The Public University: Seeing the Whole Picture

Vince Boudreau, Dean

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

What does it mean to be a public university? For decades, there were two distinct definitions—so bound together that when they became estranged, nobody seemed at first to notice.

On the one hand, public education referred to a finance model in which citizens and government officials pledged support for those working in its schools, and so allocated money from public coffers for that purpose. Students in public universities could expect to pay less for their tuition, and people living in states and cities anticipated supporting that education through their tax expenditures.

A second meaning evoked broader and more soaring ambitions and, for generations, the American public understood that the university system was the greatest of equalizers. Universities helped construct just and prosperous societies; they shored up the foundations of democracy; they contributed insight that helped us resolve some of our most pressing social issues. These universities existed at the intersection of our collective need to be smarter, and our egalitarian inclination to seek progress in the aggregate, to rise or fall as one people. Everyone, in this view, had a stake in the vitality of public universities.

But this collective understanding didn’t hold. In discussions about the role of public education, there was soon confusion—not with what public education was for, but with who it was for.

People began approaching public education with suspicion. Misplaced concerns about undeserved individual entitlement began to shoulder aside our original aspirations. We began to equate support for public education as essentially the transfer of resources with individual students—beneficiaries of largess—and began speculating on who among them, as individuals or categories, deserved that support. This is an impoverished and narrowly calculating formula that no longer allows for a deeper sense of social purpose. In essence, places like City College were forced to revisit our most important founding discussion, first broached in 1847: Was a university education for the elite only, or for everyone?

We founded the Colin Powell School after a decade of building out scholarship and fellowship programs that recognized the great potential and outstanding achievements of some of our very best students. As we did so, we hoped both to provide for them in extraordinary ways what others receive as a matter of course, and to suggest the potential of so many outside of these programs. It was good work. But we moved from programming that centered on a collection of leadership programs to a school serving over 2,600 students because those opportunities should not have been extraordinary—but rather the routine provision of a public education institution that functioned as it was originally intended. Building out this capacity is the current and great task of our school.

We must reframe discussions on the costs of the public university. A crucial starting point is that any conception of public that separates beneficiaries from the social whole is inadequate. Cutting financial support for public institutions results in higher social costs of living in a place where opportunities are hoarded and prospects for advancement seem dim and distant. We measure those costs in violence, in hopelessness, in sickness and insecurity. We measure them in the widening spaces between those who are privileged and those who are not—in de facto economic re-segregation, in under-employment, in achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. We measure them, as well, in the horrible certainty that vast stores of talent, generation upon generation, lie wasted.

We are, in fact, in the middle of a great crisis in our ability to think of ourselves as a whole people, and to plan for the prosperity of that whole. Over the past decades, the decay of the middle class has not happened in isolation—it has taken place in direct relationship to the decay of visionary institutions set up to create and nurture the middle class.

As state budgets around the nation are cut, often the first thing that is affected are our schools. The way forward cannot be assembled from so-called merit-based programs, designed to reward individuals over ostensibly less talented or deserving peers. Opportunity should not be a prize or an award, but a basic provision of our systems and institutions.

In blog posts to come, I’ll be exploring the way this mission plays out at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, building on this discussion of why we should care about public education in the first place. We’ll look at what happens within the walls of our school, how and when students begin to make sense of the college setting, and the myriad ways in which they sometimes don’t. We’ll also explore some of the other, broader purposes of the public university, including its capacity to speak in particularly necessary ways on some of the most important questions that confound our nation. We’ll also look at the legacy of public education on our social fabric and the ways that things may have shifted. In the end, I’ll discuss what we’re working to achieve at the Colin Powell School–to maintain the truest vision of public education in an environment grown increasingly hostile to our founding purposes.

Notes on ‘The Hunting Ground': CUNY Community Screening and Conversation

The Hunting Ground posterby Julia Suklevski

Based on the well-publicized number of sexual assault cases on college campuses across the United States, many might assume that these assaults are occurring at an alarming rate. They would be correct. But this is no recent phenomenon. For decades, the epidemic that has been impacting our nation’s college students was something that administrations did not want to admit was actually happening. This resulted in injustice for survivors, their experiences invalidated by the institution that was to provide them equal access to a safe learning environment.

I serve as a volunteer Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies (DOVE) Program Advocate at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, and I’m a student studying in the Women’s Studies department at City College. So domestic violence and sexual assault are issues I think about and discuss often, and why I, along with Arlene Verapen, was inspired to help bring an important documentary, The Hunting Ground, a film that has been screened on college campuses all over the nation, to further the discussion at The City College of New York.

