An advocate for faculty governance
María Pérez y González, chair of Brooklyn College’s department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies (PRLS), cares deeply about a subject that does not get enough attention: faculty governance. She served on the college’s faculty steering committee from 2003-2017 and as chair from 2009-2012, the first Latinx person do so. From her vantage point, attacks on faculty’s ability to govern on campus undercut efforts to create a diverse and multicultural campus. Academically, she’s known for her 1993 study, “Latinas in Ministry: A Pioneering Study on Women Ministers, Educators, and Students of Theology.”
As part of a series of interviews with PSC activists, Clarion asked her about her passion for faculty governance, what Puerto Rico can teach New York and how her early religious upbringing shaped her scholarship.
Clarion: You have been very committed to faculty governance. How do you think the underfunding of CUNY has affected that?
Pérez y González: Faculty governance is part of the fabric that keeps a university system true to its mission because faculty have direct contact with students as the facilitators of knowledge with a wealth of experience. For example, PRLS faculty serve to inspire and guide students from all walks of life to understand and analyze the world around them from an inter- and multidisciplinary perspective.
CUNY’s underfunding has played a critical role in how we can fulfill our mission as the best, largest public urban institution of higher education – one that provides an affordable education for the masses, particularly the traditionally underrepresented groups in the United States, including immigrants. Inadequate funding means full-time, tenure-track faculty lines are not being filled, which means that students will have numerous part-time instructors (I began as an adjunct in the Spring of 1992), who are highly qualified but severely underpaid and who do not have to fulfill the duties of advisement, office hours, writing recommendation letters and the like, although many adjunct faculty perform these functions because they want to serve students.
LACK OF FUNDING
My department has suffered tremendously from inadequate funding and doublespeak regarding the significance of diversity; ethnic studies departments across CUNY are in a similar situation. Since 2013 PRLS has had between three and four tenured/tenure-track faculty (sometimes two due to fellowships, new faculty reassigned time and sabbaticals), and the Provost’s Office has failed to retain a faculty member or to replace a position to keep us whole as a department able to staff its own committees, particularly the Appointments/P&B Committee.
Since 2005 PRLS has borrowed up to three external faculty members to help make key decisions regarding tenure, promotion and adjunct hiring. Extra-departmental faculty making critical decisions impacts the autonomy of PRLS.
While diversity is touted as a key component of the University, when it comes time to put our money where our mouth is and demonstrate true commitment, the lack of funding becomes the excuse. This is just one example among many.
How do you think the union can advocate for more faculty governance?
The union can continue to pressure New York State for more CUNY funding at all levels, particularly tenure-track faculty lines, and continue to follow up on cases where faculty governance has not been honored (bylaws, documents, protocol, curriculum, faculty decision-making bodies, etc.).
The union has been successful in many key areas for faculty, particularly regarding new faculty reassigned time, parental leave, summer chairing, etc. I hope it continues to push for a higher adjunct pay rate, such as $7K per course.
Puerto Rico has been having an austerity crisis, too. What can New Yorkers learn from Puerto Rico about austerity?
Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States with no equal partnership or voting representatives in Congress. While New York State is relatively free to trade beyond its borders, Puerto Rico does not have that power. All major entities and governing bodies have been and continue to be controlled by the United States.
At the moment, the Fiscal Control Board imposed by PROMESA (the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act) of 2016 consists of seven members appointed by the United States to determine the future of Puerto Rico and its US citizens and is not subject to Puerto Rico’s governing bodies.
What is relatable to New York State are the matters of fiscal accountability and transparency coupled with ethics. Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for, then suspended, the Moreland Commission to fight public corruption.
MONEY TO SPARE
While JCOPE (Joint Commission on Public Ethics) is in effect, and we as chairpersons and faculty earning over a certain salary have to comply with it annually, there are different rules for lawmakers who deal with almost $200 billion of our monies. We need to hold all of our public servants accountable, especially our politicians.
New York State has budgetary excess, yet our lawmakers refuse to adequately fund CUNY, the one major institution that is a true investment in our own future continually providing returns. A budget is a moral compass; investing in our young is absolutely essential.
Your scholarship focuses on Latina ministers. What drew you to that?
I grew up as a fourth-generation Pentecostal; I was the first born in the United States from my nuclear Puerto Rican family. I was surrounded by many women of faith who played key roles in the church, yet there was the glass ceiling that kept them from becoming a pastor. Being raised in the church was pivotal for where I am today and my profession as an academic.
Aside from keeping me occupied with multiple activities during the week and constantly encouraging good decision-making, there was an emphasis on studying and memorization of scripture. All of this helped form my sense of social justice, serving and educating with integrity.
Latinxs, like many groups, have been facing a lot of hostility from varying political groups in the past several years (such as calls to build a wall on the border with Mexico). What do you think Latinx Studies departments like your own can do to educate the public?
Latinx Studies departments, as well as ethnic studies of varying kinds, women and gender studies, American studies and the like are invaluable and absolutely necessary in the United States. It was birthed by students at a very difficult time during the civil rights movements and is even more significant today when the United States is more diverse than ever in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, language, immigration and gender.
If we as a nation had embraced our history rather than whitewashing it and making peoples invisible in our textbooks and our forms of communication, including the indigenous – Spanish was spoken here before English, and Mexicans did not originally cross the border but rather it was the United States that usurped the Southwest when it was Mexico – there would be a more informed and well-rounded sense of who we were, have been, are and are becoming.
I hope that perhaps with Chancellor Félix Matos-Rodríguez at the helm of CUNY, given his background as a Puerto Rican Studies historian, Latinx Studies departments and programs will be prioritized as part of his diversity agenda, supporting Latinx Studies faculty and curriculum (including the aforementioned areas of study) to be able to make critical, much-needed changes so that students who earn a CUNY degree are among the top in our nation when it comes to being equipped to deal with peoples across the globe and in their own neighborhoods.