Working Class Access to Education Blocked by Brooklyn College

John Alter works for a non-profit in NYC that provides supportive services to the mentally ill, and is a 2012 graduate of the Urban Policy & Administration masters program at the Graduate Center for Workers Education
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Brooklyn College has officially announced plans to end the Urban Policy & Administration (UPA) program at the Graduate Center for Workers Education (GCWE). For over thirty years the UPA at GCWE has provided higher educational opportunities for the working people of New York City enabling them to advance their careers and the working class as a whole. As a graduate of the Brooklyn College UPA program at the GCWE, I witnessed the beginning of the dismantling of the program in the 2012 spring semester. That semester the administration at Brooklyn College abruptly dismissed essential faculty and staff, and left students struggling without many of the services guaranteed them by the college, and which they paid for. Students and remaining staff were shell-shocked; and nobody knew exactly what was going on. I reached out to the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences that semester with my questions and concerns, and was assured by the Dean that “…we are NOT dismantling the Center. On the contrary, we are preserving the integrity of the Center by returning it to its mission, which includes making the Center accessible to students.” Unfortunately, this turned out to be untrue. Brooklyn College plans to remove the UPA away from the GCWE downtown Manhattan location, where the majority of students work, to the main campus in Brooklyn located at the very last stop of the 2 and 5 trains, and no longer offering all courses at night; thus making access to higher education for working people much more difficult. They did this not for reasons surrounding the lease of the space, or any other difficult choices made in the face of austerity. According to a recent press release they plan to keep the space and utilize it for other, as of yet undecided, programs having nothing to do with worker issues.

Graduate Center for Workers Education in Brooklyn was the site of the recent LAWCHA conference. Now it is scheduled for elimination.
Graduate Center for Workers Education in Brooklyn was the site of the recent LAWCHA conference. Now it is scheduled for elimination.

In response to Brooklyn College’s refusal to maintain such a necessary and vibrant program a group organized the Committee of Concerned Students, Alumni, Faculty & Staff (COC) to create a petition to save the program from destruction. Recently the interim director of the program, Corey Robin, has spoken out against the petition. Robin puts forth the reasons for the dismantling GCWE by citing vague allegations of misconduct by the previous director and compromised academic standards. He goes as far as accusing members of COC, of which I am a member, of merely being a self-serving tool of the former director and other dismissed faculty and staff.

While I stand by the former director, I think it is important to make a distinction in the battle the COC is undertaking. The issue of malfeasance on the part of the former director and compromised academic standards – allegations made despite any evidence of wrongdoing and two years of investigation with no charges substantiated, neither academic or legal – is to conflate the issue presented. The main concern of the COC is for the ongoing access to higher education for the working people of New York in a program designed to increase civic engagement around working class issues on a governmental and public policy level. That is why this program was created at the GCWE thirty years ago and that is why it should remain there. If any “improvements” should be made, well then make them, and leave the program at the GCWE.

The powers that be at Brooklyn College don’t deny that worker education is important; and the interim director, Robin, who publicly boasts his role as architect of the program’s demise, in Orwellian doublespeak says he is “dedicated to working class issues,” yet spearheads the closure of an important access point to education for those working people he supposedly supports.

The Brooklyn College UPA program at the GCWE is an essential need for the working people of NYC. Alumni have gone on to many prominent careers as union leaders, elected officials in our city and state government, heads of government offices, law, academia, public health, and non-profits. Access to educational opportunities is a key component to ameliorating the lives of workers. As the neoliberal narrative of meritocracy seems more and more a falsehood each day, working people struggle to make ends meet; and the working class in NYC need a program like the UPA at GCWE in order to take classes at night in a convenient location, thus enabling them to give back to their communities in meaningful ways. I put myself in that category, and without this program at the GCWE I would not have the degree Brooklyn College administrators now so easily dismiss.

Ironically, the GCWE recently hosted the 2013 LAWCHA Conference, while most attendees had no idea this celebrated space for worker education would soon be taken away from the workers it has served for so long.

Please read our petition to learn more about our demands and the history of the GCWE, and then sign and share it!

In Solidarity,

John Alter
Chair, Committee of Concerned Students, Alumni, Faculty & Staff

  • Concerned member

    This is outrageous.I hope LAWCHA will make a public stand opposing this shutdown. I am a fan of Corey Robin’s work, and I have read his explanation, but something doesn’t smell right. I think it also stinks that we weren’t informed until after the LAWCHA conference.

