City University of New York, a liberal, ostensibly pro-labor redoubt for organized labor and center of public sector unionism. New York City Mayor Bloomberg has first and foremost sought to destroy unions in the public sector: refusing to negotiate collective bargaining agreements, and thereby demoralize rank-and-file workers who are losing faith in feeble unions to which they pay dues, but less able than ever to provide members with wages and benefits of previous decades. How different is New York State from Wisconsin? New York has achieved budget cuts without the outcry and public debate in Wisconsin. Leaders and activists within Occupy Wall Street, located in Zuccotti Park, just four blocks from the program, were drawn from Brooklyn College students and the GCWE ambit. OWS helped sponsor public events at the program! Clearly we were doing something right. Ironically, at the very same time, GCWE was under attack by CUNY.
Like many other worker education programs, government and university administrators cut budgets year after year without public debate and public discussion. By making a scapegoat out of the administrator who tried to keep the Graduate Center for Worker Education afloat for more than a decade by following directives to generate revenues while budgets were cut, the entire program was destroyed. In any department, college and university, there are internal personal divisions, but the attack and dismantling of the GCWE rises to a new level, where an entire program is dismembered. As noted, what’s telling is that the Brooklyn College Dean even told New York State Assemblyman Joe Lentol that the program was under scrutiny in an effort to “look to eliminate redundancies.” Those in urban liberal locations who believe they are immune to the assault against organized labor and racial equality are closing their eyes to the hypocrisy of elected officials and university administrators who are opposed to labor unions and who seek to reduce access to university education to people of color. We need to be more attentive as other programs are surely on the chopping block in New York and throughout the USA.
BF: There are those who take issue with your analysis and suggest that the Graduate Center was not doing the sort of work that it needed to do; that it did not have a relationship with the local labor movement; and that it mishandled resources. What do you say in response to such allegations?
MN: The ad hominem attack by some members of my own department and their supporters against the Graduate Center has been already disproved. The allegations are baseless and cannot survive the light of day. The program, among other things, has helped to promote a new generation of trade unionists, many of whom come out of the public sector. As to whether there were problems in the program, certainly any program can be improved with greater resources. One must keep in mind that the program ran with only one full-time staff person, and it was a success, as faculty and staff were a constant presence, even if unpaid. We know it is easy to destroy a program and then say it doesn’t work. In effect, that’s precisely what the interim director did. Admissions were halted and then severely restricted, effectively destroying a vibrant program that served students and graduates alike. All public programs were cancelled aside from the Labor and Working Class History Association conference, drawing 600 labor activists and scholars. The interim director who launched the attack against the very program he presided over, did not even realize that he was overseeing a worker education program intended to educate union members and future leaders in urban and government relations, public policy, and the political process and to go on to rebuild the workers movement. Instead, he thought the program was a labor education program, akin to the National Labor College, where graduates were trained in union organizing, collective bargaining, labor-management relations, and pension fund administration. But even labor education programs have classes in history, social sciences, and public policy.
So far as mismanagement of resources, in the first place, there were very few resources. In these times of neoliberal privatization, public universities are forcing programs to raise money through outside sources. While I have no knowledge of mismanagement, I remember that the program did a lot with few resources. The Graduate Center sponsored events and national conferences for which it had to raise funds, this because the program was under assault. I am proud that the Consortium for Worker Education helped sponsor the Labor and Working Class History Association, which burnished the image of a withering worker education program. Not once was a public discussion held on the future of the GCWE. As a faculty member, I was not consulted even once about the fate of the program. I believe that those who have positions of authority in public institutions hold the responsibility and duty to share their plans with faculty. Not once were faculty members notified of any plans.
Sometimes academics forget that their main responsibility is to ensure the education of students. In my view the actual malfeasance is the revisionist history that was shaped by those who were ignorant of the program. The question that many wonder is what type of institution is CUNY: to most observers, attention is directed at elite programs and schools that generate income from the private sphere. That’s precisely what corporations do: focus resources where they can extract the most income and turn a huge profit. Stewardship over the academy is not about profits but education. The malfeasance began with the reduction of resources by state and city officials. Those administrators who are presiding over the program’s dismantling are only the most recent chapter in this tragic situation. It is my hope that those CUNY administrators who recognize the significance of worker education will do the right thing and restore this highly respected program.
BF: Thank you very much.