Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 27, 2019

Eric Blanc, the LA School Strike, and Swimming Against the Stream

Filed under: DSA,Education,electoral strategy,two-party system — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

Unlike other teachers strikes over the past year, the one that just took place in Los Angeles confronted a Democratic Party machine rather than one run by the Republicans. For those trying to understand our current period in class terms, it is a useful reminder that the labor movement has to learn how to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is the Republican Party with its snarling right-to-work, Koch-backed politicians while Charybdis is the Blue State power elite that uses seduction to get its way. Put in a nutshell, the main obstacle to putting public education in Los Angeles on the same footing it enjoyed 60 years ago means breaking through the veil of seduction and overthrowing the liberal establishment.

There’s a useful article by Eric Blanc on Jacobin titled “Never Trust a Billionaire’s Antiracism” that takes names and kicks ass as we used to put it in the 1960s. He singles out LA School Board President Monica Garcia who supported charter schools against the teachers union attempt to rein them in:

Nobody embodies this hypocrisy better than LAUSD head Monica Garcia. The daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants in East Los Angeles, Garcia has leveraged her personal background to climb the city’s power structure. She consistently paints her political project — which mostly consists of promoting charters and opposing the strike — in activist colors.

When it comes to issues she has no control over, Garcia is as progressive as can be. Her Twitter account is full of Nelson Mandela quotes, denunciations of Trump’s xenophobia, and praise for Elizabeth Warren. Despite her hard opposition to today’s strikes, Garcia is nevertheless fond of hosting conferences that raise the banner of the 1968 Chicano student walkouts.

Unfortunately, Blanc continues along his patented neo-Kautskyite lines in this article by drawing a contrast between LA’s former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Garcia on one side and the “socialist” wing of the DP on the other:

That’s why figures like Garcia and Villaraigosa were pushed forward to attack (in the name of racial justice) a movement of, and for, a predominantly nonwhite workforce and student body. It’s also why the Democratic Party establishment and its pundit apologists will continue to use antiracist rhetoric to attack Bernie Sanders and the resurgent socialist movement.

In May, 2016 Sanders told an Ohio audience: “I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in private – privately controlled charter schools.” Hmm. I hope one of his aides clued him in that charter schools in LA are public schools. That is the problem, after all. They drain public resources into an essentially private enterprise. Indeed, Bernie voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998. He believes, however, that these they must be “held to the same standards of transparency as public schools to ensure accountability for these privately managed organizations.” Transparency? Accountability? Jesus fucking Christ. These are not the right criteria. The right criteria are funding and the right to have a union. Charter schools get the lion’s share of the funding and teachers lose the right to challenge the administration through strikes or grievances.

As for Antonio Villaraigosa, Blanc merely refers to him as “a former union organizer who quickly abandoned his pro-labor commitments upon becoming LA’s mayor in 2005.” It is worth pointing out the DSA enthusiastically supported him for mayor. Writing for the DSA Democratic Left, Peter Dreier singled out the networks who were crucial to his election:

When he ran for Mayor the first time in 2001 he lost, but he ran again and won in 2005. Now we have a progressive mayor, thanks in large part to this impressive network of grassroots organizations, labor unions and community and environmental organizations. Many of them have lifted up some of their leaders into positions of electoral power. It’s a network of activists that work closely with elected officials, like Congresswoman Hilda Solis, and it’s just remarkable what L.A. has become.

In 2010, Villaraigosa named Austin Beutner as his Deputy Mayor. Beutner became Superintendent of the LA School System last year, appointed by the current mayor Eric Garcetti. Whatever made Villaraigosa pick someone like Beutner to be his second in command? In 1989, Beutner was a partner at Blackstone, a private equity group run by Stephen Schwarzman who once described Obama’s “crackdown” on Wall Street as “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Soon after Beutner became Deputy Mayor, he stated in an interview that his goal was “to make Los Angeles the most business-friendly city in the country.”

In 2015, billionaire Eli Broad, the Waltons and Michael Bloomberg spent $2.3 million to help elect a board of education that backed charter schools. This has been part of a major offensive by the capitalist class to restructure American education along quasi-privatization guidelines. Despite Bernie Sanders’s foolish notions about private versus public, all charter schools are private. The only difference between Arne Duncan and Betsy Devos is degree. The same thing with Obama saying in November 2018 “That whole suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer … that was me, people” and Trump targeting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—just a matter of the degree.

What is going on with people like Villaraigosa selling out? Why can’t “democratic socialists” anticipate such developments? Perhaps the best way to understand this is the sheer difficulty of being a revolutionary in the USA. I can’t blame Eric Blanc for joining the DSA rather than the ISO. Being in a small revolutionary organization swimming against the stream is a taxing business. Can’t you imagine the excitement around Villaraigosa’s campaign in 2005 when he had an “impressive network of grassroots organizations, labor unions and community and environmental organizations”? It must have been as heady an experience as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being elected to Congress. Or Obama getting elected in November, 2007.

Unfortunately, swimming against the stream is the only way to make a revolution in the USA. As tiresome as it is for the salmon to reach its spawning grounds or for tiny numbers of Marxists to break out of their isolation and rally working people to the cause of revolution, this is the task that confronts us in the 21st century. All around us are signs of terminal decay, from monarch butterfly extinction to a new nuclear arms race. If it was possible for the Democratic Party to overcome these crises, it might make sense to adopt an “inside-outside” orientation. There’s a wrinkle, however. The 20th century was replete with radicals being taken over by the Nancy Pelosis of the world rather than us taking over the Democratic Party. Let’s make the 21st century a new start for independent class action. If the ability of government workers at airports to withhold their labor could torpedo (even if momentarily) Trump’s wall, imagine if they and the rest of the working class could form a left party with the resolve to create a new society based on human needs rather than private profit. That was Karl Marx’s goal and it is still worth pursuing.

June 17, 2018

Harvard University, bias against Asian-Americans, affirmative action and “life itself”

Filed under: Academia,affirmative action,bard college,Education — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Edward Blum, using Asian-American student grievances to destroy affirmative action

Towards the end of the very fine documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on Friday, May Ngai, the radical history professor at Columbia University, weighs in on the new forms of discrimination that Chinese face even as the vicious racism directed against coolie labor has ended:

So in the late ’60s and early ’70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we’re still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they’re the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they’re either evil or super-achievers.

So when I saw the headline on a NY Times article from two days ago titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, my immediate reaction was to side with the legal action that forced Harvard to turn over admission records in compliance with a suit being filed against the school for discrimination, especially since this was just a variation on what Jews faced once upon a time. A court document prepared by the Students for Fair Admissions stated: “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along. Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It turns out that the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, who is not a lawyer, is a Jew named Edward Blum whose purpose it is to connect aggrieved students, who see themselves as victims of affirmative action, with attorneys all too happy to turn back the clock. He helped get the gears in motion in a suit against the University of Texas at Austin two years ago on behalf of two white women–Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz—who were angry that Black and Latino students with lower grades than theirs were admitted to the school under affirmative action. The Supreme Court rejected their claims. What will happen as Trump nominates more racists in this term and the one likely to follow in 2020 is predictable.

Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. What’s that you ask? It stipulates that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices are not permitted to change the rules for elections without first persuading the Justice Department (or a court) that their new policies will improve, or at least not harm, minority representation. So when Mississippi or Alabama decide to screw Black people out of the right to vote, people like Blum are on the side of the racists. Blum got his way in 2013, when the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in a suit he helped initiate. Without Section 4, Section 5 is toothless.

In fact, Blum’s last big assault on racial equality took place last year when he heard about a proposed state law that would require had forced Poway, California to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.

How does Blum get funding for the work he does? It turns out that most of it comes from the Searle Freedom Trust, a rightwing foundation founded by Daniel Searle, the deceased pharmaceutical billionaire who stated its goals on its website as “creating an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.”

In a follow-up article in today’s NY Times, you get a feel for the wariness some Asian-Americans about what Blum is up to. Titled “Asian-Americans Face Multiple Fronts in Battle Over Affirmative Action”, it identifies Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos in the USA as suffering higher degrees of poverty than Chinese or Japanese-Americans and being sympathetic to affirmative action.

In 2010, T.K. Park, who blogs as Ask a Korean, replied to a query about whether practices such as Harvard follows was an injustice since it limited the numbers of Asian-American admissions:

You might be surprised, because the Korean actually does think it is a good thing.

First of all, allow the Korean to first state his preferred end result: meritocracy must be an important element in college admissions. The meritocracy must involve clearly stated criteria such as test scores, quality of extracurricular activities, quality of letters of recommendation, and so on. And the Korean is not advocating that college campuses mirror exactly the local or national racial mix. There must be some sort of middle ground. The Korean does not know where the proper middle ground is. But the middle ground is probably not the 55 percent Asian American campus as it is in University of California, Irvine.

To explain why the Korean thinks so, allow the Korean to quote John Dewey: “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Because the Korean experienced two drastically different educational systems (Korean and American,) the truth of Dewey’s quote resonates even stronger with him. In fact, many of Korean educational system’s flaws (despite its numerous strengths) can be traced to this: Korea treats its schools as a place where students prepare for the real world, as opposed to treating it as the real world in and of itself. Thus, learning knowledge is emphasized, while learning social skills gets a short shrift.

The same principle must apply to colleges. College is not a meal ticket given for a certain set of “good behaviors”. It is a place where one receives education. And if colleges do not adequately reflect the “life itself” as Dewey said, they cannot provide adequate education.

What is missing from the discussion about “reverse discrimination” is any engagement with the broader question of competition among different ethnic groups to succeed in the high stakes game of musical chairs, where admission to an Ivy college will open doors to professional success after graduation.

Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia revealed to me that there were four suicides between September and January, 2017. This was not just Columbia’s problems. In 2013, there were three suicides at Harvard. While not an Ivy, NYU is certainly a place that is on any A-List. I remember when George Rupp met with us in Columbia’s IT department to tell us that the competition between his school and NYU was intense. I got a chuckle out of him telling us that the appointment of some high-profile Marxists like Jon Elster had helped our reputation.

