Why position “abolitionist university studies” in opposition to “critical university studies”? – Trevor Griffey

The invitation’s argument that critical university studies “is haunted by its allegiance to a ‘crisis consensus’ fueled by nostalgia for the apogee of the postwar public mass university” does not accurately describe CUS’s most exemplary works.

In Jeffrey J. Williams’s 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education article that tried to label two decades of scholarship critical of the privatization of U.S. higher education as “critical university studies”, he lists three books from the 1990s as key to the development of what he was calling a field. One of those books is Academic Capitalism (first by Slaughter and Leslie, later revised by Slaughter and Rhodes), which has inspired a small subfield of scholarship on higher education administrators’ constant search for more revenue. The book argues that 1) university administrators are enthusiastic rather than reluctant agents of the commercialization of higher education, and 2) that public universities are part of the neoliberal state rather than mere vestiges of progressivism or the New Deal order. While critical of neoliberalism, the authors of Academic Capitalism state clearly in the book’s first chapter that “returning to the public good knowledge/ learning regime would be problematic because it had an unacknowledged side. In the 1945-1980 period, much scientific and engineering research [in universities] depended on Department of Defense funding for weapons of mass destruction.”

The invitation’s argument that critical university studies is informed by a politics of nostalgia for the so-called golden age of capitalism also seems to be based on an ungenerous reading of Christopher Newfield’s book, The Great Mistake. This is the book that the invitation’s authors are clearly criticizing in their footnotes for appealing to what “we have somewhat snarkily referred to [as] this white, middle-class, and sorta-liberal formation… the ‘concerned-dad audience.’” The Great Mistake is also criticized by Boggs & Mitchell for being part of an “administrative-managerial tendency toward prescriptive nostalgia.” Newfield is clear in his previous book, Unmaking the Public University, that racism and sexism pervade higher education— and that defunding public higher education was a repressive response to student movements, the enforcement of anti-discrimination law, and the growing diversity of college students. So his advocacy in The Great Mistake to reverse the decline in public spending on higher education could hardly be labeled as a desire to return to the days when free college depended upon robust military spending, before federal anti-discrimination law or ethnic studies.

It seems that what AUS proponents are inaccurately labeling as nostalgic is actually a certain kind of reform politics. As I understand the AUS critique, if an institution is borne of racial capitalism, as the modern university was, then reform of that institution without overthrowing racial capitalism itself is either impossible, undesirable, and/ or insufficient. My guess is that many reformers would concede the last point– that what they propose is insufficient– and that the greater friction in the age-old debate over revolution vs. reform as applied to higher education is whether reform is even worth fighting for.

I welcome the provocation that the decommodification of higher education– the main activist project of critical university studies, and the demand that has served as single greatest entry point for anti-capitalist activism in the U.S. in the past four years– is only beneficial to the degree that schools are radically transformed. Higher education continues to be a site for the reproduction of the ruling class for a system that makes war, labor exploitation, and environmental catastrophe profitable. The job training it provides should be paid for by firms instead of workers. And the massification of higher education since the 1960s used promises of social mobility to turn post-secondary schooling into a system for warehousing and profiting from the vulnerability of the underemployed, the unemployable, and the downsized.

Critical university studies has insights to provide about this complex system, especially through its close study of the management and political economy of institutions. But its analysis of how the decommodification of higher education can realistically happen has arguably been inadequate. Discussions of radical pedagogy have largely existed at the margins of this scholarship. And on revolution, for better and worse, it has been silent.

About the author:

Trevor Griffey, PhD is a lecturer in Labor Studies at UCLA and Labor Studies and U.S. History at CSU Dominguez Hills. He currently serves a faculty delegate to the UC-AFT Local 1990 executive board at UCLA, and Chair of Membership and Organizing for the California Faculty Association at CSUDH.

