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One chapter and its struggle for a safe campus

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Fixing ‘Broke’-lyn College

Broken desks and unusable chalkboards. Out-of-order toilets and sinks covered in plastic for months at a time. Rooms that are chronically too hot or too cold, equipment like fume hoods in science labs that do not work or need frequent repairs, water leaks from labs into classrooms and hallways, missing ceiling tiles and holes in walls, broken doors that take months to repair. The PSC Brooklyn College chapter raised health and safety problems with the administration in meeting after meeting. Water fountains that never work (often next to vending machines where students were expected to buy water), unreliable and broken technology. The list goes on and on.

CONCERNS IGNORED

But the administration’s response was always the same. It shrugged and offered standard excuses. There is no money to fix these things. The campus is old and difficult to maintain. This is a bad budget year.

These problems were not just a morale problem for faculty, staff and students, but were actively interfering with the academic mission of the college. A deteriorating campus sends a message about how students are valued, and on a campus populated in large part by people of color, that smacks of inequity. We needed to push the administration out of its habitual response. We had to make them understand the urgency of the situation.

To do this, we needed to get the entire campus involved. So, we created a social media campaign, using the hashtag #BroklynCollege – that’s “Broklyn” as in “broke” – to document the challenges of teaching and learning in a place that was breaking down and falling apart. We created a website to support the campaign. Faculty, staff and students contributed reports and photographs of the broken furniture, toilets wrapped in plastic, leaks, broken doors and many other pressing problems. We proposed an inclusive campus-wide task force to develop a comprehensive plan to assess and respond to these problems.

The administration was so stuck in the austerity routine that it didn’t even see the need to develop a plan. Their response was to continue to shrug, “Well, this is CUNY.”

The challenges of chronic underfunding of public higher education are well known. We were living with the consequences of decades of deferred maintenance and staffing shortages. But this learned helplessness from the administration, while not a surprise, was clearly part of the problem. The campaign was intended to force them to pay attention.

The campaign certainly got the administration’s attention that complained that raising issues in this way was unprofessional, that there was no way to verify that the problems in the pictures were what we said they were or that they were even at Brooklyn College. The administration complained that none of the pictures ever showed the things that had been repaired. (In fact, there were occasional posts that documented some repairs, generally noting the length of time it had taken for a problem to get fixed.) The administration realized the power of a social media campaign, but their response was only to repeatedly ask us to take it down.

How are conditions now? The administration has made efforts at fixes – for instance, it is now able to report on the number of water fountains and their state of repair. And some long-awaited important capital repairs have been made. For example, the roof of Ingersoll Hall was replaced this past August after 13 years of leaking.

ONGOING CONCERNS

Students, staff and faculty continue to face conditions that are downright dangerous. In September, a lecture room in Ingersoll was so hot that a student suffered heat illness and an ambulance was called. One might be tempted to write it off because of unusually hot weather, but a similar incident happened in a nearby lecture room in September 2015.

In early August, the TV Center in the basement of Whitehead Hall experienced leaks and flooding in several areas, closing down the studio and conference room and necessitating the collection of falling water in buckets in the storage and scenic/prop areas. The leak in Studio B managed to breach the ceiling tiles underneath an electrical grid carrying more than 20,000 amps of electricity. The source of the leak has still not been determined, and in addition to the danger of the water mixing with electricity there are accompanying concerns about compromised ceiling tiles as well as mold and asbestos-related issues. This has forced the closure of the studio, displacing two required television and radio classes this semester. The 50-year-old facility also has a lack of fresh air related to long-standing HVAC issues.

So, while the #BroklynCollege campaign was effective, it wasn’t enough. That’s why we participated in the #ReclaimOurSchools Day of Action by continuing to call on CUNY to bring our campus up to standard as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.

Jean Grassman is an associate professor of health and nutrition science at the CUNY School of Public Health and Timothy Shortell is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. A version of this article originally appeared at Voices on Campus, a higher education blog published by the American Federation of Teachers.