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Since When Does Free Speech Require Students to Stay Quiet?

Haverford College

Haverford College (Haverford_03/Flickr)

This piece originally appeared in {Young}ist and is reposted here with permission.

Since former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau declined to receive an honorary degree from my very own Haverford College, commentators have decried the intolerance of the protesters who criticized his invitation to commencement. Student speech obstructed Birgeneau’s right to free speech, they say—as if its legitimate exercise requires the conferral of an honorary degree and a perch on a podium.

Haverford President Daniel Weiss echoed such sentiments, if more diplomatically, in a May 20 editorial for The Philadelphia Inquirer: “When an individual is invited to speak at an institution that holds freedom of expression as a core value, and then for whatever reason does not attend, the cause of free speech has inevitably suffered.”

That “for whatever reason” bothers me. For whatever reason whitewashes Birgeneau’s role in the violent suppression of student speech. “For whatever reason” ignores that students spoke up against honoring Birgeneau for fear that doing so would itself stifle free expression. “For whatever reaso” claims that context isn’t important.

I disagree. Context is everything. So, out of frustration with that “for whatever reason,” I would like to provide some.

Weiss announced Haverford’s four honorary degree recipients on April 17. “Each of these individuals exemplifies ideals we hold dearly at Haverford College,” he wrote in an e-mail to the senior class, “and I hope you share my excitement that they will be connected with your graduating class in perpetuity.”

As a sophomore, I did not receive Weiss’s e-mail, but I was already familiar with Robert Birgeneau. I grew up the son of a professor at the UC campus in Davis, California, about an hour’s drive from Berkeley; University of California matters were dinner table talk for me. Birgeneau’s had been a household name in my family since November 2011, when police brutally dispersed the peaceful Occupy Cal protests at UC Berkeley at the behest of Birgeneau and other campus administrators. Even after video of the incident went viral, Birgeneau stood by the police action, releasing a statement that described linking arms as “not nonviolent civil disobedience.”

Such words would be objectionable in any context, but they are especially so for an honoree of Haverford, a Quaker-founded college that prides itself on a commitment to nonviolence and social justice—values, Weiss would surely say, that we hold dearly.

Michael Rushmore thought as much. A member of the class of 2014, he looked up his honorary classmates shortly after receiving Weiss’s e-mail, and was alarmed by what he found about Birgeneau. Rushmore posted on Haverford’s online forum, where he gathered a group of similarly concerned students and faculty—Maud McInerney, an English professor and Berkeley PhD, was an early supporter. When Rushmore and fellow senior Brian Brown met with Weiss and other administrators, all agreed that the dissenters should write a letter to Birgeneau.

The resulting letter has drawn much criticism for what some have construed as its overly strident tone. “When trust is violated in our community, we seek to restore our bonds through restorative, not punitive, processes,” it reads in part. “In the spirit of these restorative processes, before you are honored by our community, we believe it is necessary for you…to take responsibility for the events of November 9, 2011.” The letter then urges Birgeneau to take nine actions, such as accepting responsibility for his role in the violence and supporting reparations for those peaceful protesters assaulted by police; were he to “refuse to confront the issues before him,” it says, the dissenters would have “no other option than to call for the college to withdraw its invitation.”

Weiss himself was disappointed with the letter’s tone, describing it as “an ultimatum with a long list of conditions”; former Princeton President William G. Bowen, accepting his own honorary Haverford degree on May 18, characterized the letter in his commencement speech as “an intemperate list of demands.” McInerney objects to this characterization, which has nonetheless been widely repeated in the national media. “To say, ‘We urge you to do x, y and z’ is not to make a demand. It’s to ask forcefully that you do something,” she told me later. “I am still frustrated by people’s determination to misread that letter.”

Birgeneau, for his part, seemed disinclined to support McInerney’s interpretation. His response to the student letter read, in its entirety: “First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to violent, untruthful verbal attacks.”

To Weiss’s credit, he did share Birgeneau’s response with the campus community, via a May 6 e-mail in which he also called a forum to discuss the controversy. The forum, held two days later, was attended by a substantial number of students and faculty members, as well as several representatives from the Honorary Degree Committee and Weiss himself. So many felt moved to speak that the forum did not conclude for over two hours.

While sentiment on the letter was split, speakers—almost without exception—either came down against Birgeneau’s invitation or took no position on it. Honorary degree committee member Sarah Willie-LeBreton remarked near the end of the forum on the obvious lack of consensus around Birgeneau’s acceptability to the community, expressing a desire to “re-evaluate” his invitation. Weiss himself later wrote that he had acquired “a respect and empathy for a number of perspectives that I had not fully appreciated beforehand,” and that the forum was for him “an illuminating and valuable conversation”—though one that “regrettably did not include Dr. Birgeneau.”

Birgeneau’s absence was not what weighed heaviest on my mind, though I certainly would have liked to see him join our discussion; rather, it was the absence of voices like that of Amanda Armstrong, a graduate student at Berkeley who joined Occupy Cal and found herself at the wrong end of a nightstick. In her stead, Rushmore read a statement she had emailed to him.

“Three times throughout the day, UC police officers attempted to force us to move by striking many of us repeatedly in the chest and stomach with batons, and by pulling others down to the ground by their hair,” wrote Armstrong. “Some of my friends and classmates were arrested that day; some had their ribs broken, or suffered other injuries. We all continue to carry psychic, and in some cases physical, scars from November 9, 2011.”

Despite the tenor of the forum, Weiss and the honorary degree committee reissued their invitation to Birgeneau. I was disappointed but not surprised, given the complicated and often political nature of such decisions. At least, I thought, our voices had been heard.

In the days since then, however, I have wondered whether Weiss really did hear our concerns as I had hoped he had.

To honor a man who staunchly refuses to discuss his past endorsement of violence would itself tacitly support violence. When Birgeneau ultimately declined to attend commencement, then, I was relieved; I did not wish to see my own college reinforce the apathy towards violence that pervades much of our society and which surely contributed to the events at UC-Berkeley. Certainly, I would have preferred to engage Birgeneau in a productive dialogue, but as Rushmore and fellow graduate Jon Sweitzer-Lamme recently noted, a commencement speech is the very opposite of a dialogue. “At our graduation, Mr. Birgeneau was to receive the honorary degree and speak to an audience of nearly 3,000 people. Full stop,” they wrote. “Where is the opportunity for dialogue in that scenario, except through protest?”

In any case, the reason that there has been no open conversation about the events of November 9, 2011, is not that fifty students and faculty at Haverford College were too aggressive in their letter-writing. Dialogue requires a willing partner, which Birgeneau has given no indication of being—not at Haverford, not anywhere else.

I was shocked, then, when Bowen, one of the three remaining honorees, took to the podium at commencement to insult the graduating seniors who had signed the letter—apparently with Weiss’s foreknowledge. Lamenting that Birgeneau “failed to make proper allowance for the immature and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protesters,” Bowen said of Birgeneau: “Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.” In Bowen’s telling, Birgeneau has more right to be angry with a letter than students do with violence.

Perhaps I should have expected as much from Bowen—who, at the very least, had the excuse of ignorance. He had not been privy to the countless conversations held at Haverford over the past few weeks, and could not fully appreciate the complexity of how the issue played out on campus. So I was doubly saddened when President Weiss took to the pages of the Inquirer two days later not to defend his students against the often erroneous and offensive narratives that had taken hold in the wake of Bowen’s speech but to reinforce them.

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Consider the claim that, “at Rutgers, Smith and my own college, Haverford, students threatened to protest or otherwise disrupt” commencement—as if protest is inherently disruptive. Were Robert Birgeneau to show, the planned protest had been for students to wear buttons that read, “Ask Me About Robert Birgeneau,” in the hopes that they would spark conversation. Weiss and I must have different standards for disruption.

But Weiss’s editorial is most remarkable for what it leaves out. It makes no mention of the fact that student concerns about Robert Birgeneau were entirely based on Birgeneau’s complicity in the violent suppression of free speech at his own university—nor, of course, does it bother to point out that Birgeneau characterizes words as violent but shrugs his shoulders at the very real violence committed against his own students and faculty. It leaves out this crucial bit of context in favor of bland platitudes and for whatever reasons.

But for whatever reason is false. Free speech does not suffer when someone walks away from receiving an honor he was not entitled to in the first place. Free speech suffers when those who speak up are shamed for doing so—or, for that matter, beaten.


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An inmate serving a jail sentence rests his hand on a fence at Maricopa County's Tent City jail in Phoenix. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.

"Net Neutrality." Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, June 1, 2014.

For my other job, I spend a lot of time trying to figure how to make Internet users care about something called "net-neutrality," a notoriously difficult-to-explain (and horribly dull-sounding) regulatory principle, the preservation of which is absolutely essential to the future of the Internet, democracy, videos of your kittens and other generally good things. Put "simply," net-neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers should treat all data equally, neither privileging nor impeding the flow of any particular information on their networks. Thanks to net neutrality, your kitten blog takes no longer to load than ebay, TheNation.com than NBC—this despite the fact that NBC is owned by Comcast, one of the nation's largest broadband providers. In a world without net neutrality, ISPs like Comcast could theoretically privilege the content of their subsidiaries over competitors, and sell access to an Internet "fast lane" for extremely wealthy clients—leaving the rest of us to fight over what remained of the slow, shitty corners of the web.

On a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains precisely why it's so difficult to get people fired up about net neutrality: "The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring." (Andrew Jacobs' 6000 word piece on the topic for n+1 is uniquely comprehensive, erudite, elegantly written and basically impossible to read in its entirety. I took two kitten-vid breaks and still had to skip to the end.) Oliver goes on: "Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement and you'd just go, 'agree, agree, agree.'" This is the nefarious banality of the digital age. The Internet—with its endless supply of immediately gratifying GIFs, lists, tweets etc.—has made us all allergic to the dense, esoteric language in which its future is being written.

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

"Drugs trafficking in the Caribbean: Full Circle." The Economist, May 24, 2014.

The American agencies tasked with stemming the flow of drugs into the United States like to picture themselves as the proverbial little Dutch boy, valiantly plugging the hole in the dike with his finger. In reality, they are more like inept doctors putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage. As soon as one hole in the border is plugged, several more open up. Researchers have a name for this phenomenon: "the 'balloon effect,' the idea that increased pressure on one drug route produces a bulge elsewhere." Several pieces have recently highlighted the futility of the plug-the-dike strategy, as the trafficking of drugs and migrants has shifted away from Central America and to routes traveling through the Caribbean. The ultimate irony in all of this is that these are the very same routes that were popular in the 1980s for drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar. The drug trade has come full circle, although this time around it's even more violent and lucrative. While officials continue to deliver their standard "it will get worse before it gets better" platitudes, the drug trade rolls on. It's time that we start thinking of new policies, and put an end to the ineffective drug war.

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

Modern-Day Slavery in America's Prison Workforce,” by Beth Schwartzapfel. The American Prospect, May 28, 2014.

