Proud to be an embarrassment

March 10, 2010

Owen Hill, a junior at Hunter College in New York City and an activist against budget cuts and tuition hikes, explains why he isn't well-liked by the college president.

MY COLLEGE president thinks I'm an embarrassment to Hunter. I know this because she told me.

It happened two weeks ago when I was invited to attend an event related to Hunter College, but taking place off campus. President Jennifer Raab gave an arrogant introduction to a keynote speaker, during which she claimed that since its founding, Hunter (and by implication its administration) had maintained "an unwavering commitment to keeping Hunter accessible to everyone...despite class, race or gender."

Go ahead, let that sink in for a little bit. Read it a couple times. Mull it over, I'll wait. It took me a good minute to process what she said.

Now, think about any of a number of things currently happening at Hunter. Which of them suggest an "unwavering commitment" to keeping Hunter accessible? Is it the turnstiles? The budget cuts? The tuition hikes? The attempt to steal space from the Children's Learning Center?

By the time she was done, I was furious. Raab needed to be challenged at some level for lying to a large audience. But I didn't come that day to make a scene, so I waited until the keynote speaker had finished, slapped on my cheesiest grin and bounded forward, determined that I should be the first person she talked to.

Hunter College students, faculty and staff rallied during the March 4 Day of Action
Hunter College students, faculty and staff rallied during the March 4 Day of Action (SW)

"Hello, President Raab," I jumped right in, "I wanted to talk to you about something you said in your talk. You said that Hunter's administration has maintained an unwavering commitment to keeping Hunter accessible to everyone despite class, race or gender, but I actually feel like your administration hasn't maintained this commitment. I mean I haven't seen your administration do anything to fight the budget cuts or tuition hikes."

Not looking pleased, Raab stepped back with her right foot and began trying to pull an associate into the conversation, clearly attempting to exit, "This really isn't the place for this."

This wasn't the kind of reply you'd expect from someone who was maintaining an "unwavering commitment" to accessibility at Hunter, so I pressed on. "But what have you actually done about the budget cuts and the tuition hikes?" Her lips pursed, and she apparently thought it wise to actually respond, "What about the $4 million I raised?" she snapped.

NOW, $4 million is a good chunk of money, but there are two reasons that this answer hardly suffices.

First, trading public money for private money is actually a disservice to the City University of New York (CUNY) system. If there's one thing most people have learned from Barack Obama's first year as president, it's that corporations don't ever give money away without expecting something in return, and this principle is just as true for CUNY as it is for the nation's highest office.

I don't know about others, but personally, I'm far from excited about the new Coke® Cafeteria or Shell Environmental Solutions Studies ("New Study from Hunter College Confirms Global Warming a Myth!").

The second glaring flaw in this argument is that $4 million doesn't even scratch the surface of what has been cut from CUNY's yearly budget in the last year and a half--$172 million for anyone who's curious.

I imagined my first argument wouldn't exactly win over a Rudolph Giuliani appointee, so I went for hard numbers: "Well, CUNY's budget is being cut by over $80 million this semester alone." I think this caught Raab off guard, because she went back towards evasion, although this time with a sharper edge in her voice. "I'm sorry, there are guests I have to greet," she said.

But I wanted to make a final point before she could go. "What about the Children's Learning Center?" I asked. "Your administration is cutting that, and that's--"

She cut me off quickly, "You need to get your facts straight. We never tried to cut the Children's Learning Center."

Not only was she getting much louder and the anger in her voice clearly building, but now she was flat-out lying. "Yes, you did," I replied, "You tried to take away a whole room until--"

Again, I was cut off, and again, Raab got louder and angrier: "You need to get you facts straight. It was ONE room that was underused." That the Learning Center is composed of only four rooms, and that the room's removal would mean lowering legally licensed attendance by nine pre-school slots and three after-school slots--this was apparently irrelevant to President Raab.

By this time, it was clear to me that our conversation had begun to attract some very real attention. Raab was talking very loudly, and as I looked around, I noticed that all heads in the immediate vicinity were pointed directly at us. I even felt a tug at my arm; someone was clearly trying to dislodge me from the confrontation.

My memory of what I said next is pretty fuzzy. I know I pressed on, and I imagine it was something along the lines of "That's still cutting the Children's Learning Center." But to be honest, this recollection is completely overpowered by the memory of Raab's response. For at this point, Raab, clearly not accustomed to having her hypocrisy called out, was absolutely livid, her face was red, and she was nearly shouting at me. "I hope you know that you're an embarrassment to this college."

As she continued she got louder, and "nearly shouting" became an inaccurate description. "You're an embarrassment to this college," she said, "and you're an embarrassment to your fellow Hunter students, because you don't have your facts straight. You do this every time I see you, and you don't have your facts straight, and it's totally inappropriate."