So, what do you expect when schools become pressure cookers in such competition? For NYU students, something had to give. After two students jumped from the upper floors walkway to their death inside the Eleanor Bobst Library, the administration enclosed the 12-story atrium with perforated aluminum screens in an effort to prevent suicides, just like they have done at the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges.

The most poignant story, however, was MIT’s. On April 10, 2002, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean-American student, self-immolated in her dormitory room. Even though she sent multiple emails to faculty members threatening suicide, the school ignored the warning signs. The night before she had burned herself to death, she even tried to plunge a knife into her chest but had a failure of nerve. A NY Times article dated April 28, 2002 conveys the hopes her parents placed in her:

For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”

”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.

Back in 1961, I was a junior in high school and well on my way to admission to Columbia University since I had no competition for the valedictorian award. But since my mother worried so much about my alienation and unhappiness from high school, she and the principal agreed that the best thing for me was to skip my senior year and go to Bard College on an early admission plan. Who knows? That might have saved me from jumping out a window. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a freshman at a male-only college where every other valedictorian was competing with me and themselves to stand out.

Bard College, as Ask a Korean cited John Dewey, was a place that reflected “life itself”. Armed with a Bard degree, it was likely that Merrill Lynch would have hired a Harvard graduate rather than me but to Bard’s credit it was a place where you would be inculcated against the values that Merrill Lynch represented.

Although I am a bit skeptical about the claim that John Dewey was experimenting with democratic socialism (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/john-dewey-democratic-socialism-liberalism), I do give him credit for helping places like Bard College to create an environment where students don’t kill themselves over the stresses associated with Ivy schools.

In the 1930s, Bard and Sarah Lawrence became models of Deweyite precepts about higher education. His followers at Columbia University transformed an Episcopalian-oriented training ground for the clergy into Bard that some called the “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

An August 5, 1934 NY Times article titled “CURRICULUM IS REVERSED; New Plan at Bard College Is Designed to Give the Student’s Interest Freer Play” indicated how revolutionary the approach would be:

Second, the particular abilities, interests and purposes of the student himself [it became co-ed in 1944] will be the centre around which he will be permitted, under guidance, to build his own course of study. He will not be looked upon as so much material to be run into a mold but as an individual whose growth is to be stimulated and nourished. The student, as soon as he enters, will select one general field of study in which he will try his powers. The field be selects as his own will presumably be the one in which he has been most interested and has demonstrated most ability before coming to college.

That’s what we need, schools in which students are not “material to be run into a mold”. Ironically, it is just such schools that have become historically superseded by the corporatization of higher education and forced into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the goal should be to destroy corporatization in all its forms and allow students to prepare themselves for jobs in a socialist society that are not “bullshit”, as David Graeber puts it. Just as we have entered a new Gilded Age, history is crying out for a new Progressive movement that counted John Dewey among its leading lights. But given the class realities of a decaying capitalist system, the only progressivism that has a chance of succeeding today is one that is based on the need for working people to take power in their own name.

April 25, 2017

CUNY Struggle

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

In the two decades I spent working as a programmer at Columbia University, I used to read the Chronicle of Higher Education to keep up with trends in information technology but also consulted this trade publication for its coverage of issues relevant to my Marxist politics such as the “culture wars” on campus and more recently the status of adjunct professors. I had more than a passing interest in the latter since I have become familiar with their plight through my own close connection to someone who started out as an adjunct and now is a tenure-track professor.

Every time I hear about adjuncts getting shafted, I feel like getting my hands on a rocket launcher as that old Bruce Cockburn song goes. Can you imagine what it is like to spend 8 years getting a PhD and only to become what amounts to contingent labor with zero benefits? In 2013, an 83-year old adjunct professor named Margaret Mary Vojtko died of a heart attack. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette written by a United Steelworkers lawyer read like something Victor Hugo might have written:

Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before. As it turned out, I may have been the last person she talked to.

On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.

As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

My interest in the plight of adjuncts motivated me to attend a panel discussion at last weekend’s Historical Materialism conference titled “CUNY at the Crossroads: A Discussion of Campus Organizing”. It was truly an eye-opener.

Andy Battle, who is an adjunct at Hunter College, spoke first on “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Austerity’?” He put CUNY’s various problems, including its fiscal difficulties, into the context of a capitalist economy in decline. At one time NYC was a virtual Scandinavian type social democracy with subsidized or public housing (much of it upscale like the Ruppert-Yorkville Towers I live in), rent control, powerful trade unions and—most of all—a City University system that was not only on a par with elite private institutions but totally free.

All that changed as NYC’s tax base eroded and a series of presidents, including Democrats, abandoned New Deal principles in favor of neoliberalism. The crowning moment was when Gerald Ford told New York to “drop dead”.

Despite attempts to marginalize CUNY, it remains integral to the social and economic fabric of the city and is particularly attuned to the needs of the city’s working class, minorities (majorities perhaps?) and immigrants. Battle cited some highly revealing statistics. 77% of the 250,000 undergraduates were people of color, 36% were immigrants and 60% came from families in which the household income was less than $30,000.

Just as such working class people face ruling class attacks on the job and on the streets from the cops, so do they face cutbacks and rising tuition at CUNY. Ideally, the students and the professors, especially the adjuncts, should share a common class outlook. It is unfortunate that the CUNY union—the Professional Staff Congress—has not fought to unite these various sectors despite having union officials and tenured professor supporters writing papers on austerity and even giving talks at the HM conference.

Next was Erin Cully speaking on “Teaching in a Gig Economy”. Cully is a PhD student in the Graduate Center and teaches American History at Brooklyn College. Her focus was on the unwillingness and the inability of the PSC to fight for the rights of adjuncts. This is related to the class prejudices of tenured professors who denigrate adjuncts and who can’t see past their own narrow professional interests even though CUNY’s decline is a threat to their own well-being. In a very real sense, the PSC has evolved into a business union despite the radical backgrounds of some of the top officials and the union’s founders such as Stanley Aronowitz.

Her talk was a kind of prelude to the talk on “Challenging Business Unionism in the CUNY System” given by Jarrod Shanahan, who is a PhD student and part-time instructor like Erin Cully. Like her and Andy Battle, he is a member of the CUNY Struggle caucus that ran against the New Caucus in the recent PSC election. The New Caucus has been entrenched in the PSC for a long time and functions like any business union officialdom. While the CUNY professors are better off with a union than without one, it has failed to act as unions did in the 1930s when they were a social movement.

I was startled to learn that the left was divided over the PSC election that takes place in 3 days. ISO’ers and others on the left formed a caucus called the New Caucus and Fusion Independents (NCFI) that tried to straddle the fence between the New Caucus and CUNY Struggle. Penny Lewis, a NCFI candidate and author of “Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory”, wrote about why NCFI was competing for votes with CUNY Struggle. Apparently, NCFI had more “accomplishments”:

Where we’re different from CUNY Struggle is that we are successfully accomplishing what we stand for. We’ve been pursuing an effective strategy of rank-and-file engagement both within the chapter and in joint action with other chapters and groups in the union that has been making a real difference: starting the chapter here, bringing GAs [Graduate Assistants] into it, creating real alliances across titles and chapters who share our vision.

I thought that Andy Battle did the right thing by emphasizing the class differences between CUNY Struggle and NCFI:

Another difference between the two slates is reflected in their endorsements. It is telling that those who have formally endorsed the CUNY Struggle caucus—including Sonam Singh, a key player in the recently-concluded Barnard struggle that won $10,000 a course for adjuncts—are connected to the grassroots and identified with the most contemporary trends in fighting for academic workers, whereas those who endorse NCFI are professors perched at the absolute highest tier of academic labor at CUNY, who make between eight and ten times what I do as an adjunct, and as far as I can tell are uninvolved in union politics or the academic labor movement at large in any sense beyond the rhetorical. This says a lot about the priorities of the respective caucuses.

You can get an idea of who supports NCFI from the endorsement of Frances Fox Piven, who has given 10,000 talks about the need for militant working class struggles but not when it comes to the PSC.

People like Frances Fox Piven and Stanley Aronowitz are just too materially detached from the lives of adjuncts to relate to them politically. Aronowitz, who like Piven fancies himself as a tribune of the working class, wrote an article for Social Text in the Summer of 1997 that would give you an idea of the class differences between him and the people of CUNY Struggle. Titled “The Last Good Job in America”, it detailed the cushy existence that Aronowitz (a former steelworker) enjoyed as a full professor:

It’s Wednesday, one of my writing days. Today, I’m writing this piece for which George Yudice and Andrew Ross have been nudging me for a couple of days. Our daughter, Nona, will return home about 3 P.M. and it’s my turn to get her off for her after-school music class and prepare dinner. As it turned out, she brought a friend home so I have a little extension on my writing time. I couldn’t begin working on the piece yesterday because I go to CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center on Tuesdays. Even so, after making her breakfast and sending Nona of to school every other day, reading the Times and selected articles from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and checking my e-mail, I usually spend the morning editing my Monday writing. But yesterday our Nona was home with a stomach bug and because Ellen, her mother, had umpteen student advisements at NYU, it fell to me to make her tea, minister the puking, get some videotapes, and commiserate. Anyway, Monday morning after my usual reading routine, I finished an op-ed for The Nation on the future of the Left. Otherwise, I would have started this article a day earlier.

What do they call this? The aristocracy of labor?

Although I try to keep up with political divisions on the left, including those that impinge on the PSC election, I had hardly any clue that it was having major ramifications such as those between CUNY Struggle and the New Caucus, with NCFI functioning as a divisive centrist bloc . Jarrod Shanahan spoke about how polarized the divisions had become with PSC President Barbara Bowen using Jacobin as a platform for the New Caucus. No big surprise there.

