Don’t Give Up on Universities
All Along the Ivory Tower
Something cold, dark, and vicious is taking hold of American academia. You can feel it on campuses around the country. Activists on the right are seizing this moment to storm the “ivory tower,” taking advantage of the Trumpian sea change and spurred on by a majority of Republicans who now (apparently) have a negative view of colleges and universities. As a result, we are seeing abundant, ongoing evidence of a ramped-up assault on higher education as we know it. Whether posed as responses to “political correctness” and the supposed “persecution” of conservatives on campus, as efforts to expose and combat liberal/left bias in curricula, as principled defenses of “free speech” and “open debate,” or as just a boldfaced attack on “elitism,” the collective components of this assault have fused together in the assembly of a formidable anti-intellectual, neo-McCarthyist inquisition.
There are many moving parts to this de facto war machine. There are, for starters, conservative students and groups on campus, including mercenary groups like Turning Point USA (TPUSA), whose entire goal is to purge academia of liberals and leftists; not to mention a reserve army of online trolls and harassers whose vitriol groups like TPUSA rely on to intimidate and attack left-leaning faculty and students. Moreover, the outwork of this culture war is financed by the major conservative donors and institutions who seek to tilt the terms of engagement in their favor. Then there’s the fact that each fresh volley from the campus battlegrounds gets breathlessly chronicled and magnified by a mainstream media industry that runs on voyeuristic outrage and that’s obsessed with what is going on at colleges and universities (especially the elite ones). Campaigns of disinformation and manufactured outrage are deployed via a network of “watchdog” websites like Campus Reform and The College Fix, which misrepresent, fabricate, and “signal boost” anger-inducing stories until they become national news via Breitbart, the Daily Caller, Infowars, and Fox News. From the wood-paneled confines of conference rooms, the conflict is abetted by boards of regents and trustees, wealthy donors, and high-ranking administrators who either support this cause or who spinelessly capitulate to extremists in their predictable rush to protect their own university brands and endowments at the expense of the communities they’re supposed to serve. In the councils of public deliberation, meanwhile, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle (but mostly on the right) are not only pushing legislation aimed at curtailing dissent in general, but are also targeting academia specifically with efforts to punish protesters and politically active faculty, to defund universities or university programs out of political spite, and to make it easier to dismiss faculty for their political beliefs. These and other forces have combined in what is now a sustained and undeniable effort to root out the putative leftist scourges that have long besieged our institutions of higher learning.
At the same time, universities in general, and campus politics especially, have worn the patience of many on the left. There is a growing contingent of leftists of the Mark Fisher persuasion—including prominent voices like Freddie DeBoer and fellow Baffler writers Angela Nagle and Amber A’Lee Frost—who are fed up with the over-representation of universities as a crucial site of struggle in the left political world—and are often equally irked by the way politics at universities operates. Regarding the latter, much of the focus actually tends to overlap with some of the core concerns coming from right. Both critiques rest largely on a shared indictment of a student-dominated, SJW culture that is largely sealed off from the daily realities off campus and that tends to emphasize “frequently farcical identity politics” (as Frost puts it). Many left critics have decried the way this political culture supposedly sacrifices more consequential class politics for “call outs” and woker-than-thou performances of one’s own oppression, or of enlightened guilt about others’ oppression (a.k.a. “virtue signaling”). And as a byproduct of this unhinged campus sanctimony, left detractors argue, the left is burdened with militantly policed forms of groupthink and groupspeak that stifle necessary critiques and push many to withdraw from leftist political spaces altogether. Lastly, critics seem to have ample reason to believe this campus cult of pious wokehood and speech-obsessed politics sacrifices concern for the most glaringly obvious and drastic problems at the rotting core of higher education today—including an entire generation swallowed by unprecedented levels of student debt and the conversion of universities into neoliberalized hubs for capital accumulation, administrative bloat, and an increasingly serf-like workforce.
