The Role of the University and the Role of Student Power

“The Role of the University and the Role of Student Power”

The University: Fortress or Beacon: Open Forum

Colorado State University, 10 October, 2001

I want to start with a quote from the former President of Tanzania, Julius K. Nyerere. “There is, in fact, only one reason why underdeveloped nations like ours establish and maintain universities. We do as an investment in our future. We are spending large and disproportionate amounts of money on a few individuals so that they should, in the future, make a disproportionate return to society.” (Man & Development, 1974) That was the first thing I read during college that suggested that I wasn’t just in college for my own development, to make money, to build a career.

you’re not here for you.

Next I want to read from Oscar Arias, the former President of Costa Rica, who spoke at the 1988 Harvard University Graduation: “The majority of young people in this world are neither here nor in the other university graduations. That majority, if they are lucky, got up early today to plow fields or to start up machines in factories. Others face a day of begging for food and water. Young people like yourselves are dying in futile wars or barely subsisting with no hope….In an interdependent world, your responsibilities will go beyond your country’s frontiers. Pesticides or arms produced in some countries may kill elsewhere, and that has to stop. For you are not entering a predetermined world. If you want peace, you will have to construct it. If you do not want misery, you will have to eliminate it. You will have to change twenty centuries of war into a century of peace.”

So it’s up to you to rescue this world.

What do you need to do while you’re here to prepare for that? you need to learn not only information and skills, but also how to work for change.

Now some people say the the university isn’t “the real world”, so it’s not the place to wage an anti-war or an anti-globalization struggle. But others insist that where you are is real. The University is a very important institution in our society. You need to take responsibility for this institution. And at this point in your live, you have more power in this institution than anywhere else.

So how can you do your part from here?

First of all, you need to learn about specific ways that this institution is involved in U.S. imperialism through its relationships with corporations and the military. It is because of u.s. imperialism that people all over the world are really angry at the U.S. right now.

Then you can take a lot of some previous models, because there has been a rich tradition of student organizing not only here in the U.S. but all over the world, where universities are one of the centers of struggle for social justice.

For decades, students many universities around the country have worked to prevent the military from doing research on campus. (Later during this session, someone pointed out that nearly $20 million of military research is happening here at CSU.) Students have also worked to kick ROTC and military recruitment off of campuses. Even high school students have kicked recruiters off.

The anti-sweatshop movement is a very strong current movement, in which student groups on 180 campuses are trying to get their universities not to hire sweatshops in production of university logos. this is a very important movement. (See United Students Against Sweatshops.) Sweatshops are one of the very visible manifestations of U.S. imperialism.

Another powerful student movements of the late 1960s in addition to the anti-war movement was the struggle of students of color for the establishment of ethnic studies departments. Now it’s useful to understand their vision because they weren’t just struggling for new courses at the university. They were struggling really to address the needs of communities of color in the U.S. They demanded that the university actively address the oppressed members of american society by doing a number of things:

  • They demanded open admissions to ensure that working class people and people of color would have access to the university.
  • They demanded that the curriculum be accountable to community problems.
  • They demanded that the hiring of faculty and management of the programs be democratically run by a joint council of students, faculty, and community members.

You all need to pay attention to the fact that you are on public land and you are citizens. In fact this is a land-grant university, which was intended to serve the people. It is your responsibility to safeguard that responsibility, and most particularly to safeguard the democracy and accountability of the University.

Now here’s a little primer on common tactics used on campuses:

  • Teach-ins: Teach-ins are University-wide responses to a crisis, a sense that knowledge is needed that’s not in the classes. So the whole University comes together for like a whole day and everyone shares their views. The presentations should be pretty short, like 10 minutes, so that everyone who has some relevant information can present it. And there is a democratization of knowledge, which means that students, staff, faculty, and people from the community all speak as equals. Usually people walk out of classes, expressing their moral sense that they have to risk some part of their grade because the issue is more important. Now the administration should not be sponsoring teach-ins. That’s a perversion of the idea. People thought the teach-in a few weeks ago was a bit radical. But it was pretty tame. You’re not supposed to rent a room. If we’d done it the way they’re supposed to be done, we would have walked into Clark A101 and taken it over, during a lecture!
  • Hunger strikes: Another standard means of protest. Students set up a tent-city on campus (usually right in front of the main administration building) and commence a hunger strike. They take a great risk in order to draw attention to the behavior of the university.
  • Taking over buildings: This can be done in a whole variety of ways. You can just occupy the office of the decision-maker and refuse to leave until they meet with your and/or meet your demands. You can occupy the building, making it hard for it to operate. Or you can actually lock down the building by locking yourselves to it. (Count the doors!)
  • Student mass strikes: At the largest university in Mexico (UNAM) , students went on strike in April 1999 to demand democratization of the university. They refused to go to class or do research and totally shut down the university. They occupied buildings, created their own classes, and demanded negotiation with the university. Their goal s were democratizing the university, stopping the privatization of the university, and stopping the fees which the World Bank had demanded be imposed, which would have prevented working class people from attending.