Sunday, May 6, 2012

Occupy the Farm and the Conditions of Academic Freedom

For two weeks now, a group of food justice activists, UC students, Albany residents, and occupy movement stalwarts have been farming and living continuously on a couple acres of UC-owned land, known as the Gill Tract. Those farming didn't ask the University permission before tilling and sewing the plot, setting up tents and a food station, or holding daily educational events for children. Instead, upon learning that much of the Gill Tract was slated for development – including for a Whole Foods – organizers simply made a plan for where and how to plant some vegetables on the tract, invited supportive people to join them, and started digging lines in the ground.

In response to this bold – if also understated – gesture, the University initially responded in a manner reminiscent of the Quan administration in Oakland: they claimed to the press that the encampment's facilities were unsanitary, fixating particularly on the activists' composting toilet. But this line of attack never really caught on, and was soon replaced with a colder, eminently reasonable tale – namely, that the unsanctioned farm was impeding scientific research, and would ultimately have to be dismantled in order that the ideal of free inquiry might be upheld. An added advantage of this updated administrative rationale for police intervention was that a number of professors and university researchers were willing to express similar views to the press, meaning that, in forcing a confrontation with those farming on the Gill Tract, University administrators could claim to be acting in support of researchers. This Friday, Vice Chancellor Breslauer issued an ultimatum to the farmers that cast their continued presence on the land as a stark threat to academic freedom:
On Thursday evening representatives from UC Berkeley and the group engaged in the occupation of agricultural research fields on the Gill Tract met to discuss the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the protest.... During the discussion Keith Gilless, Dean of the College of Natural Resources, emphasized that by the middle of May college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research, and that this requires that full control of the property revert to the university. He also emphasized that these complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment. At the same time, we reiterated that if the encampment is voluntarily disbanded, we will commit to include occupation participants in a broad-based discussion about the continuation of urban farming under university supervision on a portion of the tract, as well as any future discussions about the long-term future of the property. Also discussed was the value and principle of academic freedom that allows faculty members at UC Berkeley to pursue their educational and research interests without interference. During Wednesday's Spring Divisional meeting of UC Berkeley's Academic Senate, the chairperson, Prof. Bob Jacobsen, noted that faculty research had been "usurped" by the protesters' unilateral actions and stated that, "If there is no way to reach a win-win resolution, then I believe that the faculty's freedom to do their planned research must be supported as a key principle. As a faculty, I think we must stand by this." We are now waiting for the occupiers' response to our offer to participate in a broadbased community dialogue if they agree to end their encampment. Today, in a letter to their attorney, campus counsel outlined the process for the proposed community dialogue that would be led by the College of Natural Resources, and requested a response no later than Saturday night, May 5th. If they decide not to peacefully end their illegal occupation of the agricultural research field and refuse the offer to subsequently participate in the formulation of a plan for continued urban farming under university supervision and control, we have every intention of honoring our commitment to ensure the research activities are not impeded, and the rule of law is maintained.
What's interesting about this ultimatum is the degree to which it turns on the recognition that particular material conditions are necessary in order to uphold the ideal of academic freedom. In this case, Breslauer and Jacobsen want to argue that planned agricultural research projects have as their precondition an undisturbed and uninhabited tract of land. Moreover, we're told, this land must be “under university supervision and control,” meaning that a particular configuration of ownership and governance are being presented as conditions of free academic research. Breslauer's concluding line makes this linkage of property laws and academic freedom abundantly clear: “[W]e have every intention of honoring our commitment to ensure the research activities are not impeded, and the rule of law is maintained.”

 While it would certainly be possible to read Breslauer's concluding line as revealing the pretextual quality of his purported concern with academic freedom, I want instead to ask after some of what would follow from his conflation of university ownership and academic freedom, particularly in this moment of educational privatization. If Breslauer presents one view of what underlies academic freedom, what are the implications of this view? And what are some possible counter-views as to how material conditions might enable the realization of freedom, academic and otherwise?

The University's ultimatum to those farming on the Gill Tract implies that academic inquiry, in order to be free, should occur entirely within the bounds of the university, and that it should be carried out using university property, undisturbed by any thing or person not bound contractually to the UC Regents. This is a conception of the proper 'location' of academic research that is also reiterated every time a University employee is forced to sign a form declaring that the fruits of their academic labors – their discoveries, curricula, and lectures – are property of the UC Regents. It's a narrow (not to mention fantastical) conception of free inquiry, which assumes that knowledge can be cordoned off from broader publics and can be wholly contained within the parameters of private ownership. According to this view of academic inquiry, the greatest threat to academic freedom is the possibility that research might be contaminated by the bodies and minds of those not affiliated with the university, whether they be squatters on university farmland, those who would freely disseminate inventions or other effects of research, or publics that would seek to give direction to professors' research. For someone like George Breslauer, university police and administrators exist to keep such unruly elements at bay, and thus to allow academic research to be carried on in isolation.