I invite you to visit the CUNY Struggle website and particularly see the statement “Toward a Renewed CUNY Movement” that encapsulates the spirit of the IWW and the CIO of the 1930s. If there was ever a need for a renewed trade union movement, this is a good place to start:

A CUNY movement capable of fighting back cannot be built on the basis of subordinating one group’s demands to those of another, or telling the most exploited members of the community to just wait their turn, as the PSC has done with adjuncts and students. Instead, we must be honest about what divides us and what unites us as a means of building a concrete collective power, not just empty statements of solidarity. We must ask ourselves hard questions about how and why it came to be that imposing austerity on CUNY is like taking candy from a baby for free-marketeers like our governor, who will slash public spending wherever it is easiest, and for our Board of Trustees, who are accountable to nobody so long as they do not fear a CUNY movement that could oust them altogether. We must ask why so many PSC members we talk to see no reason to authorize or support a strike believing it will have no bearing on their material situation. And we must ask why there is not broader support in NYC for a university system on which so many New Yorkers have relied for education and employment. And we must also ask why there is not more meaningful, material solidarity with other public sector employees, or other public educators waging similar battles. To the point, we must inquire, in theory and practice, how can we reverse this tide, and put ourselves in a position to not simply wage defensive campaigns in isolation, but go on the offensive for free public education and secure well-paying jobs for all in the CUNY system.


May 30, 2016

Is America committing slow-motion suicide? A look at the decline of CUNY

Filed under: economics,Education,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Since my wife is a faculty member at Lehman College, the picture of its library in yesterday’s NY Times captured my attention:

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 1.12.29 PM

Lehman and other City University of New York colleges were profiled in an article titled “Dreams Stall as CUNY, New York City’s Engine of Mobility, Sputters” that like so many in the newspaper recently depicts an American in deep if not irreversible decline. Lehman’s library was a case in point:

At Lehman College in the Bronx, Robert Farrell, an associate professor in the library department, said the library’s entire book budget this academic year was $13,000, down from about $60,000 a decade ago. Because the roof has been chronically leaky, about 200 books were damaged during a rainstorm three years ago; a tarp still covers some volumes.

Mr. Farrell also said that the library has had to reduce its spending on academic journals and database subscriptions. “We can’t be a serious institution of higher learning without providing our faculty and students with access to these kinds of things,” he said.

It was just one more reminder that the ruling class of the USA has no intention of funding the public good. With respect to private enterprise, unless the same kinds of profits can be generated on American soil that can be made overseas in an epoch when capital takes wings and flies around the globe in search of higher profits, you will wait in vain for the post-WWII prosperity that both the Trump and Sanders campaign evoke. After all, capitalism does not exist to create middle-class jobs. It exists to allow men and some women to be able to buy $15 million condominiums in New York and vacation in St. Bart’s just like Gaddafi’s sons did.

The article mentions that the City University of New York was founded by Townsend Harris in 1847 as the Free Academy of New York to educate “the children of the whole people.” What a benign figure. But if you take five minutes digging into his past, you will learn that he was named the first Consul General to Japan in July, 1856 just after Commodore Perry made the Japanese an offer they couldn’t refuse. Perry commanded a fleet of four warships that arrived in Edo Bay on July 8, 1853. After the Japanese instructed him to go to Nagasaki, the designated port for foreign contact, he threatened to burn Edo to the ground unless they kowtowed to American demands to “open” up their country for trade. As it happens, the American Manifest Destiny that led to this gunboat diplomacy and the creation of a school for “the children of the whole people” went hand in hand. Slavery, colonial expansion abroad and internal expansion through the grab of Mexican and Indian land were essential to the consolidation of a modern capitalist powerhouse that needed an educated workforce to maintain its ledger books and sell its commodities.

It is questionable whether the same imperative exists today, even as neocolonialism and the oppression of Mexicans and Indians continue.

It is probably not news to people who have been following higher education issues as I have ever since I began working at Columbia University in 1991, but essentially the powers that be are “starving the beast” as Grover Norquist urged. The Times reports:

Since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student, while tuition has risen by 33 percent, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Arizona is spending 56 percent less, while students are paying 88 percent more. In Louisiana, students are spending 80 percent more on tuition, while state funding has been cut by 39 percent.

The article places emphasis on feuding between NYC mayor Bill De Blasio, hailed by the liberal left like Obama was in 2008, and Governor Cuomo about whom there are no illusions. Cuomo has foisted much of the funding for CUNY on the city, a burden it can ill afford. Some say that this is his way of paying back the PSC, my wife’s union, for backing his rival Zephyr Teachout in the DP primaries in the last gubernatorial election.

As a frequent visitor to the Nicaragua Network meetings in 1989, De Blasio struck me as a smooth operator but I hardly figured him as a future mayor. Despite dark reminders about his visit to Cuba and Sandinista sympathies, De Blasio has been a reliable friend of real estate interests. In yesterday’s Times, there’s an op-ed piece on the gentrification of Harlem that nails him for his failure to take them on:

Still Harlem endures as a community with high hopes, and in 2013, we felt sure we had found a champion. Bill de Blasio ran as the mayor for everyone, which we figured had to include Harlem. Black voters were crucial to his victory, and we thought we were covered and cared for. He even has a likable son, as liable to get stopped by the police as ours might.

We were wrong. The man we saw as “our mayor” may talk about housing affordability, but his vision is far from the rent control and public housing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia once supported, and that made New York affordable for generations. Instead, he has pushed for private development and identified unprotected, landmark-quality buildings as targets. He and the City Council have effectively swept aside contextual zoning limits, which curb development that might change the very essence of a neighborhood, in Harlem and Inwood, farther north. At best, his plan seems to be to develop at all speed and costs, optimistic that the tax revenues and good graces of the real estate barons allow for a few affordable apartments to be stuffed in later.

Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, one of the more prestigious campuses in the CUNY system, blogged about the article:

The piece makes a brief nod to my campus, Brooklyn College, whose “rapidly deteriorating campus” has earned it the moniker “Brokelyn College.”

I can personally attest to that. On Thursday, as I left campus, I stopped in the men’s room of our wing of James Hall. One of the two urinals was out of business, covered by a plastic sheet. I sighed, and thought back to the time, about a year ago, that that urinal was so covered for about six months. The clock in my office has been stopped for over a year. Our department administrator tried to get it fixed: it worked for two days, and broke again.

He includes a picture of the desks in a classroom:

You can bet that there are no desks like that at NYU or Columbia where the students are being prepped for jobs in the financial services or those sectors of the economy that look after big business’s far-flung empire. I imagine that an MBA from either of these two schools and a minor in computer science might open doors at an accounting firm or investment bank. Art history or sociology? Forgettaboutit.

You have to understand the decline of CUNY in the context of public higher education’s nationwide crisis. Everywhere you look, schools are being denied funding adequate to their needs. This almost certainly means that it will be more and more difficult for American corporations to staff the middle-tier managerial positions for which these schools are expected to furnish. The Times article points to the difficulties a young woman is facing trying to become qualified as a public school teacher:

At City College, Anais McAllister, 22, a senior from Yonkers, said she had planned to major in English with a concentration in education, which would have allowed her to become a teacher after graduation. When some of her required education classes were canceled, she realized she would need another year — and another $6,000, at least — to graduate with the education credential.

With her scholarship expiring at the end of this academic year, and a younger brother entering trade school in the fall to obtain his plumber certification, she dropped the education concentration.

“The fact that this can happen, where your department can be cut financially where you have to think about dropping it, is ridiculous,” she said.

With her problems probably being repeated across the system, it will be difficult for public schools to operate effectively, which obviously will be of little importance to someone like Cuomo who is a major backer of charter schools.

When Corey Robin posted a link to the Times article yesterday morning on FB, the first comment to appear was this: “We’re committing slow-motion suicide as a country.” I responded as follows:

This is obviously related to the state of American capitalism that in its current phase has little interest in the kind of national development that led to all sorts of public investments such as expressways, railway systems, higher education on one hand and on the other private investment in nationally-based manufacturing (auto, steel, etc.) Bernie Sanders advocates investment in the former but really has no idea how to get the capitalist class to invest in American manufacturing when you can get Mexican auto workers to accept much lower wages. The writing is on the wall but it is not suicide–it is homicide. Andrew Cuomo, the Koch brothers, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Barack Obama–all of them could care less if Lehman College, where my wife works, has a leaking ceiling. They are only interested in serving their own class interests. The USA needs a socialist revolution and the longer we place hopes in capitalist reform, the longer we delay confronting the tasks that are staring us in the face.

Of course in FB, you are loath to post longer comments but I’d like to now expand upon what I wrote.

On May 15th Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Rutgers University that contained this Panglossian statement:

Point number one:  When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt.  (Laughter and applause.)  Take it with a grain of salt.  We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history.  We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before.  But I guess it’s part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.

Guess what.  It ain’t so.  (Laughter.)  The “good old days” weren’t that great.  Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly.  There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will.  But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes.  In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.  (Applause.)

Although the students were likely to appreciate the president’s visit, they might have questioned his take on the “good old days” considering that the school’s tuition is now $13,000 per year, one of the most expensive public university in the country. Of course, the school has tried to generate revenue through its athletic program but it keeps running into scandals on an almost yearly basis, the latest one connected to the football coach trying to get the administration to overlook a star player’s failing grades.

The problem for Obama is that many Americans do remember “the good old days”, which were not that long ago. When I was a student at the New School in 1967 and had completed most of the credits I needed for a PhD in Philosophy, I needed a job to keep me going as I worked on my dissertation. That led to jobs as a welfare worker and 5th grade teacher in Harlem that went begging back then when AFDC and funding for public education were in ample supplies as part of the Great Society—funded to some extent by feverish war spending a la Military Keynesianism.

When those jobs became too much of a psychological toll, I began looking at the classified ads in the Sunday Times business section, which usually ran for 5 pages or so. They were in alphabetical order and I turned directly to those that started “college graduates”. There were usually about three hundred listed that read something like this: “Major insurance company seeks programmer trainees, starting salary $6000. No experience necessary.” That’s how I got my first job at Met Life in 1968. The $6000 was adequate to pay for a modest one-bedroom or studio apartment. For me that was “the good old days” even though it was inextricably linked to a brutal imperialist war that would cost the lives of millions of Vietnamese.

For most working people in the area, jobs could be landed at places like Ford Motors in Mahwah, New Jersey or the oil refineries just across the river along the New Jersey Turnpike. Those were good union jobs that paid the kind of money that would allow you to live in a suburban tract housing and send your kids to college. Those who remember those “good old days” are being wooed by both Trump and Sanders who have about as much of an idea to bring them back as I do about the origins of the universe.

