Political Battles Over Funding CUNY

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

I’ve recently discussed the changing pattern of funding for public higher education and the pressures that those shifts have imposed upon tuition-paying students. Despite arguments about tight state budgets and financial crises, that shift is mainly underpinned by a real change in the way public officials view higher education and about who should be responsible for its cost. As I sat to write the next chapter in this series, that dynamic became all the more clear in my mind as we—administrators and higher education professionals—consider Governor Cuomo’s recently announced budget proposal.

In the past decade, crippling financial crises have moved states across the country away from past robust support for public higher education. But these periodic crises merely punctuate the steady decline in state funding for public education over the last 25 years. New York State’s current cuts to CUNY and SUNY are taking place despite a billion-dollar surplus in the past year, contributing to an undesignated reserve fund estimated to reach 2.1 billion dollars by March 2016. Suddenly, most of the funding cuts seem to result from a choice rather than a tough decision driven by financial hardship.

The policy details underpinning that choice recently became more clear: In his recent budget declarations, Governor Cuomo is calling for 30 percent of current state funding to be passed on to New York City, reflecting the 30 percent of the CUNY board members appointed by the city. There’s a kind of logic to that explanation, but it’s not robust: It suggests that the state should allocate funds in proportion to its power to control (even indirectly) the disposition of those funds. The proposal contains a number of truly welcome provisions, such as monies to cover the cost of a new contract and to cover increased expenses due to inflation (both absent from last year’s budget). Both provisions, however, are contingent on the City assuming 30 percent of the public-funding burden.

The contours of the friction between Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo are fairly well known, dating back to their tussles over early childhood education. But the standoff is not, in fact, unique. In the past weeks, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Illinois State’s defunding the University of Illinois systembecause of a similar dispute among state level officials.

The fact is that, in this season of rising populism, it has become much easier for politicians to regard public higher education as a luxury enjoyed by a relatively small share of the voting public at the expense of the broader society. Across the country, the idea that education is an individual benefit that people should pay for individually (either at private schools or via increasingly expensive public universities) has displaced the idea of an educated, prosperous society and a capable workforce as a public good that we all share. Even where elected officials do not openly deride higher education as a luxury, they increasingly approach it in ways that allow the health of our great universities to take a back seat to political considerations—and that leads us back to the tug of war between New York State and the City of New York.

It’s worth considering what the Governor must be thinking as he makes these recommendations. Presiding over a New York that is sharply divided between the conservative and often economically depressed upstate districts and a politically different, more prosperous downstate New York Metropolitan area, the governor is asked to support two university systems, one largely serving the former and the other totally located in the latter. Why should he ask upstate voters to support CUNY when they have their own SUNY campuses, championed by local politicians, in their own areas? Moreover, a democratic governor has fewer incentives to bring a New York City system under his wing—the largely democratic constituents of the city can be counted to support his candidacy far more than the more mixed upstate constituencies. Why not stand with those upstate, and demand that New York City take care of its own?

Over the long term, the idea merits consideration. The financial formula that has sustained CUNY since the late 1970s was occasioned by the crisis of the city at that time, and while state-level funding kept CUNY in business ever since, the university also remained in more or less constant crisis, repeatedly called upon to justify its very existence to a statewide legislature that often verged on indifference. At minimum, moving CUNY to a more New York City-based funding structure would ensure that politicians who are directly responsible to our communities would be allocating the resources necessary to educate them. And if the funding battles are becoming more political than matters of financial necessity, closing the geographic and political space between those who attend our colleges and those who fund them makes sense.

However, acting to implement this change in funding will require discussion and planning, and should not be a matter to be introduced in the brief period between a budget’s proposal and its adoption. Any concern for the health of our public education system demands careful consideration and the time to approach the change without impacting the quality of education on CUNY campuses, or its accessibility to our students. In the current political moment, any consideration of a graceful or measured transition in CUNY’s funding structure has taken a backseat to politics. But the best politics in this case would eschew the brinksmanship of a man-made budget crisis that casts the university in the role of Solomon’s baby. We have three months to make that case before the current proposals—or revised versions of them—find their way into the new budget.

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Meet Usha Pitts, Diplomat-in-Residence

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For just over a decade, the City College of New York has held a privileged position among New York-area universities by hosting the Diplomat in Residence (DIR). Sponsored by the Department of State, the DIR spends two years on campus imparting their specific knowledge and experience as foreign service officers to students interested in foreign or civil service jobs, as well as various fellowships and internships through the State Department.

In addition to meeting with students for one-on-one advising and hosting informational sessions in the NY region (CT, NY, NJ, PA), the DIR also teaches a masters level class on foreign diplomacy exclusively through the Colin Powell School’s International Relations program.