While it doesn't confront some of the deeper questions about mass incarceration in this country, this article offers some fascinating and disturbing insight into the specific problem of the exploitation of inmates' labor. It's well known by now that inmates are more or less excluded from the protections of the 13th amendment and often forced to work for little or nothing. But this article provides a survey of the varieties of this exploitation and the complicated effects it has on other institutions (private industry, the state, unions) and society at large. It also provides some glimpses of the often twisted rationalizations behind even the more benevolent policies relating to inmate labor: “‘What we want to do is, when they’re released, for them to feel unnatural not to be working,” says the head of one state inmate work program. "We’re trying to change that habit to where they need to work, mentally, just as much as you and I do.” While the article doesn't choose to tackle the assumption that work is basically good and access to work (as long as it's a "competitive" wage) is the obvious way to ensure individuals' wellbeing, it does hit on this key point:  "The country could not afford to incarcerate 1.6 million people if they all had workers’ rights." Which of course should be an argument for, not against, granting them.

—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.

"#YesAllWomen Changes the Story of the Isla Vista Massacre," by Rebecca Solnit. TomDispatch, June 1, 2014.

The "problem that has no name," the fact that "American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities," still has no name. Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me and the article "#YesAllWomen Changes the Story of the Isla Vista Massacre," says that it has, through time, gained several names: "male chauvinism, then sexism, misogyny, inequality and oppression," but it's important to ask if the names have challenged the underlying problem. Words shine their light on the problem, but it's an amorphous, transparent mass that refracts our words into types of criticism: misogyny, inequality, oppression. The problem with no name is basically crystalline-invisible. The problem is bigger than even an action we can deem "misogyny"; it's a mindset, a pathology. So can we fight it with names?

Rebecca Solnit celebrates the growing diversity of words with which we've been better able to spread consciousness of the problem. "Language is power." It's hard not to agree, now that "rape culture," "mansplaining" and "sexual entitlement" have become weapons against the problem with no name. Her piece celebrates the new feminist vocabulary. But the haters have new vocabulary, too: "thot," "busted," "ratchet." Solnit's celebration of words is worth a read; but let's take our literary comprehension of feminism onto a level of visceral understanding.

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

State-Based Visas: A Federalist Approach to Reforming U.S. Immigration Policy,” by Brandon Fuller and Sean Rust. The Cato Institute, April 23, 2014.

The Naturalization Clause (Article 1, section 8, clause 4) gives Congress sole power in establishing rules for gaining US citizenship. However, as this executive summary points out, “Congress can also allow states to be involved in immigration policy in areas besides naturalization, such as managing a state-based visa within federal guidelines.” And the conservative Cato Institute is not alone in contemplating the role of state and municipal governments in US immigration policy. Detroit, New York City, Dayton and Baltimore are experimenting with more local visa programs, and California and Utah have created their own guest worker visa policies, though the federal government struck down both.

Cato points to Canada and Australia’s regional visa programs for lessons to learn. But their vision for the United States is at times worrisome and contradictory. Advocating funneling “immigrants to parts of the country where they will generate the largest benefits” triggers ethical revulsions. That immigration “lowers the costs of certain goods and services,” is proof of the unjust wages immigrants currently win—it is not a reason to "like" immigration.

Many questions, like how “authorized immigrants” will be stopped from illegally moving to a different state, are touched on. “For instance,” they write, “California farmers could be allowed to hire an individual guest worker for the spring and summer while Washington farmers would be able to hire the same worker in the fall.” Such a "solution" would only further institutionalize the guest-worker programs already undercutting wages and working conditions in the United States. In contradiction, the summary also points out the ethical problems with current guest worker programs that “tie immigrants to one employer,” and how state-based visas could redress this problem by giving workers more choice in whom to work for. Sensical, local, pro-immigration policies like issuing local or state identification cards and prohibiting law enforcement from asking about immigration status are also highlighted.

As DC remains intentionally gridlocked, it seems inevitable that non-federal experiments will continue to gain momentum. What is not inevitable however is whether these experiments will be exploitative or progressive.

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.

"Is 'The Fault In Our Stars' Author John Green His Generation's Pop Philosopher?" by Clare Malone and Amelia Thomson-Deveaux. The American Prospect, June 1, 2014.

I'm not alone in thinking that online fan communities tend to serve the role more often played in the past by religious communities, but generally the cultishness of "fandoms" tends to get played up more than their potentially moral dimensions. So it's interesting to see the authors of this piece look at a fan community that's constructed fairly explicitly around that moral aspect. The moralizing tendency among the John Green fan community's "Nerdfighters" means that this author-led fandom, along with fandoms constructed around fan fiction and art without as much of an author's guiding hand, offer a good deal of earnestness in a society that's famously, tritely, distrustful of earnestness and triteness. In doing so, they raise questions like: does writing "well" really matter, do literary originality and emotional honesty tend to be in tension, and if so, how should they be balanced or prioritized?

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

"The education-reform movement is too white to do any good," by Andre M. Perry. The Washington Post, June 2, 2014.

Andre Perry lays out what's missing in the battle between self-titled education reformers and their detractors: the voices of black educators. It is not simply a matter of choosing a side and speaking from that ideological perch—the problem is that the terms have been set largely by white people, fighting to control the educational destinies of children and communities of color. Perry reminds us of the historical roots of education reform: "Particularly in the South, public education is a direct result of blacks’ struggle for control of their own schools, of which blacks worked with multiracial coalitions of faith-based organizations, white philanthropists and industrialists as well as progressive elected officials to create a portfolio of independent, faith-based and publically funded institutions. Now that was reform!" In its present incarnation, "reform" is a signifier so disconnected from that legacy that it would probably be best to drop it: "We need less 'reform,'" concludes Perry, "and more social justice."

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

"Why Can't Doctors Identify Killers?" by Richard A. Friedman. The New York Times, May 27, 2014.

With the nation still reeling from the horrifying Isla Vista shootings and the misogyny spewed by Elliot Rodgers before he acted, America is grappling with how this could have happened (yet again). I've read the news voraciously this week, trying, as so many others are, to understand what prompts these mass murderers.

Writing in The New York Times, Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, notes that mental illness can't be solely to blame, as many in the media are claiming: "While it is true that most mass killers have a psychiatric illness, the vast majority of violent people are not mentally ill and most mentally ill people are not violent." He does, however, say that "mass killers are almost always young men who tend to be angry loners." Why? Rebecca Solnit, writing on TomDispatch.org (and re-posted on The Nation), offers one answer—those who are mentally unstable soak up our culture's ills and woes. Solnit quotes her friend, a criminal-defense investigator, who says, “When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it’s immersed in—the surrounding culture’s illness"—in this case, misogyny and violence against women.

Friedman says that simply amping up mental health services—while good in it's own right—will not lead to an automatic reduction in mass shootings because doctors can't differentiate between someone who poses a threat and someone who doesn't. He asks, "If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill?" An opinion piece in the LA Times has a solution, which may seem radical in the context of America's framing of the gun debate, but is common sense from a public health perspective: ban guns.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

The happy secret to better work,” by Shawn Achor. TEDxBloomington, May 2011.

Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained researcher on positive psychology, believes our intuitive understanding of the dynamics of success and happiness is all wrong. We think that if we work hard, we’ll be more successful, and if we’re more successful, then we’ll be happier. “Our brains work in the opposite order,” he says, “If you can raise somebody’s level of happiness in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage,” a sort of dopamine-induced competitive edge. “Your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed… Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.” He highlights some of the happiness-boosting strategies researchers have found to be most effective; among them are regular exercise, mindfulness meditation, and conscious acts of kindness, like praising or thanking people in your social support network.

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

"Twists of Hate," by William T. Vollmann. Bookforum, June/July/August 2014.

Reviewing two new works of fiction centered around the war in Iraq, William Vollmann grapples with the possibility (or impossibility) of representing the experience of living in a war zone. Beginning with Hemingway, Vollmann traces the different ways that authors have attempted to go about this, drawing on his own experiences traveling and reporting around the world. What I found most interesting about the review was how reading these books forced Vollmann to confront attitudes among soldiers that he finds abhorrent yet recognizes may reflect reality. "I am hiding my head in the sand until I accept that they think so," he says, referring to a soldier's remark in one of the books about attacking a mosque. Is this the only possible reaction? Isn't there a way to fight these opinions, to try and change people's minds?


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—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

Opponents Barred From Speaking as Cobb County Approves Braves Stadium,” by Barry Petchesky. Deadspin, May 28, 2014.

With the World Cup just weeks away, protests have been erupting across Brazil as people reject the spending of public money for the financial profit of the few. While the World Cup might dominate headlines as the most glaring example of wasteful spending in the sporting world, this is an increasingly common trend across the world. Lavish, luxury-box-filled stadiums are approved and built when owners insist on a team’s “important role” in “the community”—the same community that is denied a democratic vote in the process, robbed of tax dollars used to fund the construction and is eventually priced out of attending games altogether. In my home state of Georgia, Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves have jumped aboard this elitist bandwagon with unbridled enthusiasm. On Tuesday, a public meeting was held on the building of a new stadium for the Braves in the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County. Pro-stadium business interests waited in line for several hours in the middle of the day, snatching up all twelve of the meeting’s speaking slots while normal people worked. Speaking to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Rich Pellegrino of the group Citizens for Governmental Transparency decried the situation. “We’re working people,” Pellegrino said. “We’re not on corporate welfare. It’s a slap in the face.” Unsurprisingly, all twelve speakers spoke in favor of the stadium, and the county commissioners unanimously voted to devote almost $400 million in taxpayer money from a county that is laying off teachers and slashing spending on public services.

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism,” by Laurie Penny. New Statesman, May 25, 2014.

Innumerable responses to the Isla Vista killings have made their appearances in the last few days, but Laurie Penny has delivered, I think, the most important, the most eloquent and the most biting. She refuses to allow statements like “There is no creature more evil and depraved than the human female” and “Women should not have the right to choose who to mate and breed with” to be read as the random products of mental illness rather than as an integral part of a culture-wide ideology of violent misogyny. Female writers and public figures receive messages of hatred and threats of gruesome violence from strangers every day, she reminds us, and the fact that most of these are not acted upon shouldn’t mean we can mentally separate them from the language and actions of Elliot Rodger. I think the most important demand this essay makes is that violent misogyny and misogynist violence be denaturalized: it is not “normal” or inevitable that women are treated this way merely for existing, and it should be recognized as part of backlash against not (just) individual women who deny people like Elliot Rodger what they think they deserve, but against women in general who “as a class, as a sex” are fighting gendered oppression.

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

Spain shows that the ‘anti-politics’ vote is not a monopoly of the right,” by Luke Stobart. The Guardian, May 28, 2014.

The rise of new far-right parties has our attention, and for good reason. May’s European elections, however, have shown a similar expression of dissent coming from the left. In Spain, where the two dominant parties saw their share of the electorate drop from 2009’s 81 percent to 50 percent, a new left-wing party captured 8 percent of the vote. What are the virtues and dangers of these trends? How is apathy rousted?

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups’ relationship with technology and development.

Generation TBD: With opportunity scarce, Brazil’s youth demand more than the World Cup,” by Corinne Chin and Fabiano Leal. GlobalPost, May 28, 2014.