Questions upon reading Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation – Max Haiven

Max Haiven’s response to “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation”

  1. The university is already being abolished. On whose terms will abolition occur? Necessarily, the university-as-such (the ideal institution to which all actually-existing institutions genuflect) will be abolished by the very system that it helped to reproduce: neoliberal, financialized, (neo)colonial, cis-heteropatriatchal racial capitalism. As the Invitation makes clear, this has occurred at a number of points throughout the history of the university. What is being built today in the ruins is a vehicle for racialized social sorting, a laboratory for new forms of labour exploitation, and a machine for encumbering a whole (re-)proletarianized generation with unpayable debts. Yet is another end of the academic world possible? What would it take to seize this moment of crisis and transition and leverage it towards collective liberation? What are the pivot-points of such a leveraging? Or is the strategy one of exodus?
  2. Is an abolitionist university studies:
    (a) the application of abolitionist thought to the study of the university institution?
    (b) the forms of abolitionist study that take place in (spite of) the university?
    (c) the study of how the university is entangled with the prison-industrial complex, and the fight against it?
    (d) practices of study for the abolition of the university (as we know it)?
    (e) all of the above?
    (f) none of the above?
  3. One key question of abolitionist thought seems to me to be: what does the prison falsely claim to offer that it can, as an institution, adhere such support, fidelity and faith? What does the prison (falsely) promise to society (or segments of society)? To what false problem does it insist it is the only realistic solution? How does it, itself, perpetuate that problem, and a (mis)understanding of that problem? What happens when we apply these questions to the university? And most importantly, from an abolitionist perspective, how can we, here and now, deprive the university (or aspects of the university) of resources such that other solutions to better problems become irresistible? How can we renovate our desires that we have been taught to imagine can be met by the university, desires that the university constantly betrays or manipulates? What do we need to abolish inside ourselves in order to abolish that on which the university preys? What will take its place?
  4. Why is it that, at precisely the moment when the university-as-such has revealed itself to be little more than an organ of debt-driven racial capitalism, when its operative myths seem everywhere discredited or weaponized against workers, why at this moment has it become the staging-ground for a resurgent fascistic spectacle? The university, like no other institution, has gleaned the ire and become the target of far-right and revanchist racist pantomimes of protest in the name of “defending” freedom of speech. Reactionary media is full of click-bait outrage-inducing stories decrying the latest pathology of the allegedly “liberal” university, now fallen to deplatforming trans antifa snowflake social justice warriors.  Somehow, we must link the shifting place of the university under racial capitalism to the revanchist reactionary fantasies that make it their target. Why is it that, today, the fate of university so captivates the public imagination that it can become the stage for a broader cultural war over the future of racial capitalism?
  5. How do we move from the dream of a different university to the dream of a society without universities? How do we plant the seeds of that society here and now? To what extent can those of us within (even against and beyond) the university even have such dreams? Or maybe more accurately, how do we imagine a society that no longer needs the university, or where the needs that are today met by the university are met otherwise?

Max Haiven is an organizer and works as Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University in Anishinaabe territories (Thunder Bay, Canada). Re co-directs RiVAL: The ReImagining Value Action Lab and is working on a book about revenge.

Welcome to the Party! – Dylan Rodríguez

A Response by Dylan Rodríguez to “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation”

9/18/2019

I appreciate being invited to any party, but one full of folks like this?  Damn.

I’m offering a piece of writing that’s taken from the opening pages of a manuscript i’m finishing tentatively titled White Reconstruction, pt. 2:  a Counternarrative.  (I’m conceiving this creative-polemical book as a follow up to a forthcoming book from Fordham UP titled White Reconstruction: Remaking Racial-Colonial Violence.) As i read An Invitation, i kept coming back to the gravity of what seems to be a structuring, institution-constituting confrontation between radical creativities of being (including formations of praxis-based communities of insurgency and conspiracy) and the self-sustaining adaptations, appropriations, and low-intensity violences committed by the liberal (white/multiculturalist/diversity-animated) human/humanist under the auspices of the university and its epistemic comportments.  So, here it is…


We are planning something now, as word spreads that there will be an unannounced demolition.  The ones behind frosted glass doors are revealing nothing.  In their public appearances, there is grating monotone:  hedging, announcing, reassuring.  The gap grows. 