 Of course, research is never, in fact, quite so enclosed or self-contained. Breslauer's view, while materially consequential, rests upon a fantasy of autonomy that occludes the degree to which universities remain dependent upon worlds beyond their gates. Social scientific research, for instance, generally involves the transcription of words spoken and gestures made by those not associated with universities. And natural scientific research, while often occurring on land controlled by universities, also takes place within state-controlled parks, on the open seas, or on someone else's property. University researchers are trained to treat populations and places pretty much anywhere as sites from which knowledge may be extracted. Moreover, researchers themselves are socialized and educated outside the universities (by parents, public school teachers, self-publishing bloggers, etc.), meaning that their work is enabled by the labors of those not enclosed within the bounds of the university. Universities thus feed, in an exploitative mode, on worlds to which they give little back, at least not directly.

The process of university privatization we're currently facing casts these exploitative dynamics in particularly sharp relief. Higher tuition rates, for instance, create a situation in which enrolled students fund university research by taking out massive debt burdens, and in which working class communities, particularly communities of color, are increasingly excluded from participation (first as students, and ultimately as researchers) in university life. Of course, even as they are excluded from direct participation in university life, working class communities will continue to be studied, to have knowledge extracted from them, to be objects of the academic gaze...

University privatization – which, let's not forget, is being enforced by campus administrators – reshapes not only the composition of the student body and the conditions of academic life and research, but also the content of this research. Public and private foundations, corporations, and wealthy donors are increasingly shaping the direction of academic research, ensuring that the work academics do is more directly generative of knowledge useful for managers and technicians at private firms and state institutions. Which is to say: university privatization is a threat to academic freedom, among other things we might value.

But it's not enough simply to call for the restoration of unrestricted state funding as a way to defend unfettered free inquiry. Such funding would merely ensure that research was a little less determined by instrumental ends; it wouldn't alter the exploitative relations underlying what we've come to know as university research – relations that are being put into question by the reclamation of Gill Tract. Open, self-governing formations, such as the Gill Tract farm – where, everyday, workshops are allowing those interested to learn how to grow food, and where experiments in autonomous social reproduction are continuously being carried out – provide bits and pieces, glimpses, of the material conditions necessary for free, and freeing, educational life.

For the sake of free inquiry and autonomous life and learning, we should defend the Gill Tract farm from those who would prevent, through force if necessary, the cultivation of such freedoms. One simple way to do so is to attend and speak up at this Tuesday's open forum on Occupy the Farm, which is being held at 6:30pm in Morgan Hall, on the UC Berkeley Campus.


  1. white people farming and doing manual labor on a farm... wow! This is reserved for migrant labor. Go back to reading Foucault and Hegel!

  2. "The University's ultimatum to those farming on the Gill Tract implies that academic inquiry, in order to be free, should occur entirely within the bounds of the university, and that it should be carried out using university property, undisturbed by any thing or person not bound contractually to the UC Regents"

    No, it doesn't imply anything of the sort. It simply states that the "principle of academic freedom ... allows faculty members at UC Berkeley to pursue their educational and research interests without interference". It makes no statement about activities by other people outside the University, or on non-University property.

    Disrupting research, which University faculty have planned and gotten the appropriate government and research community approvals for, is a violation of the researchers academic freedom to conduct that research.

    All the rest of your essay is just an attempt to distract away from how that clear principle applies to the Gill Tract.

    Bob Jacobsen
    Professor of Physics
    Chair of the Berkeley Division, Academic Senate

  3. While the ultimatum doesn't come right out and say that academic research is most free when it takes place within space owned and regulated by university administrators and closed off to people not affiliated with the university, such are its implications. If this weren't so, Breslauer's statement would take up the possibility that some sort of direct collaboration between researchers and occupiers could potentially allow for an arrangement that enabled research to continue. Instead of such direct collaboration, the relationship between researchers and occupiers is evidently now being mediated by members of the upper administration, and compromise over the use of the space currently being occupied doesn't seem to be something administrators are considering.

    (This is leaving aside the fact that other university-owned land is likely suitable for the research in question).