This first installment of GlobalPost’s series on youth unemployment around the world looks at not only the protests against the World Cup but also the broader socioeconomic marginalization fueling them. While it’s richly reported, it doesn’t suggest many solutions for the issue beyond that the Brazilian government, of course, already ought to have focused its resources on projects that would more directly benefit its poorer citizens. But it’s hard to fault the article too much for that—the massively challenging nature of the problem is why GlobalPost launched this series in the first place. It will be interesting to hear if youth in other countries agree with the young favela tour guide quoted here, who, despite expecting to benefit personally from the World Cup’s tourism boost, “would trade the business for more social equality in his own community.”

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

In New Orleans, major school district closes traditional public schools for good,” by Lyndsey Layton. The Washington Post, May 28, 2013.

After Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana took control of almost all of New Orleans’s public schools in what became the Recovery School District, now the first district in the nation to go all charter. It is, writes Lyndsey Layton, “a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.” The fruits of the country’s “experiments” with public education over the past two decades are clear throughout the piece, from the measures chosen to rate school effectiveness (test scores, naturally), to the tired argument that charter schools bring agency to parents and their children. There is no choice, however, when it comes to determining test subjects for these grand experiments: in most instances, poor children of color.

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

“Heralded medical treatments often fail to live up to their promise,” by Alan Bavley and Scott Canon. The Kansas City Star, May 17, 2014.

This article is a breath of fresh air. It’s incredibly comprehensive. It offers detail. It’s well written. It’s accurate.

Those words sadly can’t be used to describe much health journalism produced today, especially as reporters are losing their jobs and those who stick around are tasked with producing shorter pieces at a more rapid pace.

But Bavley and Canon thoroughly examine their subject. They consider multiple cases where supposedly blockbuster treatments—hormone replacement therapy, Vioxx and others—were proven to not only be unworthy of their high cost, but actually harmful to patients. Journalists (who want a feel-good story, and fast) are implicated in hyping up new treatments before they’ve proven their worth, as are doctors and medical centers (who get more cash for using expensive treatments). But arguably medical companies and the Food and Drug Administration are most to blame. The FDA doesn’t require large-scale studies for a new drug or device to come onto the market, and medical companies are likely to only conduct clinical trials that get them the results they need for marketing approval, not to find whether their invention is truly better than what’s already out there, or good for patients. Both of my parents have battled medical issues in the last few years, so I understand the desire for a perfect cure and a quick fix. But good science takes time, effort and money, something most medical companies are unwilling to invest if it means slowing down a potentially blockbuster product. Without more rigorous oversight, patients end up paying more than they need to—both with their pocketbooks, and potentially their lives.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

Avoiding Africa’s Oil Curse: What East Africa Can Learn From Past Booms,” by Ricardo Soares de Oliveira. Foreign Affairs, April 16, 2014.

The next decade will see Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and others become major African energy exporters. That this will benefit the citizens of these countries is far from certain. Economists use the term “resource curse” to describe the counterintuitive phenomena whereby the economies of nations blessed with natural resources perform worse, on average, than those with no such advantage. Too often what happens is that rather than investing mineral and petroleum wealth into public goods like health and education, a corrupt government will use the profits to consolidate power and insulate itself from public pressure. According to Freedom House, only a quarter of the world’s top twenty oil-producing countries can be said to be “free.” In the worst cases, sales of natural resources fund armed conflict, as occurred with “blood diamonds” in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. The environmental impact of poorly run mining or drilling operations can also be devastating; since 1970 there have been some 7,000 oil spills in Nigeria alone. Here political scientist Ricardo Soares de Oliveira points out that the discovery of natural resources need not produce such dire effects; Botswana, to cite just one encouraging case, put its diamonds to good use and is presently one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Outsiders in solidarity can leverage what influence we may have, but ultimately, as de Oliveira writes, “success depends most on popular mobilization,” on the ability of local reformers to “push questions surrounding oil and gas to the center of political life and foster large-scale activism against bad governance.”

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

Fire on the Mountain,” by Brian Mockenhaupt. The Atlantic, May 21, 2014

While Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article has deservedly been drawing a ton of media attention in the last week, I’d like to highlight another feature in the current issue of The Atlantic. In “Fire on the Mountain” Brian Mockenhaupt looks at the way that Western states are dealing with destructive wildfires, wildfires caused by a combination of severe drought and years of an overly aggressive fire suppression policy. This article is a poignant look at the difficult risk calculations that go in to fighting fires, both on the national level and by firefighters on the ground. With devastating weather events likely to become more common over the next several decades, we would do well, as this article suggests, to think about the safest and most effective means of combating disasters.


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What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 5/23/2014?


Beyoncé performs during the Super Bowl half-time show. February 3, 2013. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.

"Does the term 'apartheid' fit Israel? Of course it does," by Saree Makdisi. Los Angeles Times. May 17, 2014.

Secretary of State John Kerry's warning last month that Israel risks becoming "an apartheid state" in the absence of a peace deal has predictably launched an uproar in the halls of American political power—where an avowed "commitment to Israel" remains more or less a prerequisite to entry. Republicans have called for his resignation. California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said, "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and any linkage between Israel and apartheid is nonsensical and ridiculous." Inevitably, Kerry was forced to backpedal ("if I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word…") and the "apartheid" label was shunted back to the radical fringe, where it was surely devised by closeted anti-semites to undermine "Israel's brand." In all this noise, it's easy to forget—and I'm thankful to Saree Makdisi for reminding—that "apartheid" is more than a mere insult to be hurled back and forth by political foes. In 1973, the UN General Assembly adopted the "International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid," which explicitly defines the crime and lists those practices falling within its ambit. Makdisi, like many others before, makes a compelling case that Israel's policies toward Palestinians fall within the scope of the UN definition. "The question," he says, "is not whether 'apartheid' applies here. It is why it should cause such an outcry when it is used."

To be entirely fair, however, the United States has never formally endorsed the UN definition. Back in '73, we were among an intrepid group of four members of the UN general assembly who voted to reject the Apartheid Convention. The others opposed were Portugal, the United Kingdom and apartheid South Africa.

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

"Tight polls and blossoming scandals agitate a once dull Colombian presidential race," by Jim Wyss. Miami Herald, May 21, 2014.

Colombians go to the polls on Tuesday in what is turning out to be highly contested election. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos was expected to coast to victory on the successes of peace talks aimed at ending the country's sixty-year civil war with the leftist FARC rebels. Just this week, the two sides came to a long-elusive agreement on drugs and drug trafficking. However, former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga has skyrocketed in the polls, undoubtedly ensuring a mid-June runoff election. Zuluaga's ascent highlights an issue that isn't being widely discussed in the English-language media: the incredible influence that former President Álvaro Uribe has on this election. Zuluaga is Uribe's hand-picked candidate in this race, and has pledged to end the peace talks if elected. Uribe is himself famous for his refusal to negotiate with the rebels, preferring aggressive military policies like recruiting brutal rightwing paramilitaries. He left the presidency in the hands of his national defense minister Santos four years ago, and his influence continues to permeate Colombian politics. This tweet really says all there is to say about the his role in the upcoming elections, where every candidate is in some way connected to him: "I don't know whether to vote for Uribe's candidate [Zuluaga], Uribe's ex-candidate [Santos], Uribe's ex-minister [Marta Lucía Ramírez], Uribe's ex-mayor [Enrique Peñalosa] or Uribe's ex-girlfriend [Clara López]. Damn Uribe!"

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.

"I’m Katha Pollitt’s 'Highly Educated' Leftist—And A Sex Trafficking Victim," by Ecowhore. Tits and Sass, May 22, 2014.

How should a sex trafficking victim present if they're trying to draw attention to the horrors they experienced? Sobbing and "subaltern," in Katha Pollitt's words, or perhaps as a "highly-educated" reader of The New Inquiry? A tension has grown in response to Melissa Gira Grant's new book, Playing The Whore, which in Pollitt's words, "says barely a word about the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced—illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways." Instead, the book attempts to redeem sex work as simply work - which should offer basic protection to workers - by discussing the narratives of women who had positive experiences with it. Without passing judgement on sex work itself, I invite you to read about both sides of the debate on the presentation of trafficked persons: "Let’s be honest," Ecowhore writes, "[Pollitt] doesn’t care about my victim credentials, unless I present as a good, sobbing, opinionless victim she can use as trauma porn to promote her own ideas." Ouch! But, in truth, do the illegal immigrants, runaways, etc. have the kind of access and tools that would allow them to influence the debate, nevertheless their own presentation as trafficked persons?

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

“Presidents, Bankers and Patriarchies,” [currently unavailable online] by Nomi Prins. The Washington Spectator, May 1, 2014.

The late Walter Karp (1934-1989) always noted that history is made not by trends but by the decisions of men and women. Nomi Prins’s new book All the Presidents’ Bankers—as well as her article in The Washington Spectator—follows this lens. What were the personal relationships and individual decisions that created the Federal Reserve, passed and repelled Glass-Steagall and removed the gold standard? Prins answers these questions while examining the intimate ties between bankers and the oval office, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She calls it a “hereditary bipartisan political-finance power complex.” And by explaining this complex through the acts and relationships of individuals, Prins does well in demystifying recent world history.

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.

"Shiny, Shiny Data: The Thrill of the Chase," by Kalev Leetaru. Foreign Policy, May 14, 2014.

Leetaru's analysis of the disjunction between Silicon Valley techies who know how to actually analyze rather than just compile data and the policymakers who have the background and authority to apply such analysis echoes the older disjunction between academia and policymaking, with some key differences. The academic world has rarely asserted itself with the same confidence now typical of believers in the ability of big data to answer almost anything—a trend that's now transforming academia itself (as well as journalism). I don't think policymakers were ever afraid of scholars taking their jobs in the way Leetaru asserts the intelligence community now fears computers. Of course, he may be exaggerating the potential of big data as a panacea, both in what it can answer and what we'd actually want it to—concerns are that the NSA's PRISM program is both ineffective and a violation of rights, after all. 

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

"In the Land of Nigeria's Kidnapped Girls," by Chika Oduah. The Atlantic, May 21, 2014. 

"Delighted to welcome all the new Nigeria experts," tweeted author Teju Cole when the #bringbackourgirls campaign brought Boko Haram's abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria into international focus. His tweet holds a warning: much of the reporting and analysis that describes the group from a point of authority should be treated with skepticism. The more authoritative take is that there is not much we definitively know about the group, the result of a confluence of factors that include the difficulties of reaching and reporting from the sandy, isolated land that makes up BH territory, and the group's 2013 designation as a foreign terrorist organization by State, which prohibits contact with the group. But Chika Oduah contributes something more important in this piece, in which she travels, at great risk, to Chibok: context. As much as Boko Haram affects its environment, it is also its product. Small clues to its future pepper this piece, like the roving anti-BH vigilantes, comprised largely of former BH members, who joined during a once-enticing recruitment campaign.

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

"Always Hungry? Here's Why," by David S. Ludwig and Mark I. Friedman. The New York Times, May 16, 2014.

