Making Higher Education Debt-Free: Creston Davis on Forming the Global Center for Advanced Studies

Students hold placards as they stage a demonstration at the Hunter College, which is a part of New York City University, to protest ballooning student loan debt for higher education and rally for tuition-free public colleges in New York on November 13, 2015. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)Students hold placards as they stage a demonstration at the Hunter College, which is a part of New York City University, to protest ballooning student loan debt for higher education and rally for tuition-free public colleges in New York on November 13, 2015. (Photo: Cem Ozdel / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Also see: The Time of the Intellectual-Activists Has Come

Professor Creston Davis attended Oxford University, earned a BA from Calvin College, a Masters from Duke, went to Yale and graduated in 2006 with a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. As a graduate student, he founded and co-edited an academic book series, New Slant, published by Duke University Press. Nearly five years ago, Davis was promoted from assistant to associate in the Philosophy and Religion department at Rollins College in Florida.

After his promotion, Davis voluntarily resigned, taking out all of his retirement at the early age of 42, and along with 100 other leading intellectuals, founded the nonprofit school The Global Center for Advanced Studies in 2013. The road to creating an alternative, debt-free education initiative has been anything but easy, but what he’s doing is truly revolutionary: developing a new debt-free or low-cost high-quality education model which is sorely needed in the United States, the UK and other countries in which high education tuition costs increasingly put education out of reach for many.

Davis has taught seminars and workshops with leading theorists and philosophers such as Lewis Gordon, Alain Badiou, Henry Giroux, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Luce Irigaray, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, to name just a few. He is currently an associate professor of philosophy at the GCAS-Research Institute in Ireland, where he’s also the executive director and president of the Board of Governors. Davis is the president of the Board at The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) based in Michigan and New York, and he co-edits the book series Insurrections, published by Columbia University Press.

Professor James Crossley recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Davis in London. In this interview, Davis discusses what prompted him to create an alternative, debt-free education initiative.

James Crossley: How and why did this project get started?

Creston Davis: Starting an independent school run strictly by intellectuals was always my dream. Back in 2002, I remember talking with Slavoj Zizek about the need for a Frankfurt School for the 21st century. Years later, after I was teaching at Rollins College, this idea came to the fore again when, year after year, I had students report to me not only how deeply in student loan debt they were, but also how job prospects were difficult (if not impossible) to come by, especially [if] they were from the working or poor class. Over the years, and before I was promoted to associate professor, I began looking into the structural logic and root causes my students, sometimes called “the lost generation,” faced. In the end, it became clear to me that I could no longer continue teaching about emancipation and liberation when my very students (and soon, my sons) had to indenture themselves to banks (via student loans) in order to learn about liberation. It was a contradiction that my conscience could not reconcile.

So, in late 2012, and after lecturing for a semester in Poland on my sabbatical, I resigned, took out my retirement and used those funds to help start an education initiative designed to create a debt-free high-quality education alternative. Over 100 leading academics, writers, filmmakers, artists and intellectuals quickly joined. It was the first time, as far as I’m aware, that intellectuals came together in order to take some responsibility for professing truths to a generation that had little or no alternative than debt in order to procure an education. For me, a professor (one who professes truths to power) has a responsibility for not just the growth of the intellect, critical thinking and the confidence to make the world better, but a professor must also be responsible for their students’ overall health, including their economic health. At a basic level, entering into massive debt for an education just to have little or no job prospects is patently unjust. In the end, my research showed beyond a shadow of doubt that neoliberalism had invaded academia and compromised the core value of critical thinking and education. To my mind, it was time to organize a school by intellectuals to stop this. This is why we started The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) back in 2013.

It’s been over four years now. What are some highlights and challenges you encountered?

Wow! The experience is hard to put into words. I’ve learned so much about humanity — about hypocritical academics who beautifully craft a critique of neoliberalism but remain stuck in the privileged space of the academy, even as the structural issues continue harming students, themselves and their profession. The range of experience is spectacularly wide: I’ve experienced death and dangerous threats, one forced me to go underground, my car was destroyed and even the school GCAS was sabotaged. I’ve lived in three different states and three different countries in order to keep organizing and providing free or low-cost high-quality education. There’s so many things that I could tell you, but I’m saving them for a book I’m writing about what it’s like to create a school that takes education seriously — caring not only for the truths communicated in class, but what the modes of production are for a class to exist in the first place, and how those modes affect the economic health of the students, professors and researchers at large.

If only people understood that this debt-crisis problem — the neoliberal problem into which we have fallen — could be solved if professors were willing to organize and reclaim the responsibility they have to society and on the historic stage in which we find ourselves. It can’t just be about writing the next “important” book that finally unearths the truths of the world; indeed, as you know, the publishing industry itself is part of the problem. The basic reality is that we know what’s wrong with our world: from the imminent threat of climate change, to wealth inequality, to growing authoritarianism, the rise of nationalism and neo-fascism, to even the basic truth that a billion people in the world right now can’t get access to clean water, healthy food and safe shelter. The time for writing books is not over, [but] the real questions are: A.) Do you believe what you’re writing?; and, B.) Are you writing for your ego, or for betterment of the world as a whole? And if you truly believe in the words you’re publishing, then something more than a book is overdue. It’s time to call academics and writers to take a stance against a system designed to enclose them into ego-traps, isolation, alienation and at the same time, indenture their students to banks for decades, if not a lifetime. So, in the final analysis, something more than publishing a book and teaching in a posh space needs to be done. Words must have action, and we’re long overdue for that.

