Dec. 4, 2018 By Alexa Beyer
Chaos erupted Monday night at CUNY’s Board of Trustees public hearing when students who came to protest the University’s recently announced partnership with Amazon were shut down.
The Dec. 3 hearing at LaGuardia Community College was the Board’s first since Amazon’s announcement last month that it had chosen Long Island City as its new headquarters site, and CUNY’s announcement soon thereafter that it would align itself with the corporation.
“…[W]e will commit our considerable college assets to ensure that Amazon has a strong pipeline for talent, ideas and innovation,” said William C. Thompson, chairperson of the Board of Trustees, in a statement released on Nov. 13, the day news hit of the Amazon deal.
While the exact nature of CUNY’s partnership with Amazon is unclear, students and faculty poured out to the public hearing by the dozens in staunch protest to the city and state deal, and the school system’s backing of it.
The protestors said the city and state should focus on committing resources to CUNY, as opposed to providing tax breaks to the corporate behemoth. They also cited the pervasive underfunding of the CUNY system, its crumbling infrastructure, low professor pay and rising tuition costs–all items the board should vouch for instead of launching its support for Amazon.
“I’m a senior at Brooklyn College, otherwise known as ‘Broke-lyn College’ due to the state of our crumbling infrastructure,” said Corinne Greene to a crowd at a rally outside the hearing. “Our classrooms are falling apart. We have water coming down from our ceilings…cockroach and bed bug infestations in our libraries.”
Peter Mauro, an art history professor at Queensborough Community College, spoke of his adjunct professor colleagues, who at CUNY get paid $3,500 per course. At seven courses per year (the equivalent of a full-time teaching load), it amounts to an annual salary of $24,500. His union is attempting to negotiate a contract to double it.
“One of my colleagues said, ‘Do you know that would be $250 million to double the salary of adjuncts?’ Yeah, that’s a lot of money,” Mauro said to the crowd outside, “But you know what, it’s less than the $3 billion that our mayor and our governor are ready to give to the wealthiest man in the United States.”
While protestors were able to make their cases outside, those who attempted to speak about Amazon at the hearing inside had their microphones cut off, or were interrupted by Trustee Henry T. Berger, who ran the session.
“I’m sorry, this is not a hearing about Amazon,” Berger said to Sabrina Rich, a Brooklyn College student, and Jessica Sun, a student in the Macaulay Honors program, shortly after both announced they were with the Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies, the student group that organized the rally.
Public hearings take place one week before each CUNY Board of Trustees meeting, and serve as the primary if not the only avenue for CUNY students and faculty to voice their concerns about school governance.
But because the stated purpose of the hearings is to receive public testimony on agenda items for the following week’s Board Meeting, and because no discussion of Amazon was on the Board’s Dec. 10 agenda, those who came to discuss Amazon or other topics like tuition affordability were deemed off topic.
“When are you gonna hear us speak if you’re not gonna let us speak now?” Sun asked. “Where is Thompson?” another student shouted from the crowd, referring to the Board’s Chairperson, who was not present at the hearing. “He’s answerable for this.”
The student was also referring to an op-ed Thompson penned in the New York Daily News titled, “Amazon fits beautifully with CUNY”.
After a tense back and forth between the board and protestors, Berger forced the hearing to an abrupt recess in a move that effectively led to the end of the meeting shortly thereafter.
Some students, however, carried on with their protests as chants of “Amazon has got to go” filled the room.
Despite the Board’s reasoning for not permitting discussion on Amazon during the meeting, some students took the approach as a clear message about student input in the partnership.
“It goes to show they don’t care about the students’ voice,” said Danelly Rodriguez, a student at the CUNY School of Law who attended the meeting.
But Berger, who in addition to serving as a Trustee also served as deputy to the mayor until July of this year, said in a phone call before meeting that the CUNY Board has never discussed the School’s partnership with Amazon.
That leaves the matter of which powers, exactly, from CUNY made the decision to back Amazon—like so many other details of a deal facing significant public backlash for its secrecy—unclear.
Mark Healy, vice president of continuing education at LaGuardia Community College, meanwhile, said the school has been involved in the bid “from the very beginning.”
Healy described an arrangement in which LaGuardia representatives eagerly provided details about the school that could help woo the corporation, but said he and others were not privy to the secret deal making that the city’s Economic Development Corporation was engaged in throughout the bidding process.
LaGuardia, which boasts 55,000 students and sits roughly a mile up the road from where Amazon’s corporate campus will be, is the CUNY school that could very well be the most impacted from the company’s presence.
The College is also a member of the Long Island City Partnership, the development organization that pushed for Amazon to come to Long Island City. LaGuardia President Gail Mellow sits on the LICP’s Board of Directors.
Healy himself, who will be instrumental in crafting the school’s side of the partnership, also noted that he learned of the deal the same day as everybody else.
Neither Chancellor Rabinowitz nor Chairperson Thompson could be reached for comment.
The protest yesterday follows several opposition events held in the weeks since Amazon’s Long island City announcement, including a protest by a coalition of CUNY student unions protested in front of Thompson’s Wall Street office, and a “teach-in” organized by a faculty at LaGuardia Community College to discuss the implications of Amazon locating in the borough.