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

Ari Paul

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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