Thursday, November 18, 2010

Faculty and the UC Protests [Updated]

There's an interesting conversation developing on twitter right now around faculty participation (or lack thereof) in the protests around fee hikes and budget cuts at the UC. It started with this post by Angus Johnston, who noted parenthetically in a discussion about the protest at yesterday's regents' meeting, where a cop drew his gun on unarmed students and pepper spray was used indiscriminately, that "The faculty, meanwhile, have mostly stayed silent and disengaged." Check out @studentactivism, @javierest, @reclaimuc, @santacruztacean, @dettman for their thoughts.

Here's an email that speaks to this discussion. It's a little old, and obviously is not really generalizable, but it's nevertheless a fairly striking statement on the interest, energy, drive, and engagement of the faculty. In part, this is because of who wrote it: UC Berkeley professor Ananya Roy, the star of that (in many ways problematic) New Yorker article from last winter about the student movement in the UC. The email comes in response to discussion on the faculty listserv about whether to hold a teach-in on October 6, the day before the October 7 Day of Action. In 2009, faculty led a teach-in on September 23, the day before the massive walkout in which 5000 people participated. The teach-in in the Wheeler Hall auditorium was packed to capacity, so much so that many of those who couldn't get in held their own teach-in outside on the steps. Clearly, faculty engagement contributed to the massive turnout in September 2009. Contrast that with Professor Roy's take on the situation in October 2010:
From: Ananya Roy
To: Saveplus
Sent: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 6:30 PM
Subject: Re: Re Oct. 6th teach-in

Dear Barrie [Thorne] and friends,

Thanks for the update. I teach a large undergraduate class this semester - as I did last Fall - and the difference is palpable. Only 2-3 students out of a class of 700 have spoken to me about Oct 7 or seem actively engaged in the planning for it. Our class midterm was scheduled for Oct 7 and I moved it to Oct 5 but I did so because I wanted to have the flexibility to honor a walk-out if one takes shape rather than because of a call by students to do so. I think there is very little energy or enthusiasm among the general student body about Oct 7. It is not that these students don't care about what is happening to public education in California - they do and they are experiencing it first hand. But I am of the opinion that the activist students, even brilliant activists like Ricardo [Gomez], are engaged in conversations with themselves - within SWAT, within the General Assembly. The task of building a popular movement seems to have collapsed. And perhaps this year we (faculty) are not as willing as we were last year to serve as mediators or interlocuters. I will honor Oct 7 but I am not sure what that will mean. But I am also quite convinced that a teach-in will not draw the students who most need to be energized and that a teach-in on Oct 6 is terribly late in the game to build momentum for Oct 7.

One way to read this would be that Roy is just being realistic -- the state of the "movement" was very different in October 2010 than in September 2009. But what's hard to reconcile is the sense that faculty are standing on the sidelines, observers of what is essentially a student movement. They are bystanders. It is the fault of the students that the movement is dead, and there's nothing faculty can do to change that. All they can do is wait for students to organize something -- but really, those students aren't even doing a decent job of it. They're talking to themselves, they're not getting anything done. They've failed. So much so that the faculty should not even put together a teach-in to mobilize for October 7.

In the end, a teach-in happened, and it was supported by SAVE and the Berkeley Faculty Association. It was much smaller than the year before, and only one professor spoke. The walkout the next day seemed large considering the level of mobilization on campus, but it too was still far smaller than the previous year's. Anyway, the point is not that there's some causal relationship between Roy's email and the smaller numbers on October 7. Rather, it provides a sort of snapshot of a faculty view of these protests -- student protests -- about their horizon of possibility, and about the ways in which faculty can (and cannot) participate.

[Update Thursday 12:04pm]: @javierest tweets, "worth noting:faculty leaders. TJ Clark: retired. gone to london.Nelson Maldonado:on leave.recruited away? wendy brown and judith butler: also on extended leave. pos leaving. who's left?"

In fact, from the Wheeler occupation on, almost all of these professors have had a highly ambivalent relationship with student protests. I'm going to copy some of the things that they've written here below the fold, so you can get an idea of where they stand. Of course, they've also said and done other stuff, so what follows shouldn't be taken as an across the board rejection of faculty support (although often the faculty seems to be condemning student action).

