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Higher Education’s Role in Occupy and Related Social Justice Movements

Last month, I attended an event at my alma mater in Vermont which was billed as “Occupy Goddard.” Hosted by the college’s president, Barbara Vacarr, who wrote an op-ed in December titled, “The Occupy Movement Is Right,” it was the first academic conference devoted to the peaceful populist resistance to oppression and economic inequities that … Continued

Last month, I attended an event at my alma mater in Vermont which was billed as “Occupy Goddard.” Hosted by the college’s president, Barbara Vacarr, who wrote an op-ed in December titled, “The Occupy Movement Is Right,” it was the first academic conference devoted to the peaceful populist resistance to oppression and economic inequities that is sweeping the nation (and beyond).

The conference brought together local activists with others from Boston, New York and beyond for a day of panels and participation, culminating in the first statewide Vermont General Assembly.

It was a fine first step. Higher education ought to be playing a central part in the Occupy movement, but except for a few activist campuses, it has been relatively invisible. That is not acceptable.

Certainly in comparison to Burma, Syria, Egypt and other repressive regimes, people in the United States have – until recently – enjoyed increasing civil liberties and rights.[1]These rights and liberties have often been hard-won by those who have gone before us, risking much to secure them for the good of all. By the time we get to college, most of us have at least a smattering of knowledge of some of history’s peaceful people’s struggles – emancipation, civil rights, Gandhi and Indian independence, the anti-apartheid movement – but we haven’t necessarily engaged in peaceful actions ourselves because most of these struggles seem long ago and far away.

But this is not our parents’ or even our own United States. We are under an increasingly military-style police crackdown. Many activists I know personally have been harassed with increasing regularity in recent months by police/FBI/Homeland Security.

Wake Up and Smell the Tear Gas

As concerned citizens and as campus communities, we must get out in front and take a public stand against harassment, intimidation and violence against peaceful protesters, whether they are campus-based, as in the cases of UC Davis and other universities, or not.

Ten days ago, I sent a message, via blind copy, to several dozen faculty members on my own campus regarding making a public statement against intimidation tactics. I received two responses, one from a colleague ready to join forces and one a tepid “maybe.” In the defense of the rest of my colleagues: their workloads are heavy; many of them have major student loan repayments – at least in the first decade or so – and they are pressured to not only teach, but also to perform community service and to conduct and publish research. These stresses come on top of their own life obligations. (On the other hand, they generally don’t have to work two or three jobs to keep food on the table, on top of their own life obligations, and they get paid vacations and health and retirement benefits.)

Perhaps they’ve just been too busy to be aware of the intimidation tactics and violence being unleashed against ordinary people, including students, who are engaged in protesting injustice in various forms.

So, this is for my colleagues and for all people who work in academia around the country, [2] from preschool on up: If you have been too busy, please take some time to catch up. Your career, indeed, your very future, may depend on it.

Unhealthy, Undemocratic Crackdown

Here are just a few examples, many of them from mainstream media, of a sweeping and terrifying trend in the United States, land of the free and home of the brave, far from Tunisia and Syria, Rwanda and Burma:

Read more specifics here.

According to RT, “Presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are now officially covered under Secret Service protection, making it a federal offense to disrupt a campaign stop…. And before you forget, the president can now detain you for getting too close to his front yard, order your assassination if the country considers you a threat and lock you away for life with no charge if you’re alleged to be a terrorist.”

Read more in Harper’s magazine about Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern University last month, in which he discusses (often, apparently, incorrectly) the history and practice of US state-sanctioned assassination.

Do you know about Pennsylvania’s Act 13 of 2012 (HB 1950, signed on February 13, 2012, by Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett)? Among other things, it forces doctors, first responders and other health care providers treating patients who may be poisoned by toxins used in or produced by gas drilling to request that the drilling companies reveal which chemicals are being used in areas where the patient has been? And then, the corporation can refuse to identify those chemicals, claiming that it might violate “trade secrets,” a method known as product-disclosure protection?

Should the corporation deign to give the info to the medical doctor or health care provider, that provider is legally bound by this law to NOT DICLOSE IT, even to the patient herself, the patient’s family, or the doctor in the next room treating a patient for toxicity, or the neighbors and surrounding community who might also be in harm’s way from the fracking operations. (The law is now being challenged in court but defended rigorously by Big Gas, with all its considerable legal power and riches.)

