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Look Who’s Trusteeing at CUNY

Privatizers, Union-Busters, Witch-Hunters...
Abolish the Board of Trustees!
CUNY Internationalist Clubs call for open admissions, no tuition and abolish the Board of Trustees – For student-teacher-worker control of the university! (Photo: Internationalist Clubs)

We’ve all seen those “Look Who’s Teaching at CUNY” ads on the subway. You know, the ones with distinguished professors grinning like all get-out straight into the camera.

The PR campaign puts your teeth on edge if you’re part of the “invisible” 57% of CUNY teaching staff with no job security, getting poverty pay for the same work. Adjuncts, teaching grad students, Continuing Ed and other “contingent” faculty are treated like disposable non-persons by the arrogant CUNY tops.

For CUNY’s 450,000 students, there’s not much to grin about either: against the background of war and economic crisis, budget cuts, tuition hikes, fee boosts and obscene textbook prices make education increasingly precarious. Now big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citibank say community college students will be denied loans – while the feds bail out the private Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac companies to the tune of $200 billion.

Who is it that’s pushing to turn CUNY into “Walmart U”? Who keeps hiking tuition and fees? Who says most faculty just “can’t” be allowed a living wage, job security or, in many cases, health care? Who keeps shoving more and more working-class and minority students out of school, and launched an “antiimmigrant war purge” against “undocumented students” in Fall 2001 (which was pushed back by protest and exposure)?

To begin answering this, let’s take a good look at Who’s Trusteeing at CUNY. Though school administrators (like the ruling-class politicians who appoint them) talk a lot about democracy, the people who work and study here don’t run the place. Nor do New York’s millions of working people have a say in the city’s public university. Instead, CUNY’s ruling body is a veritable rogue’s gallery hand-picked from the business elite.

Union-Busters R Us

Exactly who and what is the Board of Trustees? Our attention was drawn to this question last summer, after newly sworn-in Democratic Governor David Paterson appointed Peter S. Pantaleo, a top professional in the lucrative field of anti-unionism. The Board of Trustees (BoT) website identifies Pantaleo as a “Partner at DLA PIPER,” adding: “Mr. Pantaleo represents both domestic and international employers in labor, employment, and civil rights matters. While he has substantial experience litigating cases before courts, administrative agencies, and arbitration panels, the principal focus of Mr. Pantaleo’s practice is advising employers in complex, politically sensitive labor and employment matters.

From left: CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, trustees Benno Schmidt, Peter Panataleo and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. These fat cats want to raise your tuition. How much do they make? Goldstein’s salary is $483,000 a year, plus perks.

DLA PIPER is the largest law firm in the U.S. by attorney headcount, reportedly representing half the Fortune 500. Its website includes a “Labor and Employment Alert” giving employers step-by-step instructions on how to use a recent decision of the anti-labor NLRB to “prohibit use of email for union organizing purposes.” This is remarkably similar to what happened at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College, which banned faculty from using email to discuss union business until this gag rule was defeated through a campaign sparked by campus union activists.

One of Pantaleo’s favorite tunes must be “Viva Las Vegas,” given his cushy relationship with the casino bosses. Google “Peter S. Pantaleo” and “anti-union” and you’ll find a New York Times (10 March 1997) article on Pantaleo lawyering for the Las Vegas MGM Grand hotel during its campaign to stop a unionization drive. All the way up to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), his old firm Pantaleo, Lipkin & Moss represented Las Vegas bosses who banned three workers from handing out pro-union leaflets at the entrance to a casino/hotel complex.

And who knew there was such a thing as the Gaming Law Review? Turns out there is: its 1 May 1998 edition features Peter S. Pantaleo as co-author of an article on “lessening the power” of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees in the city where slot machines never sleep. Another Pantaleo piece, from 2004, tells employers in non-union workplaces how to use an NLRB ruling to prevent employees from having a coworker present during “investigatory interviews” (Monday Business Briefing, 5 July 2004).

The Democratic governor’s appointment of Pantaleo may be related to the fact that Dick Gephardt, for years the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, is Senior Counsel at DLA Piper. The firm was among the top business contributors to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Add it all up and a key point comes through: the Democrats, like the Republicans, represent big business against the working class.