Is our obsession with calorie counting as a way to lose weight seriously misguided? Two researchers, Ludwig and Friedman, have published an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association that suggests so. They say that we're not becoming fatter simply because we're eating more, but rather because we're eating the wrong things. The authors argue that by consuming more carbohydrates (as we have been increasingly doing for decades), our body produces too much insulin, which, among other factors, causes our bodies to store calories in fat cells; because these calories aren't accessible, we end up eating more, and pack on the pounds. While the authors suggest that more studies are needed to test their hypothesis, if they're right, our focus on cutting out fat, and sometimes replacing it with carbs instead, all the while solely focusing on reducing calories (rather than considering what those calories are made up of) may in fact be provoking an obesity epidemic, not helping to stem it. If carbs are the culprit, our individual eating habits, nutritional policy and companies' behaviors will have to radically change to reshape not just how much we eat, but what we eat.

Recently several articles have explored the reasons for our heavy-set existence (check out this one on toddlers' sleep and obesity). Ludwig and Friedman's suggestion—laid out in a fascinating, well-written and accessible manner in the NYT—could provide one more piece of the puzzle.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

Show Them the Money: Why Giving Cash Helps Alleviate Poverty,” by Christopher Blattman and Paul Niehaus. Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014.

Each year, high-income countries spend $150 billion on development assistance. By custom, if not unacknowledged prejudice, very little of this takes the form of direct cash transfers to the poor. Conventional wisdom among donors and development professionals has it that giving money directly to the poor—without conditions or supervision—is bound to produce waste and dependency. But this attitude is giving way as new research emerges suggesting that “cash grants to the poor are as good as or better than many traditional forms of aid when it comes to reducing poverty.”

The authors, a political scientist and an economist who co-founded the charity Give Directly, argue that “Western officials and organizations are not the best judges of what poor people in developing countries need to make a better living; the poor people themselves are.” While they stipulate that direct cash transfers may not be applicable in all settings and at all times—you can, for example, imagine a cash recipient with immediate needs forgoing a vaccine—they rightly challenge donors to ask themselves: “With each dollar we spend, are we doing more good than the poor could do on their own with the same dollar?”

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

"On bell, Beyoncé, and Bullshit," by Brittney Cooper. Crunk Feminist Collective, May 20, 2014.

Venerable literary theorist bell hooks caused a minor stir when she labeled Beyoncé a "terrorist" in reference to the singer's image on the cover of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People issue. While most denounced hooks' remarks, a few voices criticized Beyoncé's defenders for not sufficiently understanding the singer's complicity with the worst aspects of American culture. In this piece from the Crunk Feminist Collective, the author pushes back against those who insist on a so-called radical critique, showing how this kind of theorizing can flatten people's humanity and reproduce an out-dated, misogynistic attitude. Along the way I think Cooper makes the most salient point by insisting that the words we use to talk about popular culture matter, and the violence that these words can enact.


Read Next: Corrine Grinapol on what the media gets wrong about commencement speaker protests.

Reports of Worker Abuse Continue at NYU’s Newly Completed Abu Dhabi Campus

Abu Dhabi workers

Laborers work on a newly constructed housing village for construction workers on Saadiyat Island, UAE. (AP Photo/Andrew Parsons-File)

This article was originally published by the NYU Local and is reposted here with permission. 

Last month, NYU Abu Dhabi announced in a press release that its lavish, state-of-the-art, 450,000 m2 campus on Saadiyat Island had finished construction. Yet as the New York Times reported yesterday, the human costs were immense, and possibly unprecedented for an academic institution. The Times’s Ariel Kaminer investigated the labor conditions at NYU Abu Dhabi and found physical abuse, illegal recruitment fees, withheld passports, squalid living conditions and debilitating pay droughts, with minimal oversight from the university.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about labor abuses at NYU-AD. The Guardian’s report on migrant workers is a stunning indictment of the system of labor in Abu Dhabi, where satellite versions of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums are currently under construction on Saadiyat Island. Yet this newest article, in focusing on NYU’s explicit role in labor exploitation, takes the university to task.

To build the university where Bill Clinton will speak this week, laborers are paid less than what was contracted, are refused their own passports and bank cards, and sleep a dozen to a room. When attempting a strike, workers were arrested and beaten by the police. This is par for the course in Abu Dhabi—strikes are illegal and brutally suppressed—but it is a stunning contrast with NYU-AD’s commitment to academic freedom and university core values.

When the worker’s complaints were relayed to them, university officials stated that they were unable to verify the complaints either way, as the laborers are not employed by NYU—rather by contractors, in turn working for the UAE government. Margaret Bavuso, the executive director of campus operations for NYU Abu Dhabi, said that the university doesn’t monitor the wages paid by the construction companies at all.

The cornerstone of John Sexton’s Global Network University, NYU Abu Dhabi’s “walled garden” is luxurious for students and faculty. The campus was financed by the Abu Dhabi royal family, and all expenses are paid. The university compensates tuition, room, board, food, and even travel. Yet despite star professors and a Rhodes Scholar, the grim realities of the institution’s genesis have crept over the garden gate.

Outside of NYU-AD’s ivory tower, academic freedom and human rights are routinely abused. Human Rights Watch published a disturbing report from the UAE, illustrating the social and gender inequalities systemic in the country.

Two weeks ago, Gulf Labor published an investigation of Saadiyat Island working conditions, which detailed eight specific violations of NYU’s official Statement of Labor Values. Two violations in particular involved workers being deported without due process and not receiving promised salary increases. Responding in a statement to WSN, NYU Vice President for Public Affairs John Beckman said, “this was the first time we had ever heard” of the allegations, adding that “the bottom line is that those working on the NYU-AD campus project are paid significantly more than what is quoted.”

The Times found otherwise: With NYU’s new campus now complete, many workers have found themselves unemployed and stuck in financial limbo. Almost all of the workers interviewed said that they were forced to pay huge recruitment fees for which they’ve never been reimbursed. Two Nepali workers, Ramkumar Rai and Tibendra Kota, completed their work in 2013 but are unable to leave the Emirates. They recount spending the last sixteen unpaid months with expired work visas, unable to pay off debts and unable to afford flight tickets home.

According to NYU, the Saadiyat Island site’s accident rate was very low; only one worker death occurred during construction. The Guardian reported riots at the labor camp last August: “Workers described men being beaten with lump hammers and stabbed with spears in the dining halls. Golf carts, normally used to carry diplomats around on tours, were being used to ferry injured workers to ambulances.”

Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi Al Bloom spoke to the laborers. “All of you have worked so very hard on this project,” the Times reports Bloom saying. “Your children are benefiting from the work that you do on this project. There is no reason that those children, as they get educated in your country, that they can’t apply to go to school here. And just think about how exciting it would be for them to attend a school that you built.”

This week, the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU launched a campaign urging NYU-AD to overhaul its human rights practices and labor standards. A petition letter with over 200 signatures from students and faculty from both NYU New York and NYU Abu Dhabi was sent to John Sexton and several members of the board of trustees Friday morning.

As of 2:59 pm, university representative John Beckman has a released a statement:

The occurrences cited in today’s New York Times are, if true as reported, troubling and unacceptable. They are out-of-line with the labor standards we deliberately set for those constructing the ‘turn-key’ campus being built for us on Saadiyat Island and inconsistent with what we understood to be happening on the ground for those workers. Moreover, they are wholly inconsistent with the level of compliance we know to be the norm for those working directly for NYU Abu Dhabi at our existing campus over the last five years in operational contracts covering services for food, safety, transportation, and all other matters.

In undertaking the creation of NYU Abu Dhabi, we specifically put in place what we believe were unprecedented labor standards that reflect the NYU community’s values and address standing concerns for workers in the region. Our standards include:

—top-of-the-market wages and benefits (including healthcare)

—clear contracts

—limits on hours

—overtime that was voluntary and compensated

—better housing conditions in accommodations near the worksite

—possession or ready access to personal documents, including passports, and

—reimbursement of ‘employment fees’ to those specifically recruited to our job site

And, knowing that achieving new standards might prove to be challenging, a monitoring system was put in place to detect and fix non-compliance.

No questions have been raised about compliance among the operational services — such as food,safety, and transportation — for which NYU contracts directly. The Saadiyat Island campus — on which construction is all but complete — was a ‘turnkey’ project that was built for us; contracts for building the campus were not under NYU’s direct jurisdiction, although all were subject to the same labor standards.

Moreover, the safety and well-being of those working on our project must be a foremost concern in any discussion of labor. In this area, the record has been outstanding: On a four-year, 21 building, 4.8 million sq. ft., 38 acre project, involving 51 million person-hours of labor, the project had an accident frequency rate (AFR, the number of accidents per 100,000 person-hours) of .03; by contrast, the UK construction industry has an average of .55, and the AFR for the London Olympics development was .16.

We will be working with our Abu Dhabi partners and Mott MacDonald, the compliance monitor for the project, to look into these reports, which are so at odds with the labor values we put in place. On a project this enormous, we expected that there would be instances when our standards were not met; our goal, for any worker who was not treated in accord with the standards we set for the project, has been to identify and correct those occurrences. And to any worker who was not treated in line with the standards we set and whose circumstances went undetected and unremedied, we offer our apologies.

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At 7:21 pm, University President John Sexton released a statement in a university-wide email:

The occurrences cited in today’s New York Times are, if true as reported, troubling and unacceptable. They are out-of-line with the labor standards (here and here) we deliberately set for those constructing the ‘turn-key’ campus being built for us on Saadiyat Island and inconsistent with what we understood to be happening on the ground for those workers. Moreover, they are wholly inconsistent with the level of compliance we know to be the norm for those working directly for NYU Abu Dhabi at our existing campus over the last five years in operational contracts covering services for food, safety, transportation, and all other matters.

We will be working with our Abu Dhabi partners to investigate these reports vigorously.

When we first undertook the NYU Abu Dhabi project, the values of the NYU community as they related to those who would build and work on our campus were very much at the forefront of our thoughts. Where did that lead us?

To set new, high standards, and establish a compliance process: The standards we set for workers (see the links above) were well received, even by Human Rights Watch. The standards ultimately encompassed:

—wages (those on NYU’s project are paid wages that place them squarely atop the market) and benefits (including healthcare)

—higher standards for housing

—limitations on working hours, and guidelines for overtime compensation

—guaranteed annual leave and maternity pay

—access to personal documents

—health and safety

—reimbursement for recruitment agency fees

In addition, knowing that on any large project there are issues of non-compliance, with our partners we also set in place inspection, compliance, and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the labor standards are met, and to address any shortcomings as soon as they were identified. Since the beginning of the project some four years ago, approximately 1,600 worker interviews have been conducted; nearly 300 payment-record inspections were made; and multiple site visits conducted to the Saadiyat Island construction site, the worker accommodation facilities, employers offices, and the residential facility for NYU Abu Dhabi students and employees, among others, all aimed at discovering and remedying instances when our labor standards were not met.

To ensure that the standards were applied with utmost conscientiousness for the men and women working on contracts directly for NYU Abu Dhabi: With regards to those men and women working on assignments directly contracted to NYU Abu Dhabi – over 200 individuals in such operations as food, public safety, and transportation, where they interact with students, faculty, and staff daily — there have been no questions raised about compliance with the high standards we set. And, indeed, there has been a record of success: All of our directly contracted employees hold their own passports; over the past two years, 20 workers were reimbursed for employment agency fees; and the wages we pay are at the top of the market. Moreover, 97% of these workers were interviewed in the last year alone to ensure compliance with our standards.

