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Home » Clarion » 2011 » August 2011 » Viewpoint: Reclaiming Public Institutions, Our Best Hope for a Vibrant Democracy

Viewpoint: Reclaiming Public Institutions, Our Best Hope for a Vibrant Democracy

Distinguished Professor Michelle Fine speaks at the Graduate Center commencement on May 27.

Michelle Fine is distinguished professor of psychology, urban education and women’s studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. This article is adapted from her May 27 commencement address. Original text, and a list of cited works, can be found here.


Today, 334 of you will graduate from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, representing 41 countries from China to Congo to Colombia – and also, of course, from the Bronx to Staten Island. Most of you were raised in homes that did not originally speak Foucault. Some of you have earned a PhD after 10, 12, 17 years. A double Mazel Tov to you for persistence.

Before you are hooded, I have one more assignment for you. Consider it a lifetime comprehensive exam. You – the brilliant, diverse and deserving graduates of a, perhaps the, thriving, democratic, critical public institution for doctoral education – know intimately the joys of a stunning public higher education. Thus in gratitude to the taxpayers of New York and with love for the children of generations to come, I ask you today to consider how, not if, you will engage in the struggle to defend and reclaim public education as vital to our collective lives in a multi-racial democracy.

One might ask, when did public become a four-letter word? In the Spring of 2011, we have witnessed a dramatic fiscal and ideological makeover of the public sphere – a grotesque shredding of budgets for public education and social services while millionaires and corporations enjoy tax breaks.

On every measure of social life, inequality gaps are swelling. British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document how these gaps jeopardize our collective human security in terms of health, infant mortality, crime, fear, violence, civic participation, voting and sense of shared fates. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich keeps reminding us that the wealthiest 1% own at least 25% of privately held wealth, while law professor and scholar Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, tells us that there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. Financial assistance to higher education is in jeopardy for low-income youth and shamefully unavailable to students who are considered undocumented. On the front of educational policy for democracy, we have indeed lost our way.


At the dawn of the 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois published The Crisis, a magazine committed to chronicling the ongoing exploitation of the African American community. Brilliant man, he understood that our country would not likely attend or respond to the cumulative structural neglect and miseducation of black children until a profit could be made or until the people would revolt. One hundred years later, the perverse braiding of poor people’s pain with corporate profit is now becoming an American tradition, evident in predatory lending, housing foreclosures, the proliferation of for-profit charters and the money being made from the prison-industrial complex.

As my 96-year-old mother would say, from Du Bois’s mouth to your ears, now we hear there’s a crisis! The media circulates caricatures of K-12 educators, especially those with tenure and experience, by distributing popular images of “rubber rooms,” incompetence, greed and educators with criminal records. Some conservative media tried – unsuccessfully – to unsettle the reputation of our own brilliant Frances Fox Piven and other critical scholars of participatory democracy and labor studies. Periodic twitters bemoan fat pensions and the “tragedy” of public universities. These media stories occlude the sustained conditions of poverty and discrimination, highlight public sector “failure,” selectively report “data” on privatized success and serve as ideological lubricant for aggressive budget cuts, policies of privatization and relentless power grabs.

Enter a new regime of power brokers subsidizing this reconfigured “common sense.” The public sector is said to be inefficient, corrupt, greedy and in need of radical reform, takeover and salvation. Leeching onto the pain of cumulative structural disinvestment in poor communities, this message resonates for some with justified outrage over generations of miseducation in low-income communities. But while corporations and market logic promise to save poor people from the inefficiency of the public, crucial political questions of participatory democracy, racial and ethnic justice, schools and universities as a resource in community life, the autonomy of knowledge, questions of community/youth/educator power, and accountability gently slip off the policy table and into a neoliberal wastebasket.

But this was Spring 2011 – your Spring, Arab Spring. The drumbeats of organizing for educational justice can be heard across the United States, stretching from the University of Puerto Rico to Madison, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan, where 5,466 teachers – all of them – were given pink slips. Students, staff and faculty are organizing against the privatization of the University of California system – and at the City University of New York, students, staff and faculty, with scholars, artists and activists around the globe, organized a stunning and victorious campaign in support of Tony Kushner’s much-deserved honorary degree, insisting that our Trustees respect intellectual integrity and faculty governance and shaming their moments of silence.