It shouldn’t be reactionary to acknowledge that campus politics has demonstrated a tendency to either shoot itself in the foot or to prove that it’s exactly what the right wants to believe it is.
The affinities that these leftist concerns about campus politics share with some of the right’s central criticisms of higher education in general pretty much leave us with two options: either we take the convergence to mean that such leftists have exposed their inherently reactionary sympathy with the right-wingers they’re supposed to oppose at every stop; or we acknowledge that there actually are some serious problems with campus culture and the grip it has on leftist politics writ large. My cards are already on the table here—on a number of occasions I’ve voiced concerns about some of these same issues, and I have tended to agree that some parts of campus politics and campus-style leftism are just sucky and counterproductive. Leftists of all stripes can be secret reactionaries for many other reasons, but it shouldn’t be reactionary to acknowledge that campus politics in this day and age, as it appears to the mainstream, has demonstrated a tendency to either shoot itself in the foot or to prove that it’s exactly what the right wants to believe it is.
What matters most, though, is what comes after we grant that campus organizing on the left has picked up some toxic habits. It seems that the preferred response is either to root out the sickness with a scorched-earth crusade, as the right is doing, or to give up on universities, declare them a lost cause, and divert our energies elsewhere. The problem with the latter strategy, though, is that we would be abandoning universities precisely when they need us most—we would be feeding them, feet-first, into the ravenous jaws of the right’s war machine just as it’s gaining full steam. Doing so would be a disastrous mistake. As imperfect and headache-inducing as universities may be at times, leftists would be perilously foolish to shrug off the wide-reaching fallout of a future, Trumpified (and DeVosified) educational landscape in which universities have been fully digested, “cleansed,” and reshaped by the right’s war machine.
But there is much more at stake in the fight for universities than a simple, rearguard effort to hold the line against the right’s assault. Amid all the high-decibel campus drama, something special is happening at universities—something that needs to grow, something that we need to see grow.
For months now, I’ve been attending regular meetings around the University of Michigan campus, meetings where socialists, communists, anarchists, and even Democrats have been cooperating, providing mutual aid, and making decisions together. I have been one of many organizers involved in a broad coalition that has drawn together the efforts, talents, and solidarity of undergraduates, grad students, faculty, staff members, community members, unions, and a laundry list of organizations based in and outside the university. Our coalition started coming together in the fall, when it was announced that white supremacist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer had requested to speak on our campus. From the outside, it may very well appear that our situation is nothing special—just more pissed-off university types who are banding together to keep a dangerous person and his violent followers from invading our home. On the ground, though, things look a lot different. Through fits and starts, through trial and error, through camaraderie and respect for our differences, something is building here, something the left desperately needs. And maybe outsiders are right: maybe our situation isn’t unique—because we see it happening elsewhere, too.
There’s no denying that campus politics has become an entirely unsympathetic enterprise in the public eye. Any political movement taking place on university grounds these days has to fight an uphill battle against the ever-increasing stigma that such movements are either completely disconnected from what the rest of the country cares about or that they’re a primary cause of the country’s woes. One crucial reason for this is the right’s decades-long, round-the-clock obsession with painting universities in a negative light as part of the long game to claw back the left’s cultural and institutional gains from the sixties and seventies. But that’s only part of the story. Universities can’t simply sidestep the blame for all the times they gave the right exactly what it wanted.
Over the past four decades, universities have experienced drastic changes to what they stand for and how they operate.
How did campus politics end up where it is today? I don’t fully know. But I have some hunches. I’ve made clear on a number of occasions that I share with others a particular critical view of the changes to how colleges and universities have come to operate—a view that sees these changes as part of a long, global trend toward neoliberalization: the gradual and concerted privatization of formerly public goods; the top-down effort to break the back of organized labor power; the gradual submission of all wants and needs, all goods and services, all goals and operations, to the logic of “the market”; and so on. The story of higher education’s own slide toward neoliberalism is complex and, of course, it varies on a state-by-state, institution-by-institution basis. There’s no point in rehashing the story here yet again, and there’s plenty of excellent material on the subject out there already (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here . . . ). The point is that, over the past four decades, universities have experienced drastic changes to what they stand for and how they operate—from the explosion of contingent faculty positions and tuition rates, subsidized by student debt, to the ever-increasing dependence on private partnerships and funding for research as well as the concentration of wealth and decision-making power at the top of hierarchical administrations.