To make safety on the construction site a foremost priority: In any discussion about labor and any effort to set high standards for workers, the safety and well-being of workers must be a topmost concern. No one has questioned our safety record, which has generally been judged to be an extraordinary success. In spite of the enormous size of the undertaking — a four-year, 21 building, 4.8 million sq. ft., 38 acre project, involving 51 million person-hours of labor — the project had an accident frequency rate (AFR, the number of accidents per 100,000 person-hours) of .03, which contrasts very favorably with a UK construction industry average of .55, and an AFR for the London Olympics development of .16.

And so we come to the issue of the application of the labor standards we set on the Saadiyat Island construction site, and the reports in the New York Times. Those cases are very much at odds with what we set out to do and what we understood to be happening on the site of the new campus.

As an institution of higher learning, facts matter to our community; truth matters to us. Though construction on the campus is essentially over, we nonetheless want to know, if we can, whether these were anomalous exceptions – still not acceptable, but a confined phenomenon, perhaps a result of having small subcontractors on the job-site for short periods of time – or whether they represent something more widespread.

As I noted, we are working with our Abu Dhabi partners to investigate these reports and seek more information on these cases to determine why, if the claims are accurate, they were not picked up by the compliance monitor, and to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance.

It is surely the case that the welfare and safety of the workers who built our campus – which we sought to elevate – should be our focus for the moment. Today’s story appears to have found non-compliant conditions which we missed, and which we must address.

But I would also make the following observation: that today’s news, as troubling as it is and as demanding of attention as it is, should not come to represent the totality of how we think of NYU Abu Dhabi, because NYU Abu Dhabi is so much more.

Against great odds, we have – through the hard work of many faculty, students, and administrators drawn to the idea of creating a unique, global university — forged an enormously successful liberal arts research university in Abu Dhabi. It is able to attract students worthy of winning top scholarships, able to recruit outstanding scholars to its ranks of tenured and tenure-track professorships, able to undertake meaningful research, and routinely able to persuade those who visit of its specialness and successfulness. As we approach the graduation of its first senior class, it is worth remembering that it is this community of scholars and teachers and learners that is truly at the heart of NYU Abu Dhabi.

The University will be back in touch when we have more information to share on this matter.


Read Next: Nation intern Corinne Grinapol on what the media gets wrong about commencement speaker protests

What the Media Get Wrong About Commencement Speaker Protests

Condoleezza Rice

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at the ground breaking ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. (Reuters/Mike Stone)

On this spring’s college commencement circuit, some of the most noteworthy names are those that didn’t make it to the podium. Although students have objected to their universities’ commencement speaker choices for years, in 2014 the protests and petitions had a pronounced effect.

On April 8, Brandeis University rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali following growing objections, accompanied by a petition that garnered over 6,000 signatures. Ali, whose criticism of Islam many find intolerant and bigoted, was slated to speak and receive an honorary degree during the university’s May 18 commencement ceremony.

On May 3, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined her invitation to speak at Rutgers’ May 18 commencement in the wake of sustained protest by students focused on her role atop George W. Bush’s foreign policy apparatus. Students and faculty members alike had questioned the university’s decision since its February 8 announcement of Rice as speaker and honorary degree recipient. When she withdrew her agreement to speak, Rice wrote on her Facebook page that her invitation had “become a distraction for the university community.”

At Smith College, an online petition, protest and letters sent directly to IMF head Christine Lagarde led her to withdraw from speaking at the university’s commencement ceremonies less than ten days after Rice’s announcement. In their petition, students made clear they were uncomfortable with Lagarde not on a personal level but with her role as a representative of the IMF, an institution that, “has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries.”

Most recently, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau withdrew from his planned speech and honorary degree at Haverford after students and faculty members sent him a letter asking him to publicly apologize for his handling of a violent police breakup of a peaceful 2011 Occupy protest at Berkeley.

While these withdrawals have garnered much media attention of late, the student protest efforts have been portrayed as infantile and misdirected. Students have been accused of being unwilling to entertain views that conflict with their own, of acting like “young thought police” and impeding free speech.

Yet, with the exception of Ali, the speakers chose to bow out of the commencement ceremonies of their own volition. If speech was inhibited in this case, it was by their own hand. The right to free speech doesn’t come with a guarantee that the response to it will be positive and polite.

If students are image-conscious, it’s not because, as Amanda Hess at Slate put it, they are chasing a “commencement experience that perfectly reflects both the stature and the political values of their elite higher educations.” They are not demanding the right to a speaker that makes them look radical chic. They are instead paying attention to the impact they and their university have on local and global communities. Instead of spending their four years focused on their own social and academic lives, students are trying to hold their administrations to account, and questioning the choice of commencement speakers is one small part of that strategy.

Missing, conveniently, from much of the criticism was an acknowledgement that speakers were not there to deliver their message to students on a value-neutral platform. Writing in The New York Times, Timothy Egan argued that the student protesters were “afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.” At The Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi was even more derisive: “God forbid these delicate students should be exposed to an idea or an organization with which they disagree—at college.”

But it wasn’t an unwillingness to listen to a contentious viewpoint that spurred student objections, it was the conferring of honorary degrees to those speakers, a tacit endorsement of their work and legacies. Rutgers student Jaweerya Mohammad underscored this point when she wrote in the school’s paper, “It should have been alarming that a woman who was responsible for the death of one million Iraqis, 5,000 US soldiers and who approved torture techniques such as water-boarding was being given an honorary degree and $35,000 by our University.”

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There is a place to engage opposing viewpoints. But commencement isn’t a debate forum. Students should able to round out their college years in a ceremony reflective of the values that made them choose that school in the first place. Underlying these critiques is a deference to custom, to protocol that supercedes serious consideration of the role institutions, and their honored guests, play in the world. We should be applauding students for choosing message over status.


Read Next: Catch up on the latest in student activism.

Students Kick Out the IMF, March for Af-Am Studies and Make Sallie Mae Pay. What’s Next?

Wesleyan protest

Wesleyan students march for African-American Studies. (Photo: Middletown Press)

Last spring, The Nation launched its biweekly student movement dispatch. As part of the StudentNation blog, each dispatch hosts first-person updates on student and youth organizing. For recent dispatches, check out March 21, April 8, April 23 and May 6. For an archive of earlier editions, see the New Year’s dispatch. Contact studentmovement@thenation.com with tips. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).

1. As Graduation Approaches, Smithies Kick Out the IMF

Smith College’s invitation to IMF managing director Christine Lagarde to act as this year’s commencement speaker sparked controversy across campus. In February, students circulated a petition to uninvite Lagarde, which garnered nearly 500 signatures. On May 2, fifty-six students who opposed the invitation marched to the president’s house. Inviting Lagarde directly undermines Smith’s claim to endorse the empowerment of marginalized voices, specifically voices of women of color; the IMF’s practices directly harm women around the world, including some Smith students. Since Lagarde withdrew on Monday, May 12, critics of our protests have claimed that we do not value “diversity of opinion.” Our aim is to challenge this claim—which essentially silences our own opinions—and the consistent privileging of powerful white voices.

—Alyssa Flores and Kimberly Garcia

2. The Next Day, Berkeley Chancellor Walks

On April 17, Haverford College’s Honorary Degree Committee announced the selection of Robert Birgeneau as commencement speaker. Birgeneau was chancellor of the University of California–Berkeley during the Occupy Cal protests and justified their brutal dispersal by describing linking arms as “not nonviolent civil disobedience,” before apologizing nearly two weeks later following public outcry. Haverford students circulated a petition raising concerns about Birgeneau’s role in the police reaction, but in a two-sentence response, Birgeneau said that he would not “respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.” Subsequently, President Dan Weiss called a community forum, where sentiment among students and faculty speakers largely turned against Birgeneau’s invitation. The Honorary Degree Committee let the invitation stand, but promised a review of its procedures for soliciting community input. President Weiss then announced on May 13 that Birgeneau had declined to attend and would not receive a degree.

—Sam Warren

3. Meanwhile, Bryant Gets a Mississippi Welcome

On May 10, students attending graduation ceremonies at the University of Mississippi adorned their caps and gowns with positive signs of equality in protest of Governor Phil Bryant’s keynote commencement speech. Bryant recently signed a controversial law, the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, potentially allowing privately owned businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples in the name of religious freedom. With support from Equality Mississippi, the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, more than 1,000 students wore rainbow Mississippi stickers on their lapels or “I am Mississippi, I Don’t Discriminate” stickers on their caps. More than 100 students, faculty and deans wore lavender honors cords for LGBT+ equality. Many students and families boycotted the commencement speech entirely.

—Patricia Tortora

4. In Philly, Thirty Stage Sit-In

On Monday, May 12, members of Youth United for Change held a sit-in at the School District of Philadelphia. Thirty students chanted our way into district headquarters and sat down in the front lobby of the building. For forty-five minutes, students got up to speak about budget cuts, until police officers threatened to arrest us if we didn’t leave. This action coincided with the week of the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a time to highlight educational injustice; proposed budget cuts would shrink staff and supplies, push class sizes to 41 students and cut $2.3 million from alternative education. In the coming weeks, we are planning further demonstrations until our demands for fair funding are met.

—Julienne Edwards

5. In Montgomery County, 500 Walk Out

On Friday, May 9, more than 500 students at Perkiomen Valley High School in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, walked out to protest potential cuts to high school faculty. Students spoke passionately about the positive impact of the three core subject teachers, two paraprofessionals, two lunchroom aides and two elective program teachers who face the possibility of getting laid off. The proposed cuts came about due to a $1,314,500 budget shortfall; while we understand the need for cuts, we believe that the teachers and support staff who have helped make our district one of the top in the state should not be sacrificed. As the school year ends, we will continue fighting to fix the fundamentally flawed education funding system affecting every school district across Southeastern Pennsylvania and pushing the board to find other solutions to save our staff.

—Addison Hunsicker, Cassidy Mattiola and Sean Moriarity

6. South Carolina’s Gender Trouble

On Monday, May 15, administrators at the University of South Carolina–Upstate announced the closing of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, citing insufficient funding—but students, faculty, alumni and community members remain skeptical. The decision came shortly after South Carolina legislators contested USC-Upstate’s implementation of a freshman reading highlighting the lives of every-day Southerners in the LGBTQIA community. CWGS had no part in the selection of the reading, and, as such, we feel that the center is being forced to take the fall. Students and alumni started a petition asking the university to reinstate, fund and fully staff the center because of the important role it plays in helping us reach our goals at Upstate and beyond. In the final weeks of the semester, students are planning a sit-in to protest the decision.