    While the rest of the essay may appear to be a distraction from the issue of "how [the principle of academic freedom] applies to the Gill Tract," the essay actually tries to argue that academic freedom, narrowly construed, shouldn't be treated as an absolute value that trumps potentially competing values and thus wholly determines all sorts of practical outcomes (such as what happens on the Gill Tract). As Breslauer acknowledges, there are material conditions of academic research. At the moment, these conditions are fraught with exploitative dynamics (and dynamics that cut against free inquiry in various ways). Insofar as such dynamics are counteracted, researchers will experience pressure and openings to do what they do in different ways, in more collaborative ways, as part of transformed institutions, etc.

    Academic freedom is necessarily realized within particular contexts; something at stake in the conflict over the Gill Tract is whether these contexts might be altered.

  4. It seems that those currently farming on the Gill Tract have some ideas for how they could work alongside university researchers, and are open to a "truly collaborative process":

  5. From your reply, I believe we are in agreement that the Gill Tract action, as it now stands, is inconsistent with the researchers' academic freedom rights. (I call it a right, you want to reduce it to a value, but let's set that aside for now)

    You go from there to discussion of "material conditions of academic research" as a possible justification.

    But this is about more than "material conditions", something that sounds beyond individual control like rainfall or sunlight. This is about the _actions_ of specific people, people who have unilaterally taken it upon themselves to interfere with the researchers academic freedom. Yes, conflicting rights have to be balanced, but exactly what are the rights the occupiers are asserting? The right to veto research they don't like? The right to seize other's property for their own uses? The right of a group, because they held a General Assembly, to overrule the law of a city, state and/or country?

    You've chosen to interfere with the academic freedom rights of my colleagues as part of the current occupy action. It takes a pretty strong, specific argument to justify infringing on the rights of specific individuals like that. Let's hear it, straight-forward and free of straw-men and distractions, the best explanation you've got: What gives you the right?


  6. The fact that the process granting the right to the faculty researches is just as flawed and corrupted and un-free as that of the occupiers. If the only way someone can do agricultural research is through a grant funded by Monsanto, how free is that research?

    1. Make that *more* flawed, corrupted, and un-free

    2. But that's not true. The research that is being destroyed in funded by the National Science Foundation and the USDA's Agricultural research service, not private companies.

  7. I wouldn't exactly say that the action is "inconsistent with the researchers' academic freedom rights." While I agree that the action creates unanticipated challenges for particular researchers, it seems, based on their most recent statement, that those farming on the Tract have a sense of how the space could be shared by researchers and those farming the plot for food. My hope is that members of the faculty at Berkeley will take the farmers' proposal seriously as a good faith effort to compromise, and will try and work with the farmers.

    You asked about rights that would justify the occupiers' presence on the Tract. While it would be possible to invoke particular rights (including those of the first amendment), I think it makes more sense to talk about this action in terms of other values or goods, like the value of growing and offering freely accessible food to those involved in the project and to other members of local communities (which would concern the right to food), or the importance of allowing local residents the access to land and educational opportunities that would allow them cultivate their own food (this is an aim consistent with the educational purpose of the university). My understanding is that a number of members of the Gill Tract occupation have been trying for the past few years to encourage the university to make these aims part of the mission of the Gill Tract, but that they've been rebuffed. Given this situation, it makes sense to me why they'd see this kind of direct action as the only way to realize the educational and food justice projects to which they're committed [This line is edited from it's original version to say 'projects' rather than 'values'].

    Since I'm fairly peripherally involved in the action, it makes sense I think for this discussion to be mostly about what those centrally involved are saying about why they should be able to stay. Here's part of their 'why this farm' statement: "We are reclaiming this land to grow healthy food to meet the needs of local communities. We envision a future of food sovereignty, in which our East Bay communities make use of available land - occupying it where necessary - for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs."

  8. (Replying to several together)

    To Anonymous who's contribution was "the only way someone can do agricultural research is through a grant funded by Monsanto, how free is that research": Since the research in question isn't funded by Monsanto, your premise is disproved (It _is_ possible to do research not funded by Monsanto, clearly), and your question about the freedom of the research has been already answered.

    To whoever tweets as @reclaimuc: This research isn't "ruled" by "giant agribusiness", according to the news reports it's entirely funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture. Nice attempt to distract from the real question, though it's a shame your point had no basis in fact. And to that same person, who thinks I'm "playing for the UC administration": I disagree, but it's a matter of opinion. In any case that doesn't make my reasoning any less valid, so if that's the best counterargument you can make in support of the Gill occupation, then you've made it even more clear that it's time for them to leave.