Meet Usha Pitts, our incoming DIR. Here she introduces herself to the CCNY community, talks a bit about her foreign service career, and her new role as Diplomat in Residence. Connect with her on Facebook to get updates on scholarship applications, appointment hours, and events in your area.

You’ve lived in many countries in your adult life; where are you from originally?

I grew up in Acton, a middle class town outside of Boston. Even though it was the suburbs, we had enough land to raise chickens and goats. I also had a bunch of parakeets. My parents were an interracial couple, which was unusual in the 1970s, and especially for a town that was 98% white. I never felt uncomfortable in my home town, but I did start traveling at a young age and left high school early; I needed a bigger playground.

How did you come to work in the Foreign Service? Can you talk about your path to becoming the New York Metro Diplomat in Residence at City College?

Even though I look African American, I was named after my Mom’s friend, an Indian woman. I had never met “the real Usha,” so when I was 11, I traveled alone to India to meet her. That was a big trip for a sheltered girl from America’s suburbs: I saw street kids, polio victims with shriveled legs, beggars… I also caught some kind of tropical virus and was sicker (and closer to death) than I have ever been in my life. Well, when you’re 11, experiences like that can be more exciting than scary.

A few years later, when I was 16, I spent the summer building latrines in rural Mexico. And from there, I was hooked. I never stopped traveling. I took the Foreign Service Exam when I was 22, but didn’t pass, so I just kept traveling, working and studying until I eventually got in.

By then I was 28. In fact, most Foreign Service Officers are in their late 20s or early 30s when they join. The age requirement is only 18 years old, but most people need to get some life experience under their belt first. That’s why I always recommend that people join the Peace Corps or spend a few years in a professional career before joining the Foreign Service.

Where has your career with the Foreign Service taken you?

I’ve been a Foreign Service Officer for nearly 18 years, posted to Panama, Russia, Cuba, Italy, Austria, and most recently Brazil. I’ve had a different job in each country, from reporting on human rights abuses to promoting English education to helping Americans get visas for their adopted babies. The Foreign Service is a great career for people with short attention spans, because you change countries (and jobs) every couple of years. On top of it, you have to bumble your way through yet another foreign language.  You are constantly learning, always adjusting–and so is your family.

How do you approach your role as Diplomat in Residence? What most excites you about this role? What priorities are you setting for your time here?

In the past, the Foreign Service was a bastion for privileged, educated, east-coast men.  Even when women started joining the Foreign Service in greater numbers in the 1970s, they still had to resign their jobs if they got married. Things have changed, but we can do more to diversify our ranks.

These days, the State Department has 16 Diplomats in Residence scattered around the country. We work hard to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily consider joining the Foreign Service–Native Americans from the Midwest, Latinos growing up in Miami, Chinese-Americans from the West Coast, first-generation children of immigrants–people who didn’t necessarily grow up with a silver spoon in their mouths. We recognize that a good diplomatic corps has to represent the United States, and we can’t do that if we don’t reflect the diversity that makes our country great.

I cover New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but I rarely have to leave Manhattan–or even City College–to find the kinds of people we want to attract to the Foreign Service. After so many years abroad in weird situations, I feel very privileged to be here in New York with City College as my new home.

Partly in appreciation of City College, I would like to see one of our seniors or alumni get accepted to the Rangel Fellowship program this year. This fellowship offers $90k for graduate school, plus a five-year stint in the Foreign Service. The application deadline is February 3, so anybody interested in this fellowship should come see me!

What can students gain from working in the Foreign Service? 

There is the very obvious benefit, in that you get paid to see the world. (That’s why I wanted the job.) You also get free housing, good schools for your kids, and a pretty lavish lifestyle, given that an American salary goes a long way when you’re living abroad. As I got older, I also came to better appreciate the intangible benefits–serving my country, promoting American values, bringing attention to important global or local issues, and spending time with interesting and even courageous people. Few careers can offer that kind of fulfillment.

The Crippling Weight of the ‘Last Straw’

Vince Boudreau, Dean

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

The Office of Student Success was our earliest and most ambitious innovation at the Colin Powell School. It represents our commitment to a goal that we cherish, and must still pursue: to ensure, insofar as possible, that no student falls through the cracks.

In our early imaginings, that office would primarily take on higher-order advisement—guiding students to the right classes, to be sure, but also helping them seek out internship opportunities, manage scholarship and leadership programs, and forge connections between their classroom work and professional and service trajectories. We’re proud of our programs in that direction, and we’ve worked every year to make them stronger and more effective.

But early in this work, we confronted an unsettling realization. The people working in that office were devoting far more time than any of us imagined to helping students solve their administrative problems. As one member of the office recently said: 80 percent of our  time is devoted to serving 20 percent of our students, and those issues are almost all bureaucratic. It’s a telling assessment. As we seek for ways to enhance student success, huge elements of the answer cannot be found in esoteric educational theory, but in working to clear mundane bureaucratic and administrative barriers to student progress and success.