None of this matters to Barack Obama or the rich bastards who are funding both the Democrats and Republicans an on equal opportunity for profit basis. Their newspapers like the NY Times and even Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal can publish hand-wringing items like the one on CUNY but in the final analysis, they have no idea how to make America “great” again.

We are living in a period that can both be described as capitalist decline and capitalist expansion. Places like Detroit go down the tubes but for the capitalist investor, it could not be any better. All you need to do is stroll around the Chelsea neighborhood in NYC and gaze at the new condominiums that are the preferred homes for Wall Street hedge fund operators or plutocrats from Brazil, Russia, India or China, the bloc of nations that are supposed to be rescuing us from neoliberalism according to imbeciles like Mike Whitney.

The truth is that we are in a new kind of “The Other America”, the 1962 book that SP leader Michael Harrington wrote about the pockets of poverty in a nation in which everybody else was prospering. The coal fields of West Virginia and California’s Central Valley came under the spotlight. Nowadays, it is getting to the point where there will be pockets of extreme wealth surrounded by oceans of poverty or near-poverty only relieved by those middle-class families that can tread water sufficiently to keep from drowning.

This is not a nation “committing suicide”. It is one in which the superrich are killing the rest of us through a slow process of attrition. There is absolutely nothing in Bernie Sanders’s economic program that can reverse this. The idea that the USA can adopt a Nordic socialist model when Northern Europe itself has been cutting back on social programs and making life hell for immigrants is—in a word—utopian. The sooner we revive the radical movement of the sixties in which Sanders was committed to genuine socialism, the better.



November 8, 2014

Stupidity on parade

Filed under: comedy,Education,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

May 20, 2014

Why NYU does the things it does

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-05-20 at 12.50.26 PMYesterday’s NY Times carried a blockbuster report on the mistreatment of the predominantly East Asian construction laborers hired as virtual indentured servants to build the New York University satellite campus in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Although I have grown inured to leftist complaints over the years about the Times, it is reporting like this that makes me uneasy about calling the paper our Pravda, even if the removal of editor Jill Abramson smacks of Kremlin intrigues. These are the lead paragraphs but I urge you to read the entire article that will make your blood boil.

The strike had entered its second day when construction workers at Labor Camp 42 got word that their bosses from the BK Gulf corporation had come to negotiate. Mohammed Amir Waheed Sirkar, an electrician from Bangladesh, scrambled down the stairs to meet them. But when he got to the courtyard, he saw the truth: It wasn’t the bosses who had come. It was the police.

They pounded on doors, breaking some down, and hauled dozens of men to prison. Mr. Sirkar was taken to a Dubai police station, where officers interrogated him. After a while, new officers arrived. That’s when things got rough.

“They beat me up,” he said through an Urdu interpreter, “asking me to confess I was involved in starting the strike.” Others were slapped, kicked, or beaten with shoes, a special indignity in Arab culture.

You can understand (but not forgive) how American garment corporations screw workers in Bangladesh–the same country that supplied many of the NYU indentured servants. Except for an outfit like Benetton, most of those companies have no pretenses about social justice or progressive values. The Abu Dhabi campus is part of NYU’s Global Network, an initiative meant to express a “good” globalization. On the university’s website, the Global Initiative is hyped with allusions to Karl Jaspers and Teilhard de Chardin:

As we begin a new millennium, a Second Axial Period has begun. Though first described by theologians like the Jesuits’ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I believe it also has a secular, progressive dimension (quite separable, for those who prefer, from religiosity) which is useful in understanding what we see unfolding in our time.

Right, a secular, progressive institution that is built on the super-exploitation of the most desperately poor workers in the world. NYU has the brass to describe Abu Dhabi in these terms:

NYU’s early experience at its portal campus in Abu Dhabi provides support for the claim that the global network structure will be attractive to talented cosmopolitans. Abu Dhabi is a crossroad city, containing in microcosm (but in different proportions from New York) a blend of all the world; it is blessed with a visionary government, economic dynamism, and an increasingly tolerant and welcoming society; and, it is both a repository of a great culture and a symbol of that culture’s adaptation to modernity.

Three years ago the Nation Magazine reported on the crackdown on quite moderate critics of the government who only plead for it to clean up its act. This is what happened to them:

On April 8, at 3 am, several police asked Ahmed Mansoor, one of the signatories, a blogger and a member of the Human Rights Watch advisory committee, to come down to “answer some questions about his car.” (Incidentally, this was the same approach that security officials used to take Naji Hamdan, a United States citizen who allegedly was tortured in custody.) Fearing a trap, he refused to come down, but was taken away by a second group of security officers that same afternoon.

Two days later Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent Emirati economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, was also carted away. His ostensible crime was urging the UAE, on television shows and in panel discussions, to become more transparent, as a means to further economic development. In subsequent days, three other online activists, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, were arrested.

NYU was untroubled by the arrests: “The school itself does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university.”

Forget all the bullshit about a Second Axial Period and a benign globalization. NYU is expanding because there is money in it. Back in 2007 a UAE investor named Omar Saif Ghobash promised NYU $50 million if it opened a campus in Abu Dhabi. NYU’s President John Sexton welcomed the opportunity to set up a satellite campus there since the school was discovering that a tsunami of applications from foreign students was symptomatic of emerging markets as the NY Times reported on February 10, 2008:

In a kind of educational gold rush, American universities are competing to set up outposts in countries with limited higher education opportunities. American universities — not to mention Australian and British ones, which also offer instruction in English, the lingua franca of academia — are starting, or expanding, hundreds of programs and partnerships in booming markets like China, India and Singapore.

The demand from overseas is huge. At the University of Washington, the administrator in charge of overseas programs said she received about a proposal a week. “It’s almost like spam,” said the official, Susan Jeffords, whose position as vice provost for global affairs was created just two years ago.

If NYU’s expansion into places like Abu Dhabi is a kind of external colonization, who could be surprised by its ambitions to colonize internally at the expense of its Greenwich Village neighbors. Sexton has been rebuffed—at least for the time being—over his bid to turn beautiful sections of a historic neighborhood into NYU territory.

In January of this year a judge ruled that half of the planned expansion would have to be scrapped, a decision that led opponents of the university to call for its total ban. The City Council had voted 44 to 1 in 2012 in favor of the expansion. Unsurprisingly, the one nay vote came from Charles Barron, a former member of the Black Panther Party, while our current mayor voted in favor along with a bunch of other liberals who feed at the real estate industry’s trough. (A comrade just dropped me a line: And, unsurprisingly, the key vote in favor (from the Councilmember “representing” the affected area) came from Margaret Chin, a former member of the Communist Workers Party.

While by no means as exploited as the construction workers in Abu Dhabi, NYU’s graduate student part-time instructors felt that they had no other recourse than starting a trade union to protect their interests. In what has become routine at this point, the university filed a brief that opposed the organizing drive in words that smack of utter hypocrisy: “Petitioners [ie, the grad students] urge a cynical view, that the university is just another big business, that graduate students are no more than wage earners, and that using graduate student teachers and researchers is merely a cost-saving measure.” Well, how dare they claim that the university is just another big business? What are they? A bunch of commies?

To help you decide whether NYU was a big business or not, consider who it picked to lead the anti-union drive, its Executive Vice President Jacob Lew who got a $685,000 exit bonus to become Obama’s Treasury Secretary. By comparison, a teaching assistant at NYU could expect $1,327 per month.

A cursory glance at the officers serving on the NYU board of trustees will help you understand why it does the things it does.

William R. Berkley:

The founder and CEO of WR Berkley Corporation, an insurance company with over $5 billion in revenue. In 2006 this mutt got permission from the Greenwich, Connecticut town board to put an antique carousel in his 58 acre backward. Let me repeat that with emphasis: a 58-acre back yard. Do you know what that amounts to? That’s the same as fucking 15 blocks in New York City. Why would someone like William R. Berkley care about some Bangladeshi construction worker? Berkley paid $15,000 to the wife of former governor John Rowland in Connecticut for a speech she gave to his company bigwigs in 2003. Do you think making such a huge fee had anything to do with the business dealings his insurance company had with the state, you cynic you? Who knows? I can only tell you this. Not long after this incident, John Rowland was found guilty of taking bribes and sentenced to fourteen months.

Lawrence D. Fink:

The founder and CEO of Black Rock, a privately owned investment company that is considered the most powerful money management firm in the world. Fink belongs to Kappa Beta Phi, a secretive private club made up of plutocrats. In 2012 a reporter from New York Magazine crashed their yearly gala and witnessed the acts performed by new inductees, who were required to wear leotards and gold-sequined skirts. One of them told “jokes” like this:

Paul Queally, a private-equity executive with Welsh, Carson, Anderson, & Stowe, told off-color jokes to Ted Virtue, another private-equity bigwig with MidOcean Partners. The jokes ranged from unfunny and sexist (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and a catfish?” A: “One has whiskers and stinks, and the other is a fish”) to unfunny and homophobic (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Barney Frank and a Fenway Frank?” A: “Barney Frank comes in different-size buns”).

I imagine that nearly all the members of Kappa Beta Phi sit on the board of places like NYU.

Kenneth G. Langone:

The founder of Home Depot, who was put on trial with Richard Grasso, the former head of the NY Stock Exchange for arranging a $139.5 million parachute for Grasso. The judge declared a mistrial while D.A. Elliot Spitzer ended up disgraced for using prostitutes. Not surprisingly, Langone formed a group called “Republicans for Cuomo”. Seeing the NY state’s governor tilt toward the plutocrats, you can say that Langone’s efforts were amply rewarded just as Berkley’s were in Connecticut. Two months ago Politico interviewed Langone. When the question of the one-percent came up, the billionaire responded: ““[I]f you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Larry Silverstein:

A real estate developer best known for owning the World Trade Center. While the 911 Truthers obsess over his alleged conspiracy to bring down the towers with the aid of Mossad, his most likely crime is helping to shape NYU’s expansionary onslaught.