  • Steve Leberstein, New York, NY

    John Alter’s article raises a critically important issue for working people. As a long-time labor educator and one of the founders of the City College of NY Center for Worker Education, I know how important access to higher education is for many folks traditionally excluded from colleges and universities. What we don’t need are more mechanisms of exclusion, but rather means of inclusion so that working people can take positions of leadership in a movement to make ours a more democratic society, one that lives up to its ideals. The Brooklyn College administration is engaged in a shameful and dishonest effort to close off access to those most eager to take advantage of higher education for the benefit of their communities and the larger society. Let the college authorities know which side you are on now by signing the petition!

  • Mark Lause

    This is a new management style, I fear.

    About ten years ago, Karen Gould was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati and one of an administration team that reorganized the institution, dissolving the access colleges, theoretically integrating their function into the more well-funded four year colleges. There were good reasons to do this, but the university was contractually obligated to include the faculty in such decisions and their implementation. The way the administration got around this was to repeatedly deny that they were going to dissolve the colleges right up to the last minute . . . and then dissolve them. Secondarily, they did it all piecemeal, certain that faculty in parts of the system not immediately under attack would do nothing to assist those who were in the affected parts of the university. They also terrorized the affected faculty with rumors that any trouble would result in mass firings.

    Finally, the entire thing was wrapped in a phoney notion of “professionalism” that carries only the duty of remaining silent in the face of problems and grievances ,. . . ignoring our obligations to the project of higher education, our peers and students, and the needs of the wider society.

  • rebhill7

    I would like to see a formal response to this from the other side. I was a member of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY for ten years and know Corey Robin to be a strong supporter of the union there and I find it unlikely that he is doing something anti-labor.
    Unless I am mistaken, John Alter is arguing here that the rest of CWE – its liberal arts and humanities programs, including a new hemispheric American Studies program, have “nothing to do with worker issues.”
    It is my understanding that CWE is a division of City College, and that having a single grad program from Brooklyn leave the center is what we are talking about, not the closing of CWE. I taught at CWE as an adjunct in the undergraduate liberal arts program there from 2000- 2003. I was not aware of any grad program from Brooklyn college as central to the mission of the school. My classes were African-American history to 1865; History of Race and Social Movements; World History research methods; Writing in the Social sciences (for which students did workplace ethnographies); and “The Sixties” an interdisciplinary summer class that I taught two years in row. There were plenty of workers who thought such classes were highly relevant, including African-American workers who learned about the history of slavery, an amazing undocumented Latina ex-nun who wrote papers about her volunteer work with people with AIDS and HIV, and one older woman who told me that doing her workplace ethnography examining gender in a Wall St. firm between bosses and secretaries enabled her to “speak up to her boss for the first time.” Please go to the CWE website and decide if you think that the center is really doing work that has “Nothing to do with labor issues.” I don’t know the details of this dispute, and I respect Steve Leberstein, who is a good friend, but I am not ready to sign on to this campaign.

    • Tom Alter

      The issue here is that Urban Policy & Administration (UPA) program is no longer being offered at the Graduate Center for Workers Education (GCWE). This means no more night classes in a convenient location, but now only day classes in a much less convenient location. As a result this greatly hampers people that have to work for a living during the day from being able to pursue a MA in UPA at Brooklyn College. Whether or not Brooklyn College continues to offer classes of some sort in its space at 25 Broadway is not the issue. For myself and I’m assuming also for the nearly 1800 people that have signed the petition thus far, we see the closing of the UPA program at the GCWE as an attack on working-class access to higher education in NYC.
      Robin has a response and it can be read on his website here : http://coreyrobin.com/2013/07/26/please-do-not-sign-brooklyn-college-worker-ed-petition/
      Robin begins with the two year investigation of the former director of the GCWE. This point is now mute. What Robin does not state is that the investigation turned up no evidence of wrong doing. The question that needs asking now is why this investigation and the manner in which it was conducted even happened in the first place? What was the motivation behind this investigation?
      Another of Robin’s points is that the GCWE has not been functioning as a proper labor research center. The GCWE is not and never was meant to be a labor research center. Robin is making an argument out of nothing. Again, why is the GCWE being attacked?
      Manny Ness takes on Robin’s response here: http://portside.org/2013-08-01/support-worker-education-cuny-response-corey-robin-still-another-perspective-worker-ed
      Robin in citing his “labor credentials,” states that he was appointed by a past president of LAWCHA as if this gives him some kind of labor cover for his actions. Because of this LAWCHA members should read up on both sides of this debate and decided for themselves.

