notes on a lively conference on universities

The mood last weekend in Minnesota was sometimes fiery, sometimes like a storm about to break, with groves of raised hands waiting to be called on; other times a bit calmed, a bit weary from ten straight hours of sessions, or sobered by the complexity of the topic or even the complexity of the discussion. It was a conference called “Rethinking the University,” three days long, at first in a dark business school ampitheatre, and then in an old assembly hall with wooden beams and weak sunlight seeping through opaque windows.

The crowds ranged from thirty to ninety, I’d guess; panels dealt with everything from academic labor and grad student unionization to radical pedagogy, the liberal arts, academic knowledge with its marginal branches like theatre and design, Marxian theories of affective labor and Italian autonomism, and of course academic branding and corporatization. A high degree of political commitment, and widespread involvement in the labor movement, set the tone of debate; a number of participants were labor historians, union organizers turned grad students, past members of SDS, or “seventies feminists” (as one woman called herself). Only a few non-academics showed up, raising questions about how to bridge the gap between academic discourse and other kinds of organizing.

It strikes me that any project criticizing the university must continually re-examine its forms of communication. Raysh Weiss observed that the form of the conference was rather traditional, and advocated more creativity in future meetings. In essence, the conference was organized as a long sequence of panels and roundtables, whose groups of individual presenters were delimited by brief interludes of open discussion. Perhaps the speakers stood in the same traditional relation to their listeners as the conference stood to the university as a whole: a relation of critical superiority based on an academic privilege, however transient, to withdraw and reflect and analyze.

So when one speaker, Rana Jaleel, proposed that we not treat the university as a privileged, even fetishized site of knowledge production, my ears pricked up. Her proposal raises all kinds of questions: What is the relationship between not privileging the university in theory and our academic privilege in practice? Isn’t it contradictory to say we won’t privilege our institution, only to keep on doing academic work that presupposes and reproduces just such privilege? (Structurally, you can’t give up privilege, someone pointed out.) What’s wrong with privilege or fetishism anyway, if anything? (The problem with 70s “open universities” was their excessive aversion to all forms of imposition, Kathleen McConnell argued.) And in what particular contexts is academic knowledge privileged or valued? Surely academic knowledge is sometimes useless and other times essential. Shouldn’t we use our privilege productively in working for change, instead of trying to disavow it to begin with? And what would be left of the university, if we delivered ourselves from its constitutive structure of a universal, higher knowledge?

But this is abstract. The more practical task of the conference, in my view, was not reworking our academic privilege, but organizing ourselves as joint participants in a common project to “rethink the U.” The constant risk is that purely practical activism will become blind to its history or deaf to its conceptual foundations, and on the other side that purely scholastic research on universities will grow numb to the real needs of the moment. It seems to me there’s tension within this division of labor; there’s tension over how to invoke scholarly expertise in this situation; there’s tension, at a subtle level, across ages and ranks. (Disciplinary difference, interestingly, never became a point of contention, although there seemed to be very few scientists in attendance.) An especially divisive sentiment was that undergraduate students were “the most reactionary” part of the university, that they were the obstacle to change. On the contrary, it seems to me that every sector of the university has its activists and conservatives. Yet several humanists cast the undergraduates, implicitly, as the recalcitrant objects of their own revolutionary fantasies. Worse, these fantasies were sometimes dubious; someone said that “there’s something subversive about thinking,” a banal and hence self-refuting thought.

The conference contained two particularly pointed arguments against this species of “politically committed academic labor.” Lisa Disch asked whether people should keep donating time to precariously institutionalized, progressive academic programs, like Minnesota’s now-defunct Center for Advanced Feminist Studies. Often, this labor is not compensated by the university, but may nonetheless be useful to administrators, for instance in marketing themselves as having good minority representation. Later, John Conley argued that radical pedagogy is in fact a barrier to labor organizing in the academy, since it serves teachers as an imaginary compensation for all the structural injustices they perceive, “a sort of ethical supplement” that accrues too much energy and affective labor, coming in the end to a form of depoliticization.

These aren’t arguments against politically committed labor or radical teaching as such. Rather, they are reminders that any attempt at political activity has to be judged in context, weighed against other politics that may be much more effective, and weighed against its cost to the emotional and social life of the person doing it. Yet this judgement is often hard to make in advance. To my surprise, some teachers described a 2007 AFSCME strike at the U of Minnesota as itself a pedagogical opportunity, a chance to talk to their students about academic labor and corporatization. “Action precedes consciousness,” someone suggested: it’s a hopeful axiom, since it suggests that if we try new activities, unforeseen thoughts will arise from them.

We should try to imagine the university of the future, Tom Wolfe argued. He proposed a university of seven departments, the departments of archives, of police, of interpretation, of mindfulness, of things, of life, and of peace: a university with collaborative projects but no major specialization. “I’d like to work at your university,” many people said. And the discussion at large seemed to be fueled by a general utopian desire.

Simultaneously, corporatization and neoliberalism, frequently mentioned at the conference, sometimes seemed to become vague categories that came to designate whatever people disliked about universities, that served to divide the world into “good folks” against “wicked institution.” I was no exception; when a reporter for the school paper asked me, “what’s good about corporatization?” I found myself fairly speechless. But the critique of corporatization can mask other problems. As Ellen Messer Davidow pointed out, corporatization is partly an academic _response_ to a conservative political context, in which state legislatures have cut public university budgets. Eli Meyerhoff and Isaac Kamola suggested that we talk instead about the capitalist enclosure of the commons, which perhaps offers a more communitarian idiom of analysis. All the same, as someone responded to my skepticism, “corporatization is really happening” — at least at the U of Minnesota, where there are many corporate partnerships, cuts in health benefits and tenured positions, privatization of university services and hospitals, rising tuition, and, according to one speaker, a managerial ideology that “collective obligations don’t exist.”

At the end of the conference, there was a general will to keep talking, a general desire to build some kind of network or movement of people interested in universities and social change. Needless to say, no one has agreed on what that would be. People are involved in particular projects and it might be impossible to reconcile them all. But it seems a waste to start these discussions from scratch, over and over again, whenever the university becomes a burning question. So I wanted to describe them to some of you who couldn’t be there: an invitation to collective consciousness, if I can call it that. And I wish I could convey the excitement and collective effervescence that never reach me when I’m alone at my desk.

The last commenter on one panel, one of the only undergrads who spoke, began by saying that she was a first-year student. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of things like neoliberalism… Foucault… Marxism,” she said, and I felt a twinge of recognition mixed with embarrassment at the conference’s scholarly language. “It’s a much bigger problem than just the university,” she went on, saying that the issues affected the whole country, and that there should be some kind of national union. It seems very telling that the urge for collective organization would immediately rise up in someone so new to the academic game.