Leonard Wilf:

Like Silverstein, this guy is a real estate developer and like most members of this tribe something of a crook. Last year he and his cousin Zigmund, who owns the Minneapolis Vikings football team, had to pay $84.5 million in damages over chiseling their business partners in a New Jersey apartment complex. The judge ruled that ruled the Wilfs committed fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty by such practices as charging the partnership unauthorized management fees and interest payments. Perfect. Just the sort of person who belongs on a university board of trustees and one who can be relied upon to protect the rights of Bangladeshi workers.

Martin Lipton:

I have save the worst for the last. Lipton is the chairman of the board and a first class scumbag. He is the founder of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a law firm serving the needs of the one percent corporate bigwigs. Last year NYU professors issued an open letter calling for Lipton’s resignation, mostly prompted by the university’s buying vacation homes and NY apartments for the top brass. It stated:

The same day that you notified the faculty of your report, you also re-affirmed the Board’s embrace of Pres. Sexton in a letter to the New York Times, about the recent scandal over NYU’s “vacation homes program.” Casting all those lavish gifts to NYU’s top bureaucrats as a way of “building a community of outstanding scholars,” you used “N.Y.U.’s loan programs” to make yet another statement of trustee support: “We are wholly confident in N.Y.U.’s president, John Sexton, whose own innovative leadership has done so much at the law school and the university to maintain the university’s upward trajectory.

In many ways, Lipton is really the boss of NYU who uses Sexton as a puppet for his long-range strategies. A NY Times article from April 10, 2014 revealed the close relationship between the two men. It was titled perfectly: “The Power Broker of NYU” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/education/edlife/the-power-broker-of-nyu.html). Since the article is behind a paywall and since it really sums up why NYU does the things it does, I will reproduce it here:

Martin Lipton, chairman of the board of New York University, recently took a trustee to lunch at San Pietro, a pricey Manhattan restaurant frequented by the city’s C.E.O.s. Over a meal that lasted several hours, they discussed Mr. Lipton’s plans to step down next year, after 16 years at the helm. “Marty wants his own replacement there a year in advance,” recalled Evan R. Chesler, chairman of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a leading New York law firm. The reason, he said: “The new chairman would be responsible for the process that selects the president who will replace John Sexton.”

It is Mr. Lipton, though, who will appoint the group of trustees, students and faculty members who will search for the next president of N.Y.U.; he also sits on the committee to select his own replacement as head of the board he created.

More than a decade ago, Mr. Lipton handpicked Dr. Sexton without any systematic search process — and for years the board could congratulate itself on its choice. During Dr. Sexton’s tenure, admission applications have risen 45 percent, and N.Y.U. has attracted top-level professors and administrators.

But under a cloud of faculty unrest, Dr. Sexton announced in August that he would step down at the end of his term, in 2016. In the past two years, faculty anger at Dr. Sexton and the board has marred the university’s increasingly high profile. Much as corporate boards came under public scrutiny in the 1980s, university boards are under pressure from faculty as they grapple with the same questions: Do they look too much like businesses and less like places of learning and to what extent should they globalize? But at N.Y.U., tensions have been particularly visible.

Dr. Sexton has been widely criticized for an aggressive expansion program in Greenwich Village and for erecting campuses in parts of the world with oppressive governments. Faculty members, claiming to be underpaid and excluded from decision making, have struck out at what they view as lavish pay and perks for a few star employees: loans for vacation homes; executive exit bonuses of $1.23 million and near $700,000; a $1.5 million compensation package for the president plus a $2.5 million “length of service” bonus due next year, making Dr. Sexton among the highest paid college presidents in the country.

While Dr. Sexton has taken the heat — five schools passed votes of no confidence last year — the person who has largely escaped attention is Mr. Lipton, who has wielded enormous power at N.Y.U. His tenure provides insight into just how important a chairman can be in shaping a university’s agenda, given that the board’s mandate includes choosing a president, approving salaries for top administrators and overseeing expansion.

At N.Y.U., where Mr. Lipton has headed the highly influential compensation committee since 1998, the board’s approval of generous compensation packages and intense loyalty to management parallel Mr. Lipton’s views in the corporate world.

Even as he retires as chairman, N.Y.U. will continue to bear his imprint. Mr. Lipton, who will remain on the board, is also on the committee that nominates new trustees, and has had a major role in choosing a majority of the 65 members (and two honorary members). That board is 1.7 times as large as the average private research-university board, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and many of its members are, like Mr. Lipton, scrappy self-made entrepreneurs.

Along with a clutch of other N.Y.U. law school graduates, Mr. Lipton formed Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in 1965. The upstart firm lacked the pedigree of white-shoe rivals. Nevertheless, in the ensuing decades, it muscled its way into the top ranks by representing corporations in some of the business world’s biggest takeover battles. Mr. Lipton is best known for creating the “poison pill defense,” a strategy to protect existing management by making the company’s stock less attractive to a hostile bidder.

Mr. Lipton sat for an interview in a small conference room in his unpretentious suite of offices at the firm’s West 52nd Street headquarters. A portly 82-year-old with disappearing curly white hair, he talked passionately about his commitment to the university.

Mr. Lipton joined the law school board in 1972, and four years later was named a trustee of the university, working, he said, to help “bring N.Y.U. back from the brink of insolvency and help create a modern global research university.” In 1998, he took over the board from Lawrence A. Tisch, who he recalls telling the trustees: “I am stepping down and proposing Marty as my successor before Marty gets too old to succeed me.”

Over the past dozen years, Mr. Lipton has been deeply immersed in Dr. Sexton’s agenda for growth, making visits to N.Y.U.’s new Shanghai campus and helping establish its Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates. He seemed as outraged by the attacks on Dr. Sexton as he might be over efforts to remove a corporate chief. (Dr. Sexton declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“You would think the faculty would recognize the fabulous accomplishments he has made,” Mr. Lipton said. “They thought that by having a vote of no confidence, they would panic the trustees,” he said, just as a vote of no confidence led to Lawrence Summers’s dismissal as president of Harvard.

Mr. Lipton’s indignation does not surprise Jonathan R. Macey, a professor of corporate law at Yale and author of “Corporate Governance: Promises Kept, Promises Broken.” “He has built a reputation for work that is firmly of the view that incumbent management should be protected and that the incumbent board of directors is the only entity whose opinion matters in corporate governance,” Professor Macey said.

“In effect, John Sexton is the C.E.O. of N.Y.U.,” he added. “So if you are facing a revolt of the faculty you can’t be in a better position than John Sexton to ward off no-confidence votes.”

To Mr. Lipton, N.Y.U.’s approach to compensation is entirely logical at a university in one of the world’s most expensive cities. “You have to recognize that N.Y.U. is the largest private university in the country,” he said, “and I don’t think we pay outside the normal rate for similar institutions. You can best say that the policy of the university is to maintain a faculty of excellence and do what is necessary to attract distinguished people to the faculty.”

He added: “It is necessary and good for the institutions, just as it is good for corporate giants.”

Mr. Lipton practices what he preaches. Partners at Wachtell Lipton are routinely the highest paid in the country, according to The American Lawyer magazine. In 2012, they earned an average of $4.95 million.

His board, too, includes hugely wealthy individuals, some of whose own pay has attracted headlines. Barry Diller, a U.C.L.A. dropout and Wachtell Lipton client, was in one year the highest paid executive in the country, with compensation of $295 million. Several board members say they have virtually never seen him at meetings. “But he is a contributor and is always available to me for advice,” Mr. Lipton said.

Other boldface names include Lisa Silverstein, daughter of the real estate developer Larry A. Silverstein, a longtime Wachtell Lipton client. The hedge fund moguls John Paulson and Michael H. Steinhardt are also trustees, as are Daniel R. Tisch, William C. Rudin and Constance J. Milstein, all members of powerful New York clans. Kenneth G. Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot, is on the board. Mr. Langone donated $200 million to the medical center, which was renamed in his honor. (He was recently in hot water himself for sending mass emails to medical school staff, soliciting donations to politicians who had helped the center after Hurricane Sandy.)

The roster includes at least one eyebrow-raising trustee, Leonard A. Wilf. In September, Mr. Wilf and two cousins were ordered to pay $84.5 million to former business partners after a New Jersey judge ruled they had committed fraud, breach of contract and violated civil racketeering laws in a 1980s real estate case. An appeal has been filed. Mr. Lipton declined to comment but William Josephson, a lawyer who specializes in nonprofit institutions, said this: “I cannot recall an iconic American university having a board member with such a history.”

One might argue that a board so loaded with money moguls has lost touch.

In September, a group of faculty activists sent out a “dear colleague” letter complaining that compensation to a select few was excessive relative to what most academic staff earned. Compensation to 25 top administrators rose 20.4 percent from 2010 to 2012. They noted that the average salary increase to faculty was just 2.5 percent at the university and 3 percent at the medical school. The administration’s counterattack: many of the high earners are with the medical school, which operates separately from the university and with a different salary structure.

Board members say compensation issues are carefully examined. “The idea of housing has been our greatest difficulty, and there have been substantial discussions about it,” said William R. Berkley, chairman of an insurance holding company and member of the compensation committees at both N.Y.U. and the medical school. “It is complicated because young, terrific people coming to N.Y.U. have families who have to live in New York, and it is not an ordinary environment.”

In some cases, the university has bought homes for stars, including a $6.5 million apartment for the head of its medical center. N.Y.U.’s newest celebrity hire, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whom it lured away from Princeton, is getting university-owned housing — paying rent, according to the N.Y.U. spokesman John Beckman, that is “proportional” to what other faculty members pay in university-owned residences.

To end the “disruption,” as Mr. Lipton refers to the tension gripping N.Y.U. last summer, he announced that the board would no longer make loans for vacation homes. The university has never divulged how many got those loans, though Mr. Berkley said it was fewer than 10 people. Mr. Lipton said he would continue to pay top talent what he views as necessary and to find ways to sweeten the pot.

If there is controversy over how N.Y.U. spends its money, there can be no criticism of how effective the board has been at bringing it in. Since Mr. Lipton took over, it has raised $5.97 billion.

Given the wealth on the board and the amount it has raised, some observers call it a “money board.” Mr. Lipton laughed and said: “Bring us more money.”