—Chase Moery

7. Wesleyan’s War of Attrition

On May 12th, more than 100 students at Wesleyan University from the #AFAMisWhy campaign marched across campus demanding institutional support for African American Studies at Wesleyan. Two professors are leaving AFAM this semester, leaving only one full time professor in the department as it stands—continuing a decade of neglect of the program by the university. This action came on the heels of a resolution from the Wesleyan Student Assembly, which turned into a petition garnering 1,000 signatures in a week. The march ended in South College at the office of President Michael Roth, then evolved into a sit-in in front of the office of the provost and VP of academic affairs. A meeting was scheduled for 4:30 pm later that day, where more than 130 students showed up to demand support for AFAM.

—Alton Wang

8. San Diego’s Slumlording

This month, more than 9,000 students and community members have petitioned the University of California–San Diego not to attempt—once again—to close the Che Café Collective. The Che is a renowned all-ages music venue on campus that is leased from the university and run by students and volunteers. The University Centers Advisory Board proposed a line-item cut of inflated maintenance costs to the Che that the university claims are necessary and would force it to close and book shows at bars on campus. More than seventy people attended a May 13 board meeting to comment on the vote. The university tried to keep them out until protest forced the meeting to a bigger room. Unable to accommodate all speakers, a second meeting and vote has been scheduled. Supporters will fight to stay in the space, get the university to cover its obligated repairs as landlords and renegotiate the lease after six years of university stalling.

—Andrea Carter and Hasmik Geghamyan

9. How Much Will Sallie Mae Pay?

On May 13, Sallie Mae reached settlements with the Department of Justice and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to pay $97 million in fines and restitution to former service members for overcharging on student loans, violating multiple federal laws. For more than a year, the Student Labor Action Project has been calling for the Department of Education to cancel its multimillion-dollar contract with Sallie Mae alongside coalition partners, including the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and the US Student Association, but the department has claimed that no “wholesale” violation occurred that would justify ending the contract. Students are now calling for an immediate end to this contract with new outrageous evidence from federal investigators. The Department of Justice described Sallie Mae’s conduct as “intentional” and “willful”—yet the Department of Education has taken no action. In June, we will launch further action to pressure the department to cut its contract.

—Beth Huang

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10. What’s Next for Title IX?

Since July 2013, Know Your IX’s ED ACT NOW campaign has been demanding the Department of Education do its job: enforce Title IX, the forty-year-old law that guarantees students education free from sexual violence and harassment. This month, the ED ACT NOW team saw its efforts pay off: in a rare move, ED publicly called out Tufts University and the Virginia Military Institute for violating Title IX and published a list of all fifty-five universities currently under federal investigation for Title IX violations. As a result, the department’s website crashed, and Title IX trended on Facebook as prospective students and their families scrambled to learn colleges’ track records on sexual violence. Moving forward, ED ACT NOW will continue calling on ED to issue fines against schools found in violation of the law to show that the institutional abuse of survivors will not be tolerated.

—Know Your IX


Read Next: Justine Drennan on the fight to save San Francisco's public college

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 5/16/2014?


People walk across a tiny overpass as raw sewage flows beneath in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Reuters/Swoan Parker)

—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.

"The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie," by John Jeremiah Sullivan. New York Times Magazine. April 13, 2014.

At the beginning of this piece, the facts known about its putative subjects—two black, female blues musicians who, in 1930, recorded a handful of haunting, virtuosic songs on 78rpm vinyl, now among the most sought-after pre-war blues recordings in the world—could be contained within a single short paragraph. By the end, the verifiable truths uncovered by John Jeremiah Sullivan could fill three, maybe four. Why then, asks the inquisitive but busy reader, should I spend any of my limited time slogging through 13,000 words? For one, there's Sullivan's potent prose, which goes down so easy you won't realize you're drunk until you're on the floor. And two, because the piece is ultimately just as interested in the pursuit of elusive facts as in their capture—and fascinatingly so. Dogged in his determination to fill in the ghostly outlines drawn by the music and myth of Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley, Sullivan winds up confronting some very basic questions about who owns the past (sometimes answering them in journalistically dubious ways), infusing the quest for esoteric historical knowledge with the urgency of a police procedural—and the deep humanity of a very satisfying novel.

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

Canadian mining doing serious environmental harm, the IACHR is told,” by David Hill. The Guardian, May 14, 2014.

A damning report that reveals the human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies in Latin America—where up to 70 percent of mining is done by Canadian firms—was recently presented before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The report insists that these companies' profit-seeking policies are "destroying glaciers, contaminating water and rivers, and cutting down forest...as well as forcibly displacing people, dividing and impoverishing communities, making false promises about economic benefits, endangering people’s health, and fraudulently acquiring property. Some who protest such projects have been killed or seriously wounded, it states, and others persecuted, threatened or accused of being terrorists," as is currently the case in Peru. However, the part of the report that seemed most insidious to me was the role that the Canadian state played in promoting these mining companies, weakening processes of law in host countries, shielding firms from legal action and denying the abuses all together. Just further proof (as if we needed any) that under capitalism, the state is beholden not to people or the planet's well-being, but to profit-seeking companies that fund their re-election campaigns. We continue to plod on towards environmental collapse for the financial benefit of the few.

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

Adjusting to Apocalypse,” by Peter Frase. Jacobin, May 14, 2014.

This is the kind of week when my nagging worry that it's absurd and irresponsible to be writing about anything other than the colossal danger posed by impending climate change comes to the fore (had it not, I'd be talking about "Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women," also worth a read). You have probably heard the recent news that a massive expanse of Antarctic ice has collapsed, "irreversibly." The question is what to do with this information besides despair or ignore it. Peter Frase manages at least to write clearly about the necessity of rejecting these two options. The exact ratio of apocalyptic alarm to hopeful survival planning that needs to be hit on to move people to create meaningful change is impossible to determine, I think, but What do we do, how do we organize ourselves in the face of the change that's already happening and that's going to continue? is certainly what we need to be discussing. Some of the articles that Frase links to, in this and his previous article on the topic, provide further useful context (and a fascinating, albeit old, discussion of the rise and significance of positive thinking). Yes, the impending (already beginning) destruction is vast: what are the next steps?

—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.

"Prescription for Disaster," by Rachel Aviv. The New Yorker. May 5, 2014.

Rachel Aviv chronicles the story of an arguably well-meaning, though criminally naive, Wichita doctor and his transition from beneficent Dr. God, the go-to pain doctor in town, to a man looking at a thirty-year jail term. Though he wasn't a cash-for-pills kind of guy, Dr. Schneider prescribed highly addictive opioids to patients who couldn't get them elsewhere—for the simple reason that he thought his patients needed them ("Schneider asked his patients to rate their pain on a scale from 1 to 10...many patients scored their pain a ten or ten-plus.") It turns out, Schneider's practice—to his surprise—was responsible for the deaths of sixteen patients. Who is culpable: the patients exaggerating their symptoms to score some downers, or the doctors who didn't require psychological screenings before prescribing the drugs? We have an opiate problem in this country, and Aviv's narrative sheds light on the range of problematic approaches doctors take toward pain patients, spanning from overly skeptical to dangerously lenient.

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

Direct Democracy as a Disciplinary Device on Excessive Public Spending,” by Patricia Funk and Christina Gathmann. Journal for Institutional Comparisons, Spring 2014.

Why does direct democracy produce more fiscally conservative public budgets? Are citizens more fiscally conservative than representatives? Funk and Gathmann study Switzerland, a country with historically low government spending and heavy use of direct democracy, to find some answers. In Switzerland, political responsibilities remain at the canton level unless granted to the federal government via referendum. Sixty percent of cantons have mandatory referendums for large public spending projects (like bridges). As 86 percent of such projects gained citizen approval between 1980 and 1999, we can safely say that this influence of direct democracy has a fiscally conservative affect. Such forms of direct democracy only strike down public spending—little in the way of proposing spending takes place.

There is more than what meets the eye, however. The authors found that the correlation between direct democracy and more fiscally conservative budgets has a few causes. Not only does direct democracy reduce spending by offering fiscally conservative citizens an outlet for self-expression, high spending, it was found, increases the “likelihood of adopting stronger direct democratic institutions.” It is possible, the authors deduce, “that public spending results in institutional reforms rather than the reverse.” Might US fiscal conservatives take notice?

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.

"Haiti Strikes Back," by Fran Quigley. Foreign Affairs, May 13, 2014.

There are lots of themes tied up in human rights lawyers' class action lawsuit against the United Nations on behalf of thousands of Haitians who caught cholera introduced by UN workers. There's the broad issue of aid that doesn't aid; speculation about the future of international cases in the US after the Supreme Court effectively neutered the Alien Tort Statute last year; the issue of whether the UN forfeited legal immunity when it breached its agreement to itself address complaints against its employees. To me, one of the most noteworthy points is the contrast between UN and US rejections of this suit and their will to intervene in violent conflicts. A professor that Quigley cites contrasts UN statements that it should have done more in Rwanda and Srebrenica with its unwillingness to acknowledge responsibility on Haiti. Others have juxtaposed the White House's consideration of military intervention in Syria with its flat rejection, on the grounds of UN immunity, of the case seeking UN reparations to ease Haiti's cholera crisis. These contrasts are particularly striking because unlike with intervention in armed conflicts, the costs of commitment here would be only financial.

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

"Qaeda Affiliate Steps Up Video Propaganda Push," by Saeed Al Batati and David Kirkpatrick. The New York Times, May 12, 2014.

That US counterterrorism actions like drone strikes exacerbate the very problem they're intended to address is a truism being heeded—by Yemen's Ansar al-Shariah. The extremist group is actively backing off operations targeting Yemenis as US drone strikes in the region continue. The US has an image problem, and it's two-sided. Abroad, military strikes and the accompanying unrepentence over their compounding, horrific aftermath is creating an angry citizenry and a new recruitment strategy for terrorist organizations. At home, the politics that govern US foreign policy, with the premium placed on toughness, Rambo-like theatrics and military actions, are what in many cases inhibit the effectiveness of our policies abroad. And yet, the idea that an effective CT strategy should look like a big-budget action flick persists because hawkishness looks right. And for our politicians, when it comes to getting votes, looking right is better than being right.

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

"A Simple Theory, and Proposal, on H.I.V. in Africa," by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. The New York Times, May 10, 2014.

Could exposure to parasitic worms be part of the answer to the HIV crisis in Africa?

Some researchers are skeptical, others exited, about new work coming out of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa that suggests that women with genital schistosomiasis (otherwise known as schisto and caused by parasitic worms common in river water across Africa and parts of Latin America) may be more vulnerable to HIV infection. The theory makes sense: gentile schisto results in lesions in the vaginal area, making women more prone to cuts, providing a direct pathway for the virus to enter the bloodstream. Having a parasite also excites a body's immune system, thereby attracting CD4 cells, which are also happen to be the cells that HIV attacks

Whether or not genital schisto is the reason so many women are vulnerable to HIV in Africa, the parasite should be more readily prevented and treated. USAID considers it a "neglected disease" because little research and development is done and few medical devices are made to target the parasite, which kills more than 200,000 people a year (some vaccines are in the pipeline, but will take several years to become available). The New York Times notes that "the worms can be killed by a drug that costs as little as 8 cents a pill," but that high-priced patented versions are only available in South Africa for $4 a pill. According to the World Health Organization, only 8 percent of people with schistosomiasis had access to the drug in 2008. Continued high rates of schisto point to low access to clean water, low access to medical care and a broken pharmaceutical system in which drugs that are needed are not produced, and those that are produced are not made available to those who need them.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

How public spaces make cities work,” by Amanda Burden. TED, March 2014.