I WAS shocked. I let myself get pulled away, and the encounter ended. It wasn't just that I had been berated before a sizable crowd by the New York City's 41st most powerful woman (according to the New York Daily News). Being berated by powerful people should be an expectation--nay, a goal--of any activist hoping to fundamentally challenge the inequality of our society.

What shocked me was how rapidly things had escalated and how little I had done to escalate them. I assumed I'd be brushed aside with relative ease and tact, perhaps with a couple offers to "Come to my office, let's sit down and talk."

Maybe it's just that Raab has a particular hatred just for me, and another student intellectually challenging her arguments would not have provoked the same reaction. After all, "You do this every time I see you" was one of the very few things she said that afternoon that was not a lie. For in the interest of full disclosure, readers should know that I've made it a habit of confronting Raab about her role in the neoliberal project of privatizing CUNY, and driving poor and working class students, students of color and student parents out of my school.

In their place, administrators such as President Raab and Chancellor Matthew Goldstein are consciously trying to bring in an expanding base of white, middle class, out-of-state students who can and do pay much higher tuition than native New Yorkers--making them much more profitable acquisitions.

This is certainly not the fault of these students, many of whom have been economically wrecked by the crisis and driven out of the private university system by the unbearable cost of tuition. I myself am a white, out-of-state student with parents in good-paying, union jobs.

But since I arrived at Hunter three years ago, I've learned a lot about what CUNY means to New York's working class, to its poor and oppressed millions. I've learned about the struggles of these New Yorkers to gain and retain access to CUNY. And I've also faced my share of increasing economic hardship--and last year's $2,000 jump in out-of-state tuition certainly didn't help. Next year, I may have to declare residency in New York to continue my education, which would mean losing access to my parents' health care.

Because of my own situation and the situation of my fellow students, I find Raab's roles--both as a passive and active agent of the neoliberal agenda--nauseating and completely unacceptable, and I make sure she knows it.

So maybe her reaction was just because of our own history. But why would she be so flustered because a 20-year-old student doesn't like her? I mean this is Jennifer Raab--cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, president of one of New York's most prestigious public institutions, someone with money, power, influence and connections. And she freaked out. I mean, freaked out. I don't think I've been yelled at like that since I went through the "hide-behind-corners-and-scare-the-shit-out-of-my-jumpy-father" phase in elementary school.

But after thinking about our encounter for a bit, her reaction started to make sense. It's now clear to me that Raab, besides being someone with wealth and power, is also someone who is totally unaccustomed to having to answer to an informed and defiant student body, and that's why I was able to frazzle and embarrass her so easily. That's why she considers me an embarrassment to her college as a whole.

It's not because I don't have my facts straight. It's because I have my facts straight--and I know how to use them.

IF THAT'S what it means to be an embarrassment to Hunter College, then I think this school needs more embarrassments. It's high time Gov. David Paterson, the legislature in Albany and CUNY's complacent administration feel the palpable anger of our campus, wherever they are. If we can't continue our lives unhassled, unassaulted by the daily attacks of this crisis, then neither should they.

They need to know we're watching them, and that we are not happy with what they're doing. In this respect, individual confrontations are important, and it's why I make a point of confronting Raab and other top administrators about the issues that are directly affecting the quality of my life whenever I see them. After all, shouldn't our administration be accessible and accountable to its student body?

But individual confrontations are not enough to fundamentally change the state of affairs at CUNY and in the state as a whole. For that, we need social movements.

The first reason this is true is that social movements, unlike individual confrontations, give everyone at Hunter the chance to protest against the things they don't like. Not everyone can just walk up to the president of their college and give her a piece of their mind.

Partially, this is simply an issue of confidence. As a straight, white man in an utterly racist, sexist and homophobic society, I was socially conditioned to be more loud, confident and assertive than the majority of working class people. Additionally, I don't have to worry being deported if I "talk back" to my president, and I maintain high grades, meaning I'm relatively secure from administration backlash.

However, mass protest and social movements provide something individual confrontation never can: safety in numbers.

If numbers provide us with safety, they also provide the second crucial reason we need to build mass social movements: efficacy.

Sure, one person can vent repeatedly at President Raab, can embarrass her, maybe even make her slip up. But it takes hundreds of people targeting the administration at every opportunity to force them to fundamentally alter their plans. To accomplish this, we need a living movement: networks of students, professors and faculty who are confident and politically sharp. Social movements are training grounds, where unengaged and demoralized students and workers become engaged and confident.

I was always an able public speaker, but I only found something worthwhile to say after participation in movements--after having my own understanding of how the world worked get constantly challenged and enlarged by those engaged in struggle around me. I also saw for myself why what I was fighting for was fundamentally right when I saw hundreds of people join me in protest and discussion.

So consider this essay a call to action. We all need to start building movements to social movements that train a whole new generation of embarrassments to Jennifer Raab. In the wake of March 4, I am optimistic about our ability to do so.

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