Sunday, April 28, 2013

Against Civility: Dartmouth and the Logic of Administrative Discourse

These days, Dartmouth looks like the worst place in the world. By now most people are familiar with the story: after a group students protested the administration’s failure to take seriously the problem of sexual violence, racism, and homophobia on campus during a recent event for prospective students, they were targeted with rape and death threats on an anonymous student website. (Lots of screenshots are posted at the Real Talk Dartmouth blog.) On Friday, the Dartmouth administration sent a mass email to the entire campus announcing that disciplinary action would be taken in response—against not only those who made the anonymous threats but also those who participated in the original protest.
As some of you know, a small group of students disrupted the Dimensions Welcome Show for prospective students on Friday, April 19, using it as a platform to protest what they say are incidents of racism, sexual assault, and homophobia on campus. Following the protest, threats of bodily harm and discriminatory comments targeting the protesters and their defenders ran anonymously on various sites on the Internet.
With tensions high across the Dartmouth community, Interim President Carol Folt, the Dean of the Faculty, and other senior leaders across campus agreed that the best course of action was to suspend classes on Wednesday, April 24, for a day of reflection and alternative educational programming. This decision was made to address not only the initial protest but a precipitous decline in civility on campus over the last few months, at odds with Dartmouth’s Principles of Community.
This unusual and serious action to suspend classes for a day was prompted by concern that the dialogue on campus had reached a point that threatened to compromise the level of shared respect necessary for an academic community to thrive. The faculty and administration together determined that a pause to examine how the climate on campus can be improved was necessary. This was an important exercise that the Board supports. It is also important to note that there will be an opportunity for faculty to hold the classes that were missed as a result of Wednesday’s events.
Neither the disregard for the Dimensions Welcome Show nor the online threats that followed represent what we stand for as a community. As Interim President Folt indicated Wednesday in her remarks in front of Dartmouth Hall, the administration is following established policies and procedures with regard to any possible disciplinary action in both cases. As in every case regarding a disciplinary investigation, this process is confidential and respects the privacy of our students.
This email is an exemplary model of the genre of “administrative discourse.” It is not specific to Dartmouth or to private universities for that matter, but along with certain forms of university management have become generalized throughout higher education in the United States. We’ve seen some of this here at the UC, where the administration frequently makes the same kind of pronouncements. When students have organized actions against racism, sexism, and homophobia—which manifest in multiple forms from daily microaggressions to bureaucratic impunity to police violence—the administration often feels the need to make a public statement. These campus-wide missives are tepid, sterile, designed by committees primarily in order to avoid provoking, offending. Administrative discourse is the absence of language.

Some critics have observed that what is particularly problematic about the Dartmouth administration’s email is the fact that it posits a false equivalence between the students’ protest and the rape and death threats they received. Any equivalence is obviously not only false but intensely violent. As David Theo Goldberg wrote in the wake of a 2010 email from UC President Mark Yudof calling for “tolerance,”
To say that the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic incidents at UCSD, at Davis and UCSC are cases of intolerance is to imply that that those engaged in these expressions are saying awful things to and about people they reject. To call for tolerance is to address only the awful things they are saying, not the underlying and implicit rejection. It addresses the symptom, not the underlying condition of which the individual utterances are merely the manifestation. We should not say such things, it implies, even about people we find or whose behavior or culture we find unacceptable.
The same could be said of the situation at Dartmouth. But there is something else going on in these examples of administrative discourse. Both “civility” and “tolerance” smooth over the violence of the status quo, transforming it into a blank slate for unceasing dialogue—a dialogue that, for its part, never upsets the neutral “civility” of the status quo. At the modern university, furthermore, “civility” is more than an ethic, it is at the same time a form of governance. It is composed of countless instruments, from room reservations to student organizations, but the maximum expression of “civility” are “Time, Place, and Manner” restrictions, by which the administration designates those forms of “speech” that count as legitimate and acceptable and likewise those that do not. The latter, of course, do not even count as “speech” but rather tend to be seen as something approaching “violence.”

What these protests are, at least if they are to be effective, is disruption, an intervention against the normal operations of the university, against “business as usual.” That business, of course, is maximizing revenue streams—many of them public, but increasingly private. Disruptions threaten the flow of capital through the university’s veins, and as such they must be prevented. The university administration’s job, then, must be seen as one of a constant managing of threats which are political, financial, and literally embodied in the students. We are the crisis. The police, of course, is one mechanism by which the administration attempts to neutralize these threats, but as the last few years have demonstrated the police often provoke more outrage, and consequently more disruption, in the course of carrying out their brutal “duties.” So from the administration’s perspective there are more effective tools—such as “civility,” which governs the norms of legitimate action. “Civility” is a gentle policeman.

Beyond false equivalence, then, the problem with the Dartmouth administration’s statement is the turn to “civility.” Administrative discourse represents an attempt not to shift the debate but to neutralize it. By deploying “civility” it hopes to disrupt disruption, channeling energies away from blockage and confrontation and into forms of pure speech that in no way threaten the constant flow of capital through the neoliberal university.

