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Stenciled graffiti, black letters on gray concrete sidewalk, near Madison Square Park, Manhattan, NYC, October 2018..jpg

What will you fight for? Stenciled graffiti, black letters on gray concrete

sidewalk, near Madison Square Park, Manhattan, NYC, October 2018. 

Photo by Susan Bernstein


Recently, I attended a Board of Trustees (BoT) for the public university system in my community. At the hearing, members of the university community, including students, have an opportunity to testify about system-wide concerns and concerns at individual campuses. After submitting testimony to the BoT Dropbox and intending to testify in person, I could not stay. As the evening wore on, I knew that my name was near the bottom of a very long list of speakers, and previous speakers had already, and very eloquently, articulated my concerns. 


But there was another reason. In listening to the testimony of my colleagues, I felt overwhelmed with grief and sadness by the many longstanding systemic and structural problems of the university system. The university system now faces many difficulties exacerbated by years of neglect, and the simultaneous defunding and devaluing of public higher education.


I was close to tears and shaking inside, and I needed space to process what I was hearing. A walk in the cold evening air might help, but I knew I needed to go home.


Before leaving, I jotted down concerns from my colleagues’ testimony for the BoT. Here is a short list, much of which would be familiar to anyone working in public postsecondary education:

  • Contingent faculty outnumber tenure-track faculty. These contingent faculty, including graduate students, are poorly paid and have no job security.
  • There is a shortage of full-time faculty, and a shortage of new full-time, tenure-track faculty due to retirements and hiring slowdowns. As a result, the university lacks:
    • Sustainable support for mentoring, advising, and mental health counseling for students, especially students of color, and first-year undergraduates
    • Sufficient numbers of tenure-track faculty to sustain department infrastructure
  • Because funding is precarious and not guaranteed, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs with documented successful results are at risk of shutting down


Perhaps most distressing of all, many speakers offered testimony regarding the pending demolition of the school of nursing at one of the older campuses. The school of nursing shares space with a residence hall, a food pantry, emergency housing, and a support center for older adults, among other services. The demolition of this space is to make room for a new “state-of-the-art” campus for health science education facilities.


Even as new buildings are constructed, older buildings are in serious disrepair resulting in egregious and long-term accessibility problems. My colleagues gave powerful testimony regarding how these problems impact our own campus. My colleagues’ experiences are corroborated in my own testimony. A slightly revised version of my testimony follows:


I testify today on behalf of our students to bear witness to the ventilation problems that students experienced long before the Covid-19 pandemic began. Since then, nothing has changed and, with the realities of Covid-19, these problems hold new urgency. The following four problems, among many others not listed, cause students the most suffering as they attempt to pursue their education:

  1. Classrooms as hot as 85 degrees with no windows and no working fans. Students walk out of class to avoid asthma attacks, vomiting, and fainting.
  2. Airtight classrooms with no ventilation and bright fluorescent lights. The lack of ventilation causes breathing problems and the fluorescent lights cause migraines.
  3. Fourth floor classrooms where strong winds blow straight and hard into open windows, disrupting lectures and discussions. The window air conditioners in these rooms are unusable, as they are so loud that students cannot hear themselves speak. 
  4. Elevators that are too small to allow social distancing and too small to fit wheelchairs, and therefore are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other words, in addition to being frequently broken, the elevators cannot accommodate people with mobility challenges, breathing difficulties, and other disabilities, and disabled people cannot access their classrooms.


In other words, the damage is real, past and present. But a better world is possible. Fix the ventilation now, before the next emergency. Thank you for your time and attention.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.