UC Faculty and Students React

The Council of University of California Faculty Associations, or CUCFA, on November 19, 2011, issued a statement condemning police violence. It was turned into a petition by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Perhaps you signed it back then, or since. I don’t think it’s nearly strong enough, but it’s a start.

Better yet was an open letter to the chancellor challenging her to step down, written by Nathan Brown, an assistant professor (that title usually implies untenured) of English from UC Davis’s program in critical theory.

A day later, his English Department issued its own statement, calling for UCal system chancellor Linda Katehi’s resignation and the disbanding of the University of California Police Department.

The department’s graduate students also released a letter in January, which called for Katehi’s resignation as well as that of UC President Mark Yudof.

Not surprisingly, Katehi refused to step down and ordered an “investigation” into the police brutality. Last I checked, there had been no release of the results, pending litigation.

I know that this is all very new and scary. I also know that if we hide, it will not go away. If we are silent, we are complicit in our own repression. As scholars and thinkers, as people who are expected to lead, as people who are ostensibly teaching our students to be critical thinkers who question authority – especially abusive authority – we have a moral obligation to speak out when we see injustice and subversion of ideals on which our society and nation claim to be based.

So, what should faculty, staff, administrators and students do?

What can a college or university community do?

1. Hold an open series of dialogues about your individual roles and your campus’ role in protecting and fostering peaceful protests such as those of the various Occupy movements across the country (and the world). Invite regular Occupy participants and theorists from your region.

2. Get on a bus or train, carpool, bike or walk to the closest Occupy and spend some time listening to people. Be sure to time it so you witness a General Assembly. Watch respectful democracy in action; many of us – and probably most students – have never actually witnessed such a process, except perhaps within our own families or small groups and organizations.

3. Stop watching Fox “News” and other conglomerate-run news media. Watch, listen to or read the daily transcripts of Democracy Now!, watch Free Speech TV and The Young Turks, listen to Free Speech Radio News, read AlterNet, Common Dreams, Truthdig, Truthout and other independent media.[3]

Read Tidal, the publication of Occupy theory and strategy.

4. Become engaged in or start an Occupy movement on your campus. Learn the ropes through your participation with an established Occupy group.

5. As faculty and/or staff, co-write and co-edit a statement of solidarity with those who exercise their civil liberties and rights – of free speech and free assembly, to protest injustice and immoral laws, to have unfettered professional and citizen media, to not be attacked while peacefully demonstrating one’s resistance to corporate or state tyranny. Point the finger at those on your campus or in your community, state or nation who are trampling those rights and liberties and demand action to stop that co-option.

6. Get your administration and trustees to discuss peaceful protest and urge them to make a statement of solidarity, as well.

7. Take a careful look at the trustees of your institution. Were they chosen for their intellect, creativity, commitment to higher education, critical thinking skills, expertise in an important discipline and passion for learning, or were they chosen for their big bucks and corporate connections? What institutions, other than yours, do they represent? Where do they earn their living? Do they represent you (and the rest of the 99 percent)? Does your institution’s governing board include representatives of staff, faculty, student and alumni constituencies? Are they given equal say on committees and other governing mechanisms of the institution? If not, why not?

8. Take a careful look at the endowment of your institution. Where is it invested? Take a look at your own pension plan (TIAA-CREF or other). Where is it invested? Are the stocks and bonds and real estate holdings in companies or countries that are exploiting workers, polluting the environment, oppressing people, pillaging nature? Start a campaign to move these investments into more humane and sustainable enterprises. Work with the chief financial officer of the institution and the board of trustees to help them understand how powerful movements for change can be heightened by the investment choices of higher education institutions. Together, colleges and universities are some of the biggest private investor blocks in the world.

9. Do all the employees of your institution receive a living wage (not just minimum wage) for your community? Do they all receive decent health benefits and retirement savings opportunities? Do adjunct/part-time faculty receive fair compensation? Do all employees receive educational benefits and/or professional development opportunities? Is there a fair employment policy in general, with an effective and equitable system for redressing grievances? Is the institution supportive of unions? What is its history with labor? Has it ever busted a union or kept one from forming? What is its stated policy toward labor? Does it negotiate fairly, if it does have unions?

