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A student who sued her school district over a requirement that she wear an ID tag equipped with an RFID chip that allowed the school to track her movements lost her court case yesterday.

The case filed in a Texas federal court, was a strange one. San Antonio sophomore Andrea Hernandez objected to the RFID chip on the basis of theology, not privacy — she believes that the tracking tag is the Mark of the Beast warned of in the biblical book of Revelation. As a result, she contends that her religion forbids her from wearing the tag, and that the school’s tag requirement is a violation of her First Amendment rights. As her father put it in a September letter, “it is our Hell Fire Belief that if we compromise our faith and religious freedom to allow you to track my daughter while she is at school it will condemn us to hell.” In a later meeting with a district official he also expressed concern that wearing the chip might cause cancer.

Hernandez was suspended later that month for refusing to wear her school-issued ID, and told that she would not be allowed to return without it. District officials gave her the option of transferring to a school that didn’t use the tracking chips. Instead she sued, and won a preliminary injunction against the suspension. Yesterday’s ruling lifted that injunction and freed the district to transfer her to another school. (Hernandez is likely to appeal.)

So where does the victory come in? Well, at a relatively early stage of the process, the school offered to give Hernandez an ID badge with the RFID chip disabled. Her movements wouldn’t be tracked, her attendance wouldn’t be automatically logged — it’d just be an ordinary ID on an ordinary lanyard.

Hernandez refused this accommodation on the grounds that even a chip-less ID — which her father referred  to as a “symbol” of the RFID tracking program — constituted forced speech in favor of the program itself. The court rejected that argument yesterday.

It’s not clear whether Hernandez would have prevailed in court if the school hadn’t offered the compromise that it did, but the language of the court’s ruling made it clear that she would have been on stronger ground. (They did not address the question of the constitutionality of the ID requirement on privacy grounds, as Hernandez explicitly disavowed such a claim.)

Yesterday’s ruling, then, leaves many of the core issues surrounding student RFID tags unresolved. But it does provide support for the idea that allowing students to opt out of RFID requirements is a reasonable accommodation, as well as raising the public profile of the opt-out path for those students who might be interested in it.

One note about the RFID requirement. Although yesterday’s ruling claimed that the tags “are expected to improve [school] safety by allowing school staff to know the whereabouts of a student that may be missing or unaccounted for in the event of a fire alarm or other emergency evacuation,” that’s not the reason that the chips were added.

In Texas, as elsewhere in the country, state school funding is set partially on the basis of student attendance. When students are absent, funding goes down. Equipping ID cards with RFID, and mandating that students wear the IDs on campus at all times, allows the school to automate attendance-taking and include students who arrive late, leave early, or otherwise fall through the roll-call cracks in their attendance reports. More accurate record-keeping means more state money.

As is so often the case these days, this new — and potentially problematic — education policy is driven primarily by the ongoing crisis in public school funding.

When incoming Cal State system chancellor Timothy P. White takes office at the end of the year, he’ll be making about $40,000 less than his predecessor.

That’s because White, in a letter to the CSU trustees, requested a 10% pay cut as his contribution to balancing the system’s books.

White’s salary reduction doesn’t apply to other top administrators in the CSU system, of course, and amounts to just one fifty-thousandth of the system’s state appropriations for the coming year, so assessing whether it’s a worthy step in the right direction of a meaningless bit of PR work is left as an exercise for the reader.

Here’s another stat worth contemplating, though: The pay cut took White from a salary amounting to 105% of that of the President of the United States to one amounting to 95% of the president’s.

In fairness, though, POTUS does have a nicer airplane.

The CUNY administration may have been forced to back down (for now) from their threats to dismantle the Queensborough Community College English Department, but they’ve launched a new attack in their effort to bring the rebellious department to heel.

On October 24 the QCC English faculty voted to remove chair Linda Reesman. Throughout the department’s battle over the administration’s Pathways initiative, many faculty regarded Reesman as an administration ally and an impediment to effective organization on behalf of the faculty’s interests.