Underlying Barriers

These bureaucratic barriers, however, often lie hidden beneath the surface of a student’s experience of the college, cumulatively eroding their resolve and capacity to cope with other difficulties. In consequence, all of us—students and observers—might be tempted to explain away a student’s breaking point as entirely due to some unforeseen personal crisis, or the grinding pressures of some chronic hardship.

It’s often surprising how thin the last straw may be. A student loan refund that is delayed, a single course taken in error, or the inaccurate evaluation of a transcript: in the end, any of these may knock a precariously situated student off course. In the past several months, I’ve met students at the edge of leaving school because they could not afford books, or could not scrape together the money to see a dentist. We’ve placed newly homeless students in our dormitory, thereby allowing them to continue their studies when they thought they would not. One young man even stopped attending class because he’d lost his laptop’s charging adapter, was not able to replace it, and so couldn’t use the only computer he had access to at home.

Given the stakes (a student entering college in 2010 can expect to earn $450,000 more than a high school graduate over the course of her life) these final crises seem ridiculously small. So small, in fact, that they only make sense as a proximate cause—that final, last straw—piled on top of an underlying systemic problem.

An individual’s hardship may suggest that we seek out individual remedies in each case—that we in fact adopt a case worker’s approach to student hardship. But we can’t address countless numbers of these cases—because students in crisis often just fade away, rather than laying out their hardship. More importantly, embedded in each seemingly idiosyncratic story were places where a systematic regime of stronger student support could have made that crisis not much more than an annoyance.

Outlining Remedies

We need, in fact, three interrelated remedies.

Inarguably, we still need support for students who encounter emergencies. At the Colin Powell School, a generous donation from The Viola Fund allowed us to create the Viola Emergency Fund for Students facing a financial crisis. Students wishing to apply for support through the Viola Fund should secure a letter recommending that support from a faculty member or staff person with knowledge of the situation and then email the director of the Office of Institutional Advancement, Dee Dee Mozeleski, who will arrange a time to meet and discuss options.

Moreover, ample room still exists for our supporters to offer supplemental resources along these same lines. In the past, donors have supplied metro cards to help students travel to campus, funding for student housing, and emergency book funds. The more able we are to steer students through the crisis of the moment, the more easily we will be able to direct their attention to the big picture.

Additionally, students need more information about how to navigate complicated bureaucratic systems. Student advocates in our Office of Student Success are meant to do much of this work, but they find themselves spending most of their time solving problems for students who’ve already been tripped up in some way. A more proactive system equips students with information and strategies that would help them navigate bureaucratic systems. We’ve already made progress along these lines in our online advising resources. But similar progress in other areas of student/college interaction is crucial. We can begin by looking at existing models that have shown success. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, for instance, made progress in helping students untangle one of the most convoluted but important sets of rules they will face, those surrounding financial aid:Something along these lines might be a very good model for CCNY students, and it’s an area we’re beginning to explore.

Finally, we need to make the search for more manageable and responsive bureaucratic systems a top priority at CCNY. We are an institution that has been in unremitting financial difficulty for decades—in truth, since New York’s fiscal crisis in the late 1970s. Over that span, the easy response to economic hardship has often been to reduce the number of people in key service offices: financial aid, admissions, registrar and bursar. Such reductions often escape the attention of most people. They do not, after all, result in fewer classes, or higher tuition, or program cutbacks. Steadily, however, they have undercut the capacity of students to manage the crucial and often bewildering side of achieving college success: the management of everything that takes place outside of the classroom. We’re only now learning how critical—and critically difficult—those management challenges can be. A genuine commitment to student success requires that we invest in the capacity of these offices as a way to invest in our students.

New York state’s program to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission could work around the world

by Stephen W Nicholas, Columbia University

 

Editor’s Note: For World AIDS Day, we share an article, originally published by The Conversation, by Dr. Stephen W. Nicholas, a professor of pediatrics and public health at Columbia University and leading expert on pediatric AIDS research. In October, we hosted Dr. Nicholas as guest speaker in our breakfast lecture series “Conversations with City.”

 

Last month’s announcement that Cuba is the first nation in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV underscores a curious silence around a more significant triumph far closer to home: elimination of mother-to-child HIV transmission in New York state. Inexplicably, there have been no press releases or publicity concerning this.

The term “elimination” as used by public health officials means neither eradication nor zero cases. It means reduction to a level so low that it has become a negligible health threat.

Two years ago, New York state – with a larger population than Cuba’s – became the first state with a high rate of HIV to meet the criteria for elimination when only two HIV-infected babies were born.