Education as a “Profit Platform”

Last spring, a scandal erupted at Hunter College over a “Special Public Relations” course offered the previous year, bought and paid for by a $10,000 grant from the Coach handbag company. Run by a public relations firm hired by the apparel industry, the class made up a bogus story about a student named Heidi Cee (who did not exist) being ripped off for $500 in reward money she put up for the return of a Coach handbag. According to the fake story (which included a phony YouTube video, blog, MySpace and Facebook profiles), someone had given her a counterfeit Coach bag instead. The Coach company turned Hunter into a cog in its corporate campaign against the allegedly dire menace of handbag counterfeiting. A few months later, Coach’s CEO donated a million dollars to Hunter.

City University highlights top-level professors in ads, but 57 percent of CUNY faculty are part-time instructors, who have no job stability (they can be fired at any time, without cause), earn poverty wages (mostly under $25,000 a year) and in the case of graduate student adjuncts have no health care “benefits.” (Photos: Internationalist Clubs)

The Hunter/Coach escapade is just a small example of the push to corporatize education. Ironically, CUNY’s Board of Trustees includes the CEO of a different handbag company: Sam A. Dutton, head of Accessories Exchange. Dutton is Vice President of TEACH NYS, which the New York Sun (1 February 2007) describes as “a coalition of faith-based groups” pushing for tax deductions for families who send children to private and religious schools, an endeavor backed by ex-governor Spitzer. Michael Tobman, a former aide to Democratic Senator Charles Schumer who now heads TEACH NYS, calls Spitzer’s replacement, Governor David Paterson, “a friend to efforts to secure help for tuition-paying families” (Jewish Week, 26 March 2008).

TEACH NYS is also boosted by the State Policy Network, a self-described “network of free-market think tanks” including the notorious Manhattan Institute, which came up with many of the attacks on CUNY launched under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In 1998, the Manhattan Institute published an “agenda” for Giuliani, featuring a diatribe against “remediation and race politics” at CUNY, ending with the call: “CUNY can cut its size by half.” Giuliani proclaimed of CUNY: “That’s a system we would blow up,” moving promptly to destroy the remains of open admissions and eliminate remediation at senior colleges. He set up a Task Force on CUNY headed by Benno Schmidt, infamous for his high-handed arrogance and threats to dissolve entire departments during his six-year reign as president of Yale University. Schmidt left Yale to head up the Edison Project, which aimed to establish a national network of hundreds of private schools. For him, education was to become a new “profit platform.” (See “Right Wing Yale Cabal Targets CUNY,” in the Internationalist pamphlet, Marxism and the Battle Over Education).

After pushing through the “agenda” of racist, anti-working-class attacks on CUNY, Benno Schmidt got his reward when then-governor Pataki made him Chairman of the Board of Trustees in 1999. He was reappointed in 2006. Yes, an outright enemy of public education is top dog at the country’s largest urban public university! This symbolizes much of what’s wrong with CUNY today. More precisely, the career of Benno Schmidt tells us plenty about the whole system of capitalism and how it’s gutting public education. When Schmidt and his friends in City Hall tried to foist Edison Schools on the city, the privatization project blew up in their face. From 1997 until last year Benno was chairman of Edison, now he’s vice-chairman. Meanwhile, he and his partner Chris Whittle have launched Nations Academy, “an international chain of for-profit elite private schools” (New York magazine, 20 July 2008). Enterprising researchers would do well to look closely at this latest venture. 

Under Schmidt, a special Honors College has been set up at seven four-year campuses, named after investment manager William E. Macaulay, who gave $30 million for the project. The Honors College is “a flagship program...designed to raise educational standards” and “showcase the University’s return to excellence,” burbled CUNY Newswire (13 September 2006), adding in tones of hushed reverence that benefactor Macaulay is CEO of First Reserve Corporation, “one of the ten largest private equity firms in the world with $12.5 billion under management.” Schmidt chimed in that Macaulay’s “pioneering gift sends a signal of support all across America that CUNY is the place for the best and brightest.” 

And get this: students in the Honors College get free tuition, plus “$7,500 each year to study abroad or to defray living expenses during an unpaid internship,” plus a free Apple laptop computer (well, actually, they have to pay $1 for it on graduation), plus a free pass to “dozens” of top cultural locales like the Metropolitan Opera and the Museum of Modern Art (New York Times, 8 September). Plus there are no doubt some more pluses we don’t know about. Not bad, if you can get it. Students and faculty should demand the same for all CUNY students, not just the hand-picked elite.  

You couldn’t ask for a clearer signal that the idea is to embed the elitist agenda of Schmidt & Co. into the very structure of campuses around the CUNY system, the better to lop off those deemed not “the best.” In the past this has meant attempts to close down “ghetto and barrio campuses” like Hostos and Medgar Evers entirely.

