Glenn Petersen took a stand to help lead faculty resistance to the imposition of jumbo classes in several departments at Baruch College, City University of New York. To college administrators, switching from writing-intensive introductory courses with caps of 32 students to giant classes with as many as 114 students per faculty member looked like an easy way to save money in hard times. A large number of adjuncts would have been eliminated with full-time faculty facing a huge additional workload.
Petersen,who chairs Baruch’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, knew such a move would undermine a writing-centered pedagogy that challenges students to think in new ways and argue for their ideas, not simply memorize facts. He recalled lying awake at night, thinking he would have to retire if required to teach the proposed jumbos. Along with other faculty, Petersen spoke out. “We communicated that we weren’t going to destroy teaching models we had developed over many years,” he told the staff at Clarion, the newspaper published by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), his NYSUT local.
In the face of widespread opposition, Baruch’s administration backed away from the plan before the end of the 2011 fall semester. But with more cuts looming in CUNY funding, Petersen decided more had to be done. So he traveled to Albany to push for renewing the “millionaires’ tax,” joining other PSC members in meeting with legislators. He also took part in a union-sponsored direct action, as one of 33 faculty, staff and students arrested in the State Capitol for blocking the entrance to the governor’s office to oppose his plan to give a tax break to New York’s wealthy while cutting CUNY funds by $112 million. More than 150 PSC members and community allies took part in the demonstration, part of what the Associated Press called “an uncommon level of protest” over the budget. “I took a stand for something I believed in, and did something that needed to be done,”said Petersen. “My campus has already had its budget ripped to shreds, and further cuts will definitely hurt the quality of instruction. So I just couldn’t see this being done to my students without resisting it.”
It was not the first time Petersen had put himself on the line for his beliefs. A former Navy flyer in Vietnam, he later turned against the war and tossed his medals over the White House fence in a 1971 protest alongside future presidential candidate John Kerry. “For the rest of my life,” Petersen said, “I’ve felt the importance of demonstrating the force of one’s opposition by one’s actions when something is just wrong.”
(Reprinted from PSC Clarion, June 2011