      Full disclosure: I am proud to say that John Alter is my brother. So yes, I first learned of this fight from the perspective of John and his former teachers. But I can say that I have seen first hand how the UPA program at the GCWE greatly benefited John and his classmates. A benefit that is now much harder for working people to earn.

      • rebhill7

        To people who are not familiar with the Center for Worker Education (CWE), this article suggests that CWE itself will no longer be offering night classes downtown or that GCWE is the only graduate program there. People reading this may not realize that CWE is run by City College, not Brooklyn College, and that the evening classes that City offers will continue. We are talking about ONE evening program leaving the school, not all of them. It further casts aspersions on the programs that will remain at the school and confuses the issue by suggesting that these programs will be new, when they are actually programs that have been running there for 25+ years plus one newer hemispheric American Studies MA created by long time CWE and City College faculty.

        Take a look at CWE’s website: http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/cwe/

        These descriptions of events are very misleading to people outside CUNY, and it may explain why the vast majority of signatures on the petition come from outside CUNY, why so many major labor scholars and activists in NY cannot be found on it (Stephanie Luce, Josh Freeman, etc) and why several people have removed their names from the petition after learning what is actually going on.

        • Tom Alter

          While I expect a full reply from John Alter to Hill, people should know that the Graduate Center for Workers Education (GCWE) and the Center for Workers Education (CWE) are two separate things. Again the issue is the UPA program at the GCWE. Yes, “ONE” program. But a program that was important and vital to working-class education in NYC. A link to the CWE website really does nothing in informing us about the conflict over the UPA program at the GCWE. Hill is being misleading by confusing the issues here. John’s opening sentence is “Brooklyn College has officially announced plans to end the Urban Policy & Administration (UPA) program at the Graduate Center for Workers Education (GCWE).” In no way is he being misleading. He does not discuss the CWE at all because it is a separate thing.

          • rebhill7

            Hi Tom, it’s true that John refers initially to the moving of UPA back to Brooklyn. Later in the article there is a quote from BC’s dean denying dismantling of “The center” and an argument by Alter that that this is false, and then a reference to Corey Robin justifying the “dismantling GCWE.” As I understand it, GCWE is still at 25 Broadway and has other programs still running. Perhaps I am wrong, but the move of UPA is not the end of GCWE.
            In addition, especially since people were just at LAWCHA, it seemed to me that they might be be confused about the difference between GCWE (run by Brooklyn) and CWE (run by City), Their names are nearly identical, and they occupy the same physical space, People who are not familiar with these programs might read this article and the petition associated with it to mean that Brooklyn College is shutting down worker education at 25 Broadway entirely.
            Finally, after talking to several people at CUNY, it has become clear to me that the decision to move the program back to Brooklyn College was made by the faculty of the Dept. of Political Science, not the CUNY administration.

            Robin gets at the crux of the issue here:
            “By calling on the Brooklyn College administration to “fully restore the Urban & Policy Administration…programs at the Downtown Manhattan campus of the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education,” this petition and its signers are asking the administration to overturn the faculty’s deliberations and decisions, to force upon us curricular and admissions policies we have foresworn, and to tell us who we must hire.
            That such a petition is being circulated by union activists and faculty who in any other circumstance would decry—and rightly so—such administrative interference as a violation of academic freedom is troubling.”
            I encourage people who have not read Robin’s explanation to do so here: http://coreyrobin.com/2013/07/26/please-do-not-sign-brooklyn-college-worker-ed-petition/

            • Steve Leberstein

              I’d like to clear up what seems to me a misunderstanding about the CUNY worker education programs. Full disclosure: I chaired the committee that planned the City College Center for Worker Education, which was approved by the college’s liberal arts faculty council and the City University Board of Trustees in 1981. I served as the Center’s executive director for over 20 years. The City’s labor movement played an important role in establishing and sustaining the Center over the years, notably Teamster’s Local 237, Communication Workers of America Local 1180, SEIU Local 1199, AFSCME District 1707, and others.

              The City College Center for Worker Education continues to serve New York’s working class communities today with an interdisciplinary liberal arts B.A. program and a B.S. in Early Childhood Education enrolling primarily NYC public school paraprofessionals and day care center workers. In the tradition of worker education, most of its courses in the social sciences are taught from the perspective of working people, and it does offer a labor studies concentration, but it is not a labor research center.