While Mr. Lipton has successfully solicited gifts from board members — Shelby White has given $200 million, Helen L. Kimmel $150 million — there is a difference of opinion as to whether he has solicited their viewpoints as well. Mr. Berkley said, “Marty was always open to a dialogue about issues.” Mr. Chesler concurs. But several other board members, who would not speak for attribution, said that Mr. Lipton ran the board with an iron hand. “It is Marty’s board and he controls it,” said one. Another added: “I would go so far as to say that the board has been a near rubber stamp board. And since they are not rubber stamp types, I scratch my head as to why. I think there is a long tradition of the board being quiescent with a management that it feels good about.”

Perhaps confidence in Dr. Sexton left the board blindsided to the degree of unhappiness among faculty. Faculty members have called on Mr. Lipton to resign, citing governance without faculty inclusion and failure to improve the conversation. They also object to how Mr. Lipton embraced Dr. Sexton. He sent out emails from the board supporting the president after the faculty had expressed concerns in no-confidence votes. “That is not listening,” said Robert Cohen, a professor of history and social studies at N.Y.U. “That is broadcasting.”

Mr. Berkley conceded: “John antagonized a lot of people trying to move a large institution into the 21st century. But we believed it was more of a fringe group than it ended up being. The straw that broke the camel’s back was 2031” — the controversial expansion plan, named for N.Y.U.’s 200th birthday. “It was a great idea that was not put forward in a way people understood,” he said.

Over the past several years N.Y.U. faculty members have joined with Greenwich Village preservation groups, celebrities and elected officials to fight the “Sexton plan” — to add roughly two million square feet of space in the Village and six million over all. While Mr. Lipton and others say faculty members were consulted about the expansion, Mark Crispin Miller, who heads N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, counters that they were not consulted during the planning process.

In the latest development, in January, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled that the university must get state approval for roughly half its plan because it involves removing parkland — a decision that will, it appears, at least slow the timetable. Both sides have appealed the decision. At a news conference shortly after the ruling, Mr. Miller urged Dr. Sexton’s team to “rethink its policy” and “mend fences with its neighborhood and also with its professional body.”

The faculty group continues to fight. To help finance its agenda, it recently held an auction of donations, like a script reading by the author Peter Gethers and an acting lesson with Philip Seymour Hoffman (since Mr. Hoffman’s death, Liev Schreiber has assumed the pledge).

As Mr. Lipton attempts to seal his legacy, the board is scrambling to look more responsive to the issues that have roiled the campus and grabbed headlines. It will involve faculty and students in the search for a new president, and it has announced a drive to raise $1 billion for scholarships.

N.Y.U.’s cost of attendance is about $64,000, and it ranks among the country’s most expensive colleges and universities. On the federal Department of Education’s list of nonprofit private institutions with the highest net price — cost of attendance minus financial aid — only the New School and seven art and music academies cost more than N.Y.U. Asked about students’ ability to afford his university, Mr. Lipton responded: “We do everything we can to provide financial assistance to our students. Our students are not begging in the streets.”

As for his retirement as chairman, Mr. Lipton said, somewhat facetiously: “I am getting too old and have served too long.” Mr. Chesler and Mr. Berkley are leading candidates to replace him.

He seems certain the global mission will not change, in part because his board has been so enthusiastic. “The critics,” he said, “are shortsighted.”

Richard Chait, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and consultant to nonprofit institutions, has been watching the events at N.Y.U. unfold over the last year and sums it up this way: “If you believe youpainted the Mona Lisa, you don’t want someone to put a mustache on it.”

“At the same time,” he said, “part of what the faculty is saying is: This has been a two-man show; that is not how you run a university.”


February 14, 2014

How a Bard trustee and billionaire agribusinessman corrupts higher education

Filed under: bard college,Ecology,Education — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm


Linda and Stewart Resnick

The deep-going drought in California presents a fundamental challenge to the ecological status quo in which agribusiness trumps the needs of ordinary people relying on water for their dietary and sanitary needs. Does the right of a billionaire farmer to have his pomegranate or pistachio plantations irrigated trump that of a working person having a glass of water or being able to flush his or her toilet? It so happens that Stewart Resnick–the billionaire in question–is on the board of Bard College, an institution with enormous pretensions to social responsibility and Green values.

But his ties to Bard are small potatoes compared to UCLA, where he is a member of the executive board of the UCLA Medical Sciences, the advisory board of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the advisory board of the Lowell Milken Institute for Business Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law. The name Lowell Milken might ring a bell. He was the younger brother of securities crook Michael Milken with whom he worked at Drexel-Burnham and like his brother was charged with racketeering. Michael cut a deal with the prosecutors. He’d plead guilty if they let his kid brother go free—just the sort of person you’d want a business law department to be named after.

Stewart Resnick is a latter-day Noah Cross. If you’ve seen “Chinatown”—for my money, one of the 10 greatest movies ever made in the USA—you’ll remember that character as a water utility CEO who conspired to divert precious water resources to agribusiness. Resnick has made huge donations to the Democratic Party in California to make sure that the tap is never turned off for his irrigation pumps. And all the while Resnick and his wife Linda unleash a steady barrage of advertising and PR trying to make the case that their agribusinesses ranging from pomegranates to Fiji bottled water are good for the planet.

In doing some research for this piece, I stumbled across an article in the August 8, 2009 Financial Times that is mind-boggling in its failure to acknowledge the double-dealing of people like Resnick. Interestingly enough, it is a profile on UCLA’s most famous professor: Jared Diamond. Diamond wrote a book called “Collapse” that warned about the looming environmental crisis. His solution called for developing partnerships with companies like Chevron. In a December 5, 2009 op-ed piece in the NY Times, Diamond wrote: “Not even in any national park have I seen such rigorous environmental protection as I encountered in five visits to new Chevron-managed oil fields in Papua New Guinea.” Chevron, of course, is the same oil company that is fighting tooth and nail to prevent Ecuador from collecting on damages to farmland and water supplies from Texaco’s drilling (Chevron took over Texaco some years ago and is unwilling to be responsible for its liabilities.)

The Financial Times reports:

As he moves between fridge and table, he [Diamond] launches into his pomegranate story. “Pomegranate was one of the first fruits domesticated in the world. It was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 4000 BC,” he says. “A friend of mine, a very successful businessman, bought farm acreage in the central valley of California, which is the most productive agricultural area in the US. And there happened to be 100 acres of pomegranates, about which he knew very little. So he started learning about them and discovered how healthy they are, that they are full of vitamins and full of antioxidants and that they may be a treatment for prostate cancer.”

The friend, Stewart Resnick, had the capital and commercial acumen to spread the message to the US consumer. Thus did the pomegranate boom begin, and the fruit make its way to the refrigerators of 21st-century America. The story somehow captures Diamond. We have the awe of ancient civilisations, the physical explanation of the fertile soil of ancient Mesopotamia and modern California, and the accident of his friend’s financial resources and ingenuity. In this way, all things, big and small, come to pass.

I suppose if you are going to promote Chevron, the logical next step is to promote Stewart Resnick’s POM juice, an ubiquitous product on grocery store shelves. I wonder if Diamond got paid for making this commercial or whether he did it out of gratitude for all the millions that the Resnicks have lavished on UCLA. You’ll note that Diamond qualifies POM as a cure for prostate cancer with the careful “may be”. He probably knew that the authorities were about to shut down the Resnick’s bullshit advertising campaigns that centered on its “miracle” cancer-curing powers, a claim that has about as much scientific value as copper bracelets relieving the pains of arthritis, etc.

Seven days ago San Francisco CBS News reported on a major lawsuit that challenged agribusiness’s right to divert water for pistachios, pomegranates, etc. while ordinary people go thirsty.

But there is one place where there’s no shortage of water. The bountiful pomegranate, almond and pistachio fields of Paramount Farms are as green as ever.

You wouldn’t know it because you can’t see it. But there is a huge underground water reservoir on the south end of the Central valley, near Bakersfield. It’s four times as big as Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

It’s called the Kern Water Bank. And it’s majority controlled by two of the state’s biggest agribusinesses: Paramount Farms, a division of Roll International, and Tejon Ranch Company.

So guess who owns Roll International? Bingo. You got it. The fucking Resnicks. That’s the holding company for their agribusiness empire. An alliance of environmentalists is suing to break the stranglehold of Roll and Tejon on the water supplies while the Resnicks can be expected to use their influence on the courts and the politicians to maintain the status quo.

It is also of strategic importance for the Resnicks to have UCLA on their side. Just as the Koch brothers spread their millions around to get economics departments to preach the values of deregulation and a balanced budget, so do the Resnicks effectively bribe one of the country’s most prestigious universities (big-time Marxists Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson teach there) to get them on Roll International’s side.

Yesterday I got the latest news on the Resnick shenanigans from Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade paper that I have been reading ever since I went to work for Columbia University in 1991. I started reading it to keep track of IT developments but soon learned that it was a good source for news on how academia is exploited by the rich and the powerful to suit their needs. Every so often it reports on Leon Botstein’s dodgy deals, like hosting a seminar on the advanced philosophical theories of a nitwit jeweler in New York who must have donated a small fortune for that privilege.

Unfortunately, the article “For UCLA, Pomegranate Research Is Sweet and Sour” is behind a paywall but I would be happy to send a copy to anybody who requests one. The Chronicle reports:

“Drink to Prostate Health.” “The Antioxidant Superpill.” “Take Out a Life Insurance Supplement.” Pomegranates are a superfood, or at least that’s what ads told us for years in newspapers and magazines.

Those ads have now vanished. They were banned as part of a lengthy battle between the couple behind Pom Wonderful, the company responsible for the ads and the federal government. Tangled up in that dispute, in more ways than one, is the University of California at Los Angeles.

In an opinion issued last year, the Federal Trade Commission found that 36 ads and other promotional materials for Pom Wonderful products, many of which cited UCLA studies and quoted UCLA experts, were false or deceptive. An order now prohibits Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Pom’s owners, from making any disease-related claims about Pom or any product of their holding company, Roll Global, during the next 20 years unless they have substantiated those claims through at least two well-controlled, randomized clinical trials. The Resnicks appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last August.

The continuing legal battle has highlighted the complications that can arise when people have multiple relationships with a university, as the Resnicks do with UCLA.

