In Defense of the Campus: Why the Left Must Not Write Off Universities

Ari Paul June 27, 2017

The Left should be organizing on campuses precisely because they are in positions of immense economic power. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

High­er edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States has long been sub­ject to a right-wing smear cam­paign paint­ing col­lege cam­pus­es as incu­ba­tors for dan­ger­ous rad­i­cal­ism. There is lit­tle doubt that the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who ran a cam­paign with explic­it anti-intel­lec­tu­al cur­rents, has increased its ferocity.

In late May, Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of African-Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, was forced to can­cel pub­lic speak­ing appear­ances after receiv­ing a slew of death threats in response to her out­spo­ken­ness on the issue of racism in Amer­i­ca. John­ny Eric Williams, a tenured pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Trin­i­ty Col­lege, was sus­pend­ed and forced into hid­ing due to sim­i­lar threats over an arti­cle on race he shared on his per­son­al social media accounts. Essex Coun­ty Col­lege adjunct instruc­tor Lisa Dur­den lost her job for defend­ing an all-black Memo­r­i­al Day event on the show of con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dit Tuck­er Carl­son. And Drex­el Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor George Cic­cariel­lo-Maher has once again found him­self the tar­get of a right-wing cam­paign demand­ing his fir­ing due to his con­tro­ver­sial tweets, which have brought on an inves­ti­ga­tion into his social media activ­i­ty by his employer.

These con­di­tions present the per­fect moment for the Left to redou­ble its com­mit­ment to defend­ing high­er edu­ca­tion, both to show sol­i­dar­i­ty with the many lib­er­als and left­ists who make their lives in acad­e­mia, and to pro­tect the impor­tance of the free exchange of ideas under our bot­tom-line-focused cap­i­tal­ist system.

We face a moment when both the Left and the Right are giv­ing Amer­i­can cam­pus activism a gim­let eye, with debates rag­ing over the bal­ance of safe spaces” and trig­ger warn­ings” with prin­ci­ples of free speech and asso­ci­a­tion. While stu­dent activism can’t be a lone focal point of a broad­er social jus­tice move­ment, defend­ing high­er edu­ca­tion and orga­niz­ing on cam­pus is still of tan­ta­mount impor­tance for the Left.

1. Cam­pus­es are sites of class struggle

The City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York sys­tem, to which this writer is pro­fes­sion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed, enrolls more than 270,000 peo­ple at its senior and com­mu­ni­ty col­leges — the size of a small Amer­i­can city. The major­i­ty of these stu­dents are work­ing-class and non-white. Con­sid­er­ing the num­ber of adjunct work­ers strug­gling in the pre­cari­at, as well as cler­i­cal and main­te­nance work­ers, it is clear that such envi­ron­ments are ripe for class-based orga­niz­ing. In small­er towns that host uni­ver­si­ties, these insti­tu­tions often employ large sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion. Just as Gen­er­al Motors would be the focus of orga­niz­ing in a car com­pa­ny town, col­lege towns should see the uni­ver­si­ty as the orga­niz­ing focal point in their locality. 

2. Cam­pus­es are crit­i­cal for free exchange

Uni­ver­si­ties, both pub­lic and pri­vate, remain some of the few open spaces for dis­course in an often closed-off soci­ety. Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Bruce Rob­bins point­ed out dur­ing a talk in 2014 at St. Mark’s Book­shop in New York that, in the after­math of 911, uni­ver­si­ties were among the only spaces in a shell-shocked coun­try were peo­ple could hold open dis­cus­sion and debate with­out hav­ing to pep­per their posi­tions with appeals to patri­o­tism or out of fear that attempts to under­stand the attacks would be inter­pret­ed as support.

3. Uni­ver­si­ties hold real power

Just as a free press is nec­es­sary for advanc­ing free thought, so too is pre­serv­ing spaces for aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suit. The ideas devel­oped with­in the acad­e­my can have an out­sized impact on shap­ing how we view fields of study and on pol­i­cy mak­ing both with­in and out­side of gov­ern­ment. Just look at the impact Mil­ton Fried­man-inspired neolib­er­al eco­nom­ics have had on eco­nom­ic depart­ments in uni­ver­si­ties across the coun­try, and on solid­i­fy­ing free-mar­ket hege­mo­ny. There’s a rea­son why the David Horow­itzes of the world so fear rad­i­cal, left-wing ideas in human­i­ties depart­ments. The Right wouldn’t take this con­cern so seri­ous­ly if they didn’t right­ly see uni­ver­si­ties as insti­tu­tions that hold real power.

4. Free col­lege is our demand

One of the most appeal­ing mes­sages of both Bernie Sanders’ and Jere­my Corbyn’s cam­paigns was their call for free col­lege. This demand holds that access to high­er edu­ca­tion and intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits should be a pub­lic right and not a priv­i­leged com­mod­i­ty. In the Unit­ed States, polls show that 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion sup­ports the idea, mak­ing it one of the most pop­u­lar demands of an emerg­ing 21st cen­tu­ry social demo­c­ra­t­ic project.

5. Stu­dents have done right in the past

It’s easy for some to dis­miss priv­i­lege-sham­ing and cul­tur­al-appro­pri­a­tion obses­sions in today’s U.S. cam­pus activism. But through­out U.S. his­to­ry, stu­dent activism has proven to be cru­cial in a vari­ety of impor­tant left-wing strug­gles, from the Civ­il Rights move­ment to the protests against the Viet­nam War to the boy­cott and divest­ment cam­paign against apartheid South Africa. It would be an offense against the his­tor­i­cal record to ignore the impor­tant role cam­pus activists — both stu­dents and pro­fes­sors — have played in these struggles.

6. Uni­ver­si­ties are employ­ers and landowners

The Left should be orga­niz­ing on cam­pus­es pre­cise­ly because they are in posi­tions of immense eco­nom­ic pow­er. If you want to fight eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty in New Haven, you must under­stand how Yale Uni­ver­si­ty oper­ates and orga­nize against its man­age­r­i­al class. In New York City, the arche­typ­al tale of two cities,’ both Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and New York Uni­ver­si­ty are enor­mous landown­ers and play a crit­i­cal role in the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of the city. If you want to lift wages in a town where the uni­ver­si­ty is the biggest employ­er, then your best bet is to start form­ing unions at the school.

In many loca­tions, the fight for eco­nom­ic progress involves fight­ing against uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions in their roles as real estate barons and employ­ers, and that means orga­niz­ing all of the affect­ed con­stituen­cies: fac­ul­ty, staff and students.

The Right has con­vinced mil­lions of vot­ers into false­ly believ­ing that grey­ing, left-wing pro­fes­sors are teach­ing our chil­dren to hate God and white­ness, and there­fore lib­er­al high­er edu­ca­tion must be destroyed. This may sound laugh­able until you remem­ber the Trump admin­is­tra­tion cur­rent­ly faces no checks from Con­gress and the Repub­li­can Par­ty con­trols the major­i­ty of state gov­ern­ments. The abil­i­ty to ham­per the free­dom of our pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties is no small mat­ter, while many of the nation’s pri­vate col­leges become acces­si­ble sole­ly to the elite.

The cam­pus — like the ware­house, rail yard or retail facil­i­ty — is a vital site of polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing. Let’s reded­i­cate our­selves to treat­ing it that way. 

Ari Paul has cov­ered pol­i­tics for The Nation, Vice, The Guardian, Dis­sent, Jacobin, Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca and many oth­er outlets.
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