If the institution comes up short on these issues, it’s incumbent on the best-compensated, most well-protected members of the campus community to change all these things – that, generally speaking, means the tenured faculty have the responsibility to speak out on behalf of not just themselves, but all those who don’t have the job guarantee they enjoy.

Further, there are probably people on your campus who have lost their homes to foreclosure or inability to pay the rent. What kind of community sharing program exists at your institution, if any? If none, start one. Get the chaplains, the chief financial officer, the development or fundraising office, and human resources to establish and contribute to an emergency relief fund and fundraise from your fellow employees and the greater community. Occupy a foreclosed home as the Occupy Our Homes movement is doing in cities from Tampa to Chicago to Seattle.

10. Look into the vendors hired by your institution. Even if your university itself doesn’t engage in unfair labor practices, its subcontractors might. Does the food service company also run prisons? Does it buy food or supplies from companies that use genetically modified foods? If that’s against your wishes, you might start a movement to pressure the college to get rid of that vendor or insist that no GM foods be foisted upon the campus community, unless they are clearly labeled as such at the point of purchase or serving. Does the uniform supplier also supply uniforms to the private prison down the road which is run to make money and not as accountable to the public as are government-run prisons? And so forth. Look around and see where your tuition dollars are going.

11. Does your institution have student-run print and online media, TV and radio stations that are uncensored? Do they practice actual journalism or PR/marketing? Is your institution’s alumni magazine full of feel-good fluff pieces or substantive pieces that address critical social and institutional issues with a critical eye? If the answers point to censorship or trickery, do something to change this. Start a web site for employees to address grievances and follow through with the administration. Or start an hour-long news and talk show that focuses on issues being addressed by Occupy as well as labor and other issues that pertain specifically to your campus and its host community.

Talk to the journalism faculty, if there is one, and ask them to start a citizen journalism course and, eventually, a program for non-majors. Tell them to push it through. It can’t take the usual geologic academia time – maybe five to seven years – to introduce this and get it approved.

12. Does the university live up to its mission statement and other public claims? Does it purport to be inclusive of diversity, yet not actively engage in recruiting a diverse faculty, staff and students? Does it claim to be all about sustainability, yet leave lights blazing in every locked building with administrators’ computers left on day and night? How can you help change the culture so that the mission is foremost in people’s minds, or how can you change the mission to reflect and expose the institution’s less lofty truth?

13. Enlist the aid of parents, alumni and students (future alumni) who are considered by many, if not most, administrators to be the prime constituents of an institution because they’re the donors or potential donors. Unfortunately, that’s still how we are valued (or not valued). That’s one thing that won’t change unless and until the whole education system is revamped. Because, sadly, the education system is not supported by our government, and money drives all private and public education in the United States.

14. Another way to get your institution to support Occupy and related movements is to pressure for more state and national legislation supporting higher education. Primary, secondary and higher education must have a strong voice in Washington DC, to fight the ultra-rightwing assault on education.

15. In a truly fair system, colleges and universities (and churches, mosques and synagogues) would be paying their fair share of property taxes to the communities where they are based. Economist, author and professor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Richard Wolff points out that the city of New Haven is the poorest community in Connecticut, yet it houses one of the richest universities in the country (indeed, the world). Yet Yale pays no property taxes on its vast holdings of buildings and real estate. The same is true of the other big universities that use the services provided by their cities and towns – at individual and business taxpayers’ expense. That system should be abolished over time, say 10 to 15 years.

16. Start a series on peaceful people’s uprising, a nonviolent direct action. Read and discuss the works of nonviolent strategist Gene Sharp and visit the impressive (if incomplete) database of nonviolent works compiled by Swarthmore students with other collaborators in 2011.

17. Then do a survey of the curricula throughout the institution. Identify courses that already have a strong economic- and social-justice component. Ask those faculty members (and undergraduate and graduate students) to work on a program to infuse those components into all syllabi in all disciplines. This kind of thing is being done already on many campuses around environmental, economic and social sustainability issues and around diversity and inclusiveness. These subjects are all interdisciplinary and intertwined, so get those faculty and students (and staff) involved.

Let’s Change “Business as Usual”

It’s time for those of us who work and study on college campuses to do what does not come naturally: act swiftly and decisively, with conviction and in solidarity. We all stand to lose. We cannot hide behind scholarship, publication pressures, community service obligations or teaching loads. We have to lead the way, or, at the very least, join in the movement to build a more equitable and sustainable economy, culture, and government.