Robber Barons and the “Business” of Education

What name pops into your head when you hear “robber baron”? J.P. Morgan is a good bet. Old J.P. got his start selling antiquated rifles to the Army during the Civil War, then built an empire from WWI bonds, U.S. Steel stocks and multifarious financial shenanigans. In 2000, J.P. Morgan & Co. merged with Chase Manhattan to form JPMorgan Chase, which now has $1.8 trillion in assets. JPMorgan Chase was one of the megabanks that recently decided to “phase out” loans to students at community colleges. “What a great place to get trustees!” you can almost hear today’s robber barons exclaim.

With strong backing from Giuliani, then-governor Pataki tried to appoint former JPMorgan Vice President Kathleen M. Pesile to the CUNY Board in 1998 to replace a trustee who opposed the abolition of remedial classes at CUNY’s four-year colleges (“Pataki Rushes to Replace CUNY Trustee for Vote on Remedial Classes,” New York Times, 13 May 1998). Her appointment eventually went through, and she helped Pataki win the vote against remediation the following year. Lynne Cheney’s hard-right American Council of Trustees and Alumni made Pesile a member, and Pesile was also part of “the short-lived ‘decency panel’ that Mayor Giuliani appointed in the wake of his attempt to censor the Brooklyn Museum” (PSC Clarion, October 2002).

With eight years at the infamous House of Morgan, and five at Capital Cities/ABC, she has run her own Pesile Financial Group since 1995. Getting the picture? Giuliani says “blow up” public education, appoints Schmidt to figure out how, they bring in bankers like Pesile to ram it through, Benno gets to be chairman of the board, speculators laugh all the way to the bank, and everyone goes home happy. Everyone, that is, except CUNY’s 450,000 students, tens of thousands of faculty and campus workers, and the millions of New York City working people getting ripped off every day.

Continuing the roll call of trustees from the corporate heights, we have Bloomberg appointee Rita DiMartino. A former lobbyist for Ma Bell may not know much about education, but can be expected to know the ways and means of government in the service of business: she is a former AT&T Vice President for Congressional Relations. Being a long-time Republican operative definitely has its perks: Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. appointed DiMartino to various prestige positions. Today, the BoT website proclaims, “Ms. DiMartino is Vice Chair of the Board’s Standing Committee on Faculty, Staff, and Administration, and holds membership on the Standing Committee on Academic Policy, Program, and Research, the Standing Committee on Facilities, Planning, and Management, and the Standing Committee on Student Affairs and Special Programs.”

Next up: appointed to the Board by Pataki, Valerie Lancaster Beal is Senior Vice President of M.R. Beal & Company, “one of the top investment banks trading in...municipal bonds,” according to its web-site. Profiting from city finance deals is evidently just the ticket for the business of running CUNY. Last year, “M.R. Beal & Co. agreed to settle allegations that it conspired to bribe an official with a California water agency in exchange for helping a New York dealer land a lucrative derivative contract” (Bloomberg News Service, 20 September 2007).

Philip Alfonso Berry was a VP at Colgate-Palmolive, which the CUNY Board’s website breathlessly describes as “a $12 billion global consumer products company” as if that were just the dandiest recommendation ever. Mr. Berry is now Managing Principal of the global management consulting firm Berry Block & Bernstein. Another Pataki appointment, Berry is now Vice Chairman of CUNY’s BoT.

Musical Chairs: City Hall, Big Business and the Board Trustee Marc V. Shaw was appointed to CUNY’s BoT by Mayor Bloomberg, after becoming City Hall’s highest-paid official (almost $200,000 a year) as Billionaire Mike’s Deputy Mayor (2002-06). When Bloomberg moved to close firehouses around the city, Shaw enraged the Fire Fighters’ union by claiming its members were “hanging around doing nothing ... 95 percent of the time” (New York Times, 12 December 2002). Prior to that, Shaw was Rudolph Giuliani’s budget chief: “under Mr. Shaw’s watch,” in fact, “the city continued to withhold subsidies to the [Metropolitan] Transit Authority for free student passes, a cut that helped place the M.T.A. in its current financial predicament,” wrote the Times (28 October 1995).

Yet in late 1995 Governor George Pataki appointed Shaw to the MTA, where as Executive Director he helped push through refinancing of the agency’s $12 billion debt under the auspices of Wall Street investment firm Bear Stearns, which received “a large share of the underwriting duties worth tens of millions of dollars,” notes the Times (26 July 2008), adding: “Critics said the plan was unsound, and unduly influenced by Bear Stearns.” (By the bye, JPMorgan Chase acquired Bear Stearns last May for $236 million.)