The couple has given generously to various parts of the university. They’ve provided money to UCLA scientists to do research. They have engaged some of those same researchers to act as advisers. They paid the chief of the UCLA Health System more than $120,000 from 2010 to 2012. Two of the Resnicks’ expert witnesses at the FTC trial were from UCLA.

Last summer the university created the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy in the university’s School of Law, through a $4-million gift from the couple. The program’s founding executive director, Michael T. Roberts, worked as special counsel at Roll Law Group, part of Roll Global, for five years.

It is not uncommon for industry donors and university researchers to have more than one connection. But, says Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, an independent institution that studies bioethics, she cannot recall hearing of a relationship as multilayered as the one between the Resnicks and UCLA. Such relationships “could actually create some kind of bias or impaired judgment” in researchers, she says, but even if they don’t, “they raise this question about how independent and trustworthy the institution is.”

Well, obviously the institution is neither independent nor trustworthy. As is the case with all other sectors of the economy, the modern university is very much a corporate entity with tentacles from the Resnick’s or the Koch’s reaching into ever pore of its body.

The article continues:

Another UCLA scientist who has played more than one role with the Resnicks’ companies is David Heber, an emeritus professor of medicine and public health, and founding director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. He is on the Pistachio Health Scientific Advisory Board for Paramount Farms, a Roll Global company. He said in an email message that he is paid an annual honorarium of $2,500 for that role.

Dr. Heber also participated in studies on Pom products and pistachios, was quoted in promotional materials for Pom, and served as one of the Resnicks’ expert witnesses.

No one at UCLA Health Sciences agreed to be interviewed for this article, although a few researchers and Ms. Tate responded to questions by email.

Gosh, only $2500 to promote the Resnicks’ snake oil. I know call girls who would be insulted by such a low-ball offer.

Then there is David T. Feinberg, who is president of the UCLA Health System and chief executive of the UCLA Hospital System. The Chronicle report states:

Last May in Maryland, several students from the organization [Students Against Sweatshops] confronted Dr. Feinberg as he stood on stage to give a speech at the national conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine. One of them read a letter objecting to his and UCLA’s financial relationship with Pom.

In state disclosure forms, Dr. Feinberg, a psychiatrist, indicated that he received between $10,001 and $100,000 from the Stewart & Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust in 2010 and again in 2012, and more than $100,000 in 2011, for his role as a “consultant/adviser.”

Government is for sale. The media is for sale. Higher education is for sale. All these bastards are no different then the Chinese or Bangladeshi officials getting pay-offs from American corporations to look the other way when a sweatshop is a firetrap or workers are getting paid for 8 hours work when they are putting in 12. But at least you understand that a Bangladeshi or a Chinese bureaucrat is taking bribes on a straightforward basis. The dollars that Nike or Walmart lays on him is meant to pay for a BMW and a country house. But in the case of these UCLA professors and administrators lining up at the Resnick trough, there is the claim that they are fighting prostate cancer or saving the planet. Dante should have created a 10th circle in Hell just for them.

April 1, 2013


Filed under: Education,indigenous — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

I am working on a piece for Counterpunch on Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” that was made in 1921 and generally considered the first documentary ever. I saw it for the first time at the Smithsonian American Indian Museum downtown a couple of weeks ago, with musical accompaniment by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer from Nunavut, the newest Canadian province and home to both Nanook (not his real name) and Tagaq.

While getting up to speed on the background to this movie, I remembered that we had a Marxmail subscriber early on who was working on a computer science curriculum for Nunavut’s first university. I was pleased to discover that his messages to the list from 13 years ago were archived. Here’s one of some import:

Nunavut: A permanent land for nomadic people

Nunavut Arctic College is not a single campus. It is a series of Learning  Centres in 20+ communities serving a population of about 29,000 in the new  territory. There has been tremendous growth here since the Territory became  independent on April 1, 1999. The influx of people represent government people,  diamond and gold mine managers and workers, and criminals from the Vancouver  area who want to establish a claim to organising an exchange of diamonds for  drugs with those who will be hired to work in the new mines.

I’ve been in Kugluktuk aka Coppermine since August last year. The community is  situated on the edge of Coronation Bay that flows into the Arctic Ocean some  distance north. There are islands in sight, and people drive out on their snow  machines to hunt caribou or check their fishing nets for Arctic Char or other  fish. For reasons that I don’t understand I learned that the Char in this area  are the ‘biggest’ in the north. I’m not certain if that is a northern ‘fishing  yarn, or if there is any truth to the story.

Becoming the stewards of a huge chunk of ice and tundra means that culturally  there will be the political assertions of being able to ‘go back to the old  ways’ but what does that mean? Arctic communities are not so different from  other communities overseas that have been ‘left behind’ as the rest of the  country moved on and so we might begin with the question, “What language should  we use”?

In Nunavut there are two ‘principle’ languages Innuktituk and Innuinaqtun. The  minister for education visited my class and began speaking in dialect and nobody  in the class understood a word he said and asked him to use English. In the  government offices the principle language is English but the country is  bilingual and so business also has to be done in French, which only a relatively  few people speak. The outcome for the new territory is that all official  documents have to be prepared in English, French, and the Inuit dialect of  choice.

The Territory is divided into three regions: Baffin Region in the East,  Kitikmeot (meaning Central), and Keewatin, which is to the south of us.  Kugluktuk is in the Kitikmeot Region and we are the most western point on the  Nunavut map, next door, so to speak, to Northwest Territories (NWT) and for  administrative purposes the government is already going through a  ‘decentralisation process’

Just to complete the identification of the land to the west, on the other side  of NWT is Yukon Territory, while beyond that again is Alaska. In the northern  strip of Canada to the east Nunavut has territory close to Quebec but no  territory was ceded to Nunavut from that province.

As you know the land mass of the north is massive and sparsely populated. For  example, we in Canada are just about 10% of the US population at approximately  30-35 million people. Indigenous groups exist in all parts of Canada except  Newfoundland where they were exterminated some years ago. Except for Quebec  which has its own northern and aboriginal programme other native groups are  ‘looked after’ by the federal government Department of Indian and Northern  Development. When I worked in the northern part of Quebec 30+ years ago the  government person was called an Indian Agent. Names change but the history of  the years of exploitation remains.

There is a lot going on socially, politically, and economically but the ordinary  Inuit sees very little of the benefits. I’ve mentioned other aboriginal groups  deliberately because the lives of all of them are intertwined, if by nothing  else then by the forms of exploitation and history of oppression. Among these  number members of the invading, trading and praying brigade who moved like  locusts across the land sucking the living spirit out of those it exploited and  leaving the debris of abused people in their wake.

The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth.  The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the  usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the  wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the  coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridghead. There have been  many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to  residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own  languages and mistreated in different ways. Much the same as ‘disowned’ children  from England who were cleared out of the orphanages and shipped overseas to  ‘colonise’ different countries at the age of five years and up. The Christian  Brothers in Australia were the same Catholic group who did a great deal of  damage to the kids here in Canada. Quebecers suffered until the late 1960’s with  the domination of the church because the church dictated all aspect of life in  the province.

The Inuit here were nomads and they still went out ‘On the Land’ until about  fifty years ago when the federal government ordered them to be in one place. For  the people here Kugluktuk used to be a summer meeting place for a few weeks of  the year. Scattered communities, family groups lived along the coast for many  miles but the Inuit had no sense of everybody living together. They had hunting and survival skills a-plenty but they had no written language. Although they  stopped moving around, and I don’t yet know how the government compelled them to  stop their migratory traditions, people still go away for extended periods of  time. As a result of the continued extended trips on the land I’ve had men and  women in my courses that have only been to school for a few weeks when they were  very young. One 24-year-old man, a hunter, could read but he could not write and  like two or three others in the class he had no idea how to approach math.  Putting numbers down in order to perform addition of tens, or hundreds proved to  be a complex operation.

Although I was here in the north 27 years ago I was moving around more working  with people who wanted to establish retail co-operative stores. This time, being  in the classroom I have learned a little more about the impact of education on  particular individuals. The white mans education doesn’t serve too many white  people very well and yet governments impose a lousy system on people of totally  different cultures. Certainly Inuit people within their own community boundaries  have not fared too well. I am informed that the successful people who are  currently in government, or who are in business were sent ‘out’ for their  education. That does not necessarily mean to the Residential schools, but to  say, Yellowknife, NWT to stay in a hostel for a number of years before returning  home or going on to university. For the people I’ve had in my class there is the  difficulty of ‘thinking things through’. I’m a supporter of the concept of  critical theory and I like to bring to different learning groups a critical  approach to whatever we are doing. For my students here thinking in the abstract  was foreign. The stock answer to me requesting ‘some idea’ of the problem was  universally ‘I dunno…’ This was not an adult student recalling the practice of  avoidance of his or her school days. This was an honest answer; there was no  sense of connecting two separate things to create a third. Let me give a very  simple every day example. I didn’t know where we could begin because I have  learned that when a person tells me they have completed grade nine I wait to  make my own assessment because they do not have the associated thinking or  problem solving skills that should accompany that level of accomplishment.

I soon learned that three or four people had difficulty with their  multiplication tables. I had prepared a block chart, do you remember the kind of  thing, from 1 to 12 along the top and from 1 to 12 down the side and in each  square intersecting two numbers (top and bottom) the appropriate result of multiplying both those numbers. Yes, they said they understood. We were talking  later about a math problem that required multiplication. Instead of using their  new chart, they were trying to determine the answer by scratching in their  notebook the ‘many different’ possibilities to find the correct answer. Not a  single person had thought to use the multiplication chart and did not understand  me when I told them that it was a tool to assist in solving other problems. The  difficulties are many. And there is the need for employment.

I’ll write again.  Peter

March 10, 2013

A reading guide for students of Marxism

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

A Marxist education

In early February I received this email from a Marxmail subscriber:

If I am not imposing on you —could you recommend some items to read to get some concise (assuming that is the right word to use) and basic understandings of marxism in its pure form and then the debates that either honed it or distorted it. I am new to this other than having some info from high school and reading the communist manifesto. I can follow some of the items sent to the list but the background to some of them is way above my level. Thanks for any recommendation you can make.