Here’s the thing: we acknowledge that these structural changes have had dramatic impacts on teaching and learning in higher education, on grading, on students’ college experiences as well as their financial futures. Doesn’t it also stand to reason that such changes to the very fabric of higher education would also determine, to a large extent, how politics happens on campuses? Universities have long been crucial sites for intense political struggles involving students, faculty, administrators, community members, and so on—that is not new. What is new is the increasingly neoliberalized setting in which campus politics emerges and takes shape. This inevitably determines a whole host of factors ranging from the demographic makeup of campus communities to the kind of politicized grievances that emerge from campus life and learning to the institutional incentives, opportunities, and restrictions delimiting the range of political mobilization to the scope of feasible demands political actors feel they can make and fight for, etc.
Teasing out the many subtle and overt ways neoliberalization has reshaped campus politics is a much larger project. (Spoiler alert: I’m writing a book about it.) But, to give one concrete example, we might start by considering the evolution of the outsized role played by university administrations in the political expectations of college students. Critics who focus on the content of students’ and faculty’s political demands at universities today (inclusive and anti-discriminatory language, conscientious representation of different identities, campus safety, etc.) tend to trace the roots of this content back to what bodies of knowledge or what generational quirks are informing them. What we so often overlook, though, is that the more telling hallmark of campus politics today is its ingrained impulse to appeal to the parental authorities—from department chairs and student governments to Deans and Presidents—whose decisions control what is “permitted” on campus, in classrooms, and what isn’t.
For all the necessary good that may inspire or result from these appeals, the appeal process itself channels and recycles campus politics into a mode that is essentially feudal, limiting political possibilities to what can be squeezed out of benefactors whose authority is always a given. (The crushing, always-looming reality of students’ futures being claimed by debt only makes the feudal nature of the student-administration relationship more apparent.) I’m generalizing here—there have been, of course, crucial exceptions. By and large, though, campus politics of recent memory has been characterized less by genuine power struggle than by appeals to people, offices, and organizations whose power is rarely ever questioned.
At some point, university administrations stopped being “the Man” and just became the Father.
At some point in higher education’s evolution, the operation and administration of power at universities became increasingly illegible and infinitely unreachable to those who learned and worked there, like a black box whose otherworldly functioning is just a permanent, taken-for-granted fixture. At some point, it became an accepted fact that, along with its subsidiary outposts (student governments, fraternities and sororities, etc.), university administrations would be the paternal power through which all matters of university life and all political demands would be filtered and arbitrated. At some point, university administrations stopped being “the Man” and just became the Father.
Perhaps this is the more worthwhile way to understand why campus politics looks the way it does today. Perhaps students and faculty have focused more and more on certain political struggles because those struggles, while by no means being easy, have yielded comparatively greater possibilities and more political gains than others within the boundaries of what is permissible in the neoliberalized campus environment. Perhaps it has been in university administrations’ best interests to make and publicize concessions on matters like diversity, inclusiveness, and safety while fighting tooth and nail behind the scenes to squash or curtail political campaigns on campus that actually challenge the administrative power arrangement itself—from union struggles to calls for debt forgiveness. And perhaps this is why it is so significant that people on campus are currently working among themselves to find another way of doing politics.