The golden rule of city finance was applied – those with the gold make the rules – so financial speculators had their debt-service mega-profits guaranteed. The city’s working people were expected to foot the bill. In 2003, not long after Shaw moved into the deputy mayor slot, the MTA raised fares by 33 percent, from $1.50 to $2. As top deputy to the billionaire mayor, Shaw was neck-deep in attempts to break the 2005 strike of the Transit Workers Union, when Republican Bloomberg called strikers “thugs” while Democrat Eliot Spitzer, then the state’s attorney general, used the infamous Taylor Law to jail the TWU Local 100 president.

Those who think Marx and Lenin are old hat should take a look at Mr. Shaw in the light of Lenin’s Imperialism (1917), where the Russian revolutionary noted that in this “highest stage of capitalism,” government agencies typically have a “personal link-up” with high finance, with “seats on Supervisory Boards” handed back and forth between them. Shaw’s case is classic, as he jumped straight from the union-busting, fare-hiking world of city and state politics to the rent-gouging, gentrifying world of high-end real-estate speculation.

In 2006, Shaw joined the Extell Development Company as Executive VP for strategic planning. Extell is a high-end real estate firm which foresees $1 billion in sales this year (Broker’s Weekly, 30 July 2008), largely at luxury buildings like The Rushmore. A recent ad offers a penthouse at another Extell building for a trifling $45.5 million. The new Extell Towers at 100th Street and Broadway is often cited as a prime example of Harlem’s gentrification, while Extell’s The Lucida inspired an article titled “Gentrification Arrives at a Crossroads in Yorkville” (New York Times, 2 January 2006). Shaw’s Extell featured in an article titled “NYC: Out with the Poor, In with the Rich” (Indypendent, 25 November 2007). 

Charles A. Shorter, another Bloomberg-appointed trustee, also comes from the realm of real estate, having held high positions with Ernst & Young LLP’s Real Estate Transaction Advisory Services Group as well as Arthur Andersen LLP, the accounting firm infamous for its involvement in the Enron scandal.

Deputy mayorship is clearly a great way to land a seat on the CUNY Board of Trustees. Bloomberg’s pattern of “administrative nepotism,” in the words of the CUNY Advocate (September 2006), continued when he named Carol A. Robles-Román as a trustee only six months after she became Deputy Mayor for legal affairs in early 2002. Counseling the mayor on legal affairs, as well as collective bargaining issues, her office shared responsibility for strike-breaking measures during the historic 2005 transit strike. Then there is Joseph J. Lhota, Executive VP of Cablevision, a former PaineWebber investment banker who served as Deputy Mayor (1998-2001) in the depths of “Giuliani Time,” was appointed to the CUNY Board by the notorious Rudolph G., then reappointed by Bloomberg. Lhota’s wife was a fund-raiser for Giuliani, and was part of a group in the mayor’s office that raised money for projects like the Giuliani-appointed commission on “the future of CUNY” that was headed by Benno Schmidt.

The remaining trustees are Wellington Z. Chen (Pataki appointee), Executive Director of the Chinatown Partnership Development Corporation; Frieda Foster-Tolbert, a former Pataki Community Affairs director appointed to the Board by the ex-governor; Dr. Hugo M. Morales, a mental health specialist appointed by Pataki and reappointed by Spitzer; and one ex officio member each from the University Faculty Senate and University Student Senate.

Witch-Hunting at CUNY

But wait – there’s one more, last but most definitely not least on the rogue’s gallery of trustees: the outlandish, sinister and bizarre Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who seems to channel the spirit of the Cold War redbaiter, Senator Joseph McCarthy. After four years in the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence division, he became the head of the First New York Conservative Democratic Club in Queens, working for the egregious Ed Koch before going Republican and serving the notorious Senator Al D’Amato, then Pataki (PSC Clarion, October 2002). Today he is a principal with Bernstein Global Wealth Management.

When City College faculty members participated in an antiwar teach-in shortly after September 11, 2001, the New York Post launched a smear campaign. “Several faculty members named in the article subsequently received hate mail, including death threats,” reported the American Association of University Professors’ Academe (January-February 2002). The event was sponsored by the campus chapter of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress (PSC), whose CCNY chair told Academe: “We felt strong pressure not to continue to hold teach-ins.... The atmosphere can only be described as chilling to academic freedom and free speech.” Chancellor Goldstein hastened to denounce the participants, and Wiesenfeld said “I would consider [their] behavior seditious at this time,” raving that the event “enticed radicals to come and spew their venom toward the United States.” The following month, after a right-wing Queens politician said “illegal aliens” at CUNY were a “security” threat, the university launched its anti-immigrant war purge, more than doubling tuition for “undocumented” students. The CUNY Internationalist Clubs initiated the campaign of protest that eventually pushed this back.

