Welcome to FUNY!

A member of the faculty at the City College of New York describes how the school became the Fenced University of New York (FUNY) in the weeks after the administration sent in the NYPD to dismantle its Gaza Solidarity Encampment and arrest scores of students.

Dez Paul May 31

It’s a sunny day on campus in late spring. But on the main quad facing Convent Avenue, there is no music, no loud conversations or laughter. The pathways and benches between buildings are oddly empty. On the lawn where the North Academic Center (NAC) meets Amsterdam Avenue, there are only black-clad private security guards aimlessly ambling along an ugly fence that now blocks the public from the birthplace of public higher education

The fence was hastily erected around the City College of New York in response to the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment that students from City and other CUNY campuses established on the quad over the spring break vacation. At the encampment, protesters made art, hosted Muslim and Jewish religious ceremonies, and held ongoing teach-ins in the manner of the “People’s University” their peers had first set up at Columbia University a mile downtown. 

On the last day of break, CCNY president Vince Boudreau announced that the encampment must be cleared by the following morning — and then called the cops a day early before they had a chance to comply. Led by the goonish Strategic Response Unit, police destroyed the CCNY encampments on April 30 immediately after they had done the same at Columbia, arresting hundreds and inflicting numerous injuries. 

The next day, Boudreau — who as a student was arrested protesting his university’s investments in apartheid South Africa — said student protesters had warned him that “outsiders among them” were planning something sinister. No student ever corroborated this claim, but it fit nicely with the warning Mayor Eric Adams gave the same day about shadowy forces who are “professionals at radicalizing our children.” 

In recent years, we’ve seen the blunt power of a border wall to express, in a way that words cannot, who is meant to be included and excluded from a community. 

As a professor, Boudreau wrote about protest movements in Southeast Asia. In this case, he hoped that breaking up the encampment would allow his school to return to normal. He was mistaken. 

Academic life was completely disrupted for the remainder of the semester, jeopardizing the ability of students at this working-class university to pass their classes and remain in school. Over spring break The People’s University was not replaced by the return of the old CCNY but by a new entity, the Fenced University.

Boudreau, who is making innovative contributions to the fields of liberal cliche and unintentional satire, prioritized suppressing a non-violent protest over maintaining the educational functions that many of us had assumed are the core function of a university. But that’s where we were mistaken. Just as the encampment teach-ins provided lessons you won’t find in the curricula about how the world really works, so too has the hyper-securitized campus that is now in place. This is the education we have received at FUNY.

•   •   •

In recent years we’ve seen the blunt power of a border wall that expresses, in a way that words cannot, who is meant to be included and excluded from a community. Every day at FUNY provided students with rich experiential learning in this important 21st-century lesson. 

The administration’s justification for its violent crackdown of the Gaza encampment, for instance, was that it was done to protect the school community from dangerous outside agitators. But the fence told a different story. From the morning after the police raid, students, faculty and most of the other workers were not allowed inside the fence. That status was reserved for select administrators, campus security and 100 newly hired guards from Strategic Security Corp

There was still a heavy security presence on May 13 when the campus was re-opened to students and faculty. 

While the guards got in their steps and the admins fired off emails, we held classes on Zoom. It’s hard to imagine the challenges of a sudden switch to remote learning… if you spent 2020 and 2021 in a coma. For the rest of us, what happened was predictable: some students transitioned easily to remote learning, others struggled with unreliable wifi or housing situations, changed work schedules and pandemic flashbacks. 

Many disappeared. In the remaining month of school after the crackdown I lost complete contact with eight students in two classes. A friend who teaches at CCNY told me she lost one fifth of her students. Yes, these students were more likely to already be struggling to keep up, which means they were the ones we planned on working most intensively with in the final weeks. 

Many of them were precariously balancing coursework with full-time jobs and extensive family responsibilities. Failing a class can jeopardize their financial aid and act as the final setback that sends them away from college forever. 

There has been no mainstream media coverage of this campus crisis. Nor have there been daily emails from the administration about their plight. CCNY would often proudly proclaim its “legacy of access, opportunity, and transformation” for New York’s working class. FUNY has different priorities.  

