A college community stands up to a president’s power grab
Workers at most jobs know that they are the experts and that their expertise is most valuable when added up and taken as a whole. Good leaders respect and rely on the collective knowledge of the workforces they lead. The best leaders thrive on that connection.
My work site is the College of Staten Island (CSI), one of the campuses in the City University of New York system. In an academic setting, we use the term “shared governance” to describe the process of collecting faculty, staff, and student expertise to figure out how to do the work of the college as well as possible. The primary work of a college is to help students learn. That takes good teaching, effective support, community building, and forward-thinking research. And it takes leaders who are connected to the know-how of the college community and who understand the power of that collective expertise.
The current leader of the College of Staten Island is President William Fritz. Sadly, President Fritz rejects the common sense idea that our college can work best when we gather and mobilize the expertise of the many kinds of workers who make up our college community, including staff, instructors, and students. In place of shared governance and broad-based understandings of how our campus can work best, President Fritz recently proposed a governance plan that tried to strip broad swaths of the campus community of the ability to share their know-how. A governance plan is the document that lays out the rules for how college decisions get made, how responsibilities for reflection and change get distributed, and how voices get included…or not. The president’s proposal for governance dramatically shifted the balance away from sharing expertise and toward managerial control by the few. In other words, he proposed that we value less knowledge rather than more knowledge. It was a radical proposal for disconnection.
I am speaking not only as someone who has worked for 15 years at the College of Staten Island, where I am professor of queer studies. I am also speaking as someone who wrote a book about CSI and, more specifically, about the incredible work I saw students, faculty, and staff doing there — work done in the face of massive defunding and tough working conditions. Writing that book, titled Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University, gave me the chance to understand the labor, the learning, and the expertise that was being demonstrated all around me every day. It made me realize that paying careful attention to my colleagues’ voices, visions, and work histories was simultaneously difficult and essential if I truly wanted to know and value them, our shared workplace, and CUNY’s educational mission: to serve “the whole people of New York.”
Last week, the faculty, staff, and students of the College of Staten Island sent an overwhelming message to President Fritz about his proposal for disconnection. We said, “No, that is not how our college works best. We know this from long years of experience and from deep, workerly expertise.” We voted in a referendum to reject the president’s anti-shared governance plan, and we did so by a huge margin: 87% of us said no, while just 13% said yes.
In the face of a disconnected leadership, the College of Staten Island community united. We worked together for months to strategize, and we depended on — rather than ignored — our multi-layered understandings of our workplace. From our many positions, we articulated a shared vision of a campus where we are all responsible for contributing the insight from our labor. We said that is the place we want to work.
President Fritz has not ruled out the possibility of trying to push the will of the 13% through by sending his failed governance plan to the CUNY Board of Trustees for approval. It’s a shameless power grab. If his record of failing to listen to and consider the input of the broad college community is any guide, then we have reason to worry. So now, we must shine as bright a light as possible on this struggle of a united workforce against a disconnected leader, in hopes that the Board of Trustees, higher education stakeholders, and the people of New York that CUNY serves see that the only way forward is together, connected, united. Go to https://www.csiunited.com/ for more information.
Matt Brim is professor of queer studies at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.