Paley Park in midtown Manhattan is one of the many reasons I love New York City. It has not walls but vertical lawns of ivy and a twenty-foot waterfall that drowns out the din of the adjacent street. I can spend hours here, reading or writing in a comfortable chair under a canopy of locust trees. Amanda Burden has a special connection to Paley Park. Her stepfather financed its construction in 1967 and spending time here nurtured in her an appreciation for the value of public space.

Years later, as chief city planner, she fought to revitalize and protect, among other urban oases, the Brooklyn waterfront and the High Line. “Claiming these spaces for public use,” she says, “was not simple, and it’s even harder to keep them that way.” Today 4 million people enjoy the High Line annually, but public space advocates spent years battling developers who wanted—still want—to put the 1.45-mile aerial greenway to more profitable use.

Public spaces are fundamentally democratic and efforts to establish and preserve them will often conflict with commercial interests. As New York City’s population grows to 9 million, there will need to be more housing and more employment opportunities, of course. But Burden reminds us why urban planners need to take the long view: people come to New York from all over the world not only for financial gain, and they stay not only out of necessity. “A successful city is like a fabulous party,” Burden says. “People stay because they are having a great time.”

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

The Domino Sugar Refinery and the Art of Real Estate,” by Kyle Chayka. The Baffler, May 13, 2014.

Kara Walker's installation in the former Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg received widespread coverage when it opened last weekend (see Hilton Als' typically astute commentary at The New Yorker.) The piece features an approximately seventy-five feet long by thirty-five feet high sphinx made of white sugar surrounded by small sculptures made of sugar candy. Kyle Chayka puts a political spin on the project at The Baffler's blog, Zero Tolerance, arguing that the installation, despite its clear reflections on race, gender and economics, doubles as an advertisement for the condos that are soon to be built on the site and is part and parcel of the gentrification that has transformed Williamsburg. While I think that Chayka underestimates the power of Walker's work, he's right to make explicit the question (already posed, I think, in Walker's piece) of how art interacts with commerce and to highlight the difficulty in transcending systems of oppression.

Read Next: Intern Justine Drennan on the fight to save San Francisco's public college.

The Fight to Save San Francisco’s Public College

CCSF protest

The Commuity College of San Francisco is fighting for its life. (Photo courtesy of Bridgid Skiba)

When students fought police armed with pepper spray in March, it was only the most physical battle in the heated struggle for City College of San Francisco. The seventy-nine-year-old community college, California’s largest public school, is on the brink of losing its accreditation, and the atmosphere is tense at an institution that’s touched pretty much every San Franciscan in some way. It's been especially valued for serving low-income and part-time students, immigrants and others who otherwise might not have access to higher education, offering a range of vocational certification, cultural and ESL programs.

The fight between CCSF and the state’s outcome-based education “reformers” really erupted in 2012, when the government-appointed Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) said the college hadn’t met an array of largely managerial standards and gave it eight months to fix things or lose accreditation. “Problems included a dearth of student services, outdated instruction guides, antiquated computer systems and lack of fiscal controls,” the ACCJC said, adding that the school had failed to collect about $8 million in workers’ comp dues and student fees over the past several years. Last summer, the commission ruled the college’s improvements insufficient and said it would lose accreditation this July. That would effectively force City College to close, since state funding is tied to accreditation.

CCSF supporters say the decision has little to do with academic standards. City College performs above state community college averages even by the narrow metrics of graduation and transfer rates that have been California’s focus in recent years of tight budgets and escalating reform rhetoric. “We feel like public education is under attack, including now community colleges, by the movement to privatize,” said Wendy Kaufmyn, who teaches engineering at CCSF. “The accrediting commission is definitely part of what we’d call the ‘reform movement’ in education—it has a political agenda.” She and other members of the growing “Save CCSF coalition” say disaccreditation is an effort to stifle a major voice for more inclusive education. “We see ourselves as serving the diverse community of San Francisco, and that includes the formerly incarcerated, foster kids with nowhere else to go, immigrant populations and undocumented students,” Kaufmyn said. “We believe in the arts, and having students be there for cultural enrichment. But they just feel like that’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

A September 2013 report by the city found that CCSF graduates add enormously to the local economy, contributing an estimated $123 million yearly by filling skilled jobs for which demand is generally greater than the supply of qualified applicants. If the college closed, surrounding schools would be neither equipped to absorb the flood of displaced students nor geographically or economically practical for them to attend.

Pushback against the ACCJC’s decision has been building among not only students, faculty, staff and community members but also public officials including San Francisco’s mayor, the chancellor of the California Community Colleges system and members of Congress. After its most recent review in December, the Department of Education told the ACCJC to fix various irregularities or risk losing its own status. In January, Nancy Pelosi questioned the commission’s judgment on CCSF, saying, “There has never been a complaint about the education at this school.” The City Attorney’s office has launched a lawsuit against the commission, and in January a judge issued an injunction to halt disaccreditation until after the case has gone to trial this fall.

But through it all, the commission has held its ground. It's insisted that it legally can’t grant City College more time, even though government officials say that it could by law use its discretion. “No one believes—no one, even the most strident faculty member—has said that the school now meets accreditation standards,” said Dave Hyams, a public relations representative for the ACCJC. “They didn’t meet them, they don’t meet them, and they won’t meet them, by everyone’s admission. The problem isn’t the accreditation system.” The college has lodged an appeal that an ACCJC panel must rule on by July 31, but the body hasn’t given any sign that it plans to reverse the decision.

Rafael Mandelman, a CCSF board member, said it’s hard to understand the commission’s obstinacy. “I think they are incredibly stubborn, petty and vindictive people,” he said. “They’re an accrediting commission gone wrong.” The ACCJC is a private peer review body made up of past and present California college administrators and educators that Mandelman believes has become “increasingly polarized.” One of six community college accrediting bodies in the United States, the ACCJC has in recent years put colleges on notice at a vastly higher rate than its counterparts, accounting for 64 percent of sanctions nationwide in the 2011–12 school year. But the move to actually yank accreditation is extremely rare even for the ACCJC. In recent years, the commission has disaccredited only one other school, the smaller Compton College, where it found serious financial fraud.

Nothing like that was going on at CCSF. The college had its share of problems, said Mandelman, who joined the board in 2012 hoping to help transform it into a more effective body. Issues included “a lot of dead wood in the administration,” “a dysfunctional basket case” of a board and financial backlog made worse by the recession. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good place,” he said. “It was certainly not worse than other community colleges.” One state assemblyman has pointed out that although “CCSF failed to meet nine out of eleven standards required by the commission…two other colleges failed all eleven standards and were only given a warning, which is the lowest level of sanction.”

While some say the commission’s move against City College is a sign of its arbitrariness, others agree with Kaufmyn that it’s political. The San Francisco attorney’s lawsuit against the ACCJC “alleges that the private agency unlawfully allowed its advocacy and political bias to prejudice its evaluation of college accreditation standards…in retaliation for City College having embraced and advocated a different vision for California’s community colleges than the ACCJC itself.”

Differences in vision became especially clear in the debate over California’s 2012 Student Success Act. Coming in the midst of severe budget shortfalls, the legislation mandated more rigid assessments and standards to encourage higher community college graduation rates and transfers to four-year schools, and included a requirement that students receiving fee waivers for their studies meet certain benchmarks for academic progress. Members of the CCSF community vocally opposed the Act, with now–Student Trustee Shanell Williams arguing it would pull support from students like herself whose disadvantaged backgrounds might make it harder for them to meet the standards or to travel a smooth road to graduation or transfer. Williams “grew up in San Francisco surrounded by drugs and violence” and came to City College not knowing “how to be a student.” She couldn’t attend full-time because she needed to work to support her family. Williams said CCSF transformed her into a dedicated learner and that the state legislation was really “about making the most disenfranchised students pay for an economic crisis that is not our fault.”

These arguments echo a nationwide conversation about the impact of “standards-based” schemes on community-focused public education. The debate so far has centered on K-12 and topics like charter schools, Common Core standards and corporate profit-generating education technology backed by conservative advocacy groups. But it’s also expanding into community colleges, as the San Francisco Attorney’s office pointed out:

The ACCJC has been a leading advocate to dramatically reshape the mission of California’s community colleges through more restrictive policies focusing on degree completion to the exclusion of additional vocational, remedial and non-credit offerings. The controversial political agenda—whose proponents include conservative advocacy organizations, for-profit colleges and corporate student lenders—represents a significant departure from the abiding “open access” mission pursued by San Francisco’s Community College District since it was first established, and also repeatedly affirmed by the state legislature.

ACCJC spokesman Hyams denied that the ACCJC was biased. “There’s nothing political about this,” he said. “Every school is held to the same standard, and every school in California is evaluated, and it’s a fair non-partial peer review evaluation, going on for fifty years this way, and this is the first time a school has been so sub-standard.” When asked about CCSF’s above average performance on the state’s “Student Success Scorecard,” Hyams speculated that “perhaps CCSF’s students are more driven, or the extraordinarily high ratio of faculty to FTE [full-time equivalent] student contributes to this success rate; I don’t really know.” He later clarified, after the commission’s president happened to see his comments, that this was his personal opinion and did not represent the commission’s view.

Such communications did nothing to change the impression that the ACCJC’s operations are unsystematic or even haphazard. Its perceived arbitrariness has led California Congresswoman Jackie Speier to argue that there’s a national need to make accreditors more accountable—also the aim of a bill in the state legislature whose fate is uncertain. Indeed, the move to disaccredit CCSF seems especially harsh given the continued accreditation (though not by the same commission) of several infamously predatory for-profit colleges in the area that get a disproportionate chunk of federal tuition aid—including schools the state is now suing for misleading applicants about their programs’ success rates and students’ ability to pay off their loans. If City College closes, disadvantaged students may have few options but these for-profits.

In the meantime, CCSF community members say the disaccreditation threat already has changed the school for the worse. Last year, the college’s elected board on which Mandelman and Williams sit was replaced by a “Special Trustee with Extraordinary Powers” appointed by the state’s community colleges chancellor the year before to oversee CCSF’s progress. The March clash on campus began as a protest against the special trustee, who has made cuts to the very programs—ethnic, LGBT and other diversity studies, for example—that make City College what it is, said Lalo Gonzalez, a Latino Studies student. “We had a faculty member who worked with students with disabilities, but he was fired, so there’s no one to teach braille anymore.”

Mandelman and new college administrators say many changes were needed to improve the college’s operations, but that the looming threat of disaccreditation has caused far more problems than it’s solved. Students are hesitant to register at the school, and enrollment has fallen from 90,000 in 2012 to about 77,000. The college estimates the enrollment drop will cost the school $20 million in lowered state funding this coming year unless the California legislature passes a bill, currently in committee, to prop up its finances.

