Kenneth Ryesky

What Queens College CUNY needs to do

[N.B.  The reasons this is written in terms of Queens College of the City University of New York are because (1) I have significant personal connections to the institution; and (2) the College has certain uncommon if not unique relevant attributes.  As much as the content here pertains to Queens College, it applies with equal if not greater urgency to all American colleges and universities.].

As background information, Queens College is a college of the City University of New York (CUNY), and is subservient to its governance; CUNY, in turn, is a subordinate entity of the State University of New York (SUNY).  CUNY’s Chancellor, Felix Matos Rodriguez (formerly President of Queens College), has shown disregard of if not contempt for the concerns of the CUNY Jewish community in the ongoing anti-Semitism trend on US college campuses.

Faculty members at Queens College (and all of CUNY) are subject to a labor agreement with the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY labor union, an organization that has a blatant unabashed anti-Semitic element in its membership and leadership.

* * *

The Borough of Queens is the most ethnically and culturally diverse county in America. This diversity can be traced back to the year 1657, when, less than three kilometers northward from the Queens College campus, some English residents of what then was the Dutch settlement of Vlissingen, affixed their signatures to a document known as the Flushing Remonstrance to defy New Netherlands governor-general Peter Stuyvesant’s banning of Quakers in the colony.  The Flushing Remonstrance document proclaimed a welcome to anyone who might “come in love unto us” without regard to religious persuasion, specifically mentioning “Jews, Turks and Egyptians” in addition to Quakers.

Notwithstanding the extreme retaliatory measures taken by Stuyvesant against the Flushing Remonstrance signatories, religious freedom eventually prevailed in the New Netherlands, and persisted after the colony came into English hands in 1664 and became New York.  The Articles of Capitulation specifically provided that “The Dutch here shall enjoy their Liberty of their Consciences in Divine Worship and Church Dissipline.”  When the Dutch retook the colony in 1673, they accorded commensurate terms to the English residents who chose to remain.  The next year, the 1674 Treaty of Westminster ended the Anglo-Dutch War and returned the Colony of New York to the English, along with the freedom of religion provisions that had been established there.

More than a century later, when the United States Constitution was drafted in 1787, the New York delegation realized that they enjoyed broader personal liberties as British colonial subjects than were guaranteed in the document presented to them.  The first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, were promised to the New York delegation in order to secure their ratification vote in 1788.  Following the Constitution’s ratification, the promised Bill of Rights amendments were proposed in 1789, and became effective in 1791.

The Flushing Remonstrance thus paved the way for the First Amendment freedom of religion in America, along with the entire Bill of Rights to the US Constitution.

* * *

Queens College is located in Flushing, Queens County, New York, at the edge of the heavily-Jewish Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood;  across the Long Island Expressway from the campus is the heavily-Asian East Flushing neighborhood.  It is no surprise, then, that Jewish and Asian students are among the diverse components of the college student body.  English is not the mother tongue of more than one-third of the students.

Even after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks there was civil peaceable discussion, and even unity, amongst the many groups that comprised the college community.  In 2005, the Student Association had a Jewish president and a Muslim vice-president (the latter of whom was a student in one of the classes I had taught) who cooperated together to bring out the best in the diverse components of the student body; they often referred to Queens College as “the Middle East of the Northeast.

I always considered cultural diversity to be a strength of Queens College.  Individuals who understand and appreciate that not everyone thinks the same way as they do are better postured for success in the world.  In the business sphere, a culturally diverse organization can develop a broader customer base than a monocultural one can.

* * *

During the more than 20 years I taught at Queens College I served on a special Adjunct Faculty Task Force and attained a second Master’s Degree (during one semester, I stood in front of a class as the professor, and then, 20 minutes later, sat in the back of a classroom in the next building over as a student).  Although I was aware of certain anti-Semitism from various quarters within CUNY, the personal and professional relationships I had with the Accounting Department faculty in which I taught were some of the best ever of my working life; my department chair and colleagues did all they could for me within the bounds of the restrictions imposed by the policies of the College and CUNY.  My relocation to Israel painfully necessitated my leaving that very productive and rewarding situation.

While at Queens College I saw no significant incidents of violence on campus, and much of the heated debate I saw firsthand seemed to have been fomented by outside agitators who were neither students nor college employees.

But the situation for Jewish students has deteriorated severely in the nearly nine years I have been away from Queens College and teaching; unfortunately, the nationwide hostilities in academe towards Jewish students and faculty have come to the Queens College CUNY campus.

* * *

Neutrality and evenhandedness are not necessarily the same thing.  Though technically neutral during World War II, neither Ireland nor Switzerland were evenhanded.  Ireland proactively and contemptuously excluded Jewish refugees while allowing in others,  while Switzerland induced Germany to mark the passports it issued to Jews with the “J” stamp so that the Swiss knew which German passport holders to bar from entry.  Moreover, American prisoners of war were held in detention camps on Swiss soil, and German trains were permitted to transit over Swiss territory to serve the port of Genoa, thereby prolonging the war and increasing the number of Allied casualties.