It is precisely this kind of top-down custodial power that political movements on campus are learning to challenge. I know because I’ve seen it, I’m participating in it. At the University of Michigan, a broad coalition of students, grad students, faculty, staff, community members, unions, and various organizations has grown out of a shared initial impulse to do something about the fact that white nationalist Richard Spencer and his torch-wielding followers plan to storm our campus community, and our university administration is going to let it happen. Officially, the coalition has grown under the simple name: #StopSpencer. Unofficially, #StopSpencer has become the name, not just of a core network of activists and organizations around campus working to address a singular threat, but of a movement to fight violent systems of oppression while building power and support within the campus community itself, apart from administrative or governmental bodies.
#StopSpencer’s binding power has been, from the beginning, a shared commitment to fighting the white supremacist and neo-fascist threat that is embodied in Richard Spencer but is by no means limited to him and his followers. The occasion of Spencer’s anticipated visit to Michigan has charged those working in or with the coalition to pool our collective knowledge of and experiences fighting fascism and white supremacy while—and this is crucial—appreciating that a diversity of tactics and commitments is an essential component of that fight. This was demonstrated early on in the #StopSpencer Week of Action in late November, during which a number of organizations covering the left-center political spectrum put on a collective slate of teach-ins, speak-outs, information sessions, a walk-out, and a student strike. At the time, while focusing on engaging and educating the community on white supremacy, fascism, free speech, etc., the general hope for the Week of Action was that it would pressure the administration to reject Spencer’s request to speak at UM.
The crucial moment for #StopSpencer, though, came when the university administration made clear that, regardless of the repeated outcries and concerted action of the campus community, it would, indeed, be granting Spencer’s request. At this point, the limits of the university’s feudal power structure became remarkably clear. The administration signaled that it would continue to make decisions that would have drastic, even deadly consequences for the campus community without seriously addressing the demands of the community itself. In the following weeks and months, #StopSpencer began to understand itself as a coalition and a community whose power would not culminate in appeals to the administration, but in providing what the administration would not.
Antiracist and antifascist politics are providing a catalyst for many on campuses to confront anti-democratic power arrangements.
Out of this shared change in political consciousness, new forms of action and cooperation have begun to germinate. One example of this has taken shape in the mutual support between members of the #StopSpencer coalition and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO), the union representing UM’s non-tenured-track lecturers, which is currently bargaining with the university for fairer wages and benefits. In the middle of November, LEO released an official statement condemning Richard Spencer and urging the university administration to reject his request to speak at UM. Noting that “Spencer’s presence at this university would be an affront to lecturer faculty as mentors to and advocates for our students,” LEO recognized that the #StopSpencer movement’s fight against white supremacy and fascism on campus was inseparable from the faculty’s struggles to fulfill their roles as educators and defenders of students. In response, members of the #StopSpencer coalition came out in full force to LEO’s bargaining rally in early December, with one undergraduate organizer, Hoai An Pham, addressing the crowd: “Lecturers have further shown support toward students regarding the recent campus climate. Their call to student safety is one that the entire administration has ignored, and it says something that the lecturers are willing to prioritize us as students when the administration, all of whom have job security, cannot.”
The #StopSpencer coalition is far from perfect. Like any movement, it has had to wrestle with internal disagreements, organizing challenges, divisions of labor, sustaining energy, and developing shared positive principles out of a foundational opposition to white supremacy and fascism. Similar coalitions on campuses where Spencer is slated to speak, including Michigan State and the University of Cincinnati, have had to do the same, and none of these coalitions have followed an identical path. The point, though, is that antiracist and antifascist politics are providing a catalyst for many on or around campuses to directly confront the anti-democratic power arrangements that have, up until now, stripped them of the capacity to decide for themselves what happens in their communities. Antiracist and antifascist politics are opening the possibility for a strain of coalition-building, solidarity, and concerted action in campus communities that can converge in the fight against systems of violence and oppression while also turning the tables of the neoliberal power structure. And people should take notice.
