by ENDA BROPHY
Is the university worth saving? The question arose insistently at The University is Ours! Conference, organized by the transnational edu-factory collective along with local Canadian allies and held last weekend in Toronto (April 27-29). In its current form, wracked by crisis, the academy produces precious little that can extend our collective capacities and much that diminishes them: hierarchy, exploitation, debt, precarity, cynicism, greed… The restructuring of university systems has brought corporatized administrations, rising tuition, departmental closures, expanded class sizes, noxious corporate food, anti-strike legislation enacted against academic workers… In a world where knowledge, culture and communication have been commodified as never before, capital has turned its attention to the academy and is completely dedicated to its wholesale transformation. This university is most certainly not ours.
And yet, as participants at the edu-factory conference made absolutely clear, within, against and beyond the neoliberal academy lies our own university. The austerity-stricken university is combustible, and knowledge is incandescent. Across today’s campuses struggles proliferate, from Rome to London, from Santiago to Berkeley, from Cairo to Dublin. Students, academic workers and their allies have flooded the streets, and universities have been one of the key sites of resistance to the market over the past five years. At the Toronto conference, participants gathered in an atmosphere marked by joyous affect, mutual respect, and non-sectarian engagement. On Friday a busload of students arrived from a Quebec rocked by protest, where red felt has run out as the carrè rouges, or little red squares multiply across the jackets of hundreds of thousands of students, faculty and supporters who have faced off against the police and brought the post-secondary system in the province to halt against proposed tuition hikes. It is not about high tuition, or even less tuition anymore, says CLASSE, the student organization that is leading the struggles, but rather about no tuition. The carrè rouge symbol itself traces the recent circulation of university labour, student, and broader social struggles in central Canada: originally used during anti-poverty actions in Quebec, then becoming the icon of the 2004 student strike, reappearing during and after the York University strike of 2008-2009 (the longest in Canadian history), the little red squares are now teeming in the streets of Montreal every night in spontaneous demonstrations which have brought hundreds of thousands out against the tuition hikes. In Toronto Quebec activists met and shared counter-knowledges with trade unionists, campus activists, and radical professors from Italy, the United States, Mexico, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom. The struggle for free education and dignified working conditions is global, one in which anti-racist activism entwines with queer pedagogies in a knowledge produced from below, aimed squarely against those transforming our universities from above.
In Toronto the struggles of students against tuition hikes linked up with and learned from those involved in union drives for teaching assistants, research assistants, and postdocs on campuses across North America. Labour activists doing solidarity work with gendered and racialized cleaning staff, admin assistants, and food workers reminded us that students and precariously employed professors are not the privileged subjects of transformation. Analyses of the ways hierarchy pervades and segments the neoliberal campus encountered the Occupy movement’s offshoot (Occupy Student Debt) responding to the shameful debt burden imposed on those who want nothing more than an education and a decent shot in the labour market. The University of Toronto General Assembly shows us that a parallel governance structure can be created within and against a university addicted to shady corporate donations. How do we create a political language of broad appeal across these groups? How do we create new practices of critical solidarity that engage not only those who produce knowledge on campus, but also those who toil on it doing the cleaning work, the service work, and communities whose lives are affected by university development more broadly? In our university we ask ourselves these questions and craft answers we will bring back to our communities.
The Toronto conference had other, vital horizons however. The weekend also heard from autonomous education initiatives existing beyond the university, experiments brought together in networks of inspiration, reflection, and critique. From these multiple sites, concepts wrapped in action: exodus, the common, occupation, decolonization, self-organization, autonomy – expressed and rearticulated through projects such as the Mess Hall, Social Science Centre, Lincoln, Convivial Research and Insurgent Learning, The Toronto School of Creativity and Inquiry, Purple Thistle, Uninomade, Occupy… At several Toronto locations across three days, these experiences intersected, recognized, learned from each other. What it is that sustains our experiments, and what makes them die out? How is it that we can build alternative spaces for a knowledge production that are other than, oppositional and constituent? These institutions of the common, in which ideas circulate but money does not, point the way toward an independent relationship toward knowledge, outside of the confines of the neoliberal university. Struggles within the academy will need to link up with these experiments occurring beyond them.
And this conference, organized across the boundaries of time, institutions, hierarchy, and national borders, points to the direction to be taken as we occupy, appropriate, and construct our university. On the last day of the meeting we discovered that a comrade from Mexico had been kicked out of her downtown hotel, her belongings tossed into the hall in an ugly racist incident. The last act of the conference saw it march as a whole to the hotel, with over a hundred participants gathering outside to make it clear such behavior will be fought and exposed. In Toronto at the end of April 2012 we were our university prefigured in the present, a university that acts as an institution of the common, where knowledge breaks its bonds.