    And finally, to "a": From your reply, I think we've come to agreement on the topic of your initial post, which was titled "Occupy the Farm and the Conditions of Academic Freedom": Occupy the Farm is inconsistent with the right of academic freedom. You've made no argument otherwise in the last two posts. You've only said that there are other conditions and values to consider, values and conditions which were (as I understand it, though I didn't take part) considered and discussed and negotiated for a long time at UC, in the city of Albany and elsewhere. The Occupy the Farm people didn't like the outcome, they've made that clear, and have undertaken to unilaterally enforce their view. That puts them directly in conflict with the academic-freedom right of those researchers to use the UC land, along with the people of Albany through the city planning process, and everybody else who'd worked toward the activities planned for this summer.

    Then core question remains: by what right can Occupy the Farm overrule academic freedom and unilaterally destroy all that work?

    I don't think you can name such a right.

    I take you at your (well, this blog's) word that you care for the future of UC. Academic freedom lies at the core of what UC is and does. Therefore, despite your arguable "peripheral" involvement, I think you should value the principle of academic freedom and ask Occupy the Farm to leave the Gill Tract.


    1. Mr. Jacobsen,
      I'm not sure if you are making a sophisticated joke when you claim that because it is funded by the NSF and the USDA, the research in question isn't "ruled" by "giant agribusiness." The top tier at the USDA is currently composed almost exclusively of former Monsanto employees and collaborators.
      Tom Vilsack, current USDA secretary and former Iowa governor, is a biotech promoter who funneled tax dollars towards untested GMOs and experimental "pharmacrops," and consistently argued AGAINST meaningful regulation. Michael Taylor, the senior advisor to the FDA commissioner on food safety, is a former a Monsanto lobbyist. Roger Beachy, Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, was formerly the president of the Danforth Plant Science Center, Monsanto's "nonprofit" arm. Rajiv Shah, USAID director, was formerly a director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which works with... you guessed it, Monsanto, attempting to push GMOs and bioengineered crops on developing nations in the guise of charity. The list of former Monsanto employees and business partners who have walked through the revolving door of our corrupt lobby-infested government is too long to enumerate here. Amusingly enough, one of our current Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas, also had a previous life as a lawyer for Monsanto. I had to chuckle a bit when you made the claim that if a project is USDA funded, it is not corporate controlled. If only that were true. At this point, it is necessary for people to wrest control of their institutions back from corporations. That includes control of their public spaces and public universities, which have all been pushed into privatization for profit which not only harms the quality of research but will never stop looking for opportunities to consolidate control.

    2. Nicely said. But why waste time on these guys? Reason won't convince them. Read some other blogs posts. They're all about smoke to hide the point. True on this post too.

  9. To Prof. Jacobsen:

    I disagree that this conflict is primarily about academic freedom. Just like freedom of speech does not mean that everyone is entitled to a tribune for speaking, academic freedom does not mean that every research is entitled to resources to pursue their research.

    Most researchers depend on some form of state or private grant for their research; these grants are based on a competitive process where, to some extent, political and economic influences outside academic dictate which funding is available for which kind of research. Surely, if state or federal cuts led to cutbacks in university research, and cuts in funding for faculty and graduate students (as has happened quite a bit in the past), the Senate would not call it a violation of academic freedom?

    This is why I believe the issue here is not primarily (if at all) academic freedom. Rather, it is about whose right it is to use the land. So if anything, it is an issue of property rights, and the question of whether or not the property-owner is the university or any other publicly-funded institution is accessory.

    1. I think we're in basic agreement. Both the property right and the academic freedom right act together here. It's the University's property, the University community (as a whole, apparently certain individuals aside) values academic freedom, and those combine to mean that Occupy the Farm must end. Since property rights and academic freedom are not in conflict, we don't have to try to compare or balance them.

      As a point of interest, generally the faculty does view funding cuts as an attack on academic freedom _iff_ they're content-specific, particular if they are for political reasons. For example, we have resisted mandated cuts in state-funding to specific projects for political reasons, from both sides of the political spectrum. More wide-spread cuts, implemented through the usual processes of proposal review, etc, are generally not considered violations of academic freedom.


  10. Hi Bob,

    I've appreciated having a chance to respond to your questions and challenges. Based on your response here, however, it seems that my arguments aren't really being engaged as much as I would hope. I haven't agreed that occupy the farm is inconsistent with academic freedom, and have made a number of different arguments to support this view. It seems that you are committed to seeing this incompatibility, regardless of what I or those occupying the farm say on the matter. And, again, I'm being asked to name a right under which the occupation could be justified. I did so in my last post (naming the rights to assemble, and to food), while also naming other goods and values realized by the occupation.