New York’s largely unrecognized success is all the more significant given that, in the early 1980s, the state had the dubious distinction of leading all other statesand most places in the world in the number of HIV-afflicted men, women and children.

But New York state went from having the highest rates of mother-to-child transmission in the US and one of the highest in the world to eliminating it by identifying HIV-infected women prenatally or HIV-exposed babies shortly after birth and ensuring that they immediately received AIDS medications. New York state’s elimination of mother-to-child transmission is a blueprint for countries trying to achieve the same thing.

Learning how to prevent mother-to-child transmission

At the height of the epidemic in some pockets of Harlem and the South Bronx, pregnant women had rates of HIV comparable to areas of Sub-Saharan Africa today. And that meant many babies were born with HIV.

An untreated pregnant woman with HIV has a 25%–40% chance of transmitting the virus before birth, during labor and delivery, or after birth through breastfeeding.

In New York state in 1990, nearly 2,000 HIV-infected women gave birth to somewhere between 475 to 760 HIV-infected babies. Mothers and babies with HIV were predominantly found in the city’s impoverished minority neighborhoods.

In those days, before effective AIDS treatment, many of these babies got sick early in life and died before the age of five. In Harlem, where I worked as a pediatric AIDS specialist, AIDS quickly became the leading killer of children. There were times when AIDS babies filled all the cribs in the intensive care unit of Harlem Hospital and half of those on the wards. The days before the advent of the “AIDS cocktail” were characterized by death and dying, profound fear, and unimaginable suffering and hopelessness.

But since 1990, there has been a 99.5% decrease in the number of HIV-infected babies in New York. How did New York state achieve this?

The right treatment can help ensure babies are born free of HIV.
Baby via www.shutterstock.com.

New York state’s plan to reduce mother-to-child transmission

The availability of AIDS drugs changed everything.

With treatment, babies with HIV stopped dying and began aging into childhood, adolescence and adulthood. In 1994 came the dramatic and unexpected results ofa study showing that treatment with AZT, an anti-AIDS drug, during pregnancy and short-term treatment of the newborn could reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission by two-thirds. That translates into dropping the transmission rate to 8%.

In response, New York state implemented clinical guidelines recommending routine prenatal HIV testing for every pregnant woman in the state and AZT treatment for every HIV-infected woman and HIV-exposed newborn. Because infant formula was widely available, mothers with HIV were counseled not to breastfeed.

HIV testing and counseling programs, medication, formula and care programs were provided by government-funded programs at private and municipal hospitals, most of which were in New York City. And programs were put in place to increase the follow-up of mothers and babies.

One of the largest logistical challenges to progress was ensuring that, as part of routine patient care, routine HIV testing occurred. HIV testing rates were initially low, but after years of intense debate about how best to accomplish this, at least 95% of women now know their HIV status before delivery, and all babies are tested for HIV. And the treatment regimen has expanded from one to three anti-HIV drugs, lowering the HIV transmission rate to less than 1%.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has supported approaches similar to those used in New York, and cases have declined by over 90%.

Similar trends have been witnessed in all developed countries. And globally, thanks largely to multiple programs funded by the World Health Organization, theGlobal Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the United States President’s Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the number of HIV-infected babies hasgone down by half since 2009.

This success is due to a number of different, interlinking factors, but successful efforts worldwide share the following: availability of and access to prenatal care and follow-up for mother and baby, HIV testing programs and the availability of AIDS drugs.

New York’s achievements have provided a beacon of hope as well as a road map that has been successfully tailored to the needs of resource-poor settings throughout the world.

Lessons from New York in the Dominican Republic

The Caribbean has the second-highest rate of HIV in the world, but some countries in the region fare much better than others.

Cuba, for instance, has always had the region’s lowest HIV rate, while 80% of infected individuals are found on the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Using lessons learned in New York, colleagues and I have worked over the last 15 years to reduce the mother–newborn HIV transmission rate in the Dominican Republic by an estimated 84% and to achieve elimination in one large province.

This was accomplished through the creation of a national AIDS program that provided free HIV testing, prenatal and newborn care, baby formula, free AIDS drugs via the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and use of a three-drug “AIDS cocktail” for treatment.

Similar strides are being made in Africa.

Botswana, with the second-highest HIV rate in the world and where one in three adults is HIV-infected, has reduced the rate of maternal HIV transmission to 4%using a similar approach.

One issue in most low-income countries is that formula-feeding is not an option because of its expense. But even when provided through donation programs, the lack of clean water and means to prepare it hygienically, in tandem with the loss of biological protection that breast milk otherwise provides, led to significantly poorer infant survival and well-being.

Therefore, breastfeeding in many areas of the world is imperative. Treatment regimens for such settings have been developed so that women can safely continue to breastfeed.