Wiesenfeld has made the faculty and staff union a key target of his McCarthyite diatribes. A newsletter published by the rightist “CUNY Alliance” in 2004 said “we commend Trustee Wiesenfeld” for “express[ing] concern that PSC management may be abusing its discretion by spending union dues on superfluous political activities. The Chair of the Board indicated that he would ask the University’s General Counsel and Vice Chancellor Brenda Malone to investigate the Board’s responsibility in this matter.” In June 2005, Wiesenfeld told a Board of Trustees meeting that the PSC “acts to defend the academic freedom of those who engage in terrorist and criminal acts.”

Wiesenfeld is a Zionist (pro-Israel, anti-Arab) witch-hunter in particular. He was New York chair of the “Stop the Madrassa Coalition,” a major player in the vicious crusade against Debbie Almontaser, the former principal of the Khalil Gibran Academy in Brooklyn who was forced out when the Post whipped up a frenzy because she was part of a group that shared office space with an organization that sold t-shirts reading “Intifada NYC” (a reference to the Palestinian revolt that began in 1987 against the brutal Israeli occupation). “Virtually all terrorists today are Muslim,” ranted Wiesenfeld (Daily News, 4 September 2007). He joined attempts to silence Columbia professor Joseph Massad for the “crime” of speaking out in defense of Palestinians. Wiesenfeld declaimed: “Every public and private campus has its share of ‘revolutionaries’ who think proselytization is synonymous with education. I’ve made it my business not to be silent when this phenomenon raises its ugly head at a CUNY campus” (New York Sun, 13 February 2005).

Wiesenfeld was a featured speaker at a January 2008 Queens Village Republican Club dinner in honor of the publisher of the red-baiting Patriot Returns newsletter. His announced topic: “The poisoning of our next generation by our academics throughout our nation.” The keynote speaker was George J. Marlin, former mayoral candidate of the ultra-rightist anti-abortion Conservative Party and member of Pataki’s 1994 transition team. The ultra-right FrontPage Magazine (online edition, 23 May 2008), a mouthpiece David Horowitz’s McCarthyite campaign to identify and purge the universities of perceived leftists, fulsomely defends Wiesenfeld’s red-baiting attacks on PSC members while lauding him as “a hero to many New Yorkers for his efforts in bringing higher academic standards to CUNY,” which it claims is now “experiencing a wonderful renaissance” as a “result of abolishing the failed policies of open admissions and remedial education.” 

What needs to be abolished is the Board of Trustees itself! It is no accident that the Board is made up of patronage appointees, profiteers, union-busters and witch-hunters. But the BoT is more than just a patronage mill. Its composition corresponds to its function: to run CUNY in the interests, not of the people who work and study here, but of the parasitic elite of money-men, speculators, real-estate moguls and ruling-class politicians. Thus, the burning questions of CUNY’s fate are in the clearest sense class questions, bound up with the broader issues of who rules society, by what means, and for which purposes.

Who is in charge of the nation’s largest public urban university is not just a local matter. A few years ago, the Rand Corporation, the premier think tank on strategic issues for the Pentagon, did a study on “The Governance of the City University of New York: A System at Odds with Itself” (2000), paid for by the Mayor’s Advisory Task Force on CUNY set up by Rudolph Giuliani. The problem, it seems, was that there was resistance even at top levels to the wholesale elimination of every last vestige of open admissions: 

“In particular, some members of the Board of Trustees and some of the political leaders responsible for CUNY believe that, at the senior colleges, open admissions has failed and requirements must be raised. Many of CUNY’s stakeholders, however, remain strongly committed to open access at the senior colleges as well as the community colleges.”

This problem was resolved by the removal by one means or another of all those who resisted the corporatization and elitist “reform” of City University.

Instead of the Board of Trustees and CUNY administration, the university should be democratically controlled by students, teachers and workers. But no university can be an island of emancipation if society at large is enslaved to capital. In the 1960s, New Leftists dreamed of “red universities,” an impossibility under the rule of capital. The task of freeing CUNY from the profiteers’ dictatorship is part of the fight to sweep away that rule and establish a socialist society, making education genuinely a right for all.

Originally published in Revolution No. 5, September 2008.
Revolution is the newspaper of the Internationalist Clubs at the City University of New York. For more information, e-mail:  Visit the Revolution page at