By and large, Christine Quinn has done a commendable job as New York City Council speaker, working cooperatively with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and constraining the more extreme members of her caucus, which is no easy task in a city like New York. Yet she now has a decision that will help define her legacy—whether to reappoint Charles Barron as chair of the Council’s Higher Education Committee. (In New York, the Speaker has authority on appointing committee chairs; there is no seniority system.)
As a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), I have a higher stake than most in Quinn’s decision. In most cities, a “higher education committee” for a City Council would seem to make little sense, given that funding for public universities usually flows from state governments. But in a somewhat arcane scheme, government money for CUNY’s budget comes from both the state and New York City. So the City Council has appropriate oversight authority over CUNY.
Given that government revenues are plunging, CUNY almost certainly will have to tighten its belt over the next few years. Having a responsible chair of the Higher Ed Committee who will work cooperatively with the CUNY administration—rather than someone intent on grandstanding or demagoguery—is therefore doubly important.
Barron has a well-deserved reputation as a racial demagogue in a city that has known more than its share of such figures. A former Black Panther who is quick to denounce those who disagree with him as racists, Barron has launched unsuccessful bids for Congress, New York City mayor, and Brooklyn borough president. He remains stuck on the City Council.
Last month, Barron embarrassed both himself and the City Council by behaving—in the words of CUNY Trustee Jeff Wiesenfeld—like a “thug” at the groundbreaking ceremony for Fiterman Hall, a Borough of Manhattan Community College building badly damaged on 9/11. Barron, incredibly, objected to the seating arrangement at the ceremony, complaining that he hadn’t been given a prominent enough seat. Last week, he disgracefully excused the behavior of his supporters as he lost 48-1 for Speaker.
So what is to be done with Barron now? Before making her decision about whether to keep Barron in a position of authority on higher education matters, Quinn should recall that Barron:
– Defended the actions and policies of Robert Mugabe;
– Compared Rev. Jeremiah Wright to Martin Luther King, Jr.;
– Had a chief of staff who threatened the “assassination” of a fellow Council member;
– Attended a reparations event, at which he declared, “I want to go up to the closest white person and say ‘You can’t understand this, it’s a black thing’ and then slap him, just for my mental health.”
– Told the New York Post, “I’m letting you all know now, I’m taking care of black folks.”
More disturbingly, Barron has used his position to bolster the academic’s most extreme race-based views. He suggested that CUNY’s commendable efforts to raise admissions standards were (of course) “racist.” And when invited to address the graduating class at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, he supplied the following message: “I don’t want you to be a lawyer who happens to be black. Be a black lawyer. I don’t want you to be an elected official who happens to be black. Be a black elected official. We got a black President. We got a black governor. Say black, black, black, black, black. They don’t even want us to say we’re black anymore.”
Higher education suffers enough from race/class/gender extremists within our own midst. That a key political figure would use his authority to bolster faculty ideologues is, to put it mildly, less than helpful. Though Barron is getting support from the usual quarters (such as the Rev. Al Sharpton), this decision shouldn’t be a difficult one for Quinn. But if Quinn does reappoint Barron, it will be hard to take seriously anything the New York Democratic Party offers on issues relating to higher education