In contrast to the Tea Party protests of 2009-2010, the “Occupy Wall Street” protests appear to have generated a good deal of sympathy from the academy–at least from faculty in New York. A BBC article, for instance, captured a photo of a “PSC Supports You” placard, a reference to the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, which has enthusiastically embraced the protest.
This aggressive level of faculty involvement–in what is a transparently political, and non-academic, affair–raises a tantalizing question of whether the “Occupy Wall Street” sympathizers are abusing their classroom authority on behalf of the protests. A spokesperson for UnitedNY.org, a group sympathetic to the protests, all but conceded inappropriate behavior by faculty members: “Professors are asking their classes [emphasis added] to take the day to actually go to this rally,” Camille Rivera told CBS New York.
The idea that professors have used class time to ask students to attend a political protest should raise red flags in administrators’ offices. (Imagine the reaction if professors in 2009 had asked their classes to take the day off to attend a Tea Party rally.)
But perhaps it’s just a coincidence that last Wednesday, the same day that the PSC members stepped out of the classroom and joined the Wall Street protests, CBS New York reported that about 150 students at my institution, Brooklyn College, did the same. That group totaled less than one percent of the overall student enrollment at Brooklyn.
A senior at the college named Daryl Barney explained why he had chosen to cut class: “We’re feeling like we’re under attack. Tuition is going up and then we’ll be graduating. We have no hopes. We have no real future.”
Barney’s final sentence speaks to one of the more perplexing political failures of the Obama administration—the decision not to focus more (when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress) on joblessness of those under 30, whose unemployment rate has far exceeded the national average. People in Barney’s age group, after all, were the President’s political base in 2008.
Barney’s other comments, however, speak to the unfocused nature of the “Occupy Wall Street” message. It’s hard to imagine that people are congregating in lower Manhattan to complain about excessive tuition at public colleges. Indeed, CUNY’s current annual tuition (for New York residents) is a relative bargain at $5130. The tuition increase of which Barney complained, $300 annually, will raise $50 million for CUNY, funds critical for allowing the institution to continue making quality hires. (The faculty union nonetheless opposed the measure, citing its preference for raising taxes instead.) Moreover, despite Barney’s lament of having “no hopes,” the people hardest hit by the economic downturn are those without college degrees.
Perhaps Barney would be better served by directing his concerns about rising tuition to spokesperson Rivera, and asking her why she seems to approve of professors using expensive class time not to instruct but to urge their students to participate in a political protest.