Harvard’s been sucking this week, and this suckage provides an important reminder of why corporate higher education, for all its rhetoric about “innovation,” actually acts as a barrier to radical social change.
First order of suckage: Recently, despite the fact that the History Department had initially accepted her and that she is a prize-winning historian, Harvard administrators and some professors rejected an offer of admission the History Department had already approved to Michelle Jones.
Jones applied to the PhD program while serving a twenty-year sentence for killing her own child when Jones was a teenager. It should go without saying that the crime is deeply horrible; it should also go without saying that it’s not Harvard’s or anyone’s job to determine the punishment for someone a court of law has already punished. Jones’ rejection instead, argue faculty advocating her, flies in the face of any hope of transformative justice—an irony considering that her work is part of a recent push in the academy to take more seriously the history, politics, and material context of our carceral society.
Second order of suckage: Jones isn’t the only one who’s had an offer rescinded by Harvard recently. The university has also rescinded a fellowship they’d originally offered to Chelsea Manning, really rad lady, effectively deferring to the CIA. Meanwhile, they have offered the same fellowship to Sean Spicer, whose history of white supremacy the university clearly (and disturbingly) considers less troubling than Manning’s history of whistle blowing.
Third order of suckage: Harvard hasn’t only rejected people recently. It’s also continued its quest to reject graduate students’ efforts to unionize. In the most recent manifestation of Harvard’s resistance to this struggle, Harvard has moved to appeal to the Trump appointed (read: very right wing and anti-union) National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That’s right, folks: The supposedly liberal bastion, which has been outspoken in its opposition to, for example, Trump’s stance on immigration and the repeal of DACA, is also a prime union buster.
So what gives? How is it that the most elite of colleges, characterized by the right as the quintessential arch enemy of their ideology, could make so many decisions that are so frankly regressive?
While Harvard and similar elite universities have admirably taken stands against the repeal of DACA—numerous Harvard professors were even arrested recently while protesting Trump’s proposed repeal—they have a notoriously bad line when it comes to issues affecting their bottom line.
Take the case of divestment. For the past several years, there has been a student movement across the country advocating for divestment from fossil fuels as a tool to stigmatize polluters and thus make headway against climate change. Despite coming out in support of other environmental efforts, Harvard University has staunchly refused to budge on this issue. The University President, Drew Faust, even released a nonsensical letter arguing that the endowment is not political and should not be politicized (ironically, for a historian, Faust seems to know very little about the history of the anti-apartheid divest movement).
Or take the issue of workers’ rights. During a recent strike of Harvard dining hall workers, the University administration dragged its feet; it took weeks of struggle by the dining hall workers to win a living wage for their labor. Not a good look for an institution which claims to be about encouraging educational access across class.
Viewed in this contexts, Harvard’s latest week of fuckery no longer appears so surprising. Rather, it continues a pattern of elite universities’ emphasis on their bottom line—and their reputation—above all else. Accepting the right of the graduate students to unionize will surely mean Harvard will have to pay them more. And accepting Manning and Jones may mean pissing off people with big pocket books.
And why shouldn’t this be the case? Harvard, like most elite universities in the United States, is a private entity with a corporate structure. It is a power broker, a place where the elite come to be consolidated—and where social mobility is possible, but often only along the terms of the system as is. It is a major feeder of employees to the government and an even larger feeder of financiers to Wall Street. Taking this into account, it becomes clearer to see how the liberalism claimed by elite institutions is mere veneer.
Ultimately, it comes down to the bottom line. Our higher education system has become overwhelmingly privatized and corporate, with tuitions which can soar above $200,000 for four year degrees, leading to student debt that can last a lifetime. As we know all too well, this has created debilitating systemic debt among students, many of whom are either left with debt and without job prospects, or who find themselves financially compelled to take higher-paying jobs in the corporate sector which they may not have wanted to take.
The issue of student debt is also de-radicalizing, a disincentive for students to push for radical social change. If a student is expelled for protesting a university’s decision, for example, they may be very well left with an enormous financial burden and no degree. Finally, the specter of debt prevents many students from choosing lower-income paths, like activism, social work, or teaching.
At the same time, social media scrutiny and a corporate public relations model means that elite universities are intensely phobic of any perceived bad publicity. This fear can be leveraged by student movements for their own good: For example, in publicly shaming universities into becoming responsible for preventing and adequately addressing sexual violence.
Yet we can see in the cases of both Jones and Manning, a direct instance in which the appeal to reputation leads to deep conservatism. The New York Times writes, quoting one of the American Studies professors who raised objections to Jones’s admission:
“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” said John Stauffer, one of the two American studies professors. “But frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”
What we’re missing here, of course, is that education should not be about PR and the bottom line. Education should be dangerous. I don’t mean this in the way that “free speech” advocates mean it, when they complain about coddled liberal “snowflakes” who are intolerant toward conservative views. I mean that the university should be a space of challenge to the workings of a capitalist system, a space where students have the time, space, and (government-provided) funds to remove themselves from the immediate pressures of the market and to build a radically different world. The university should be a risky place, where politically risky things are said and done. Where we have the freedom—from racism, from sexual violence, from debt, from the immediate pressures of the job market—to challenge the status quo.
And this, of course, is a status quo challenged by all three of the people and bodies Harvard recently rejected. It is threatening to a system of racialized, class-based mass incarceration to believe that people who have been cordoned off as criminals can not only rejoin society but thrive. It is threatening to a system of paranoid government “security” rhetoric to laud Manning as a whistleblower, rather than imprison her as a threat. And it is threatening to universities’ profit to acknowledge collective bargaining power and to acknowledge graduate students as the workers they are.
In face of this, it falls on the students, workers, and professors of the university to bring political dissent back into a system which more often produces elite conformity than radical politics. We should not let the university corporation reign without a fight. Our protests should make administrators tremble. Our polemic should make the internet light up with fear. Our unions should send university officials sprinting toward their lawyers.
Harvard may have rejected Jones and Manning, but students are ultimately the ones with the power to collectively reject the deep conservatism of places like Harvard.