The Hunting Ground (2014), a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, was screened on April 22nd and April 23rd, to members of the City College community, as well as concerned members of the public. The film, directed by Academy- and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Kirby Dick, follows two survivors turned activists for a grassroots movement to strengthen alliances between survivors of sexual assault and the public. These advocates used their voices to raise awareness about how college administrations handle cases of sexual assault and violations of Title IX. Continue reading

Meet Nimmi Gowrinathan, Visiting Professor and Noted Human Rights Specialist

Nimmi Gowrinathan

Nimmi Gowrinathan, a leading researcher, analyst, and commentator on international gender and violence issues, has joined the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at The City College of New York as a visiting professor. She directs the Politics and Sexual Violence Initiative, a three-year program funded by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. The NoVo Foundation works to transform global societies from cultures of domination to ones of equality and partnership.

Gowrinathan is a former fellow of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery, and the Gender Expert for the UN National Human Development Report in Afghanistan. For more than seven years, she served as director for South Asia Programs at Operation USA, overseeing disaster relief programs. Gowrinathan’s research interests include gender and violence, female extremism, social movements, issues of asylum, ethnic conflict, and the impact of militarization, displacement, and race in Sri Lanka. She is author of the blog Deviarchy and a frequent contributor to national media outlets including Foreign Affairs and CNN.

In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, Gowrinathan discusses her mission, the unique role of the public university, and her preference for fluidity within the professional and scholarly roles she occupies.

Would you identify the sum of your work so far as contributing to a mission you’ve identified as your “life’s work”? What motivates you?

My work has always been driven by a quest for social justice for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Within that, the work that I anticipate to require the entirety of my life, which demands both my emotional energy and intellectual curiosity, centers on understanding the politics of marginalized women. I am constantly reinvigorated by the everyday resistance of women around the world to all forms of repression.

Tell us about the Politics of Sexual Violence Research Initiative and its place at the Colin Powell School. How do you plan to use your resources on campus to engage students and the broader public?

The Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative is designed to better understand the impact of sexual violence on the individual politics of women, both within the U.S., and in select cases around the world. Beyond conducting research to better inform policy and humanitarian formulations on sexual violence, this initiative is intended to create a global network of women scholars engaged in political activism, research, and advocacy–beginning with the young women at City College. The Colin Powell School has been very supportive, and I hope to use this initiative to contribute a unique political project to the engaged scholarship already underway there, as well as to draw in students for events, research, and through select courses I will offer over the next few years. The Initiative also hopes to build important links between existing social movements (Black Girls Matter, the Last Girl) to create far-reaching political movement that addresses the root causes of violence against women.

What are your thoughts on the role of the university with regard to human rights matters–such as sexual violence across the globe or, say, Stop and Frisk in NYC? Does the public university have any major responsibilities other than to educate its students? 

I think the public university, and particularly one with the unique demographic make-up of City College, has an obligation to engage in public debates that affect and shape the lives of its students and its community. While providing a space for student-driven activism, at an intellectual level the university should provide an environment where diverse opinions and new ideas can be presented, challenged, and adapted to support movement-building in many directions.

You are both an activist and a scholar, and you’ve worked as an NGO director, human rights advocate, policy analyst, and journalist: do you see clear divisions between the work you’ve performed within these roles? Do you see yourself primarily as any one player? How do you shift between spaces–are there any specific challenges you face?

I don’t see clear divisions within my work, and I think a fluid approach to my intellectual life and the roles I play has allowed me to create a unique voice and contribution to multiple conversations. I have met young women around the world who are torn between competing identities (Somalian-American/Activist-Scholar) and who are socialized into trying to fit into one role or the other–rather than embracing the value of a space I have called the “inside-outsider.” The challenges I faced were early on in my academic career, where there were often accusations of bias. However, as I have built a career around the exact tensions we have been taught to avoid, I have found that the variety of roles I play allows each to contribute to the other in insightful ways. My own unorthodox approach to my intellectual and professional work can be an example for a younger generation frustrated with the roles available to them, proving that there is no one way to engage in the issues that you are passionate about.

Tell us about your involvement in the Vice Media documentary series on women in/at war. You’ve said that, in sharing women’s stories, you want to “challenge perceptions in academic and policy spaces, while pulling out the richness of their narratives.” How might the Vice series contribute to that goal, or do you see this as a new frontier?