Most people accused of crimes did in fact commit the charged offense.  A criminal defense attorney’s function is to ensure that the accused is accorded the due process of law; a safeguard against the excesses which all criminal prosecutors everywhere are wont to commit absent any mechanism to hold them accountable.

And so, Robert Servatius and Dieter Wechtenbruch fulfilled their duty to zealously defend their client, Adolf Eichmann, at his 1961-1962 trial in Jerusalem.  Early on, among other matters, they questioned the objectivity of the court’s judges; that issue was resolved by an effective finding that a judge being biased against the crime of murder was not the same thing as being biased against an individual accused of murder. Although their client would eventually go to the gallows, Servatius and Wechtenbruch thus ensured that the court acted in an evenhanded manner, notwithstanding whatever personal biases the judges might have held.

I attempted (and largely succeeded) to be evenhanded in teaching my classes.  In a case of a plagiarized term paper, I had occasion to make clear to a Jewish student that he would receive from me no special favor which would not be accorded to a similarly situated non-Jewish student.

Very early during my teaching gig at Queens College, a student came to me and requested me to allow her to use a dictionary during the upcoming exam.  She explained to me that she was a recent immigrant to the United States and was unacquainted with the English language, and that I frequently used unfamiliar words in my lectures.  In class, she was not reticent to ask me for explanation when her understanding of what I was saying was unclear.  Under the circumstances, the request seemed reasonable, but, concerned as I was (and have emphatically remained) about academic integrity, I granted her request, with the caveat that I reserved the right to inspect the dictionary she would bring to the exam.

It then occurred to me that having allowed this one student to use a dictionary to assist her, I then had to allow everyone to use a dictionary during the exam.  And so, at the next class meeting, I announced that students would be permitted to bring a dictionary to the exam the next week (subject to my inspection of the dictionary).  When one of the students suggested that I was favoring the immigrants whose first language was not English, I replied that the option was available to everyone without regard to the language of the dictionary; I then quickly added that those so inclined would be permitted to bring a hand truck with all 20 volumes of the recently-published Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition.  I continued that policy until the final exam of the final course I taught before relocating to Israel; such was my evenhandedness in teaching courses at Queens College.

* * *

The 12 November 2023 New York Daily News carried an op-ed article by Queens College CUNY president  Frank H. Wu, entitled “Colleges must welcome debate: But hate and antisemitism must be called out.” In that article, he wrote:

“We strive to live up to norms that can be modeled: to take turns expressing our own opinion and listening to others as they do the same. Perhaps we will persuade. Perhaps we will be persuaded. We should not be shouted down or silenced. We must not threaten, nor accept being threatened. The quadrangle is a civic space, a refuge, where people who might not encounter one another elsewhere can gather to learn. Our experiment of an open society, self-governed, depends on mutual promises of a social contract.”

He further wrote, “Neutrality can be no better than indifference to tragedy.”

When presented with evidence to suggest that the Queens College Muslim Association had posted false statements on the Internet denying that Hamas had committed its 7 October 2023 atrocities, President Wu appropriately issued a condemnation and commenced an investigation.  He himself is now being subjected to scorn and threat for doing so.

The problem Queens College has is that it tolerates too many students (and faculty) who do not accept the “mutual promises of a social contract” touted by President Wu in his op-ed piece; his “experiment of an open society” is accordingly failing miserably, the bitter fruit of New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay’s initiative that shifted CUNY from an institution that avails free education to the academically-qualified to a diploma factory that must grant admission to any New York City resident who presents a high school diploma document and who has a pulse and can hear thunder or suck Jell-O.

As I (and every other instructor of the subject) have noted in my Queens College Business Law course lectures, whenever a contract is materially breached, most if not all of the non-breaching party’s contractual duties to the one who breaches the contract cease.  Queens College needs to exclude from its campus those who reject the “social contract” of which President Wu speaks.  Such individuals include, but are not limited to, lawless mobs who reject anyone and anything not consistent with their particular perverted and deadly brand of Islam; they do not “come in love” to Flushing or anywhere else. The rules of public order need to be evenhandedly and objectively enforced; these include the rules pertaining to the college computer system (which in all likelihood has been misused to foment disorder on campus and elsewhere).

Given the wantonly disparate enforcement of the “social contract” by the presidents of what supposedly are the top-ranked American universities, such is a tall order for Queens College to fill, especially in light of so many unclean hands within the CUNY system.  Any serious attempt by Queens College President Frank H. Wu to do so, even if ultimately unsuccessful, would be a real profile in courage.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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