Here, there are planners of yet another insurgency of survival.  Over there, the administrators of something horrible, continuing.  The logic of the latter’s managerial routines quantifies the constant turnover of life (the biological as well as the lived, everyday grind):  actuarial tables of calculated misery, estimates of legal liability for violations of already-fragile bodily integrity, revisions of policy to accommodate the liberal need for nontransformative egalitarian flex.

Some see through the protocols of continuity, we know their rhetoric of sustainability is a colonial commandeering of the future, and our planning shifts away from suasion and peace to counter-intelligence and guerilla war.

            I volunteer, because you have already done the same.  I am no soldier, but i will wage war.  I know the intricate wiring of this network, the rear entry to his house, the motherfucker’s parking spot. 

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The (im)possibility of Decolonising the University – Sara Motta

A response by Sara Motta to “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation”

Click here to watch a video of Sara Motta’s lecture, “The (im)possibility of Decolonising the University.”

The main lecture is from about 7:00 to 46:10 minutes, followed by Q&A.

This lecture was given at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (The Netherlands), on Sept. 11, 2019.

Author Bio

Sara Motta is Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle (Australia) in the Business School (Politics and Policy). For more info, see this website.

Abolitionist Work’s Psycho-affective Dimensions and Pedagogical Challenges – Sharon Stein

Sharon Stein – a response to “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation”

Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation is the text I wish I had when I finished my MA program in higher education and began my doctoral program in educational foundations six years ago. Even more intensely than Critical University Studies, higher education as a field of study is invested in the intrinsic benevolence of the university. While universities are hardly presumed to be perfect, the assumption of the field is they can and should be reformed, and the field-imaginary is shaped by an imperative of continual progress and inclusion. The idea that universities might be so entangled with racial capitalist violence and extractive ecocidal practices that they are beyond reform is, essentially, unthinkable.

I began my work in this area with a particular interest in problematizing narratives that framed neoliberal capitalism as the root of all contemporary problems with higher education and lacked a longer historical memory about the problem of capitalism itself in higher education. I found the field of higher education generative in many ways, but overall inhospitable to the kinds of conversations that I was seeking, and the kinds of questions I had but could not yet clearly articulate. Thus, I turned to Indigenous, Black, and anti-colonial scholarship in an effort to ask what a decolonizing and abolitionist perspective could bring to the study of higher education. This work offered important analytical tools for deconstructing both scholarly and popular imaginaries of higher education. In particular, it prompted me to think about what continued to go unthought in the study of universities – especially, as the authors of this text note, its “shifting regimes of accumulation that constitute the university as such.”

Ultimately, what started as a concern about the limitations of my own field became a more generalized “radar” for the unthought, including within radical scholarship. This is an imperative to both continue to make visible what we would rather not see, and to continue with a Spivakian commitment to undertake a “persistent critique of what we cannot not want.” It is in this spirit, and from a place of deep gratitude and respect for the conveners of this gathering and authors of this abolitionist text, that I put forward two possible (and, in my mind, related) topics of conversation for further collective consideration: the psycho-affective dimensions of abolitionist work, and its pedagogical challenges.

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Curtis Marez – Response to “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation”

[image above: Queer college student Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) reading Ebony and Ivy in Justin Simien’s film Dear White People (2014)]

This invitation is so illuminating! I appreciate the attention to distinct yet related forms of accumulation, and especially the conceptual and materialist interventions into thinking about history, temporality, and memory. The focus on labor is vital. In short, this is a brilliant and generous piece that makes space for multiple kinds of companion thinking.

With this response I foreground histories of white nationalism on campus. In my forthcoming book, University Babylon: Film and Race Politics on Campus, I also start with Wilder’s work as a prologue to the story of US universities in the early 20th century.

I further build on Forgeries of Memory and Meaning, Cedric Robinson’s film history, to analyze  the symbolic and institutional collaborations between Hollywood filmmak­ers and university administrators. Together, cinematic and educational institutions have promoted a synthesis of misogyny, racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and deference to authority under the umbrella of white nationalist respectability.[1]

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