The Vice media series Women at War will begin this month, and hopes to draw out the stories of women that stick with you when conducting intellectual research. The narratives are all drawn together within a special project that will allow one or two big ideas to be revealed in each mini-documentary, with a clear through-line that reveals the complexity of women’s politics as their lives are shaped by violence. This project may not shift academic discourses, but it has been proven that ending sexual violence requires a significant shift in attitudes towards and perceptions of women. Recent films like India’s Daughter reveal the entrenched cultural perceptions of an older generation of men, however Vice News has proven the ability to reach millions of young men and women around the world–providing a distinctive platform through which to tackle the difficult task of dismantling patriarchy in all its many forms.

The Emperor’s New Vitamins

by Matthew G. Nagler, Associate Professor, Economics and Business, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

About six weeks ago, the New York State Attorney General’s office released a report accusing GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart of selling fraudulent dietary supplements. The AG had DNA-tested 24 products from the retailers representing seven supplement types— including such popular products as gingko biloba and St. John’s Wort. All but five of the products were found to contain DNA that was either unrecognizable or from a plant other than what the product claimed to be—including in some cases little more than powdered rice or house plants.

These findings were no big surprise to Edward J. Kennelly, Professor of Biology at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), Fredi Kronenberg of Stanford University, or Bei Jiang of Dali University in China. The three biologists collaborated several years ago on a study of black cohosh, a plant-derived supplement marketed over-the-counter as a cure for hot flashes. They analyzed 11 products and found that three contained no black cohosh, while a fourth that did contain it was also contaminated with a “cousin” plant species. The results of their study are published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Shortly after that study was completed, Mr. Kennelly and I met at a CUNY awards dinner. His research results had raised an important question: While, as scientists, his team had been able to identify fraudulent supplements in the lab, was there any way that consumers could ferret out the frauds? This, I knew, was a question economic analysis could answer. Soon Mr. Kennelly, his collaborators, postdoctoral student Chunhui Ma, and I joined together to do a market-focused study of black cohosh adulteration, the results of which are published in the International Journal of Marketing Studies. Our findings lent support to the notion that dietary supplements are an example of what’s called a credence good, a product for which the quality cannot be determined conclusively by consumers even after they buy and use it. Continue reading

Student Spotlight: Fatjon Kaja

Fatjon Kaja

Fatjon Kaja

Fatjon Kaja is, by all counts, an exceptional student here at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. Furthermore, his good humor, sensitivity, and commitment to service for the public good have made him a trusted peer among the school’s students and fellows.

Kaja, a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Albania, is enrolled in the B.A./M.A. program in Economics and has a second major in Pre-Law, with minors in Italian and French. He is a Legal Scholar in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies, the Co-founder and Vice-Director of the Guidance for the Legal Empowerment of Youth (now the ACLU Chapter at the City College of New York), and Deputy Policy Director of the Economic Development Policy Sector of the Roosevelt Institute at the City College of New York. He was a Partners for Change Fellow in 2013-2014 and has held numerous leadership roles in other campus offices and activities, including student government.

In his free time, he likes to explore New York City, listens to classical music, and plays soccer with his friends and relatives. In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, we ask Kaja to describe his path from rural Albania to Harlem. Along the way, Kaja offers insight into why he believes Colin Powell School students have an edge as they pursue civic and global leadership roles after completing their studies at The City College of New York. Continue reading

‘Boys Being Boys': Can We Think Otherwise?

football

by Professor Stanley Thangaraj, Anthropology, Colin Powell School

Last night, the Super Bowl, as expected, ran a gamut of creative, hilarious, and shamelessly sexist ads. Alongside the Victoria’s Secret ads that depict women as objects on display and items to be had, there was also an emerging genre of “good father” ads, and there was one notable spot on domestic violence, based on a phone call that was actually received by a 911 dispatcher.

It was no accident that the PSA ran during the pinnacle of American sports events. Multiple cases of intimate partner violence and sexual assault come out of both collegiate and professional sports leagues every year. Sadly, the PSAs aired last night don’t come close to opening up legible discourse on the corruption within high school, college, and professional sports. It is time to, as in the words of black feminist scholars like Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde, speak truth to power. Continue reading

New Advising Videos!

We’re pleased to unveil new advising videos for the Colin Powell School in the following majors: Anthropology, Economics and Business, International Studies, Political Science, and Psychology. These videos will soon be available to view directly from department websites, but are available now on our Vimeo site.