Despite these setbacks, CCSF has made “tremendous progress” in the areas criticized by the commission, say San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, who’ve asked the ACCJC to grant the college more time. Even members of the commission acknowledge that “the school is turning for the better.” But they say it still would do best to accept disaccreditation and seek “candidacy”—a status that, barring new legislation, would deprive it of state funding (as well as legitimacy) until it had been reaccredited. CCSF administrators reject the proposal, which looks like an attempt amid mounting pushback to intimidate the college into sparing the ACCJC from having to rule on the appeal or defend itself in court.

The commission may well want to avoid a trial. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said he’s “extremely positive and confident about the lawsuit” and growing more so each day as additional evidence comes to light that “the allegations in our complaint with respect to the conflict of interest and bias were well-founded.” He added that obtaining the pre-hearing injunction against disaccreditation was “very, very encouraging.” ACCJC spokesman Hyams said the commission is also “very confident in our position in the lawsuit,” but he didn’t go so far as to say it thought it would win, nor did he close the door on the possibility of some resolution before the trial.

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Regardless of what the commission or the judge ultimately decides, it’s clear the case has great significance in a city where poor communities are increasingly poorly served. Even if CCSF wins in court, though, the struggle won’t be over. In the absence of an explicit decision to the contrary, it’s likely that the ACCJC would remain CCSF’s accreditor, though Herrera said it’s too early to tell what the full results of the case might be.

“We may save City College, but what form will it be in?” Kaufmyn wondered. “If it becomes a narrowly focused junior college that doesn’t serve our diverse communities, then we’ve really lost.”


Read Next: Michelle Chen on why NYU has cut ties with JanSport

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 5/9/2014?


An Afghan boy holds a bag on his back as his friends collect materials to burn for firewood, in the background, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.

When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America,” by Questlove. Vulture, April 22, 2014.

“Maybe domination isn’t quite a victory,” muses Ahmir Khalib Thompson—aka Questlove—in the first of six essays about the recent history of hip-hop for New York’s Vulture.com. Questlove has spent the past two decades as the drummer and co-frontman of the Roots, one of hip-hop’s most highly regarded bands. In these essays—an ambitious reckoning with the genre’s past that also takes stock of its present—he adopts the gravity and authority of an elder-statesman, though without any of the attendant pomp, propriety or self-importance (i.e., I can’t imagine Jimmy Carter saying “History is more interested in getting its nut off,” even if he might agree). Here, Questlove tackles the central questions of hip-hop’s ascendance: what happens when a genre which “once offered resistance to mainstream culture” is made “an integral part of the sullen dominant?” And why does hip-hop’s move from marginalized obscurity to “signal pop-music genre” feel like such a hollow—or at least “haunted”—victory? His answers, like the questions, are complex and incomplete, offering myriad opportunities for Questlove’s signature poetics. In the end, he says, “Time will tell.” Because “time is always telling. Time never stops telling.”

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

The Hunt for El Chapo,” by Patrick Radden Keefe. The New Yorker, May 5, 2014.

The capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was the story of the year in Mexico, the image of history’s most successful drug trafficker in handcuffs hard to believe for anyone familiar with the story. The impossibly elusive Chapo had for more than a decade thwarted the efforts of Mexico and the United States, hiding in the mountains while continuously expanding the reach of his Sinaloa cartel. However, behind the cliché tale of yet another larger-than-life drug lord—the opulent lifestyle, the daring escapes, the unbridled violence—are several important political stories that get very little attention in the American media: the use of torture by the Mexican army and the complete inefficacy of the Washington-backed “kingpin strategy.” The information that ultimately led to Chapo’s capture most likely came from torture, leading some journalists to claim that this was a wonderful, real-life example of a “ticking-bomb interrogation”—a time-sensitive situation in which torture would be tactically justified. Keefe was quick to dismiss these claims, insisting that the situation was “less of a bomb than a slow war of attrition,” and that Chapo’s capture would in actuality lead to more violence in the short term as his associates fight to take his place.

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode,” by Nancy Fraser. New Left Review, March-April 2014.

Nancy Fraser combines a lucid account of the current political and intellectual moment with an equally sharp critique of Marxist theory. She writes that “the current boom in capitalism talk” is a “symptom of a desire for a systematic critique,” one that contends with previous generations’ failure, “despite professed good intentions, to incorporate the insights of feminism, postcolonialism and ecological thought” simultaneously into a coherent critique of capitalism. Fraser attempts to address that failure. Capitalism relies on the creation and maintenance of a number of realms apparently “outside” it, she explains: “extra-economic” spheres like the family, nature and politics. Insightfully and at length, she both denies that these are really “outside” capitalism and, on the other hand, that they’re reducible to purely “economic” realms rather than being truly qualitatively different. The specific relationships she outlines between a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism and some of often seemingly unrelated social movements that populate the contemporary left (feminism, environmentalism, etc.) offer an interesting and useful way to imagine them working in concert.

—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.

Russia Quietly Tightens Reins on Web With ‘Bloggers Law,’” by Neil MacFarquhar. The New York Times, May 6, 2014.

In a world where the Internet is a special CIA project, anonymous bloggers are spreading insidious lies on the Internet aimed at sullying the reputation of dear leader Vladimir Putin and he will have none of it. Doesn’t it read like the back cover of a science fiction novel? In truth, anonymous bloggers threaten Vladimir Putin enough for him to feel justified in installing a new censorship law specifically targeting them. Any site with more than 3,000 visitors a day will have to register with the state, thereby sacrificing its anonymity, a precious and vital tool for dissidents in Russia. The Times writes, “Russia is among a growing list of countries that have sought to shut down Internet voices circumventing a subservient national news media.” The law will take effect on August 1 and failure to comply may result in a fine up to $142,000.

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

Missing From This Year’s Water Debate: Celeste Cantú Knows a Cheaper, Better Way,” by Justin Ewers. California Economic Summit, May 6, 2014.

While the West was settled, the director of the US Geologic Survey (1881-94) John Wesley Powell pushed hard to define new state boundaries according to watershed. He is now yelling, “I told you so!” from his grave. This piece profiles how, by practicing state-aided regional water-governance, Santa Ana River watershed’s 5.9 million citizens have avoided water shortages in California’s historic drought. The question is no longer if watershed governance is a good idea. “The question is,” to quote Cantú, “How do we get back to the original idea—to get all of the water managers in a watershed to work together on projects that involve the same drops of water?” In California, it seems, a lack of simple intra-watershed communication is often to blame. Powell, after long last, is having his moment—thanks, climate change!

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups’ relationship with technology and development.

The Case for Rebooting the Network Neutrality Debate,” by Barbara van Schewick. The Atlantic, May 6, 2014.

It’s interesting to read Barbara van Schewick’s thorough argument against the FCC proposal to (further) limit net neutrality, alongside the Vice Motherboard story on the few activists actually protesting at the FCC. The disconnect that Motherboard’s Meghan Neal points out between the surge of clicktivism on the issue and the meager physical turnout may help explain why van Schewick (or her editor) has felt the need to head her first section, “Net Neutrality: Not Just An Abstraction.” NPR has begun past stories with similar qualifications, along the lines of, “although net neutrality may sound boring…” In this context, van Schewick does a good job showing how ending net neutrality is indeed a very material issue that would not only directly affect consumers but more generally dampen the Internet’s vitality by making innovation the realm of only those with significant resources to get started.

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

A Return to the Dark,” by Christina Lamb. The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2014.

My teenage niece can’t stop talking about the last book she read, lent to her by a teacher—The Kite Runner. It led her to quite an epiphany: the country she imagined, with a citizenry straight out of an oriental fever dream, was in fact comprised of humans, not terrorists. In Christina Lamb’s piece for The Wilson Quarterly, which devoted its entire spring issue to Afghanistan, Lamb focuses on a few narratives as she examines what has happened to women in the country since the US invasion, and what may happen when the troops pull out later this year. “Telling those stories is important,” she says, “as long as they are told, then there is at least the possibility of bearing witness to the long struggle of Afghan women for better lives.” These two very different interpretations of our engagement with Afghanistan, Lamb’s and my niece’s, explain a lot about how the war is understood (or isn’t) in our country. In between that span of information we have fiction like Hosseini’s novel and non-fiction like Lamb’s piece to humanize Afghanistan for those who don’t know enough, and re-humanize it for those numb from knowing too much.

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

Maternal deaths in childbirth rise in the U.S.,” by Carol Morello. The Washington Post, May 2, 2014.

In a previous weekly article pick, I commented on UK versus US health statistics—and how the UK generally blows us out of the water. Let me add maternal mortality to that list. A new study finds that the United States has maternal mortality rates three times that of the UK. Even China is better at keeping expectant and new mothers alive than the United States is. The United States is one of only a handful of countries whose maternal mortality rates are actually getting worse—we’re right there alongside Afghanistan and Greece.

This Washington Post article notes that American maternal mortality may be rising because women who are not the healthiest among us (those who have diabetes, hypertension, etc.), and who would previously have died or been unable to have children before, are now—through longer lives and better medical technology—able to give birth. That’s a fair enough argument, but Canada and the UK, which both have much better maternal mortality rates than the United States, are also strugging to support populations who live longer and are less healthy. Dare I ask: could the problem also be access to health care? And more importantly, access to high-quality, consistent, patient-centered pre- and post-natal care, in which mothers are tracked throughout their pregnancy and the baby’s first year of life, and not just strapped on a hospital gurney and rushed through labor? Statistics only tell so much, but when a study shows that the country’s maternal mortality rate has more than doubled in less than two decades, it should cause national reflection about how we’re giving care and to whom.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

Green is Good: The Nature Conservatory wants to persuade big business to save the environment,” by D.T. Max. The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.

Mark Tercek, the head of the Nature Conservancy, is an unlikely environmentalist. A former partner at Goldman Sachs, he believes, as D.T. Max puts it in this New Yorker profile, that “nudging big business in a green direction… can do far more good than cordoning off parcels of Paradise.”

Tercek—who took a 90 percent salary cut when he left banking to join the Conservancy in 2008—regards the organization’s traditional mission as a hopeless cause: even “preserved” land is not immune to climate change. Under his leadership, the world’s largest nongovernmental environmental organization now collaborates with the very businesses activists have been fighting (e.g., the Dow Chemical Company).

Some in the environmental movement see the Conservancy’s engagement with companies like Dow as smart and necessary and practical, a welcome emergence from the purist fantasy that ecological sustainability requires a rejection of economic development altogether. But, as Max points out, “There is an obvious limitation to this approach: business logic often doesn’t line up with green logic.”

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

R.I.P., Gary Becker,” by Kathleen Geier. Washington Monthly, May 4, 2014.

Writing at the Washington Monthly, Kathleen Geier offers an evaluation of two parts of University of Chicago economist Gary Becker’s formidable legacy: his work on the family and his theory of human capital. Acknowledging the influence that his work has had throughout the social sciences by opening up new realms of human experience for economic study, she critiques him for failing to take into consideration power relations that interact with neoclassical economic models. Geier makes a strong case that this expansion of economic thought is extremely sinister (and this post that describes Foucault’s reading of Becker certainly puts things in perspective), but I appreciated how she ends by recognizing the power of Becker’s influential methods.

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