              The Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education, CWE’s sister program, opened a year or two later. It was located in the same facilities as the City College CWE, an important way of providing access to working people holding down full-time jobs in the Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn business districts. This enabled the two related programs to share some resources – neither one ever enjoyed lavish support in a long era of austerity – and to collaborate on projects of common interest.

              After retiring from City College, I taught on a part-time basis in the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for the past eight years, making me one of the “self-serving dismissed faculty members” that Robin excoriates. As for the investigative report by “leading labor scholars,” no one ever spoke to me or any of the other instructors I knew teaching there, or to any of my students, and the report remains secret, never having been released.

              To condemn an important institution serving working class students, and to dismiss its employees based on a secret investigative report, is unfortunately more akin to McCarthyism than to sound academic practice or labor advocacy. It’s a sad story.

      • Anonymous

        The main activity at CUNY Graduate Center under Robin was a US State Department program. Those who are not aware should ask him why he was so happy to replace a worker education program was giving space to the State Department to study Iran. Why don’t you ask Robin about his support of the union. He never goes to union meeetings, and has no record as a union activist. Even at Yale University, he was known as an opportunist. I remember as a member of the organizing committee.

    • PK

      The problem with Corey Robin is that he has never been interested in building mass movements or labor unions, so why in the world would he be put in the position of director of a worker education program. You’ve got to be kidding! He was always interested in hierarchical domination and could give a rats ass about working people I remember the graduate student organizing at Yale. He never had any interest in building support among graduate students but divided support by centering power around himself, interested in building his narrow power base through rhetorical arguments that drew a few more vocal supporters away from the organizing drive and dividing a dwindling base of activists. He took credit when things went well and ran for the hills when we needed support. He was always an elitist and I can’t understand why anyone would put him in charge of worker education? Maybe he can’t help himself but others should have known. John–I fell sorry for you. But then again, I could never figure out his motives, he was always calculating.

    • John Alter

      I think Steve and Tom more than adequately explain that minutia of the discussion over acronyms is a non-issue. However, to clarify, many people involved in the UPA program would refer to it by its abbreviated location – GCWE, or the Center – as many see the two as synonymous. But again, this point is not the issue. I also clearly state in the article that Brooklyn College plans to keep the space but what they will do with it is still unknown. The GCWE is still at 25 Broadway, for the time being and hopefully permanently, and in the past there have been other programs there but the UPA was certainly the focal point of the GCWE; and it’s unjustified removal casts a shadow over the future of the GCWE and the political direction of the Brooklyn College Administration.

      In regards to Robin’s blog, I believe his arguments to be disingenuous. Robin is certainly not the sole person responsible, but he is the only member of the Political Science Department to publicly take a stand against the petition and his statements put himself in the crossfire. The only way to justify the dismantling of the UPA program at the GCWE is by fabricating a false narrative. To besmirch this program and the hundreds of students who have come out of it, as well as the faculty that taught there, is wrong. Gerald Horne adeptly rebukes Robin’s public belittlement of the academic merit of degrees earned at the GCWE here:http://portside.org/2013-08-22

      Unfortunately, I’m not surprised many members of the Brooklyn College faculty have not signed the petition. Mentioning that some faculty members have not signed the petition, or even have taken their names off the petition, denies the effects of coercion on a faculty that does not want to stand against their leadership whether they agree or not; especially a leadership so blatantly vindictive, as evidenced by the reprehensible treatment of the former director, Joe Wilson. However, if one goes through the list of signers it is clear many prominent labor leaders and academics have signed on, whether they reside in Brooklyn or elsewhere is a moot point as the issue of blocking access to worker education is a global one.

      Hill’s response to this article raises a very important question: Why is it important to save this one program? The UPA at the GCWE, at least while led under Wilson, was a place where working class issues were at the forefront of the curriculum. Political activism was taught and encouraged by faculty. The diverse student body in the UPA program at the GCWE were predominantly working people; as well as immigrants, people of color, single parents and other members of our society continually denied access to education. Even with all the struggles of juggling work and school students were engaged members of their communities fighting for social
      justice in a myriad of ways. It is hard not to make political implications surrounding the dismantling of the program. For any labor academic to support the removal of this vibrant working class program I find disheartening.

      I think there are two questions that need to be asked by people interested in taking a side. Do you agree with the COC that location and night classes are an important factor for workers education? And then ask if a program that is dedicated to political engagement, specifically around working class issues, is an important program to be available for working people? If you say yes to those two questions then all the rationale for its removal given by anyone with an extensive list of “labor” credentials doesn’t matter. It really is that simple.

