Strategic Plotting

The Strategic Planning survey, we are told, is the venue where everyone’s voices are currently being heard and included. Question number seven of this democratic survey tells us that, “In a time of constrained resources, Connecticut College, like other colleges, must make difficult decisions about how best to use its funds.” We are to prioritize three of the 29 options that follow for “investing additional resources.” The options include each of the following: compensation for staff, adjunct faculty, tenured and tenure track faculty, improvements in facilities including residence halls and academic buildings, support for faculty research, increasing diversity on campus, “athletics” and the “arboretum” (these options go entirely unexplained), funding for health services and so forth.

This choice – really antagonism – between compensation for the workers of this institution, improvements to the quality of services the institution offers (both necessary and accessory services) and inclusion and equity, brings sharply into focus the ways that the College is creating false oppositions between necessary parts of a whole. What is most interesting is what is off the table, what is not on the list, namely: compensation for administrators (or even any mention of administrative offices). Perhaps the most obscene thing about this question is the way in which it frames a conversation about value of various components of the College without turning the value of the administrators into an object of inquiry. Are we to assume administrators are included in “staff” and if that is the case, what does this obfuscation, the way administrators are not even allowed to be named in this survey, tell us about who Strategic Planning exempts from purview?

This article began as a reflection or reportage on the events at Yale and Missouri. That was two weeks ago. As of today, the conversation that began at these two schools has escalated into structural demands that in some places border on reparations for long histories of racial discrimination in this country. It is no longer sufficient to discuss two among the at least 50 schools that have seen a surge of activism and protest this past month. The national moment as a whole demands consideration.

Concerns about tactics and strategies are central to the movements that have sprung up. Supporters and detractors alike publicly and privately worry about what, besides an expression of rage, is the purpose of protesting. Do these movements, they wonder, risk going the way of Occupy Wall Street – widely accused of “having no goals” but declared valuable for the way that it brought a framing into public discourse (“the 99%”) that allowed widespread criticism of a pervasive power structure? Or do these movements for racial justice hold promise for more concrete sorts of change?

Especially to observers with global or systemic sensibilities, the cause might look particularly doomed, since clearly racial inequities are not confined to college campuses and thus clearly cannot end there. However, if these movements aim, at best, not to end racism at colleges but to bring the institutions of higher education on the side of those long excluded from their hallways, one can be less despondent. But how can these institutions be brought around? Who is listening to the protestors, and what will they have the listeners do? What does a successful protest look like?

Actual student demands and visions of success seldom seem to make news the way candlelight vigils or mass walkouts do, but they do exist, and I want to centralize these instead of writing the usual story around the most “eventful” manifestations of student frustration. Students are, believe it or not, more than rebels without a cause or “kids” as our recent visitor Professor Richard Landes offered in his talk. As this national moment has made clear, student protests can, in fact, have full political consciousness and maturity, understanding and challenging power at every level: individual, symbolic, structural and systemic.

Changes demanded by student movements across colleges in this country range from making pathways for bodies of color (students and faculty) into institutions of higher education; administrative apologies; funding for diversity related programming; revision of curricula or general education to center issues of power; diversity training for students, faculty and staff; increases in hourly wage; measures against police and campus police violence and free tuition for black and indigenous students. These demands differentially challenge everything from personal and social ignorance to neoliberal racial capitalism. Students are thus positioning themselves not only as college students but as citizens of a profoundly unequal world.

Hotly contested both among protesters and outsiders are student demands for administrative regime changes. “Symbolic gains are not the same as systemic ones,” reads the recent centerpiece of the Chronicle of Higher Education in its assessment of the resignation of Tim Wolfe, former president of the University of Missouri system. Is the demand for the resignation of a university president then simply a rage-driven symbolic challenge? Or is it a strategic demand, one that keeps in mind the global span of the struggle? Does an administrative resignation do anything other than momentarily soothe angry constituents?

Scholars who understand the current political economy of higher education will assert that the amount of money funneled towards college administrators since the 1980s and the subspeciation in administrative roles (otherwise known as the corporatization of higher education) is a real problem that carries forward a system that perpetuates racial as well as other kinds of inequalities, and equitable solutions would include severely obstructing, if not reversing, the phenomenon of administrative bloat. Changing who is in office is not as expedient as eliminating the office altogether.

Why, then, even as I think overhaul is the long term strategy, am I arguing that who populates administrative offices still matters?

Because I was here “last semester.”

Because it is clear that incompetence at the level of administration does not just do nothing – it does damage. It necessitates the labor and initiative of faculty, students and staff of color to propose initiatives and perform duties that administrators alone hold the power to implement. It leads these members of the College to stop being scholars, researchers and intellectuals and actually prevents them from doing the jobs they are here to do. It prevents them from writing their papers and books that could have had great value in understanding and challenging systemic inequities out in the world, thus undermining commitments to larger causes.

Most insidiously, it prevents these people at the College from being members of their families, friendships and local communities. Such administrative incompetence puts lives on hold and preys on these people, sucking them into the vortex of symbolic shared governance all while in actuality, they hold no power. They are reduced to activism – not activism as a force for social change but a mandatory, almost predatory sort of activism that attempts only to address the basic goal (that it is institutionally ill-equipped to achieve) of staying safe and creating safety for others.

Enough of this. If the College wants to populate itself with bodies of color at the same time as it pays large salaries to an unregulated and ever-increasing number of “Deans” – in other words, if the College is to have both a climate of oppression and administrators who “manage” this climate, the College then might as well centralize the labor of people of color and allies into competent administrators. These would be people who can be unambiguous about racism, know by themselves what to do about dehumanizing speech, have a vision for curricular models for full participation and identify themselves the tasks involved in creating inclusivity in the social sphere. The College might as well and in fact should have people at the top with vision, a clear moral compass and their own ideas and initiative, people who don’t have to train “the hard way” with students and faculty of color.

Compensation for all workers of the College, resources to support vibrant intellectual inquiry and institutional equity: instead of pitting these goals against each other under pretext of “limited resources,” the College might as well pay someone who will lay bare the entirety of the College budget and ask, how can we find a way to do all the things an institution of higher education is supposed to do?

We might as well have someone at the top who would add “Compensation for administrators” on the list of things we should reconsider.

Student protesters at Connecticut College will do well to consider that campus activism is not their chosen vocation, nor is campus activism of the sort they find themselves in the exalted battle against injustice that they might hope for it to be. It would serve well to recognize certain forms of campus activism as the extraction of unpaid labor, and it would serve well to ask: Will we ever get people who are paid for this labor to perform it, and if not, when will we revolt against such a pervasive lack of vision and outsourcing of responsibility?