“I Have No Idea What You Do Out Here”: Community Colleges, Academic Freedom, and the University as Global Marketplace

By Libby Garland and Eben Wood

We are professors of history and English, respectively, at Kingsborough Community College, located in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. Founded in 1963 during a rapid nationwide expansion of community colleges, Kingsborough, which serves some thirty thousand students a year, is one of six two-year institutions that are part of the City University of New York, the nation’s third-largest university system. Kingsborough is perched on Brooklyn’s Atlantic edge, on the site of a former merchant marine facility. The ship traffic arriving at and departing from New York harbor, visible from campus, continuously reminds us of the relationship between the community college and a large, diverse, and ever-changing population, converging from a global horizon on what appears to be an intensely local context.

Whatever we imagine globalization’s referent to be, as a description of transformations in the contemporary world it is predicated on both social and logical contradictions for which the term itself seems unable to explain or account. Describing the rhetoric of globalization theory,Justin Rosenberg observes that “what presents itself initially as the explanandum—globalization as the developing outcome of some historical process—is progressively transformed into the explanans: it is globalisation which now explains the changing character of the modern world— and even generates ‘retrospective discoveries’ about past epochs in which it must be presumed not to have existed.” In other words, the thing that is to be explained continuously seems to change places with the explanation itself. As we shall see, this is an instructive tautology, and one that marks more than a logical fallacy.

Globalization is both metaphor and model for the forces that shape our very local context at Kingsborough in different ways, and Rosenberg’s critique of a certain admiring stance toward processes of global change allows us to articulate the dynamics of our workplace and the world in which it is located. That is, globalization theorists have argued that contemporary technological and economic forces have utterly restructured our relationships to the traditional constraints of space and time; that they have collapsed the old distinctions between center and periphery, us and them, here and there. As “globalization” becomes a kind of shorthand for describing such shifts, it also becomes an alibi for what those shifts retain or conceal. In short, the global forces driving us toward homogenization and interconnectedness continue to reproduce—even as they deny—vast inequities in power and resources. Moving from the rhetoric of globalization to the language and practices that have defined academic freedom and the role of the community college in an increasingly globalized university marketplace, we aim in this paper to demonstrate how the simultaneous denial and reinscription of center/periphery relationships characterize our experience at Kingsborough and its relationship to the CUNY system, especially in the university administration’s recently announced plans for a new community college.

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