    On the question of "unilateral enforcement": it is true that those occupying the farm took it upon themselves to carry out the values and projects to which they're committed, though it's certainly not the case that their having been rebuffed beforehand was a result of extended, community-based conversations. University administrators act everyday in unilateral ways; denying any space for community gardening and education on the Gill Tract was one of many unilateral decisions on their part.

    all best,

    1. I do see an incompatibility between the Occupy the Farm actions and academic freedom. AFAIK, that incompatibility is so far uncontested. If you are arguing that preventing the researchers from their chosen work is somehow compatible with academic freedom, I apologize for missing that. Please try again.

      It seems more likely that what we are talking about here is balancing that right against some other right. Not a value, or a preference, but a right that should sit right beside academic freedom at the core of University values. (And this is about University values, because you and I are members of that community, as are the researchers, discussing the uses of University land.)

      When you said "While it would be possible to invoke particular rights (including those of the first amendment), I think it makes more sense to talk about this action in terms of other values or goods", I took that seriously. I don't think "values or goods" rise to the level of importance that they challenge rights.

      Apparently I misunderstood your point. OK, fine, now we have a chance to set things on a better footing. The current candidates for rights that must be weighed against academic freedom are "the rights to assemble, and to food". I'm sure there are lawyers who can provide learned treatises on the exact status of those, but my layman's view is that they don't even come close. The right to assemble is entirely a post-hoc argument; none of the original justifications presented were about "the Gill Tract is the only place we can assemble"; it was about once they could do _once_there_. As to the "right to food", I'll skip past various philosophical arguments to a pragmatic one: How much food does the occupation have to produce to justify circumventing academic freedom? How many people, exactly, will that plot feed for how many months? Is this really the only way to do that?

      Finally, "University administrators act everyday in unilateral ways": Looking forward to an example of "University administrators" acting unilaterally against the principle of academic freedom. This is a post about "conditions of academic freedom" after all.

  11. Although I disagree with the idea that academic freedom means complete independence from any provider of resources (as we've seen above, this is impossible except maybe for an independently wealthy, self-funded researcher), the arguments made by the occupiers since the beginning have been quite problematic.

    Let's ignore for now the incorrect claims that have been made about the nature and the funding for the research (i.e. that it involves genetic engineering, and is funded by Monsanto). Since they now want to share the land with these researchers, let's assume the occupiers are not against the research being done per se. Indeed, the "Why this Farm" statement doesn't take position against the corn genetics research; it merely claims that growing food on this soil is provides a greater good.

    You must recognize that this is, in essence, a purely utilitarian argument, and that if one were to follow through on it, one would find that very few of the resources used by a university, at least on the short term, could be justified for the greater good. You could literally go to every graduate student and faculty member and say: "look, we think the material, human and energy resources you're using to study [topic X] would benefit society more if they were spent to feed and house the poor".

    And if anything, agricultural researchers could have a better shot than most of us in getting their research funded based on purely greater good arguments.

    1. Well, I wouldn't go that far. First the occupiers ignored or trivialized the needs or rights of the researchers. Who needs any of that nasty corn research anyway? When some of the researchers were getting too effective at rousing sympathy, they decided that they would graciously grant the researchers some land, with conditions and rules made up by the occupiers. Just because. When the researcher politely declined and suggested that the occupiers need to talk to the University, they were told that they may end up losing all of their land. As, in a shakedown: "Beautiful land you've got there. Shame if anything happened to it". All this legalistic talk is just cover for a naked power grab. I might as well argue that I should be able to occupy some tenured Marxists office because Marxism is manifestly dangerous. I'm not saying it is, but can't you see where this is going?

  12. The outrage that those farming claimed power without asking or the aggressive question -- "what gives you the right?" -- betray presumptions, perhaps even desires, that those not already enfranchised or credentialed shouldn't have such things, powers and rights being matters enjoyed and dispensed by 'us'.

    And the anxiety that the Gill Tract farm marks the first slip down the slide to authoritarianism rests on a projection and disavowal: the farmers' desire to share space is being read as a desire to push others off space, while what we're actually seeing is that those who've enjoyed a protected claim to this particular space are pushing everyone else off, or asking the police to do this work for them.

    The insistence that much of what I've written above is immaterial, so many smoke screens distracting from the single, simple, either/or question at hand, or the misreading of farmers' desires and plans as nothing more than alibis for aggression or delusions of grandeur (who will they really feed anyway?) manifests a refusal to allow for words, worlds, or ways of thinking and acting that are not immediately recognizable and familiar, that do not confirm prefabricated polarities and priorities, and that are threatened the moment they take shape, or take up space....

  13. The long term plan of the University is to remove the land from academic research. How does that serve the research community? The professors that are concerned about their freedoms and rights should support the new farmers by demanding that the land be used for research and production of food not more retail space. Als