The Times and the Worker Education Center

Readers of the New York Times might be forgiven for experiencing a bit of whiplash. Last year, when Brooklyn College’s political science department voted to officially support an event demanding a boycott of Israeli academics, the Times hailed the department as a heroic defender of academic freedom. Earlier this week, however, the paper portrayed the department as persecuting a “respected scholar of labor history,” seemingly for ideological reasons.

Some background: for many years, in addition to the courses it offers on campus, Brooklyn College has run a program called the Graduate Center for Worker Education. Based in Lower Manhattan, the program offered courses to students who mostly had no connection to Brooklyn College. According to evidence presented by CUNY, the longtime director of the program, a political science professor named Joseph Wilson, committed myriad financial improprieties, ranging from taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra salary to using the center’s money to purchase a TV set for his daughter.

The Times could have framed this story in many ways. It might have used Wilson’s downfall to look more closely at the program’s curriculum. In an era of widespread advances in educational quality at CUNY, the worker education center stood out as resisting the reforms championed by former chancellor Matthew Goldstein, and clinging instead to the discredited ideological fads of the 1970s. (The Times hails this approach as reflecting the center’s “idealistic mission.”) Did Wilson’s apparent willingness to flout the rules carry over to the curriculum that he oversaw? For that matter, what courses did the program actually offer? The Times doesn’t say, perhaps because the answer would be inconvenient for the article’s frame. Were the courses of graduate-level quality, or was Wilson fleecing his students of their tuition money in the same way he allegedly fleeced the taxpayers? Again, The Times doesn’t say.

The Times also might have used the article to praise CUNY’s willingness to investigate malfeasance in its own ranks. Reading between the lines of the article, as soon as CUNY found out about Wilson, the institution turned to an outside investigator who uncovered massive wrongdoing, and CUNY then moved to correct the problem. Wilson, through Times reporter Ariel Kaminer, doesn’t challenge most of the investigation’s findings, though he has some quibbles around the edges.

However, the Times implies that Wilson has been persecuted for ideological reasons by what Kaminer terms the “ascendant faction” of the college’s political science department. Who belongs to this “ascendant faction”? What do they believe? Why did they dislike Wilson? Kaminer can’t be bothered to answer any of these questions; there’s no indication from the article that the Times even attempted to interview any members of this amorphous “ascendant faction.” Nor does Kaminer provide any reasonable context for this alleged ideological jihad. Given that–again–this department officially supported speakers who advocate a boycott of Israeli academics, and given that the new director of the program, Corey Robin, appears to be just as ideologically extreme as Wilson, it’s hard to see any broad ideological crusade here.

Despite not having any evidence for the preferred framing, Kaminer concludes the article by quoting without comment from a delusional Wilson e-mail, in which the disgraced professor offered some “key rebuttal points”: “There is a long history of political persecution in the US, (and CUNY/BC) including the government frame-up of Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, W. E. B. DuBois prosecution, the frame-up of countless civil rights and labor leaders, and mass firings of CUNY faculty during the McCarthy era. This attack is part of that detestable history.”

A latter-day W.E.B. DuBois! It seems as if, at least when reporting on CUNY affairs, the preferred Times editorial slant is that there are no enemies on the left. In fact,  the only enemies are those the Times invents.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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