Appendix—Profiles in Resistance: Voices from the #StopSpencer Coalition
Anne Berg is a lecturer in the History department who specializes in the politics and culture of the Third Reich and Nazi-occupied Europe. She has also consistently been one of a small handful of faculty members—operating in some cases without the protections of tenure—to take an active and public role in political demonstrations and antiracist, antifascist organizing on campus. Talking to the Michigan Daily during the #StopSpencer Week of Action, Berg challenged other faculty and officials to get off the sidelines: “I see my students in fear, I see that they’re not just terrified about what’s going to happen to them, but they also feel terribly alone. The leadership is really absent, and the people who are supposed to be experts and guiding the students are not guiding them.”
Like many others on campus, Berg found herself compelled after the 2016 election to do more, to put her expertise as a scholar and her skills as an educator to work for her students and her community beyond the classroom. Because, as she explains, “Trump is not the problem, he’s a rather nasty symptom of the problem. And what most of us are doing most of the time is describing the symptom instead of focusing on the root causes. And so, I want to . . . start repairing and help maintain [our] community that is seemingly ripping apart at the seams . . . most important, I want to make sure that my students know, I don’t just care when behind the lectern.”
Evaluating both the dire hazards and political possibilities of our time, especially within the campus community, Berg notes,
There’s an urgency to politics right now that I have not encountered in all the years I’ve lived in the U.S. . . . Today, not only my engagement is different, but campus seems to have rediscovered politics in a way that is inspiring. It seems different from the Occupy Wall Street movement. It seems more personal and, at the same time, more informed by the global crises—from displacement and civil wars, to environmental degradation and climate change. And what I find most remarkable is the ability of students to think about coalition-building in new ways. Perhaps that was Trump’s gift to the left, I don’t know. Perhaps a populist with autocratic tendencies and [a destructive] male ego complex is what white people need to be propelled into action. Because surely the campus didn’t erupt into this sort of activist frenzy when #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) went viral, which really it should have.
“I found out about the coalition and joined it, knowing that my town, community, and friends would have to defend ourselves if [Spencer] brought his usual white supremacist violence here,” a local anarchist told me. “I think we all recognize that ‘free speech’ is a red herring when white supremacists are organizing for our destruction . . . Their “free speech” comes with a body count, permanently silencing the speech of anyone not ‘white’ enough for them, and . . . their political opponents.” A self-described “townie” who asked to remain anonymous, he is one of a number of anarchists in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area who have joined the #StopSpencer coalition.
Even though the anarchists have no official affiliation with the university, their voices have been among the most crucial reminders that the university’s decision to host Spencer—regardless of whether his appearance occurs during spring or summer break—will leave the local community exposed and vulnerable. Thus, their hope is that the coalition will continue developing in a direction that will allow it to become a support network for the community at large, not just for those tied to the university. Moreover, by harnessing a wealth of knowledge and experience in community organizing and defense, the anarchists have helped steer the coalition toward self-reliance and away from appealing to the administration:
Within the coalition I’m interested in putting up effective resistance to the event itself, as well as building capacity for struggles going forward. My own interests are primarily off-campus, and focus on cultivating community more capable of autonomy, self-defense, and resistance. We all have our own priorities among the millions of intersecting issues we have, so I see building capacity and solidarity as foundational to effectively resisting oppression and giving us room to build the world we do want to see. . . .
I think the biggest criticism I’d have of our work is that we haven’t done enough to build capacity among non-students and people without any university affiliation. The organizing and messaging [have generally been] very student-centered . . . For capacity-building, reaching non-students is a necessary step, given that the administration’s fever-dream solution to threats of white supremacist violence on campus is to give them a platform when students are gone, such as during breaks or outside the semester. . . . With students being the primary component of the resistance, the administration can undermine resistance while playing to the most common complaint of “student safety and security” by hosting events when undergraduates will be out of town. A significant portion of the resistance will be gone, and the administration can spin their enabling of white supremacist violence as being considerate of student safety, ignoring the rest of the community that resides in town full-time, often working to sustain the very same university making space for someone who threatens their existence. Everyone in the community, not only students, are being threatened.