A week after the crackdown, in-person learning was phased back in. We arrived at campus from all corners of the city and lined up outside the fence, waiting to be let in by private security. Some of my students — all of them people of color — told me they felt harassed and intimidated. Another student told a colleague that it felt like going to the airport every day.  

It’s a good analogy, but even better if you imagine going to the airport with an expired license. At CCNY, many students hadn’t found it necessary to get an updated sticker each school year. Hellgate’s Max Rivlin-Nadler watched one student beg the black jackets to let her on campus to take her final, only getting in when a regular campus security guy came over.

The guards aren’t here to help students pass their finals. According to a company press release announcing their hire, their aim is to fight the surge of pro-Palestine demonstrators converging on college campuses nationwide,” most notably the “infiltration of seasoned agitators deploying non-permissive asymmetrical guerrilla warfare tactics to actively resist, inflame crowds, and instigate violence and chaos.”

This is another lesson of the past month. At the same time that the fence blocked the return of many students to campus, it’s been a gateway for many people who have long been suspicious of many CCNY students, especially those who are Muslim. 

City College’s president was arrested as a student for protesting his university’s refusal to divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa.

In the aftermath of an undercover officer infiltrating a Muslim student group at CCNY, the department and CUNY signed a 1992 memorandum of understanding that cops wouldn’t come on campus unless they were called in for an emergency. Since then police have repeatedly been found in violation of that MOU, almost always for the purpose of surveillance of Muslim students. 

What was undercover at CUNY is out and proud at FUNY. Twelve hours after coming onto campus, the department released a propaganda video that depicted their raids on Columbia and CCNY as military invasions of foreign anti-American lands. These are the friendly officers that Vince Boudreau called to protect student activists for Palestine from dangerous outsiders. 

Is it possible that there is more to the story than our president has told us? After all, while police and private security handled the in-person repression, the Washington Post reported that wealthy pro-Israel supporters were in frequent communication with Adams about how the city would repress the Columbia encampment. Perhaps future reporting will reveal how FUNY similarly granted remote access to power brokers without ever forcing them to set foot in Harlem. 

•   •   •

Fortunately, the new curriculum wasn’t always such a downer. The thing about border walls is that, for all of their symbolic power, they’re not great as physical barriers. The wall on the US-Mexico border can’t stop the global forces that lead people to migrate in search of a better life, and the wall at FUNY hasn’t stopped Israel from continuing the jaw-dropping horrors that lead students to protest on this campus. The fence may have interrupted all semblance of academic normalcy, but protests against Israel continued, starting on the first day the campus fully reopened. 

President Boudreau insisted his crackdown wouldn’t compromise the school’s commitment to free speech. True to his word, FUNY established a new area specifically for it. They put it against the back wall of the Wingate building, where few passersby would disturb it, and then surrounded it with police barricades for extra protection. They even left a few zip ties on the barricades just to show how zealously they were prepared to take on anyone even thinking about messing with the First Amendment. 

Students chat at CUNY’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment in late April.

The student protesters decided not to enter this “free-speech zone” and held their rally in their usual place — the more central location in front of the NAC. At the end of the rally campus security passed out copies of a “formal written letter” warning of violations of “time, place, and matter of expression” and that possible suspensions would result for those who “disobey your directive to disband your current assembly.” 

They disbanded and then re-banded two days later, this time as a sit-in inside the NAC lobby. Their protest was loud and angry, but it didn’t disrupt access to the building — unlike the campus security that blocked access to the doors until the protesters moved outside. It was another lesson in the operations of FUNY: Protests are harmful and disruptive, because the school will make sure of it. 

As the protest wound down outside, a longtime campus security official was overheard advising students that they were wasting their efforts by protesting here, the implication being that the campus had little to do with what Israel was doing to Gaza. Before the crackdown, many of my students might have agreed. But at FUNY, we’ve learned that defending Israel’s war is even more central to the mission than education.  

That’s the final lesson of the fence. Like other border walls, it’s only amplified the crisis it was intended to address. Rather than stopping the radicalization of students, the fence has shown them just how complicit their administration is with the distant horrors they see online. Sometimes, there’s nothing like a FU to make it clear exactly where you stand. 

Dez Paul is a pseudonym used by the author to avoid retaliation.

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