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Why the Lack of Protest on American Campuses? | The Nation

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Campus-oriented news, first-person reports from student activists and journalists about their campus.

Why the Lack of Protest on American Campuses?

Elite universities are becoming more globally focused, and Yale President Richard Levin is a major proponent of the trend.

In his 2001 baccalaureate address, Levin offered a globalist justification for student engagement in local New Haven affairs: "Your experience in giving service has prepared you well for participation in and leadership of civic, religious, and community organizations.… What you have done for this city you must now do for your country and the wider world."

This rhetoric is standard fare for a university whose urban stewardship is decidedly more "glocal" than local. Yale's local plans are just one element of its global vision. Yale is "contributing to a strong New Haven," claims the slogan of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs which Levin founded, but this primarily refers to its role in converting New Haven from a post-industrial city into a trendy "university city," a node of knowledge production in a larger scheme of entrepreneurialism and capital development. At once, Yale buys up and gentrifies local property, forces the hands of its labor unions, lobbies the city for construction of high-end research labs, finalizes plans for a satellite campus at the University of Singapore, builds partnerships with China and India, pours money into a new foreign policy institute, and remains on the lookout for new global investment opportunities.

How do students feel about all this?

Some commentators sense a toxic trickle-down effect. In a recent post titled "Why Class Matters in Campus Activism," The American Prospect's Courtney Martin laments students' farsightedness:

Many of us from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have been socialized to believe that it is our duty to make a difference, but undertake such efforts abroad—where the "real" poor people are…. I would argue that a modicum of evil is also done by those who make up their minds to be good but neglect to tackle the challenges to which they are directly linked.

The trend that Martin identifies is particularly disturbing at the present moment. At the same time that universities hike tuition costs, decrease financial aid, and use the financial crisis as a means of imposing their economic plans on less solvent local governments, many of today's high-minded 20-year-olds think globally but disengage from campus protest and local action.

To be sure, everyone loves community service, and President Levin encourages it. After all, it's a great way to develop global leaders! But service is one thing, and activism—particularly in opposition to university policy—is another. For today's students, thoughts of protest at the point of knowledge production are eclipsed by enterprising visions of making an impact in the great beyond. Starving children in Africa are more needy than students and campus workers anyway, right?

Simeon Talley of Campus Progress is not sold on this analysis. In his own theory for why campus activism has declined in America—compared to Britain and Canada, where protesters of tuition hikes have turned out in the tens of thousands—Talley shifts the emphasis from globalized moral concern to corporate alienation:

What best explains the dormancy on many college campuses is rooted in a national condition. The social value placed on universally accessible higher education has declined…. Nina Power, one of the [British] student protestors, wrote in The Guardian that "It was a protest against the narrowing of horizons; a protest against Lib Dem hypocrisy; a protest against the increasingly utilitarian approach to human life that sees degrees as nothing but 'investments' by individuals, and denies any link between education and the broader social good." … In this light it's not difficult to understand why the protests in Europe are so large and largely non-existent in the US. British students are fighting a transformation of their society that has long taken hold in the US.

Despite their differences in focus, Martin and Talley hit at similar, historically related issues. Both the globalization and long-festering corporatization of the university are functions of the same postwar alteration of American attitudes toward higher education. As millions of veterans returned to work and a new proletariat of women and minorities entered the economy for the first time, the cold war garrison state sought to consolidate these gains by industrializing the production of knowledge. To match these newfound state investments, university leaders began to treat education more like a commodity. Riffing on the new "uses of the university," Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr once said, "Knowledge is durable. It is also transferable. It only pays to produce knowledge if through production it can be put into use better and faster." Forty years later, Kerr's vision endures. What better way to speed up knowledge production and transfer than to whet the grindstone with corporate contributions and global partnerships?

As Martin and Talley suggest, it's these same factors that account for the displacement of student energy from closer-to-home concerns like tuition, campus labor, and the insidious gentrifying impact of universities on poor neighborhoods. To the extent that education has become more integrated into global markets, students should be expected to reach for more marketable—and more global—opportunities.

Still, student activism is a complicated beast, and both commentators miss a critical point. Both impute the dearth of mass protest to skyward drifts in student attitudes but ignore the actions and rhetorical devices of university leaders which actively reinforce student attitudes and ideas. Campus quietude may be the byproduct of historical trends, but that doesn't mean that it's inevitable.

Differentiating between globalism and glocalism makes this clearer. If universities like Yale were purely global in their policy-making, then the decline in campus protest could be explained by a willful and idealistic shift in students' attention to more global concerns. But corporate universities are glocal as much as they are global. In a glocal scheme, local concerns are not parallel to and differentiable from global concerns, but integral to them. In order to achieve their broader, more global ends, universities must ensure that their local constituents are with the program. Campus protest becomes a significant annoyance to be prevented.

The easiest administrative strategy is simply to ignore students' requests for open dialogue around tuition and other university policy. The current Yale undergraduate financial aid campaign has run into this roadblock repeatedly. Other times, Yale has agreed to talk, but not in any real way. In a memorable example in 1986, campus activists pushing for Yale to divest from companies doing business with the South African apartheid regime did win an open meeting—which the University scheduled at 8:30 am on a Saturday morning, when most students would normally be sleeping. (Three hundred students still showed up.)

The classic embodiment of limited democracy at Yale is Kingman Brewster, University president from 1963–77. Brewster broke from Clark Kerr in allowing political advocacy on campus—"the democratic process cannot survive on apathy." But under the threat of radical-led challenges to Yale's regressive labor policies, the University chose to suppress student protest, on the grounds that "spokesmanship will fall to a most unrepresentative group."

Another, perhaps subtler, tactic is to appeal to a (contradictory) mixture of traditional and capitalist views on education. On the one hand, salaried graduate students are treated purely as students—especially when they organize around benefits and job security. Intellectual labor is "very distinctly different" from other campus labor, Levin has said. "They would not be employees here if they had not first been admitted as students." On the other hand, the University is a business, and all financial decisions are viewed as business decisions. "I mean, the current recession is forcing us all—even Yale with its large endowment—to reduce our costs by about 15 percent. And it's good and it's healthy. And we will be stronger as a system by taking the excess costs out."

Excess for whom?

When my classmates and I canvass campus dorms to talk to students about financial aid policy, virtually everyone agrees that the University should draw from its $16 billion endowment to make Yale maximally affordable for all students regardless of family income. Since most students lean liberal, the success of campaigns becomes a function of students' will to mobilize. But the battle is more uphill than many think. The modern multiversity may give off a post-ideological, worldly humanitarian vibe, but that doesn't mean that it's neutral on local and campus issues. The administrators and executives who sit on boards of trustees and oversee global initiatives are the same people who actively discourage opposition to corporate university policies that affect students, workers, and surrounding locales. And so before attributing the present campus slumber solely to wayward student attitudes, it's worth remembering that students don't live in a political vacuum, and student activism is often targeted at the very establishment that seeks to subvert it.

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