Austin McCoy has been a staple of the Ann Arbor political and intellectual community for some time, taking part in and documenting anti-racist politics at UM through his teaching, writing, and organizing. McCoy, who finished his PhD at UM in 2016 and is currently rounding out his time in Ann Arbor serving as a Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, was drawn into antiracist politics on campus—or pushed, rather—for a number of reasons; most prominently, the slaying of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Aura Rosser (a forty-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by the Ann Arbor police in 2014). As for the broader political scene on campus, McCoy notes, “The 2016 election and the threat of white supremacist violence, especially coming out of white supremacists’ visit to Charlottesville, has politicized many students and community members.”
Still, for the #StopSpencer coalition and other movements on campus, this necessary surge in political energy faces pivotal obstacles that all campus-based movements must work to overcome. “Collectively, sustaining energy has been a challenge,” McCoy admits. “Our school years feel short because we have four-month summer breaks and organizing around short-term crises hasn’t always been sustainable. Drumming up support for new campaigns in a moment of abeyance is typically tough for ad hoc groups, or groups that possess little institutional resources and memory.”
With a longer personal and scholarly memory of the past trajectories of campus politics at UM, McCoy has been there to not only remind many in the #StopSpencer coalition of the important work previous activists and organizations have done to make the current coalition possible, but also to highlight what is truly unprecedented about the coalition:
I notice more continuity in organizing since prior campaigns and movements and the 2016 election has politicized more students. There is also more of an effort to build a long-term sustainable coalition of activists and organizations across political lines (along the left) and communities (off- and on-campus). They are also working to build more relationships with faculty and staff. They are working for the long term in ways we were not able to even a few years ago.
McCoy also stressed that outsiders and critics should know that politics at UM, contrary to many caricatures of campus-left activism, is steeped in deliberative efforts to organize across subcommunities of identity—and into the broader community of Ann Arbor:
People should know that we have some of the most thoughtful, creative, and principled student activists at UM. Student activists have been able to make a tangible impact on campus and beyond. #BBUM trended nationally. The news of Dana Greene, Jr.’s twenty-four-hour kneel-in also reached people beyond campus. Black queer women from Students for Justice led mass marches and walkouts. Black undergrads pushed the administration to adopt a campus-wide DEI plan, even if the jury remains out on it. Last year, graduate students in [the Graduate Employees’ Organization] successfully bargained a new contract, and we’re living in a right-to-work state . . . We could do more work in the community, but we have had an impact in local politics. Some of us got involved in trying to change criminal justice here . . . after Rosser’s death. And folks from campus are still involved in the push for citizen oversight of law enforcement. Politics here have been pretty vibrant over the last several years.
On a frigid Saturday in January, I spoke with a university staff member who, like the rest of us, had trudged out in the cold to attend a town hall co-organized by members of the #StopSpencer coalition. Drawing in a broad audience of community members with variable affiliations to the university (or no affiliation at all), the town hall was called in anticipation of a final decision from the UM administration about when Richard Spencer would be allowed to speak on campus. All signs from the tight-lipped administration had suggested that the university was, indeed, trying to mitigate the damage by supplying Spencer with a platform during the spring or summer breaks. Along with seeming to downplay the many shared concerns about Spencer’s poisonous ideology and the violent crowds he brings with him to campuses, this scheduling maneuver particularly incensed the staff member sitting next to me, who assured me that there were many other staff members who felt the same way.
In a follow-up conversation with this staff member, who has worked at UM for more than fifteen years and has asked to remain anonymous, she explained:
The white supremacists may be talking about freedom of speech, but their goals are to incite violence, to terrify people of color and progressives, and to silence higher education communities . . . In a much-lauded “compromise,” the University of Michigan states it will only grant a platform to these white supremacists during spring break or the summer. I have been told repeatedly that staff offices may not close on the day this happens. My question is this: why is my life so much less valuable than the lives of the students and faculty I serve?