The vote to remove Reesman was lopsided, as was the vote in favor of her replacement, deputy chair David Humphries. But at a meeting on November 6, QCC president Diane Call informed the department that she would not endorse Humphries’ appointment. Instead, a former faculty member would be brought on to perform the chairs administrative functions while the administration conducted a “national search” for a new chair.

According to a memo from one QCC faculty member (page one, page two), President Call justified the decision by claiming that the department was “deeply divided” over the chair issue, and that they had been improperly influenced by “outside forces.” According to my sources, however, the vote to remove Reesman was 21-7, and the subsequent vote to install Humphries was at least as decisive. And the only “outside forces” the faculty had consulted with during the process were their labor union representatives.

Compounding the faculty’s fear and outrage over this move is the fact that the administration’s chosen chair will not, according to President Call, be representing the department in hiring, tenure, and promotion matters in the Queensboro Personnel and Budget Committee. Instead those duties will be performed by interim vice president Karen Steele, the very administrator whose threats to dismantle the QCC English Department sparked the current scandal.

One final chlling insult: According to the faculty memo linked above, current QCC faculty will not even be eligible for consideration for the department chair position in the upcoming national search.

This attack on academic freedom and faculty governance has implications far beyond Queensborough. The Pathways dispute is heating up in departments across CUNY, and if the administration is able to bully QCC English, other departments throughout the system will think twice about standing up for themselves and their students.

This isn’t just a scandal. It’s a crisis.

Tuesday Update | The CUNY Advocate is reporting that QCC president Diane Call has reversed her decision to reject David Humphries as chair of the college’s English Department. More when I get it.

Second Update | Diane Call has sent an email confirming the news of her reversal to QCC faculty:

Colleagues—

It is my decision to accept the recommendation forwarded by the English Department for Dr. David Humphries to serve as its Chairperson, effective November 14, 2012.

In a lengthy meeting with Dr. Humphries yesterday, he expressed his willingness and ability to advance the important work of the English Department in curricular and personnel matters. I have confidence in and appreciate his sincerity to unite the department as a community, in the best interests of the College and our students. 

Thank you.

As the GC Advocate notes, Call’s email is silent on the question of whether she is similarly reversing her decision to appoint interim vice president Karen Steele to represent the English Department on the QCC Personnel and Budget Committee in place of the department’s chair.

This is, nonetheless, very good news.

Most observers of the American university are intimately familiar with the long-term decline and recent degradation of public higher education in California (if you need a refresher, check out Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal’s excellent overview in the new Dissent magazine). Unless you’re inside CA, however, you may have missed word of the time bomb that’s set to explode there in just eleven days.

California’s government is hobbled by its ballot proposition process, a seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time system by which any state law or constitutional amendment may be put to a statewide popular vote. Though the idea has an undeniable good-government appeal, in practice it rewards Californians with deep pockets and a knack for writing misleading referendum questions — as when a 1964 initiative sponsored by movie theater owners actually banned cable television in the state.

In the last forty years various initiatives have mandated spending on certain budget lines while placing various limits on the state legislature’s ability to raise revenue, squeezing funding for non-mandatory spending and exacerbating the state’s already profound budget problems. This quagmire is one, though certainly not the only, contributing factor behind the defunding of public higher education in the state.

Enter Proposition 30.

Proposition 30 is an attempt to address the state’s education funding gap through two temporary tax increases — a four-year, 0.25% hike in sales taxes and a seven-year bump in income taxes for Californians with annual incomes above $250,000. Revenues raised by the new taxes would be dedicated to public education.

The current California state budget assumes passage of Proposition 30, with various cuts built in should the proposition fail. Though most of the cuts would fall on K-12 education, another $838 million would be shared by the the state’s public colleges and universities, which have already seen $2.5 billion in cuts — and a series of staggeringly high tuition increases — in the last four years.