With worries about perceptions of indifference, what do you see GCAS bringing to the table?

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt said, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”

So the first thing GCAS offers is an organic connection between the mode of production of education (i.e., professors operate the school and not “professional administrators”) and the “classroom.” This means that the professors and students have a much more vested interest in the learning process, which is seen not as mere means to an end, but end in itself. Students are smart; they get the fact that what’s said in the classroom, no matter how poetic, how beautiful and penetrating, is ontologically disconnected from their lives because, in the end, they are going into debt to listen to poetry, a critique of totalitarianism and how to think against the grain in a world designed to destroy their dreams. But in the end, a system designed to force each of us into an agonistic struggle for survival will always force you to obey the system itself — to get a job, to survive even if that job is insulting to our very humanity. What this does to education is that it instrumentalizes professors, students, truths and all things profound to serve a dog-eat-dog world. So what GCAS does is that it creates different spaces in which alienation is overcome in the process of growth and learning itself. The ontological divorce between a traditional classroom and alienation is mended back together again.

To struggle today is the struggle for truth and how truths appear. Who controls these modes in which truths appear? If truths are commodities to be used as a means of making profits through advertisements, Wall Street connections, the reproduction of the reigning controllers of power, then truths underwrite and extend dominate regimes of power. For me, truth is about liberation, about how the oppressed find ways of empowerment, health, joy and happiness in different (often unpredictable) ways, and that’s the beauty of not just resisting, but creating a new world.

The tyranny of the endless streams of images into which you’re supposed to conform is a lie. To embody truths, one must live a life that differentiates between truth and falsehood. In terms of education, if the mode of production of education puts you … and your students into harm’s way, blurring the line between truth and falsehood, then it’s not education, it’s propaganda. Experiencing an academic community like GCAS is like nothing members of our community have ever experienced before, because it’s real and not a manipulation premised on divorcing the health of the student from the material of what is taught or the context in which it is taught.

It’s not utopia — I’m often criticized for being a utopian — but often, such a critique is leveled from the position of indifference that basically says in different words, “Don’t create an alternative, don’t even try to create an alternative, but accept the unjust system as it is so you can simply enjoy your symptom.” Well, I’m not into intellectual masochism that further isolates us from each other and ourselves. I want a different world and that is what, in some modest, limited way, GCAS is opening, however slowly it may be. It is happening and we’re doing this not by being funded by a corporation or traditional foundations. We’re doing this through each other with each other.

There are many examples of this from our seminars we’ve organized from Athens to New York, from Havana to Santiago, and from Berlin and Paris to Grand Rapids and even in Slovenia. I’ll just draw on one example, but there are many. After I went underground when a guy with guns made dangerous threats against me back in 2014, I went to Athens, Greece, during the time when the left-leaning political party rose to power, Syriza. I was there in Athens on January 25, 2015, when the election happened, and the joy that atmosphere exuded was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before; it was truly amazing. Syriza was a political response to how the financial institutions of the EU and the US forced the Greek people into radical austerity, especially after the financial crisis of 2008. During my stay in Greece, GCAS organized a free conference, “Democracy Rising,” that happened in July 2015. The response to the conference was overwhelming — thousands of people from all over the world emerged. Academics, political leaders, writers, activists, public intellectuals all came in solidarity. Over 100,000 people watched from all over the world because we were talking about what needed to be done to create a different world than the one in which we live under the economic and financial rule from the few. We were the many, and being part of that together was like nothing I’d ever felt before. A few filmmakers were there to document the conference, and one of them was young during May ’68 uprising, and he said he hadn’t been around such an electric atmosphere since then — that was, until our conference.

The point is a new way is possible and GCAS is part of creating that new way forward, because I’d rather live standing up struggling for justice than live on my knees surrendering to the status quo.

You recently started a degree-granting institution in Ireland — what’s the reasoning behind that?

From the very inception of GCAS in 2013, I wanted to establish a degree program. But it wasn’t me alone doing any of this — it was finding others with the same passion and gifts to create a higher education research institute that offered degrees. Zachary Isrow, Rosangela Barcaro, Frank Karioris, Henry Giroux, Lewis Gordon, Rocco Gange and over 30 others organized the first degree granting research institution in higher education in modern academic history founded and operated by intellectual activists. We called it The GCAS Research Institute, Ireland (GCAS-RII) which is now incorporated in Dublin, and we have about 20 top doctoral researchers doing scientific work within our community. It’s truly a novelty, a landmark moment of historic proportions, and I’m honored to be a small part in this endeavor. Living a life like this is so special, and I’m super lucky to be forging a life with such amazing, committed activists and intellectuals.

GCAS-RII will soon be offering BA and MA degrees at super low-costs in a way that students won’t have to go into debt and can work with some of the best visionaries and intellectuals in the world.