Kellie Lounds and Leah Schneck are both undergraduates and organizers at Michigan—and both of them identify as Democrats. Yet both have found in #StopSpencer a supportive and productive community where their skills and input are valued, regardless of the stark ideological and demographic differences between them and other members of the coalition. Recalling the first meetings when the coalition was coming together, Lounds admits, “It was weird to be one of the most centrist people in the room . . . (a very new feeling for me), but people respected the skills we brought to the table.” By and large, these political divisions didn’t seem to matter, “because fighting Nazis is something we can all get behind.”
Elaborating further on the breakout promise of the #StopSpencer movement, Schneck emphasizes
how important and special it is that we have a cross-left coalition . . . I think another piece that is significant is that undergraduates have been leading the organizing and that everyone else is supportive of and invested in maintaining the coalition that way. Coming from a background of . . . youth empowerment and organizing, which is what I am interested in doing going forward, I am incredibly grateful to the non-undergraduate members of our coalition who have full respect for us and are willing to stand as colleagues or comrades with us.
Drawing members from the university and non-university community, the socialist left is well represented in the #StopSpencer coalition. And, as with the other diverse members and organizations involved, the ideological commitments informing their contribution to the movement, particularly their anti-establishment devotion to grassroots organizing, is proving to be more of a boon than a burden. As one anonymous member of the Huron Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (HVDSA) explained,
It’s key to have power that we, as Stop Spencer and as a broader community, can wield ourselves; we can do things that the City and the [university] administration can’t (and/or won’t) do . . . The [university] and the City want to channel discontent with the current socioeconomic system in ways that maintain current power structures; we know the current power structure is broken and can make it fall from the outside. Actions like this don’t rely on our convincing some administration or city representative to use their power and instead rely and build upon our own power.
This sentiment, which has taken root in the collective ethos of #StopSpencer, is fleshed out further by Natasha Abner, an assistant professor of linguistics at UM who, in her spare time, is also heavily involved in organizing for HVDSA and the Ann Arbor chapter of the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN). Having been born poor in Eastern Kentucky, Professor Abner has come by her commitment to social and economic justice directly, and viscerally. From local struggles like #StopSpencer to those that aim for the highest echelons of power, Abner notes that the pursuit of new power arrangements and new ways of living is only as good as our relations with one another and our mutual ethos of care:
Political and social action like ours is driven by a commitment to improve the lives of not only ourselves but of others. That is fundamentally an act of compassion. In addition to the hope that has come with witnessing the ways that people are increasingly involving themselves politically and socially, I have also been grateful to see how the compassion driving the movement can filter down into the day-to-day acts of organizing with each other . . .
Political action is a matter of responsibility; it’s the part we play in creating social structures designed to deliver our collective welfare. As individuals, we all need to reckon with our role in maintaining and benefiting from the current system, but also our role in unraveling it. Here, there is a special responsibility that goes along with privilege. I have a responsibility to leverage the power of my whiteness and my citizenship in defense of those who do not share these privileges. As faculty members, even in the time of precarious academic employment, we have to fulfill our responsibility to leverage our power in defense of the students whose minds and bodies have been entrusted to us.
Like so many in her undergraduate class, Neala Berkowski arrived at the University of Michigan with a rose-tinted view of life, learning, and tradition on campus. That view was shattered when the #BBUM movement went viral in her freshman year, putting a spotlight on the pervasive, living legacies of racism in UM’s campus community. “At that point I was still in my ‘We’re the leaders and best!’ phase,” Berkowski admits, “but #BBUM and other student movements on campus were starting to show me that UM is complicit in all kinds of oppression, and that taking action was the only thing that would change that.”
Now, as a senior, she is a co-organizer of the radical student group Radfun, which was one of the central student organizations in the founding of the #StopSpencer movement. Comparing #StopSpencer to other political experiences during her time at UM, Berkowski singles out the diverse makeup of the coalition itself as one of its greatest strengths. “It has not only given us the capacity to do more, but also the ability to take different kinds of action.” This, if the movement continues to sustain itself, gives hope for what the coalition can do in the future:
From the beginning we’ve agreed that, although Spencer and his [white supremacist] movement are disgusting . . . the problem is much bigger than one person or one movement . . . There’s so much other important work to be done in our community that’s not directly related to Spencer. I hope that after he’s gone we can use the power of the coalition to combat the other violent effects of white supremacy in Ann Arbor and the surrounding community.
