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Letter to the editor: NYU students should support CUNY protests

Posted on December 5, 2013 | by Nantina Vgontzas

Last week, WSN asked me to explain why I participated in the March on the CUNY Machine. Alas, my response didn’t make it into the following day’s coverage. So, here it is in full: a case for why we are all cogs in the machine — or why the struggle at the City University of New York is relevant to students at NYU, and why more of us should be down at the barricades supporting it.

This semester, students, workers and community members have continued a decades-long fight against the corporatization and militarization of CUNY. At a time of intensified budget cuts and tuition hikes, students have been told to welcome the return of the Army Senior Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC, and to forget the resistance efforts that led to its banishment in 1971. They’ve been told to listen to David Petraeus as he pontificates on whether we are “On the Threshold of the North American Decade.” They’ve been told by right-wing think tanks that, as a “diverse and growing population,” they “can help supply the cultural competency and language skills the military needs to fulfill its many and varied global responsibilities.”

The CUNY administration clearly underestimated the cultural competency of its students and, in retaliation to their voiced opposition to its classist, racist and imperialist agenda, has resorted to brute force. Student activists have been arrested, threatened with expulsion, their spaces seized, their “expressive activity” soon to be restricted — if, that is, the Board of Trustees has its way. Meanwhile, the agency that Professor Petraeus directed from September 2011 to November 2012 — the CIA — continues to oversee U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries, which in 2011 resulted in 435 casualties in Pakistan alone and, in 2012, in 304 casualties. These facts have great meaning for a school where many students come from countries with deep histories of CIA intervention.

Make no mistake. This is not just something happening across town. NYU students are also recruited into the Machine, through a different sort of courting process. Take, for instance, On-Campus Recruitment, common throughout the elite-school-to-Wall-Street-pipeline but with a particularly looming aspect here, given that Wall Street is, literally, down the street. Or all the phrases thrown around that socialize, professionalize and discipline students into the pipeline: that they are part of a “Global Network University.” That the debt they incur is an unfortunate rite of passage that nevertheless will yield rewarding returns in their undoubtedly bright futures. That their school won’t give them the financial aid it is capable of offering them, but attending an elite school should be viewed as an investment in their lifelong membership in the technocratic elite.

And, if it really gets rough in the meantime, that NYU President John Sexton will be there to give them hugs while setting aside actual support for his prized hens.

What worries me the most is the toll this treatment of students as consumers is taking on the power of our imaginations. Most students come to college with ideals, genuinely open to broadening their horizons. But, as states and their various ideological apparatuses, including universities, prioritize the interests of the few, students are taught again and again that there are no alternatives. Instead of having the flexibility to not simply think critically, but to put their beliefs into practice, students are being prepared to be flexible for the demands of the market.

Luckily, there are a few people on this campus who are deeply challenging the relentless commodification of nearly every aspect of our lives, like the Student Labor Action Movement and its current struggle, among various others, against student debt. There are, of course, the many faculty who have expressed their discontent with the administration, notably the Faculty Against the Sexton Plan. And next week, graduate students will be voting to certify our union and reclaim our right to bargain as workers, despite Sexton’s claims about the education-factory being some sort of “sanctuary” devoid of a labor process, let alone labor struggles.

But we cannot keep these fights centered only around ourselves. College loans are part of a highly complicated web of debt that has proliferated amid wage stagnation and welfare-state retrenchment. We all know how that went. And although the administration can wave the nonprofit banner, its multibillion-dollar expansion plan contributes to this unresolved crisis of capital overaccumulation, compounded by the actions of other area universities that seem more focused on real estate than affordable education.

Finally, graduate employee unions have a stake not only in linking up with others resisting the casualization of academic labor — the contract faculty who are organizing on our campus and elsewhere — but, moreover, in actively participating in the recomposition of the powerful rank-and-file labor movement this city once had.

This, really, is what it comes down to: we all experience capitalism under different conditions, in different forms of immiseration. It would be foolish to collapse the deeply important distinctions among ourselves. But here, especially in the heart of the empire, we have something in common: the Machine. We are all part of it. We are all dominated by it, alienated by it. And we all have the power to challenge it. That’s why the various fights at NYU are bound up with the fight for a free CUNY and those against the banks, wars, the earth’s destruction at large.

In this moment of crisis, at a time when the public universities of this country are under attack financially, militarily and spiritually, will we simply play our part and continue to abet the Machine? Or will we, too, put our bodies upon the gears?

Nantina Vgontzas is a contributing columnist and an NYU sociology Ph.D. student. Email her at opinion@nyunews.com.

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