  • John Alter

    I think Steve and Tom more than adequately explain that minutia of the discussion over acronyms is a non-issue. However, to clarify, many people involved in the UPA program would refer to it by its abbreviated location – GCWE, or the Center – as many see the two as synonymous. But again, this point is not the issue. I also clearly state in the article that Brooklyn College plans to keep the space but what they will do with it is still unknown. The GCWE is still at 25 Broadway, for the time being and hopefully permanently, and in the past there have been other programs there but the UPA was certainly the focal point of the GCWE; and it’s unjustified removal casts a shadow over the future of the GCWE and the political direction of the Brooklyn College Administration.

    In regards to Robin’s blog, I believe his arguments to be disingenuous. From my sources there never was a vote by the Political Science Department at Brooklyn College to remove the program. Any argument that states the petition is a denial of academic freedom is misleading, at best. And he is certainly not the sole person responsible, but he is the only member of the Political Science Department to publicly take a stand against the petition and his statements put himself in the crossfire. The only way to justify the dismantling of the UPA program at the GCWE is by fabricating a false narrative. To besmirch this program and the hundreds of students who have come out of it, as well as the faculty that taught there, is despicable and elitist. Gerald Horne adeptly rebukes Robin’s public belittlement of the academic merit of degrees earned at the GCWE here: http://portside.org/2013-08-22/saving-worker-education

    Unfortunately, I’m not surprised many members of the Brooklyn College faculty have not signed the petition. Mentioning that some faculty members have not signed the petition, or even have taken their names off the petition, denies the effects of coercion on a faculty that does not want to stand against their leadership whether they agree or not; especially a leadership so blatantly vindictive, as evidenced by the reprehensible treatment of the former director, Joe Wilson. However, if one goes through the list of signers it is clear many prominent labor leaders and academics have signed on, whether they reside in Brooklyn or elsewhere is a moot point as the issue of blocking access to worker education is a global one.

    Hill’s response to this article raises a very important question: Why is it important to save this one program? The UPA at the GCWE, at least while led under Wilson, was a place where working class issues were at the forefront of the curriculum. Political activism was taught and encouraged by faculty. The diverse student body in the UPA program at the GCWE were predominantly working people; as well as immigrants, people of color, single parents and other members of our society continually denied access to education. Even with all the struggles of juggling work and school students were engaged members of their communities fighting for social
    justice in a myriad of ways. It is hard not to make political implications surrounding the dismantling of the program. For any labor academic to support the removal of this vibrant working class program I find disheartening.

    I think there are two questions that need to be asked by people interested in taking a side. Do you agree with the COC that location and night classes are an important factor for workers education? And then ask if a program that is dedicated to political engagement, specifically around working class issues, is an important program to be available for working people? If you say yes to those two questions then all the rationale for its removal given by Robin or anyone else with an extensive list of “labor” credentials doesn’t matter. It really is that simple.

  • Immanuel Ness

    The account and analysis of the importance of the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education by John Alter is moving, accurate, and inspiring to those of us who were privileged to teach students in the program. Historians will document of the
    vital contribution of the students and graduates of the program in energizing and democratizing public sector unions at a time when they are under relentless attack. Ironically, the GCWE, which enlivened working class New Yorkers for more than 30 years, now confronts annihilation by Brooklyn College and CUNY. As the working poor require public services and uplift more than ever, we must ask ourselves: why smear the reputations of students and graduates who found the GCWE a sanctuary for learning about building community and revitalizing democratic institutions in their workplaces and neighborhoods?

    John is among the distinguished graduates of GCWE who has devoted his life to building community organization, preventing evictions, publicly defending the poor and unwell, and creating democratic structures as gentrification displaces and chases working people from New York City. CUNY must save educational programs representing all New Yorkers rather than educating the ‘deserving’ few. Do we really want to live in a city that only serves the privileged (and not too intelligent) few who narcissistically seek to replicate neighborhoods as stodgy playgrounds for the rich and affluent? More than ever John Alter and the students and graduates of the GCWE should be applauded for their tireless work defending the less fortunate among us. They deserve recognition and not derision for their service in advancing equality in a diverse city. Today, the urgency of saving the GCWE is more important than ever: it is not about advancing personal reputations or the goals of any group but educating working people in New York City.