Brooklyn College’s Graduate Center for Worker Education has a rich institutional legacy of seminal scholarship, outstanding teaching and a long list of students who have become leaders in unions, politics, law and social policy advocacy. Founded with municipal union support, and with a pro-labor CUNY Chancellor Joe Murphy, the Center maintained relations with, and provided higher educational access for hundreds of members of local 1199 SEIU, Teamsters, Communication Workers of America, United Automobile Workers, American Federation of Teachers, among others.
So I was shocked and dismayed to learn about the closing of the GCWE by Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, following a stream of attacks against the Center’s working students, faculty, and staff. I was visiting Belle Zeller Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College a decade ago and devoted most of my teaching to the Graduate Center for Worker Education. Therefore, I’m intimately familiar with the program, the talented faculty, dedicated staff and remarkable graduate students, drawn from New York’s municipal labor unions and immigrant communities. The GCWE was a beacon of hope and ascendency for working class students seeking intellectual challenges, social advocacy and professional advancement.
My experience teaching at the Center, as a visiting Belle Zeller Professor, was pedagogically rewarding. My GCWE students were highly motivated, focused and compared favorably to the brightest students I have taught over the years. The worker education students were mainly women of color, most with full-time jobs Many students were active or became active in the labor movement, community organizations, electoral politics, and went on to doctoral and law programs. Many have established prestigious careers and academic accomplishments.
The GCWE lays claim to many distinguished faculty. Among them are public intellectuals who play a significant role in public policy and includes judges, city planners and public health experts. The GCWE’s faculty has always compared favorably to those from the top universities in the world, on the basis of teaching, publications, and public service. Their support and dedication to students is second to none.
GCWE was always uniquely characterized by its outstanding faculty of color, which offered students access to leaders who have distinguished themselves as scholars, journalists, leaders, and beyond. No program in CUNY, and perhaps in the entire nation, has a better track record in hiring underrepresented faculty including African American, Afro-Caribbean, Latina/o, and Asian faculty. They include:
- Gena Rae ‘McNeil: distinguished historian, University of North Carolina;
- Stanley Nelson, MacArther Fellow, award winning documentary Filmmaker (The Murder of Emmett Till, nationally broadcast );
- Gary Younge, author and distinguished journalist, The Guardian and The Nation;
- Gregory Wilpert, internationally renowned Latin American social scientist;
- Lisette Nieves, Rhodes Scholar, Co-chair appointed by President Obama, to the National Commission on Hispanics in Higher Education;
- Juan Gonzalez, award winning journalist, author and co-host of Democracy Now!;
- Warren Whitlock, national director, civil rights, United States Department of Transportation;
- David Addams, esq. former director, New York Civil Liberties Union, former president, National Conference of Black Lawyers;
- Saru Jayaraman author, labor activist and founder of ROC New York;
- Bill Fletcher, author, labor educator and civil rights leader;
- Archibald Singham, author and founder of the global non-aligned movement;
- Dominick Tuminaro, labor law professor, former Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights in New York, and member of an underrepresented CUNY population, to name a few.
As recently as 2009 I participated in the GCWE’s national conference, Black Women and the Radical Agenda, featuring Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Leith Mullings, Esther Jackson, Carole Boyce Davies, and Eric McDuffie, highlighting the monumental work of freedom fighter Charlene Mitchell . Hundreds of scholars from around the world and across the nation participated in this historic conference. The journal New Solutions recently held its national conference at GCWE, as did the Labor And Working Class History Association. In 2011 the Worker’s Center hosted my double book launch at a well attended public event. Numerous rank-and-file labor conferences have be held at GCWE.
GCWE was a focus of institutional and social transformation. As a hotbed for developing social activists, raising the minimum wage, fighting for and enabling organizing restaurant workers, publishing ground breaking academic studies like Immanuel Ness’s International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, and his peer-reviewed journal Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, the GCWE manifested a rare combination that conferred students with historical analysis, critical social and political theory, and applied policy practice, empowering generations of leaders engaged in social transformation. Unmistakably, Worker education flourished under the Center’s former director, Professor Joseph Wilson.
From Oxford to Moscow, from Los Angeles to New York, worker education programs are under attack by the right wing and zealots who believe working people should not have access to higher education. The attacks takes various form, from defunding budgets and shrinking programs to outright closure, as is the case with CUNY’s GCWE.
Without worker education programs, social movements, from trade unions to Occupy Wall Street are deprived of a vital resources to analyze and critique society and develop advocates to help build a better world for working people.
Based on dismissive public pronouncements lacking a substantive rational, B.C.’s President Gould took a sudden wrecking ball to the GCWE. A powerful institutional voice against racism has been silenced . Let us hope and fight to make sure this dastardly act is reversed. Dismantling the GCWE and public statements by the interim director and administration cast a shadow of disdain over the many distinguished faculty and outstanding students in the GCWE’s extended community. I have come to find out from former employees that these allegations and unethical attacks are over two years old. Significantly, no findings of wrongdoing have been substantiated, refuting all McCarthy-like claims to the contrary.
It appears to me, based on publicly available information, that the Constitutional rights of the GCWE’s faculty and staff have been trampled upon, such as the presumption of innocence, the right to face ones accusers, freedom of association, due process, etc. The attack and closing raises troubling issues of the academic integrity and ethics of the accusers.
Given the long history of political persecution in the academy, and the history of false charges and persecution in the nation as a whole, from the frame-up of Angela Davis, to the dirty tricks played by the FBI against Dr. King, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, the Black Panthers, WEB DuBois, and labor leaders to numerous to count, those who would be swayed by broad brush accusations should also recall egregious prosecutorial errors littering the landscape of US political history. After all, should these charges fall on their face, as they seem to be unraveling after 2 years, who will apologize to the students, staff and faculty victimized by this unethical attack? How can reputations be repaired? Why would an institution be dismantled for the mere alleged and unproven sins of the former director? Who will rebuild the Center and repair the reputations of students, staff and alumni? Obviously those who would attack worker education are not hindered by class consciousness, racial justice or common ethics.
Tragically, if we allow the unjustified closing of this venerated program that serves working people of color, organized labor and immigrant communities, we can expect that other similarly oriented programs will face the same fate.
As CUNY’s flagship MA program for working people, and as one of New York’s City’s most venerable working class institutions, it is in the public interest to save the Graduate Center for Worker Education. That’s why I signed the petition to save the program. I am encouraging all progressives, trade unionists, those fighting for racial and class justice and public interest policy advocates to urgently do the same.
[Dr. Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies. His research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. He has also written extensively about the film industry. Dr. Horne received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University. Teaching
Dr. Horne’s undergraduate courses include the Civil Rights Movement and U.S. History through Film. He also teaches graduate courses in Diplomatic History, Labor History and 20th Century African American History. He is the author of more than thirty books and one hundred scholarly articles and reviews. His current research focuses on a variety of topics such as a revising of the traditional understanding of 1776 and viewing the arrival of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 as a response to Jim Crow imposed with the arrival of the U. S. as the dominant force on the island in 1898.]