Yesterday, workers from two unions on University of California campuses were on strike. One represented campus service workers and employees in UC medical centres. The other represented graduate student employees.
In such situations, students—whether undergraduates or graduates—are pulled in conflicting directions. On the one hand, they might wish to show solidarity with other members of their community. On the other, they feel as though they cannot miss class and the opportunities that come with it.
There is a post doing the rounds on social media, apparently from an instructor to his or her students. On the one hand, it is a thoughtful explanation of why the instructor (presumably a faculty member) chose to cross the picket-line, and why s/he thought that students should do the same. There are some good, even powerful, thoughts about the relationship between higher education and the challenges of the future, as well as some interesting self-reflection on a political and social journey of an individual across time.
But it was also a bit sad to me, because it encapsulated some of the thinking, or the way of thinking, which makes our campus community so Balkanised in reaction to the threats it faces from bureaucratic overhauls, state divestment, instrumentalisation, and monetisation, all of which amount to privatisation by stealth.
“We have 7 class days left until the end of the course”, the instructor wrote to his or her students, “Despite the fact that we’ve made good time and are likely to finish the syllabus with a few lectures in hand for review, class hours are valuable and your education is too important to just cancel a class if we don’t have to”.
This is an interesting point. Is one day of a person’s education more important than the opportunity to affect another person’s livelihood? Is one of seven remaining classes in one semester more important than the opportunity to make a statement about the value of that education to them, a statement which, if made by enough students, might help to ensure that future generations of students also have the opportunity to benefit from such education when the institution which provides that education is under threat?
The instructor continues, “Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”.
This, too, is interesting. On the one hand, the instructor makes the point to students that their education is all the more important because of the manner in which our world has grown inextricably interconnected, problems intertwined as much as people. The students in this class will share with their peers around the world the responsibility for meeting those challenges. And yet this is accompanied by what is essentially an injunction to selfishness and myopia.
It doesn’t matter what the injustices are, students are told. In spite of the fact that they involve your neighbours, concern people who provide the support team for your educational experience, and are taking place on your campus in your community, they are none of your affair. You don’t even need to know what they are to know that they are nothing to do with you.
How can you reconcile the notion of globalisation—with its attendant interconnections, ills, and opportunities—with the idea that there is no connection whatsoever between different sectors of the community on a single university campus?
The letter ended on what was supposed to be an uplifting note. “Society is investing in you”, the instructor wrote, “so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades....That is why I am not cancelling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate”.
But there are some problems with that mindset which masquerades as idealism but is really more like abnegation, disassociation, or disengagement. Society is not, in fact, investing in our students. If it were, society would be sponsoring their education, instead of requiring students and their parents to do so. If society was investing in their education, they wouldn’t have to face the prospect of $15,000 per year tuition. They wouldn’t have to face a wall of debt upon graduation. And they wouldn’t face an economic climate which threatens even those students graduating from one of the country’s top universities with unemployment or underemployment. They wouldn’t be receiving their education in overcrowded classrooms at the hands of underpaid graduate students and over-stretched faculty in under-staffed departments while working in under-funded libraries and under-supported labs.
And this is precisely the claim that workers from AFSCME and UAW were making in the strike that this instructor tells students represents “someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”. Those workers were making the argument that in order for the University and our society to succeed, there must be investment in the people who live, work, and study on that campus and in that society.
Not only, as members of a shared community—whether in our University, our town, our state, our country, or our globe—are we all responsible in some fashion for one another. But the fates of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, and perhaps that of our Republic of California, are all bound up in this struggle to persuade our community that the things we do here are important and worthy of collective investment.
One of our former Chancellors, Clark Kerr, wrote about the University as a “City of Intellect”. And what are cities if not communities? And no community can survive and flourish if its members live segregated lives, refusing to acknowledge one another when their paths cross, declining to adopt their neighbour’s struggle as their own, and failing to see how if one part of our community becomes embattled, we will necessarily be close behind.
On crisp cool days like this one, Berkeley sparkles, up on its hill above the San Francisco Bay. But that literal light is far less important in making our community such a beautiful one than are the bonds which we should embrace rather than repudiate by way of strengthening our community and our ability to provide for all of our members, thereby sustaining its soul and its mission.