18. (This probably ought to have been number 1). This May 1, a Tuesday, faculty, staff, students and administrators will have a great opportunity to engage. Worldwide, May Day is traditionally a public holiday, a Labor Day marked by marches and celebrations of workers – and of immigrants’ and migrants’ rights. This year, a national coalition of Occupy assemblies has called for a “Day Without the 99 Percent” general strike, a day away from school and the workplace, a day away from shopping and banking, to shine a light on the “the way the system has enslaved us and burdened us with unmanageable debt, incredibly long working weeks, unfeasibly expensive health care.”[4] One’s absence from work and school will make one’s displeasure with this corrupt system known.

At that time of year, of course, students are under tremendous pressure to finish up their semester projects, theses and papers and to cram for exams. But there are great educational benefits to engaging in something outside the workplace and classroom on that day. Administrators, deans and chairs should give their blessing and encourage students, faculty and staff to participate in May Day alternatives; this will only help the university in the long run, as the movement builds for more government funding for education.

Faculty might give students an assignment instead of requiring them to attend classes – perhaps an essay reflecting on how the Occupy movement, or the “May Day without the 99 percent,” matters to their field of study, whether it be chemistry or flute performance, physical therapy or accounting, as well as disciplines for which the connection may seem more obvious. Or you might invite them to a potluck barbecue at a local park, a park that may be threatened by development or resource extraction or invasive species and talk about those threats in between grilling and playing lawn games. Or you might join a community build or garden-planting session on that day. Or, if you have already laid the groundwork for this, you might have them meet you at a local march or rally or protest.

Whatever you decide for that one day should not end at midnight on May 2. It’s very easy to get caught up in our work and home pressures, but in truth, we need each other if we are ever going to change our systems.

For all of these actions and activities, take time to reflect on your work, celebrate success and invite new voices at every step.

We All Use the Term “Campus Community.” Let’s Live It.

Scholarship can seem lonely sometimes, but on a campus, we are inextricably linked with those around us – whether it’s the IT person who helps you with email problems; the campus safety people who let you into your car or office when you accidentally lock the keys inside; the administrative assistants who help you with copying and ordering and travel and every other thing; the facilities attendants who clear the snow or empty your trash or clean the bathrooms (Do you know their names or anything about them?); the dining services chefs and servers who feed you; the librarians who help you procure classroom and research material; the benefits professionals who do their utmost to find the best and least expensive options for health insurance in a maddening bureaucratic labyrinth of options; the biology professor who leads nature walks and teaches mushroom foraging on his own time; the people who teach yoga and kickboxing at the gym; the admissions recruiters who ensure our classrooms are full of the best and brightest; the mental and physical health providers who keep those students well; the career services advisers who help them once they leave us; and the fundraising folks who engage donors so our paychecks continue to arrive on time and so programs and services will be protected.

Imagine ending up like this (with a big nod to Martin Niemöller): “First they came for the anarchists, but I am not an anarchist, don’t know any anarchists, and don’t really understand them. Then they came for the atheists and agnostics, and I thought, good riddance to bad rubbish. Then they came for the sociologists, and I was quiet because I never liked sociology all that much. Then they came for the physicists, and I don’t know anything about physics so I didn’t care. And then they came for the musicians, artists, and theater people, and I didn’t notice right away until I realized it was getting boring and awfully quiet around here. Then they came for the athletes, and there was nothing left for me to do on the weekends. Then they came for the journalists, and there was nobody left to tell me what was happening. Then they came for the theologians and philosophers, and I had no one left to help me understand. And now I’m sitting in this cell, wondering how much longer I can stand the loneliness – in this nightmare of grief and loss, that’s the hardest thing to bear.”

Let’s get engaged, colleagues. We must. We really, really must.


1. With many notable and egregious exceptions including centuries of slaughter and subjugation of First Peoples.

2. Crackdowns and harassments and removal of civil rights and liberties are not limited to the United States. In Canada, the UK, and many other supposedly democratic nations around the world, peaceful protesters have been brutalized, locked up and shut down: globalization at its worst.

3. Full disclosure: I write for some of these publications.

4. retrieved April 7, 2012.

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