Despite the progress, our work is far from over.

A quarter of a million HIV-infected babies are still born annually worldwide. In the US, the epidemic continues to disproportionately affect impoverished minority women. Each year nearly 9,000 HIV-positive women give birth to about 150 infected babies.

As we celebrate global progress, it is time to reopen a dialogue in the United States that reminds us of the work that remains right here at home. Without sufficiently funded ongoing state-of-the-art services tailored to the unique medical and psychosocial needs of these mothers and their babies, the hard-fought gains we have achieved could be reversed.

The Conversation

Stephen W Nicholas, Professor of Pediatrics and Public Health; Public Voices Fellow, Columbia University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fall 2016 Overtally Forms

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Students!

Find your overtally forms here:

Anthropology

Economics and Business

International Studies

Latin American and Latino Studies

Political Science

Psychology (*see department advisers)

Sociology

Women’s Studies

 

New Investments for a ‘Changing Financial Landscape’

Vince Boudreau, Dean

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

This summer, the Pew Charitable Trusts published a report that got my attention. The report, Federal and State Funding of Higher Education: A Changing Landscape, broke down the numbers and found that as state funding continues to dwindle, federal support has increased. This is a crucial shift in the financing model for public education, with tremendous implications for the Colin Powell School, its students, and the future of public education.

While state contributions typically show up as support for specific institutions, federal dollars generally arrive as grants, loans, and tax relief to individual students. Historically, state aid to institutions accounted for the lion’s share of public funding to colleges like The City College of New York. But in recent years, shifts in funding profiles made state and federal contributions to education more equal. Hence, even as we bemoan the drop in state support for our campus—in the past five years, state funds fell from 48 percent of our operating budget to just about 30 percent as of this year— the hidden story has been that federal dollars have been rising at just about the same rate. On our books, they show up as tuition revenue rather than public support—but the amount of public monies devoted to higher education have remained more stable than an exclusive focus on state contributions suggest.

Understanding this new funding context means understanding that if we lose students—if we fail to help them navigate their way through the complex of admissions, registration, and financial aid—we are losing public tax support as it is currently and increasingly being allocated.

This shift in financing is an unwelcome one, but trend lines over the past 25 years are unambiguous: states are retreating from their support of public universities. We have always been concerned with student retention, because we’ve always been concerned about our students’ success. Going forward, we have also have financial reasons why we must address student retention, which should begin by clearly understanding the concerns of a typical Colin Powell School student.

Our students are likely to come from an underrepresented social or ethnic group. Many of our students belong to families living below the poverty line. Surveys have shown us that 80 percent of CCNY student respondents were born in a country outside of the United States (while less than 20 percent are here on student visas). Together, those figures suggest that huge sections of our student population are seeking to make a home for themselves in the United States. But it also suggests that many may be inexperienced and ill-equipped to navigate the administrative hurdles that one must clear to get state and federal grants, loans, and tax credit. Our student may be the first in her family to attend college—and perhaps, therefore, also the first to contemplate filling out a financial aid eligibility form. She probably works a substantial number of hours each week. She may also bear the responsibility of steering immigrant parents through governmental systems and societal norms. She may not have health insurance. She may not be documented. She may have come from a deeply distressed public school.

So our students may have tremendous potential, but there’s a good chance that they come to college deeply unsure of this new environment. Yet the shifts in public financing to higher education make it more important than ever before that they figure things out quickly. As tuition increasingly becomes the way that public colleges secure their budgets, students become increasingly burdened in their role as conduits for that support. The hypothetical formula makes initial sense: Colleges can stabilize their budget by charging higher tuition to students who are eligible for more financial aid. But those assumptions shift responsibility form the college’s relationship with the state to the student’s relationship with the federal education bureaucracy.

And here lies one of the dirty little secrets of public education, particularly in places committed to supporting the aspirations of underserved men and women: While we bemoan the corrosive impact of failing high schools, stressed neighborhoods, poverty, and social instability on educational outcomes, an unimaginably large number of students leave college, or limp to the finish line because they cannot figure out how to navigate the numerous bureaucracies they encounter. Before we lose the students with poor math skills, or an inability to write, we lose countless others who fail to solve some puzzle with its roots in the administrative bureaucracy.

Take, for example, a scenario that is as common as it is frustrating. Over the last few years, restrictions on financial aid have grown increasingly complicated, and computer audits of student courses more unforgivingly sift courses that are deemed necessary from those that do not. Students navigating major and general education requirements need to be more focused on taking required courses, or they risk losing financial aid—typically in the year or month before they graduate. In consequence, some never do.