Nelson Maldonado Torres and Ananya Roy writing in the wake of the Wheeler occupation in the Daily Cal:
November 20 presents a challenge to us all. We now find ourselves asking: Will Nov. 20 mark the end of the efforts of UC Berkeley students, faculty and workers to collectively mobilize around the cause of public education and social justice in California? Will the day prove the fragile nature of the solidarity that was being constructed through painstaking work, dialogue and alliance? And will the presence of militarized police on campus, become a profoundly alienating experience for many? After all, Nov. 20 was a day when the campus community found itself in a space controlled by riot police. Whatever else was happening, whatever else may have been attempted, this established the parameters of action and communication on that day.
Wendy Brown, after the arrests at live week and the incident at the Chancellor Birgeneau's house on December 11:
What a group of cops did on November 20th was beyond the pale and inexecusable. The students were non-violent; the police were violent.

What the hooligans did at the Chancellor’s house last night was beyond the pale and inexecusable. It is also unacceptable to say he and his wife were in no danger. I challenge you to say that when an angry chanting crowd is throwing rocks through your windows in the middle of the night.

Neither round of violence is intrinsically justified and neither justifies the other. We (faculty) are not having debates. We’re condemning what happened at the Chancellor’s house just as we condemned the police violence outside Wheeler on November 20th.

End of general faculty view. I will now give you my personal view of the arrests on Friday morning. In contrast to the peaceful and relatively responsible occupation during the week, some of the occupiers were planning a concert to which they hoped to draw a couple thousand people and which had no provisions for crowd control, fire regulations or substance controls. It could easily have resulted in anything from the whole building being trashed to kids being trampled to death. It was also likely to come into conflict with a final taking place in Wheeler Auditorium at 8 AM the next morning. The posters invited people to stay “until the cops kick in the door.” I don’t know what naivete or hubris or pure stupidity led the organizers of this event to imagine this was really going to happen. Frankly, between those plans and then the desperate cry to the faculty that went out to the faculty following the arrests– for bail, for assistance in reducing sentences, for rides back to Berkeley from Santa Rita, for retrieving backpacks from Wheeler, and for lenience on paper deadlines, I feel like we’re dealing with 10 year olds. It’s tedious, it’s infuriating and its wasting a lot of valuable time and energy while the greatest public university in the world is slipping away from us. It is also not lost on any of us that the number of students involved in this bullshit is remarkably tiny but that it has and will continue to drive away many other students who at one time were eager to become activists on behalf of the preserving the University of California. Indeed, what is striking in the anonymously forwarded garbage below is that there is not one mention of saving the university, only excitement about violence. The “cause,” if there ever was one, seems to have disappeared.
T.J. Clark on the Wheeler occupation:
It would be good -- putting it mildly -- to move toward a situation in which the obvious political questions about the occupations could be discussed frankly. This won't be easy: obviously those taking real risks and suffering the real hardships associated with occupations have reason to be impatient with those casting doubt.

It's hard to avoid a discourse of blame and dismissal, even of people -- faculty, students, staff -- whose dedication to building an effective resistance over the past months seems unquestionable. The kind of treatment they received in, say, the Counterpunch article strikes me as glib (or worse). But it is time to move beyond name-calling.

Some of the questions we ought to be discussing are these. First, as with any form of political action, questions of tactical aim and effectiveness. Occupations demanding what? Addressed to whom, in the short run (beyond "the authorities," I mean)? Doing what -- hoping to achieve what -- with the all-too-likely "negotiation" and winding down that follow such actions in a day or so (or even sooner, in the case of the UCOP invasion)?

Second, just as urgent, questions about the occupations' strategic point. To what kind of wider movement are they addressed, precisely in and through their expected "defeat"? To a student movement? Or is the very idea of such a movement consigned to the dustbin of history? How do the occupations stand -- as spur or spark or spanner-in-the-works -- in relation to questions of the California economy and state financing of public education? For instance, how do the organizers see the occupations contributing to the building of a student fee strike in response to the 32% rise? This is one tactic being actively considered.