It has taken me a while to get around to responding to this but this does not reflect a lack of interest on my part. To the contrary, this is one of the main reasons I launched Marxmail—to help people new to Marxism get a better handle on the main concepts without enduring the sectarian nonsense I had to put up with as a recruit to the Trotskyist movement in 1967.

Despite my regrets about the 11 years I spent in the movement, I can say that I received a very good education from some very capable teachers, including old-timers who were closely connected to Leon Trotsky, like George Novack, Farrell Dobbs, and Joseph Hansen. I always had the hope that the participation of veteran Marxists on Marxmail would help new comrades get up to speed, especially since many of the discussions take the form of sharp debates. Some of the best lessons I received in Marxism were not part of an organized lecture series but debates at a branch meeting with people like Peter Camejo on the other side of a question from Larry Trainor, an older trade union veteran of the party.

Before recommending a reading guide, I want to refer you to a Yahoo mailing list I initiated in January 2008 to meet a similar request. The archives are here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/. Basically the format was a post from me followed up by discussion. As it turned out, there wasn’t much discussion. Looking back in retrospect, I think the attempt at an online class had mixed results. I tended to write about topics that probably reflected a bit too much of my own concerns that were often a bit abstruse. Also, the mailing list medium does not lend itself to the kind of give-and-take that you would get in a physical as opposed to a virtual classroom.

There is a very good chance that I will return to this at some point in the future but in a different format. It will probably be based on videos of me lecturing on basic concepts on a blog with people asking questions or making comments. There’s also a good chance that I will try to use Skype for online discussion, keeping in mind that you are limited to 8 people communicating at once. I really have to look into different options, including the possibility that some leftwing institution would donate the resources for an electronic classroom like the kind that MIT and Columbia University are using. In general I am skeptical about electronic classrooms but for people like us spread across 5 continents there’s probably no alternative.

Okay, without further ado, here is a reading guide for learning Marxism divided to online texts and those only available in dead trees format. I should add that Les Evans, a leader of the SWP who has since evolved into a Christopher Hitchens figure politically but without his overweening ambitions, recommended a number of the online texts to me back in the late 60s.


1. Karl Marx, “Wage Labor and Capital”. Although this is an unfinished work, it is an excellent introduction to Marx’s basic economic theories written in a straightforward manner geared to the audience: the German Workingmen’s Club of Brussels.

2. Ernest Mandel, “An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory”. Like the work above, it was written as a kind of introductory text.

3. Frederick Engels, “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”. This is actually an excerpt from a larger work, “The Dialectics of Nature”, that is not nearly as important as this part that is generally read on its own. It anticipates much of modern ecological thought.

4. Abram Leon, “The Jewish Question”.  I joined the SWP just around the time of the Six Day War in 1967 when there will still lots of illusions about Israel on the liberal left. As someone raised in a kosher home with mom a Zionist zealot one of the first questions I had for Les Evans is what was the Marxist position on anti-Semitism. He proceeded to give me an impromptu 30-minute one-on-one lecture drawn from Leon’s book. Leon, I should add, was a Belgian Trotskyist who died in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.

5, Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours”. I have always regarded Trotsky as the finest writer of the Marxist movement. In this brilliant polemic, he answers liberals who have accused Marxists of believing that the ends justify the means. Here is a sample: “Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.”

6. V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”. Some believe that this work is obsolete since it addresses inter-imperialist rivalries of the sort we haven’t seen since WWII. I would reply that the greater value of the work is its ability to unmask the connections between big banks and the state, of obvious relevance to the contemporary scene.

7. Evelyn Reed, “Is Biology Women’s Destiny?”. A good introduction to the themes Reed dealt with in a large book titled “Woman’s Evolution” that is only available in print from Pathfinder Press, the SWP publishing wing. I think the book is very much worth reading but only if you get it second hand from Amazon or from the library.

8. CLR James, “The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States”. Using his party name JR Johnson, James demonstrates the kind of analysis that made him such a strong influence on the Marxist wing of the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s and 70s.

9. Jim Blaut, Lenin’s evolution on the National Question. This and two other chapters from Blaut’s book on the national question can be read here. Blaut was a member of Marxmail until his untimely death in 2000. I plan to scan and upload the remainder of his book over the next few months.

10. Felix Morrow, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain”. This book shows the remarkable ability of a Trotskyist to expose class-collaborationism. When I first read it, I assumed that all that was necessary in politics was to make such points. Alas, I did not understand at the time that revolutions are not made on the basis of telling workers about colossal failures but leading them in struggle to a successful conclusion. That being said, Morrow is a terrific writer.

I could obviously cite another 50 books and articles but this should be a good start.

Print only

1. Leo Huberman, “Man’s Worldly Goods”. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Huberman was with Monthly Review when he wrote this, a primer on Marxist economics geared to workers.

2. A.L. Morton, “A People’s History of England”. As you can figure out from the title, this is the British counterpart of what Zinn wrote for the U.S. but frankly more engaged with the Marxist method. Morton is great.

3. Robert G. Williams, “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”. This is an excellent explanation of how “primitive accumulation” in Central America (driving small peasants off their land and turning it into cattle ranches to supply fast food restaurants) led to the revolutionary struggles of the 1970s and 80s.

4. Michal Perelman, “The Invention of Capitalism”. Michael has written many very good books but this is my favorite. It deals with the primitive accumulation phase of capitalism and the ideology put forward to defend it.

5. Michael Yates, “Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy”. This is a critique of neoliberalism written in a super-clear fashion. Since Michael has taught workers (and prisoners) over the years, he was obviously channeling Karl Marx’s “Wage Labor and Capital”.

6. Doug Henwood, “Wall Street”. The best-selling Verso book of all time will tell you how the stock market works to the disadvantage of working people.

7. Michael Lebowitz, “Beyond Capital”. Michael has lived in Venezuela for more than a decade and provides insights into 21st century socialism based on a classical Marxist erudition.

8. John Bellamy Foster, “The Vulnerable Planet”. Although I have grown disgusted with Foster ever since he gave MR’s imprimatur to Yoshie Furuhashi’s demented blog aka MRZine, I can strongly recommend this book as about the best introduction to the environmental crisis that I can think of.

9. Mike Davis, “City of Quartz”. A dystopian take on Los Angeles by a preeminent scholar who drove a truck once upon a time.

10. Walter Rodney, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”. A brilliant and angry study of colonialism.

October 18, 2012

Death by Degrees

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 3:25 pm

N+1 No. 14

Death by Degrees
by the Editors

[T]he AMA owes its authority to America’s most notorious robber barons, who invented philanthropy as we know it by establishing foundations capable of long-term, organized interventions in the country’s political and cultural life. The first foundations poured money into medical schools — but only if those schools followed the example set by Johns Hopkins, which in 1893 had introduced what’s now the standard formula: students attend four years of college, then four years of medical school. Institutions that didn’t follow this model did not get donations, and they also got denounced in a 1910 report sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. After the Carnegie survey published its “findings,” scores of medical schools — schools whose students could not afford the additional years of study now required, and nearly all of the schools that admitted blacks and women — closed.

Today, we take it for granted that practicing medicine or law requires years of costly credentialing in unrelated fields. In the law, the impact of all this “training” is clear: it supports a legal system that is overly complicated and outrageously expensive, both for high-flying corporate clients who routinely overpay and for small-time criminal defendants who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, can’t afford to secure representation at all (and must surrender their fate to local prosecutors, who often send them to prison). But just as a million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to perform an abortion, routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be handled by noninitiates.

The standardization of these professional guilds benefited undergraduate institutions immensely, a fact that was not lost on university administrators. College presidents endorsed the Hopkins model and the AMA’s consolidation of medical authority for good reason: in the mid-19th century, bachelor’s degrees in the United States were viewed with skepticism by the private sector, and colleges had a hard time finding enough students. The corporate-sponsored consolidation of the medical establishment changed undergraduate education from a choice to a necessity. Where once there was indifference, now there was demand: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” the child in the PSA says. “I want to go to college.”

full: http://nplusonemag.com/death-by-degrees

The Baffler No. 20

Adam Wheeler Went to Harvard
by Jim Newell

Wheeler came to Harvard to study English and left as a bit player in a twisted Dreiserian tragedy, exaggerated to hammy effect by a humiliated university covering its ass. He bought into Harvard’s great enabling social myth at face value: the notion that twenty-first-century meritocratic advancement is available to all through the procurement of a college diploma. Like any rational economic actor, he sought to procure a diploma from the finest college, with maximum efficiency. Wheeler’s crime, in the institution’s eyes, was that he saw Harvard degrees for what they are—items for purchase that cloak the owner with a manufactured prestige that, in our pretend meritocracy, automatically raises one’s market value upon the deal’s closing. The only thing propping up that value is the admissions office’s carefully maintained scarcity of supply—a luxury good ostensibly awarded to society’s most able. So Wheeler once more called the bluff of the Harvard admissions crew: he gave them whatever song-and-dance they were looking for, and, shockingly, came close to completing the purchase.

It’s quite apparent that Harvard administrators couldn’t merely expel Wheeler and demand he return the money when they finally noticed the obvious lies on his academic résumé. There was an urgent example to be set here, after all: enterprising young minds watching the news coverage might have reasoned that the people who run Harvard are utter morons who caught Wheeler only after a final fabrication so flamboyant that he must have wanted to get caught. With the great meritocratic ruse at last exposed in the light of day, young strivers might well give it a go themselves. Even better, forget going to Harvard—why not simply throw “BA, Harvard” on the ol’ résumé right now and start making tons of money playing financial computer games tomorrow? All Wheeler did, anyway, was spot major systemic inefficiencies and disingenuously exploit them for personal financial reward. And if Harvard is a place that would expel such a Capitalist of the Year, then it’s everyone else’s moral duty as Americans to pick up where he left off, and continue looting the place until it reaches a competitive market-clearing equilibrium: when looting a Harvard degree would no longer be worth the trouble—when Harvard, horror of horrors, becomes but one college of many!

full: http://thebaffler.com/past/adam_wheeler_went_to_harvard

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.