And then there is the issue of simply having enough qualified people to give the face-time and support that students need. As institutional funding for colleges falls, the easiest and earliest cuts often take place in these service offices, leaving them staffed with fewer—and less experienced— professionals. This leaves us less able to respond to this new context, where institutional solvency is dependent on student retention. Registration, admission, bursar, and financial aid offices need to be regarded as the frontlines in our effort to retain students. Where these offices have eroded, we must shore them up.

All of these factors combine into a complex of new barriers to student educational success, producing a deeply altered tone surrounding public education. Our public universities are, more than ever, cash-strapped and struggling. But they are also, as never before, asking students (rather than legislators, educators, and administrators) to be the problem-solvers, bringing revenue onto campus and helping balance the books. That reverses generations of good education policy and an established sense of who should be looking after whom.

Notes on ‘The Hunting Ground’: CUNY Community Screening and Conversation

The Hunting Ground poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Julia Suklevski

Based on the well-publicized number of sexual assault cases on college campuses across the United States, many might assume that these assaults are occurring at an alarming rate. They would be correct. But this is no recent phenomenon. For decades, the epidemic that has been impacting our nation’s college students was something that administrations did not want to admit was actually happening. This resulted in injustice for survivors, their experiences invalidated by the institution that was to provide them equal access to a safe learning environment.

I serve as a volunteer Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies (DOVE) Program Advocate at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, and I’m a student studying in the Women’s Studies department at City College. So domestic violence and sexual assault are issues I think about and discuss often, and why I, along with Arlene Verapen, was inspired to help bring an important documentary,The Hunting Ground, a film that has been screened on college campuses all over the nation, to further the discussion at The City College of New York.

The Hunting Ground (2014), a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, was screened on April 22nd and April 23rd, to members of the City College community, as well as concerned members of the public. The film, directed by Academy- and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Kirby Dick, follows two survivors turned activists for a grassroots movement to strengthen alliances between survivors of sexual assault and the public. These advocates used their voices to raise awareness about how college administrations handle cases of sexual assault and violations of Title IX.

Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who were sexually assaulted during their first year of college, are highlighted in the film for their dedication to the idea that survivors of sexual assault do not have to remain victims of policies and barriers that prevent them from seeking justice. They advocate for thorough investigations of their respective university’s Title IX violation, an equality law that institutions receiving federal financial aid must uphold. Title IX protects students from experiencing discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities at universities that receive federal funding. Discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.

If a university’s administration fails to uphold the Title IX policy by not responding promptly and effectively to sexual harassment or assault, it creates a hostile environment for the survivor. This hostile environment gives the student the right to proceed with filing a report to the Department of Education that the university is in violation of Title IX. Clark and Pino did just that at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill following their assaults. They inspire thousands of individuals across the nation’s universities to explore this option if they also experienced poor follow-through of their reported sexual assaults. Women’s Studies Program Coordinator Arlene Verapen says, “Opening the eyes of the general population is important for change. Annie’s and Andrea’s stories are catalysts for an important movement on college campuses. Educating our community about Title IX is the key to finding justice.”

The documentary goes on to explain the many layers and complexities that hinder survivors from receiving the justice they deserve. Universities are large institutions that receive funding from the government, as well as private donors and alumni. Its reputation oftentimes trumps the dignity of the survivor. In a society where rape culture is not only disturbingly present, but in some cases, encouraged, it is unfortunately easy to see how the epidemic continues to grow, silently but with great force.

Post-screening panel. From left: Professor Ackerman; Romy Fabal, Student Health Services Staff Nurse; Teresa Walker, Executive Director of Student Health Services; Michelle Baptiste, CCNY Title IX Coordinator; and Julia Suklevski.

Professor Patricia Ackerman, Director of the Women’s Studies Program at City College, moderated the community conversation following both screenings. Members of the panel included myself, Michele A. Baptiste, the Title IX coordinator for CCNY, Romy Fabal, Student Health Services Staff Nurse; Teresa Walker, Executive Director of Student Health Services; Dr. Laura Iocin and Dr. Erin Jeanette of the Counseling Center; and Professor Teresa Lopez-Castro and Professor Lesia Ruglass of the Psychology Department. The Office of Public Safety was also present.

As someone who has had individuals very dear to me experience sexual assault and did not receive adequate support from a school administration, it pains me to think that so many individuals have no option but to remain silent about assault. As a trained advocate and crisis counselor to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, I was heartened to see the number of people who made time to attend the screening. It was a powerful moment during a crucial time: we must continue to push awareness and ongoing dialogue in order to combat decades of negligence and injustice.

Meet Nimmi Gowrinathan, Visiting Professor and Noted Human Rights Specialist

Nimmi Gowrinathan

Read the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative’s white paper: The Forever Victims

Nimmi Gowrinathan, a leading researcher, analyst, and commentator on international gender and violence issues, has joined the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at The City College of New York as a visiting professor. She directs the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative, a three-year program funded by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. The NoVo Foundation works to transform global societies from cultures of domination to ones of equality and partnership.