Such a strike would be directed straight at one main provocation among the present slew of attacks and attritions, have the possibility of gaining widespread support, and, if it succeeded, have real-world consequences. Or is this kind of strategy -- longer-term, involving a vast amount of painstaking organization, persuasion of the "moderate" student center, legal maneuvering, etc. etc. -- seen as hopeless and counter-productive? Are occupations MEANT to make such a channeling of energies harder? Certainly some of us suspect they do, or will.

Talking tactics naturally means talking about the real-world political and social situation. Contrary to myth, even in what was thought to be a pre-revolutionary situation in '68 -- I cite the '68 precedent reluctantly, and claim no special authority regarding it -- there was considerable difference of opinion among those sympathetic to or involved in the occupations about the tactic and its future. Was "territorialization" of the movement the way to go? What did it mean to occupy territories -- buildings, theaters, university blocks -- that in no sense were strongholds, or even significant outposts, of the actual productive or repressive apparatus? (Let's put heavy irony about Wheeler, the literary canon, and the economy aside.) When does a tactic become a shibboleth? Does occupation symbolically/literally "enclose" the student movement in its provided social space, and entrench its distance from other social actors?

I am not, by the way -- repeat not -- saying that the answers to all these questions were/are clear. But they were real questions, hotly debated, even in a time of escalating social breakdown and apparent threats to state power, when the possibility of student actions resonating with -- maybe spreading to -- the realm of production and consumption was... well, a possibility. They ought to be asked again, a fortiori, and debated differently, in our present paralyzed social and economic world. I go along with much of what The Necrosocial has to say about that dead landscape. But precisely because the wider terrain in California and beyond is one of funerary calm, the question arises: "One spark to set THIS plain alight?" Some of us doubt it.

None of this is meant for a moment to call into question the intensity and commitment of the occupiers, or to offer ANY kind of justification for what the university chose to do in response last Friday. It just seems to me urgent that "sides" within the current of opposition don't now freeze into mutual distrust and silence.

Best -- Tim
Again, the point is not that faculty shouldn't disagree with students involved in protesting the privatization of the university. Of course there are divisions and tensions -- sometimes they can even be productive. Still, it's striking that from very early on even those faculty who were coded as most in solidarity with the protests and protesters -- even a former situationist! -- are out there questioning, condemning, criticizing. Presumably they're doing more positive work too, but sometimes it's hard to see what it is.


  1. While I agree with you that faculty at UC Berkeley have been noticeably silent since Nov 20th, I don't think this post takes the right position with regard to the professors it criticizes. It's one thing to rebuke the faculty for failing to participate in or support student activism, but it's another thing to fault people on our side for asking critical questions in good faith. I specifically disagree with the idea that acts of "questioning, condemning, criticizing" are somehow counterproductive as opposed to the positive work of affirmation and self-boosting. Moments of critical lucidity are vital to the progress of any political struggle; I look forward to more such moments, not fewer -- and I look forward to the moment when faculty come back into the fold. I don't think we need give them any reasons to doubt our good will.

  2. Just to be clear, I'm as dismayed as you are by the apathy of Berkeley faculty, and I disagree strongly with Wendy Brown's condemnation of the students arrested at the open occupation of Wheeler ("10 year olds"?? really?). Still, I think we need to understand that public disagreement is the very stuff of politics, and that intelligent discussion of strategies and tactics ought to be taken as a sign of strength, not weakness.

  3. I'm not sure anyone is saying there shouldn't be intelligent discussion. And public disagreement is all very well, but how you disagree can make a difference between it being an acto of solidarity(an essential component of movement building) and being destructive. Whatever intelligent discission is, that "10 year olds" crack isn't it. Roy's alienation and critique from the self-relegated sidelines isn't actually discussion. Clark, maybe..

  4. Increases in fees further guarantee the job security of faculty. Here's another example of hear no evil, see no evil, run from evil. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians in Sacramento, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.
    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain & Company, to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization.
    In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC president, Board of Regents, and California legislators to jolt UC Berkeley back to life, applying some simple check-and-balance management principles. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, Academic Senate, Cal. Alumni, financial donors, benefactors await the transformation.
    The author, who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way the senior management operates.