Michael by Michael Rectenwald collection
Welcome back to the conclusion of my interview with Michael Rectenwald, who is on the faculty of New York University in the Global Studies Program as well, as being the founder and chair of CLG [Citizens for Legitimate Government]. Welcome back, Michael. We've been talking about your June 18th article, "Apartheid at NYU."
JB: In the first part of our interview, we discussed how the university mirrors the socio-economic divide found outside its walls, with only a very few up at the top. I take it you're part of that much larger segment that is closer to the bottom of the pile. Perhaps I'm naive, but what's the point of astronomical tuition if those who are doing the teaching are barely surviving?
MR: I am part of the 99% if you will. I am a full-time contract faculty in the Liberal and Global Liberal Studies Program. I am a Ph.D. in my field of Literary and Cultural Studies. I publish in books and periodicals and present my work in conferences. I am a fully professional member of my discipline and interdisciplinary fields. I love teaching, and feel privileged to teach some of NYU's very brightest students. And, as I sit at home on a three-month break, I do wonder about complaining.
But I am not complaining as a disgruntled employee. I am complaining as if a bystander watching in amazement as all of this goes down. I see a lot of colleagues struggling daily to make ends meet. I even know of a colleague who had to live in his office because he couldn't find an affordable apartment. I have colleagues who endure significant financial duress and insecurity and have been unable to make it through the third week of the month, let alone the end of it. And then these reports come out about lavish lifestyles and vacation homes and everything starts to click.
One sees how the structural imbalance affects people on the ground, while one reads about the lifestyles of the rich and infamous as they luxuriate in what I see as ill-gotten gains. It's just unconscionable to stay silent. I began to see how the pieces fit together --the Sexton Plan, the loans for first and second homes, the loan forgivenesses, the lavish salaries and bonuses, the global network university -- all of these elements of corporate legerdemain, a sleight of hand to keep things moving so that money could be peeled off at the top and spread around to a favorite few. So I joined NYU's Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (NYUFASP), and I spoke before a select committee of the Board of Trustees, all of this at some risk, because I am a contract faculty on three-year contracts, and not a tenured faculty member. But I felt that my silence was being taken for cheap, and so I became vocal.
JB: For all the activism of the faculty, it doesn't seem like much has been accomplished. The plan is still full steam ahead, no? Have you felt any repercussions because of your activism?
MR: Well, the plan has been approved by the city of New York and is on track to go through, but things could change if Sexton is finally compelled to step down. Or NYUFASP's lawsuit against the city and state for their approval of the plan could stop it, as we have a powerful case. What we have achieved is the very kind of community that we are finally building as we struggle here. We've joined with ten other groups--neighborhood groups--to bring this action, which is, of course, a sort of solidarity that Sexton et al. hate. And, for the first time in years, if not forever, contract and tenured/tenure-track faculty are communicating, working together, seeing their common interests and making important, albeit sometimes informal pledges of mutual support. We have a chance to stop this juggernaut, and to derail the corporatization of the university in the process.
The actions in Turkey started as a protest about a park. In our case, they started as a protest about several city blocks containing several parks. But as in Turkey, our movement has become much more, as we have connected issues one to the other, and connected our faculties like never before. I'm hopeful, if not optimistic, that we can make a difference here. It's an important test case. Not to make too much of it, but we do stand at a major crossroads here. And the future of higher education, while not determined by our outcome, may well be seen in it.
JB: I'm sure that all this faculty togetherness is making the administration plenty nervous. What are the chances of actually toppling Sexton?
MR: Well, I'm not a betting man. But the pressure is on. And the publicity that NYU has been getting cannot be good. It surely must be sending the Board and especially its chairman, Martin Lipton, into a tizzy. Lipton and Sexton are connected at the hip. So the chair of the board would have to change over in order for Sexton to step aside. He's not a young man and he's actually overstayed his chairmanship according to the bylaws (surprise!), but he seems rather begrudgingly committed not only to staying on but also to protecting and justifying his allegiance to Sexton.
It's as if Sexton's stepping down would signify his own failure, and he has a lot of time in at NYU, beginning with his own days as a law student. And he's done quite a bit for the university. I think that he believes that we faculty are a bunch of ingrates who do not sufficiently appreciate his largesse. But, he's 82 years old, I believe. And this is a lot of stress for him to be under. I don't like that at all. I wish he'd cut himself and us a break.
JB: I may have politics on the brain, but, sadly, Sexton at NYU reminds me of Gov. Scott Walker, the Koch stooge dismantling Wisconsin. Before we wrap this up, Michael, what haven't we talked about yet?
MR: Yes, Scott Walker, I'm sure he'd love that comparison.
Well, just how I got into all of this. As the founder and chair of the CLG ( legitgov.org ) I had a bit of a reputation as a firebrand. Some of the members of NYUFASP never let up in trying to enlist me in the Faculty Against the Sexton Plan. So, my reputation preceded me and made this happen for me. I had every intention of keeping my mouth shut. And of course, I value my job quite a lot.
But their persistence coincided one day with a depleted bank account and a New York Times article sitting open on my desktop in my office, and I finally capitulated. I've given up on conventional politics, as such, and believe rather in a kind of nihilist communism. Anyway, that's complex. Let's just end by saying that I'm an Accidental Activist.
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