Gowrinathan is a former fellow of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery, and the Gender Expert for the UN National Human Development Report in Afghanistan. For more than seven years, she served as director for South Asia Programs at Operation USA, overseeing disaster relief programs. Gowrinathan’s research interests include gender and violence, female extremism, social movements, issues of asylum, ethnic conflict, and the impact of militarization, displacement, and race in Sri Lanka. She is author of the blog Deviarchy and a frequent contributor to national media outlets including Foreign Affairs and CNN.

In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, Gowrinathan discusses her mission, the unique role of the public university, and her preference for fluidity within the professional and scholarly roles she occupies.

Would you identify the sum of your work so far as contributing to a mission you’ve identified as your “life’s work”? What motivates you?

My work has always been driven by a quest for social justice for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Within that, the work that I anticipate to require the entirety of my life, which demands both my emotional energy and intellectual curiosity, centers on understanding the politics of marginalized women. I am constantly reinvigorated by the everyday resistance of women around the world to all forms of repression.

Tell us about the Politics of Sexual Violence Research Initiative and its place at the Colin Powell School. How do you plan to use your resources on campus to engage students and the broader public?

The Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative is designed to better understand the impact of sexual violence on the individual politics of women, both within the U.S., and in select cases around the world. Beyond conducting research to better inform policy and humanitarian formulations on sexual violence, this initiative is intended to create a global network of women scholars engaged in political activism, research, and advocacy–beginning with the young women at City College. The Colin Powell School has been very supportive, and I hope to use this initiative to contribute a unique political project to the engaged scholarship already underway there, as well as to draw in students for events, research, and through select courses I will offer over the next few years. The Initiative also hopes to build important links between existing social movements (Black Girls Matter, the Last Girl) to create far-reaching political movement that addresses the root causes of violence against women.

What are your thoughts on the role of the university with regard to human rights matters–such as sexual violence across the globe or, say, Stop and Frisk in NYC? Does the public university have any major responsibilities other than to educate its students? 

I think the public university, and particularly one with the unique demographic make-up of City College, has an obligation to engage in public debates that affect and shape the lives of its students and its community. While providing a space for student-driven activism, at an intellectual level the university should provide an environment where diverse opinions and new ideas can be presented, challenged, and adapted to support movement-building in many directions.

You are both an activist and a scholar, and you’ve worked as an NGO director, human rights advocate, policy analyst, and journalist: do you see clear divisions between the work you’ve performed within these roles? Do you see yourself primarily as any one player? How do you shift between spaces–are there any specific challenges you face?

I don’t see clear divisions within my work, and I think a fluid approach to my intellectual life and the roles I play has allowed me to create a unique voice and contribution to multiple conversations. I have met young women around the world who are torn between competing identities (Somalian-American/Activist-Scholar) and who are socialized into trying to fit into one role or the other–rather than embracing the value of a space I have called the “inside-outsider.” The challenges I faced were early on in my academic career, where there were often accusations of bias. However, as I have built a career around the exact tensions we have been taught to avoid, I have found that the variety of roles I play allows each to contribute to the other in insightful ways. My own unorthodox approach to my intellectual and professional work can be an example for a younger generation frustrated with the roles available to them, proving that there is no one way to engage in the issues that you are passionate about.

Tell us about your involvement in the Vice Media documentary series on women in/at war. You’ve said that, in sharing women’s stories, you want to “challenge perceptions in academic and policy spaces, while pulling out the richness of their narratives.” How might the Vice series contribute to that goal, or do you see this as a new frontier?

The Vice media series Women at War will begin this month, and hopes to draw out the stories of women that stick with you when conducting intellectual research. The narratives are all drawn together within a special project that will allow one or two big ideas to be revealed in each mini-documentary, with a clear through-line that reveals the complexity of women’s politics as their lives are shaped by violence. This project may not shift academic discourses, but it has been proven that ending sexual violence requires a significant shift in attitudes towards and perceptions of women. Recent films like India’s Daughter reveal the entrenched cultural perceptions of an older generation of men, however Vice News has proven the ability to reach millions of young men and women around the world–providing a distinctive platform through which to tackle the difficult task of dismantling patriarchy in all its many forms.

The Emperor’s New Vitamin

Courtesy: www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/

by Matthew G. Nagler, Associate Professor, Economics and Business, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

About six weeks ago, the New York State Attorney General’s office released a report accusing GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart of selling fraudulent dietary supplements. The AG had DNA-tested 24 products from the retailers representing seven supplement types— including such popular products as gingko biloba and St. John’s Wort. All but five of the products were found to contain DNA that was either unrecognizable or from a plant other than what the product claimed to be—including in some cases little more than powdered rice or house plants.

