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Last summer, staff, students, and alumni at Baruch College were surprised to learn that they’d been targeted by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA had issued a press release naming Baruch a Signature School, a university partnership initiative launched by the agency in 2016 to increase the diversity of its staff.
After months of ensuing controversy, in early May the Baruch College Faculty Senate called on Baruch leadership not to renew the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the CIA when it expires at the end of this summer. The move followed year-long activism by students and faculty at CUNY schools, who vocally condemned Baruch president Mitchel Wallerstein’s decision to establish a closer relationship with an intelligence agency known for committing torture, toppling democratically elected governments, engaging in targeted assassinations, and committing other human rights abuses.
“The CIA is looking to diversify the agency in order to more effectively carry out its mission, and its record of intervention in the world shocks the conscience,” Johanna Fernández, an assistant professor in Baruch’s History Department who has researched the NYPD’s surveillance of political groups in the 1960s and 1970s, tells the Voice. “CUNY came into being, in part, as a result of the same kinds of popular struggles that the CIA suppresses abroad. That a public university is ignoring this reality is profoundly unethical.”
For the CIA to partner directly with a CUNY school might seem unexpected, but it’s actually part of a push by the agency to achieve a more diverse workforce. Long before Gina Haspel was appointed the CIA’s first female director last week, the agency has been trying to bring in more young women and young people of color to engage in covert intelligence work.
“What’s noteworthy about [this partnership] is that it’s another sign of the intimate relationship between the CIA and American academia,” says Daniel Golden, a senior editor at ProPublica and the author of the 2017 book Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities. The CIA has historically conducted recruitment on college campuses, he notes, but has done so covertly.
“Trumpeting this partnership would have been unlikely or unthinkable back in the Sixties and Seventies, when I was young, and CIA recruiters were anathema on college campuses,” says Golden. “Now it’s run-of-the-mill.”
Baruch is the third Signature School identified by the CIA, following Florida International University and the University of New Mexico (UNM). (The University of Illinois at Chicago signed on this February.) In March, the student and worker activist coalition CUNY Struggle, which organizes around labor and justice issues, obtained a copy of the agency’s Memorandum of Understanding with the school. The memo, which was reviewed by the Village Voice, commits Baruch to facilitating the CIA in developing relationships with university staff and conducting on-campus advertising and recruitment sessions. Baruch community members interviewed by the Voice said they did not know of any specific public CIA recruitment initiatives on campus this year.
“Because of our global charter, we need talent from all cultures and backgrounds to accomplish our mission,” then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in the August press release. Baruch president Wallerstein echoed that “Baruch College has one of the nation’s most diverse student bodies.… I am certain that in the years to come, the CIA-Baruch Signature School Program will provide our students with numerous, exciting career options both in the US and abroad.” The MOU mentions several specific “diversity professional organizations” — i.e., student of color groups — in describing how the agency might go about its recruiting.
Universities are increasingly open to partnering with the CIA, says Golden, for a variety of reasons, including a resurgence in the popularity of intelligence agencies following the 9-11 attacks, and the growing dependence of universities, especially public ones, on military and intelligence agencies for research funding. CUNY faculty members have received some funding from such agencies in recent years, including professors at City College’s Institute for Ultrafast Spectroscopy and Lasers and Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, a computer scientist formerly employed by Queens College and the Graduate Center.
Baruch officials told the Voice in a statement that participating in the Signature Schools Program “is entirely consistent with CUNY’s founding mission to provide educational and economic opportunities to historically marginalized populations, and particularly to those who had recently immigrated to the United States.” Diversifying participation in government service, the statement said, “is among the best guarantors of a government’s ability to remain responsive to democratic interests and popular concerns.”
Fernández counters that CUNY students — who are more likely than students from the CIA’s traditional Ivy League recruiting grounds to be from Muslim backgrounds, say, or have family members who are undocumented or have criminal records — face particular threats from the CIA recruitment process. “Unlike Yale and Harvard students who are protected by their class, Baruch students, their families, and communities stand to be scrutinized, harassed, and made vulnerable by the CIA’s unimaginably probing interview process,” she says. “Baruch’s decision to partner with the CIA stands in opposition to the CUNY mission: to provide the best possible education to the working-class people of New York.”
As Daniel Golden explores in his book, the CIA has a long history of using unsavory covert tactics to recruit vulnerable students and professors, including handing out fake business cards at academic conferences. Given widespread hatred for the agency in other nations, once a contact accepts CIA money, wittingly or not, the agency can use that connection to arm-twist its intended recruit into working as a spy or risk public exposure. And when the CIA is offered a front door into a university, says Golden, that doesn’t mean it won’t enter via the back door, too.
Fernández added the partnership has already affected her classrooms. When she suggested that students host a teach-in about the CIA as part of a class assignment, she says, several people expressed concerns that the activity might affect pending immigration interviews or job prospects. “The chilling effect on speech came faster than I imagined it would.”
Conor Tomás Reed is a CUNY Graduate Center student who taught at Baruch from 2011 to 2013, and is a member of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union that represents CUNY’s faculty and staff. He says the CIA MOU is just the latest development in the broader militarization of CUNY, including the return of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) to several campuses – a trend which he sees going hand-in-hand with budget cuts and tuition increases.
The Faculty Senate resolution that passed earlier this month, which is not binding, states that the formal relationship with the CIA threatens the safety of faculty doing research abroad as well as their subjects, and also endangers international students and their families. The resolution admonishes the college administration for signing the MOU without consultation, a move that seemingly stands at odds with Baruch’s stated commitment to shared governance.
“The unilateral nature of the decision [to sign the MOU] was the most disturbing,” says Vincent DiGirolamo, an assistant professor in Baruch’s Department of History and the chapter chair of the PSC. President Wallerstein had not engaged in any consultation with faculty before signing the agreement or even notifying them about the development. “It’s not about opposed me being opposed to the [MOU], but it’s about what the members fear and feel about the college — their employer — being tied so closely with this necessary but nefarious government agency.”
It appears that Baruch leadership may be taking the resolution under consideration. At a recent labor-management meeting, says DiGirolamo, Wallerstein said that the MOU is under review.
DiGirolamo acknowledged that there are students at Baruch who support the MOU, and faculty who believe that the union should not be mobilizing around the issue, for example in organizing an April “teach-in” about the CIA.
But he doesn’t agree. “This gets to the heart of what we do, here at the college, in terms of our creation of knowledge and who we serve, the mission of the college and the whole CUNY system, and the health and safety conditions of our membership,” he says. “We as scholars and workers as citizens have a right to weigh in and try to influence the direction of our country’s foreign policy.”