What does this mean in practice? At the University of California it would mean a 20% tuition hike, in a system where tuition already tops $12,000 a year. At Cal State it would likely mean a 5% tuition hike, the cancellation of a planned tuition rebate, and a reduction of enrollment by some twenty thousand students. Community colleges, which have already turned away half a million students over the last three years, would slash enrollment by another 180,000.

So how is Proposition 30 doing? Not well at all. Support currently stands at 46%, down from 55% a month ago. Voters are skeptical of state government and confused by another similar proposition (if both pass, the one that gets the most votes will go into effect, but significant numbers of voters are planning to vote only for the one they prefer). Additionally, the Los Angeles Times yesterday described Governor Jerry Brown’s campaigning on behalf of Prop 30 so far as “lackluster.”

And if you want to know more about how the state got into this mess, take a look at yesterday’s public statement from UC President Mark Yudof on Proposition 30. “Public higher education in California has been battered by declining State support,” he wrote, and the UC Regents have predicted that without Prop 30, “the ability of the University of California to ensure the high-quality education that Californians have come to expect will be jeopardized.” In that light, he continued, he wanted to make it absolutely “clear that it is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”

Bold words, strong words, from the head of the greatest public higher education system the world has ever known:

“It is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”

This, as TS Eliot wrote, is the way the world ends.

Regular readers will remember that a few weeks ago an administrator at CUNY’s Queensboro Community College threatened to eviscerate the college’s English Department — eliminate composition courses at the college, terminate all adjuncts, halt all job searches, fire full-time faculty — in retaliation for the department’s refusal to scale back its comp courses to comply with Pathways, a controversial new CUNY-wide curricular scheme. It was bizarre, and scary.

The administrator in question eventually apologized in the face of criticism from this site and a bunch of other good folks, and the president of QCC walked back — but didn’t quite close the door on — her threats. The story has been simmering on campus ever since, but there haven’t been any big public developments until now.

Last night the Queensboro Academic Senate met and made it clear that they’re standing by the department and will resist any attempt to go forward with the administration’s threats. I’m still working on getting all the official details out of the meeting, but here’s what I’ve been told so far.

First, in a “nearly unanimous” vote, the Academic Senate passed a resolution affirming Queensboro’s non-negotiable obligation to continue to offer composition courses to its students. “It shall be the official policy of Queensboro Community College,” the resolution declared, that the college “must not violate state law or regulation … jeopardize its accreditations … [or] violate its agreements … by failing to offer courses in sufficient number required for its degree programs.” It further declared that “these obligations must be honored, irrespective of whether Queensboro’s course listings adhere to the specifications of the CUNY Common Required and Flexible Cores.”

Queensboro needs to offer composition, in other words, and as far as the Academic Senate is concerned the college will continue to offer composition, whatever happens with the Pathways fight.

An additional resolution saw more debate, a little more opposition, and a few amendments, and I don’t yet have a precise picture of how that discussion turned out. But in its original form, the second resolution noted the CUNY administration’s lack of attention to “the objections of faculty across CUNY” to the Pathways plan, and called the proposal to scale back composition and similar courses a “particularly problematic” change to “already flawed … schema.” Reviewing showdown between the English department and the QCC administration the resolution declared its “strong support” for the department’s “academic freedom … to render their best academic judgments” on such issues.

In a meatier, forward-looking passage the resolution — again, as originally proposed — declared that “no further review” of Pathways course specifications “can proceed … until and unless the academic judgment and academic freedom of the faculty are fully respected, and guaranteed, in a written document” and the threats to cut course offerings and faculty “is formally retracted” in writing.

Finally, the resolution declared that “no curriculum, adopted by the faculty under pressure and constraint, should ever be interpreted by Administrative personnel … or any media organization as denoting any degree of faculty support for the Pathways initiative, which is overwhelmingly rejected by members of our faculty as harmful to our students and poor educational practice.”

I’m told that this resolution passed by a margin of about four-to-one after unspecified amendments. As soon as I have the exact details I’ll pass them along.

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out AngusJohnston.com.

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