And Berkowski is by no means the only one to find power and long-term potential in the diversity of the #StopSpencer movement. Diversity has been a prominent focus for Armaity Minwalla, a graduate student and writer who spent the past two years working for UM as a diversity peer educator and witnessing firsthand the destructive frequency of “hate crimes and bias incidents” on campus. As the number of such incidents has continued surging in the wake of Trump’s rise to power, community members and organizations have found crucial strength in their differences, Minwalla observes:
This year, the most significant difference has been the unification (without homogenization) of community organizers against what I believe to be the root of many issues and incidents plaguing this campus: white supremacy. This coalition encourages and embraces a diversity of ideas and tactics to dismantling a system that, by refusing to ensure the safety of its marginalized members, inherently supports a culture of white supremacy. The shift in organizing this year is not an ideological one but strategic one. While this coalition was formed as a response to a potential visit from a modern Nazi, it persists in its dedication to changing a system that has allowed for the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of marginalized students.
Phil Christman is a writer and lecturer in the English Department at UM, an advocate for contingent faculty, and an active member of the Lecturers’ Employees Organization (LEO), which has been outspoken about its opposition to Richard Spencer and the University’s decision to provide him a platform. In the eyes of the university administration, the professional roles of people like Christman are clearly demarcated: along with students, grad students, and administrative staff, lecturers, and other members of the non-tenure-track faculty are consigned within narrow categories that define what’s expected of them and what they’re worth to the university (and apparently UM doesn’t think lecturers are worth very much). But the intersection of struggles against fascism and white supremacy with the fight for fair wages and treatment in the neoliberal university has continuously exposed the ways that these categories fail to account for the lived experience of the people they’re supposed to categorize. As Christman explains,
I can go to a union bargaining session, and sit there while a person who never enters a classroom justifies the fact that s/he makes three times what I do, and feel righteously insulted; and then I can go sit and talk to one of my undergrads who tells me that mine are some of the only classes she’s had during her time at this fabulously resourced institution where she feels that her ideas matter at all, that in most of her other classes she’s going through motions or being weeded out, but not actually being made to think. And then I can go read about the fact that (non-union) students of color may have to provide a PA for an event put on by a neo-Nazi. Our situations aren’t the same, but the same neoliberalizing of the university drives all of it: the decentering of teaching and learning by a self-interested and out-of-touch administrative class that wants to cheapen, and cheapen again, the labor that sustains a university; a curriculum that pits terrified and deep-in-debt students against each other for tiny tokens of “success” that, being tokens, don’t have any relationship to actual thinking; and the everyday exploitation of the people this country has always exploited. It sucks, and it makes me mad, because things could so easily be better, if we weren’t afraid to just let teachers teach and let students learn.
But like others who have worked in or alongside the #StopSpencer coalition, Christman sees a lot to be hopeful about in the politics that is emerging on campus—especially the newfound sense of solidarity that has taken hold among its partisans:
I will say that I’m deeply moved by how much students and other activists have taken the problems of lecturers to heart . . . Something else I’ve noticed among younger activist types is that they put more emphasis on personal kindness than I remember people doing when I was college-age. When I tried to “get involved in stuff” before—always out of a sense of guilt, because personally I’d rather be reading or writing—it seemed like a lot of people I met on the left had a kind of punk-rock affect to them, as though they believed niceness was always a bourgeois lie. The [activists] I meet today don’t have that so much, and they also are less likely to guilt you if you can’t make it to every event or even most events. I never feel like I’m being judged, just continually invited. Perhaps modern life has gotten so bad that not being a dick to people is countercultural now. In any case, it’s really refreshing.