These eruptive moments for educational justice have provoked funny little opportunities for new allies, for surprising solidarity. When busloads of PSC members traveled to Albany on March 23 to protest the budget cuts to CUNY, a small group of faculty, students and HEOs agreed to engage in civil disobedience, to demonstrate the breadth and depth of this fiscal injustice. As the state troopers gently placed handcuffs on the aging “PSC 33,” a few whispered, “Thanks for doing this for public workers. You know, we can’t.” In Albany as in Madison we witness the emergence of a tentative but swelling alliance among college students and educators and police officers, firefighters, housing activists, K-12 educators, social service advocates, public health workers and other public employees. Indeed, Chuck Canterbury, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, not someone I have quoted often, spoke for his colleagues in Madison, asking, “Who are these evil teachers who teach your children, these evil policemen who protect them, these evil firemen who pull them from burning buildings? When did we all become evil?”


But let’s be honest. We don’t want to fight to keep lousy institutions open just because they are public. Engaged struggles for public financial support and democratic governance are necessary but not sufficient. Our vision must be bolder. We need your wisdom, scholarship and chutzpah to reclaim and restore the wide-open intellectual culture, participatory passions, and radical imagination of public institutions, to protect their vibrancy and to build a deep recognition of our profound interdependence. (I see some of you confused by the word chutzpah. If you don’t know what chutzpah is…you can’t really say you have a PhD from CUNY! Ask a friend!)

Let me borrow an image from biology writer Janine Beynus, who has lectured around the globe on mighty oak trees that survive natural disaster. Beynus pulls social problems up by their roots and asks, “How would nature solve this?” Standing tall, almost unbowed, she tells us, oak trees grow in communities, expansive, bold and comfortably taking up lots of space. While they appear autonomous and free-standing, in truth they are held up by a thick, entwined maze of roots, deep and wide. These intimate underground snuggles lean on each other for strength, even and especially in times of disaster.

Because you have had the privilege of being educated at the Graduate Center and have probably taught throughout the CUNY system, networked by subways and e-mail systems equally likely to fail at just the wrong moment, you know the thrill and terror of shared fates, the sweet comfort and knotty entanglements of entwined roots, and you know in your belly the intimate pain of inequality gaps sketched into the faces of your students. You know that we are weakened by segregated neighborhoods and schools, with some of us locked in gated communities, others behind bars, and others deported. And you know how jazzed we can get in our wildly diverse CUNY classrooms, as students or faculty, when we meet strangers in pulsating public spaces like parks, libraries, basketball courts and subways; as we listen to National Public Radio, bike in Prospect and Central Park, visit the Bronx Zoo and Botanical gardens; as we breathe in the luscious sounds and visions of museums and public concerts.


These spaces constitute productive sites of public possibility, provoking what John Dewey called “aesthetic” experiences which inspire sensual imagination for what might be, which he contrasted with “anesthetic” experiences that deaden “heart, mind and soul.”

Public education may be a deeply flawed, highly uneven system, a work in progress. It is, however, our only chance for participatory, collective sustainability. And so it is our work to deepen the roots and resurrect the aesthetic, provocative possibilities of public life, even and especially in hard times.

I leave you with a thought from the political theorist Hannah Arendt, who took the position that “public” is not simply a noun or an adjective. At its most compelling, public is a verb: a set of commitments, your commitments, activities, labors, solidarities, disappointments and desires. Public grows deep and wide so we can all lean upon each other in good times and even more so in trying times. Public captures the dreams of the parents and grandparents sitting in the balcony of Avery Fisher Hall, whose blood, sweat and tears helped ensure that their babies could sit here in the orchestra, with caps and gowns.

A mighty oak grows on Fifth Avenue. The Graduate Center stands strong and sturdy, public and democratic, diverse and intellectually provocative. But these are precarious times, financially, politically, ideologically and intellectually. Unless we redress the unregulated rush to privatize and reclaim the soul of the public, you could be the pruned generation, among the last to enjoy the sweet roots of public support.

And so, to the gorgeous, brilliant and diverse graduating diaspora of the Graduate Center, I wish you lives of meaning, justice, friendship, outrage, joy, long walks, sweet dreams, thrilling scholarship and laughter.

Give money to the Graduate Center, remember your roots, and go public – everywhere you can.

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