These findings were no big surprise to Edward J. Kennelly, Professor of Biology at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), Fredi Kronenberg of Stanford University, or Bei Jiang of Dali University in China. The three biologists collaborated several years ago on a study of black cohosh, a plant-derived supplement marketed over-the-counter as a cure for hot flashes. They analyzed 11 products and found that three contained no black cohosh, while a fourth that did contain it was also contaminated with a “cousin” plant species. The results of their study are published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Shortly after that study was completed, Mr. Kennelly and I met at a CUNY awards dinner. His research results had raised an important question: While, as scientists, his team had been able to identify fraudulent supplements in the lab, was there any way that consumers could ferret out the frauds? This, I knew, was a question economic analysis could answer. Soon Mr. Kennelly, his collaborators, postdoctoral student Chunhui Ma, and I joined together to do a market-focused study of black cohosh adulteration, the results of which are published in theInternational Journal of Marketing Studies. Our findings lent support to the notion that dietary supplements are an example of what’s called a credence good, a product for which the quality cannot be determined conclusively by consumers even after they buy and use it. Auto repairs offer the classic example. Suppose I take my car to a mechanic for a routine check-up, and he tells me that the transmission is about to fail and needs to be replaced. Fifteen hundred dollars later, I leave the repair shop and find my car drives no differently than when I had brought it in. I can’t tell whether the car needed the repair to begin with, or even whether the repair was executed. I have to take these things on faith. Dietary supplements function similarly–largely because no medication is 100 percent effective, and because sometimes people just get better on their own. This means a consumer cannot rely on what happens when she takes the supplement as an indication of whether it is a fraud or not.

But were consumers able to separate the good from the bad? To determine this, we used a modified version of what economists call “hedonic analysis,” in which the researcher takes the relationship of a product’s observable characteristics to its price as a measure of which characteristics are valued by the market. We turned the standard approach inside out, looking at whether something that the market clearly values but can’t directly observe—authenticity—influences a product’s price. This could tell us whether consumers were getting a clue about authenticity in sufficient numbers to move the market price up or down—by flocking to it or running from it—based on whether the product was or was not a fraud. It turns out they weren’t. They did not have a clue which products were the frauds and which were not.

When something is a credence good, there are two ways the consumer might be protected against fraud. One is through the force of reputation. But because with credence goods people cannot figure out for sure if a product was a fraud even after they use it, they have nothing unequivocal to pass along via word-of-mouth, in chat rooms, or in online product reviews. Consumers who look to reputational sources for helpful information are less likely to find it. Brands that have perpetrated a fraud can get away with it for a long time before enough negative feedback accumulates to effectively bring them down.

Indeed, credence goods and their reputation can be as unreliable as praise for the emperor’s new clothes. Suppose a few early adopters of a fraudulent supplement happen to get a good outcome and squawk about it online. This puts pressure on others to corroborate the positive hype. If the consensus is that the brand is a miracle cure, those consumers who have a different experience may question their own, correct perception and might stifle their criticisms. Things can persist this way for some time—with countless consumers throwing good money after bad.

So that leaves a second source of protection: regulatory oversight. In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). DSHEA’s rules regarding labeling and good manufacturing practices more closely resemble those that govern foods than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s rigorous pharmaceutical regulations. Accordingly, supplements require no premarket clinical testing or approval. Since DSHEA was enacted in 1994, the number of products to which it has applied has grown from 4,000 to approximately 30,000.

Meanwhile, funding for supplement oversight has declined, with the result that the agency has recently faced severe constraints in its efforts to enforce its relatively meager rules against mislabeling and contamination. The Republican-dominated Congress that enacted DSHEA clearly intended for the consumer to take personal responsibility when shopping for supplements – to recognize that, as the labels say, any claims made by manufacturers are “not evaluated by the FDA.” But even if one assumes that buyers are up to the rigors of self-protection, shouldn’t they at least have the assurance that the supplement contains what its label says it does? Our study shows that even the most cautious consumer is unlikely to be able to determine the authenticity of a product.

We should be grateful for interventions by authorities with the ability to scrutinize supplements scientifically and call out the frauds. Like the little boy in Andersen’s story who called it as he saw it, they provide an indispensible service to the public. And, while it may be an unrealistic wish given our current Congress, our findings and those of the New York Attorney General point to an irresistible conclusion: It is time to revisit DSHEA and put in place stronger regulations on dietary supplements.

nagler

Matthew Nagler is an associate professor at the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership, City College of New York: http://mnagler.ccny.cuny.edu/     Note: This post has been edited from an earlier published version.