When We Betray Our Students

by Corey Robin on October 30, 2015

A couple of months ago, at the beginning of the semester, I posted on Facebook a plea to my fellow faculty that they not post complaints there about their students. You know the kind I’m talking about: where students are mocked for the errors they make in class, the faux pas of the politically incorrect, and so forth. I said that I considered such public commentary a kind of betrayal, even when the students weren’t named.

Yesterday, Gothamist reported that an undercover cop had been spying for months, if not years, on a group of Muslim students at Brooklyn College, leading to the arrest of two women last spring for allegedly planning to build a bomb.

Set aside the problem of entrapment with these schemes. Set aside New York City Mayor de Blasio’s promise to stop this kind of surveillance of Muslims in New York. Let’s focus instead on the leadership of CUNY that either knowingly allows this kind of spying on our students to continue or does little to nothing to stop it.

Tolerating, actively or passively, undercover officers of the state on our campus, allowing them to spy on our students, to report back to the state what our students say, as they meet with their friends to share in their studies, swap their stories, figure out their faith, shoot the shit, or whatever it is that students do when they believe themselves to be among friends, is a betrayal. Of the worst sort.

I posted my comment on Facebook because I believe we, as faculty, have a trust to uphold with our students. That when they come to our campus, they will be allowed to try on new clothes, nudge themselves away from who they were toward who they will become, make a stab at independence, that they will be allowed to make mistakes—in full knowledge that their fumbles and foibles are safe with us.

As my friend Moustafa Bayoumi, who’s also a professor at Brookyn College, writes in his book This Muslim American Life, which is just out with NYU Press:

Americans of all types are expected to acquiesce to intrusions into their private lives, supposedly for greater security, while any objection is interpreted as “having something to hide.” But having something to hide—or having the right to hold an inner life and to be free to determine how much of yourself you show to others—is not only a guarantee of our democracy but also a necessary part of being human. Losing that right is troubling and dangerous for the same reason that Elaine Scarry identifies as the dark innovation of the Patriot Act. “The Patriot Act inverts the constitutional requirement that people’s lives be private and the work of government officials be public; it instead crafts a set of conditions in which our inner lives become transparent and the workings of the government become opaque.”

The same applies, even more so, when we are talking about students.

When we allow officers of the state onto our campus to monitor and surveil our students as they make their way into the world, to troll for trouble (even creating the circumstances for that trouble), we betray that trust. We simply cannot build a campus that is true to its mission if we allow this kind of practice to continue.

There’s a petition being circulated calling on CUNY Chancellor James Milliken to stop this practice. I urge you to sign it. And to share this post, and the petition, widely.