People who work in public higher education know that it is in crisis – but it’s a crisis largely ignored by corporate media. When large media outlets do pay attention, coverage tends to echo the overall attack on labor and the public sector: colleges should be run more like a business, taxing the rich is unrealistic, and unions are obstacles to progress.
Clarion, the union’s website (psc-cuny.org) and its weekly electronic newsletter This Week in the PSC all work to convey a different vision, one that is grounded in the experience of union members and the people they serve. During this past semester, PSC members at several campuses also responded to the drumbeat of attacks – by making their own media.
“As we get pummeled by the narratives of the corporate media, it’s important for us to develop our own narratives,” says Bill Marsh, an assistant professor of English at QCC and one of the founders of The Campus Ledger, an eight-page, black-and-white newspaper.
Marsh and Joel Kuszai, an assistant professor of English, took the lead in developing the paper, which is published independently of the central union. The first issue came out on March 2 with a front page story about the occupation of the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. Four more issues followed by the end of the semester (see
Faculty and student contributors wrote about immediate concerns such as organizing against budget cuts, the future of public-sector pensions and proposed changes to general education requirements. The Ledger also covered a potpourri of other issues – gay rights, vegetarianism, Tibet, the joys of living an ordinary life and the frustrations of using social media – while also offering poetry, crossword puzzles and a regular advice column for union activists.
“It has a little bit of everything,” commented Aranzazu Borrachero, an associate professor of foreign languages. Borrachero says the paper allows faculty to explore sensitive topics in a thoughtful manner. In the final issue of the semester, she wrote about the impact of social and economic class on the lives of QCC students.
“There is a lot of fear at CUNY about talking about poverty with the poor or discrimination with the discriminated,” Borrachero told Clarion. “Our students lose the opportunity to reflect critically on their own experiences.”
With a print run of 2,000, The Ledger is distributed by leaving copies at prominent public venues around the QCC campus, Marsh said. Printing costs are about $200 per issue. Faculty members also share copies with their departmental colleagues and have sometimes used them in class.
The paper was conceived as a vehicle for organizing on campus, and Carl Lindskoog, an adjunct lecturer in history, has taken advantage of this potential. Lindskoog placed an announcement on the back page of The Ledger to promote a pair of first-ever campus-wide meetings of adjuncts in early April and wrote an article about the meeting (“Adjunct Network Launched at QCC”) for a subsequent issue.
When doing one-on-one outreach, Lindskoog told Clarion, “I would open it up and say, ‘Hey, did you see this?’ It’s nice to have something tactile to point to,” he added, “and if it’s a nicely laid-out, interesting newspaper, it can be a good tool for organizing.” Lindskoog has used Clarion in the same way, he added, but a local publication has its own advantages.
Print, of course, is not the only way to organize. Adjuncts took advantage of digital media when one of their own, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, was removed from teaching a graduate seminar on Middle East politics by the administration at Brooklyn College on January 24, days before the semester was scheduled to begin. The action was prompted by complaints from Assemblymember Dov Hikind and CUNY Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who objected to Petersen-Overton’s political views.
As Petersen-Overton sought support from within CUNY and across academia, a blog on academic freedom sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Advocate newspaper became a major online organizing center. A petition on the Advocate’s website drew more than 1,000 signatures within 24 hours, while the blog served as a magnet for statements from a striking number and diversity of scholars across the country and around the world. Updates also went out on Facebook and Twitter.
“We worked around the clock for as many days as it took for the situation to resolve itself,” said Michael Busch, a doctoral student in political science and an adjunct at CCNY who worked on the blog.
“It showed the volume and the speed with which the international academic community was rallying,” added Corey Robin, an associate professor in Brooklyn College’s political science department. “They [the BC administration] felt their decisions were being watched by the whole world.”
Faced with the BC Political Science Department’s unanimous backing of the Petersen-Overton appointment and a growing chorus of dissent from around the world, the college re-hired Petersen-Overton on January 31, just in time for his first class of the semester.
Busch said he didn’t let his non-tenured status deter him from taking action. “There was a job that needed to get done,” he said. “Better to fight the fight you believe in then to sit down and worry.”
At John Jay, a group of faculty members turned to humor to make a point by publishing The Rap Scallion, a satirical, faux newspaper modeled on The Onion. Front-page stories reported arrests on campus for trafficking in enslaved adjuncts, and a burgeoning controversy over deceased French philosopher Michel Foucault’s announcement that Wisconsin’s union-busting governor Scott Walker is an “essentialist.” Ads promoting the May 5 demonstration and other PSC-backed protests and lobbying days were sprinkled throughout The Rap Scallion.
CREATING A BUZZ
“We wanted to do something that would create a buzz,” said Avi Bornstein, an associate professor of anthropology, who put the paper together with the help of eight other contributors. “We thought satire might be a better way of getting at some faculty and staff who aren’t mobilized by other forms of communication.”
At York, PSC Chapter Secretary William Ashton came up with a creative solution to a long-standing communications challenge. The college does not have e-mail lists dedicated specifically to faculty and professional staff that the union chapter can use to communicate with its members. So last fall, Ashton and Chapter Chair Janice Cline compiled an e-mail list of 335 union members on campus. Ashton told Clarion he was able to sign up a number of part-timers by reaching out to department chairs for the e-mail addresses of newly hired adjuncts.
On November 10, Ashton began sending out messages at a rate of about one per day on issues of concern to union members and how they could get involved in PSC campaigns (click here for announcement list).
“I think it’s paying off,” he told Clarion, noting that union members at York are now participating more in e-mail, phone call and letter-writing campaigns to influence elected officials and CUNY administrators.
From electronic bulletins to newsprint tabloids, PSC members this year have been putting their own stamp on an old adage: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”