Friday, April 12, 2013

BP and UCPD Off Campus!

Cross-posted from BP Off Campus . . .

[On] April 10th 2013, members of Occupy Cal's UC Berkeley student group Open University reserved the world-renown Sproul Steps to launch the new "BP Off Campus" campaign. (...) The latest venture of Occupy Cal, the bpoffcampus campaign has been been focused on the greatest privatization scheme on the #1 Public University, which is British Petroleum's $500 million dollar deal with UC Berkeley regarding biofuel research at the EBI (Energy Biosciences Institute). Briefly, this deal is at best, a greenwashing scam for one of the worlds dirtiest corporations, but more troubling is the precedent that Big Oil can buy their way in and dictate education and research at a public institution. Please read more about it here.

Though Occupy Cal doesn't boast the numbers it once had . . . the UC Administration and their lackey thugs in blue, the UCPD, are still gravely concerned, because they know they've been robbing students and the public at large for years, and a sustained student movement on campus would expose their corruption and sink them. That's the reason for the continued authoritarianism against student protesters like Occupy Cal. We aren’t content with one-day “Day of Action” rallies, tepid measures passed in student governments, stalled ballot reforms, etc; no, occupying space; be it Sproul Steps, the commons in front of city hall, classrooms, administration buildings, farms, libraries: we’ve determined it's the best way forward, as this strategy has been the main source of student activism victories in the past. Why else would the UC Berkeley admins send in armed thugs to break up a teach-in about biofuels, in a room that was properly reserved?! [The teach-in took place on February 16, 2013 --ed. note]

Fast-forward to . . . April 10, we set up our table in our officially reserved space without any trouble, but as soon as our famous Occupy Cal heart-signs came out . . .


. . . the police started to swarm: more UCPD showed up, said some Sproul regular tablers, than had in months.  The threat of a radical movement will do that.

The UCPD told us we had to take our table down and leave immediately, to which we responded, we reserved the spot as a student group. They replied "We'll check on that," to which we said: "Why don't you check before you start making illegal demands?" The UCPD came back later, with their tail between their legs, admitting that we did in fact have the right to be there; though if he got the order to take the bullhorn, he'd snatch it right from our hands. "Why don't you just follow orders?" we dared, holding the bullhorn out. "Why don't you just follow orders!" So they deployed a new strategy, bring out the Student Group Administrator (the woman in the white blouse in the above photo) to harass us with spurious regulations, that seem to have been made up on the spot.

We had a sign, (as part of our protest that we jumped through hoops to make sure we were playing by the "rules" in our temporary "Free Speech Zone"), that told BP to "Fuck Off." After all, why we should be overly polite to a corporation that has a long history of lying, cheating, stealing, polluting and murdering? UCPD and the administration connived and concluded that saying the word "fuck" was fine, but having the word "fuck" on a sign was illegal, and we needed to immediately take the sign down. We asked her: "Are you aware of where you are standing?"

Yes, we were on the Mario Savio Steps, where the FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT was launched.

The Admin insisted. We replied, "This sign isn't going down. Are you prepared for a PR disaster?" She continued to insist. We wanted to see the documentation of this rule, as we had never heard of such of thing (and having many, many protests over the years with signs that said "Fuck" on them with no incident) and our scanning of the "rulebook" found no such policy. Incredibly, this UC Berkeley official said it wasn't her responsibility to show us the rule in writing; could we show her the rule where we had the right to have a sign with profanity? UC Berkeley 2013 ladies and gentlemen! "How about the 1st Amendment of the fucking US Constitution" was the obvious answer.

The action wrapped up without any further major incidents, and it was one of the better Sproul actions in over a year with many new students actually stopping by and getting informed and involved. Which is noteworthy, considering how modern UCB campus culture is for students to ignore the dozens of tables and groups handing out flyers at Sproul Plaza and walk through as quickly as possible. Please spread the word of our campaign and our website to your friends and networks. And please consider getting involved!

This campaign isn’t limited in scope to just the University of California Berkeley. There are overarching and interconnected causes of social justice, human rights, environmental activism, quality education for all, and ending the drug war and the prison industrial complex (just to new a few, broadly) are all within the vision @bpoffcampus. This campaign is a unique opportunity as a launching off point for all of these issues and more. Why? Activist goals can be achieved and demands can be met on campus with direct action in ways that CAN NOT be done by appealing to Sacramento or Washington DC. And even if you are not a student, the University of California belongs to ALL OF US Californians: we must take it back! The time is now!

With broad consensus of the world’s top scientists that climate change caused by excessive fossil fuel consumption uncheck will cause mass global extinctions, and the immediacy of new oil spills and pipeline bursts occurring virtually every week, action must be taken immediately to get Big Oil out of our colleges and out of our lives. We must expose the BP/EBI deal at UC Berkeley for the greenwashing scheme and privatization scam that it is, and kick the corrupt, lying, thieving, polluting, and yes, murdering corporation British Petroleum out now!