We’re gonna build a wall; the impossibility of the civic university

My first year as a graduate student coincided with Mrs Thatcher’s first great assault on academic culture in UK universities. There were calls for academics to experience the ‘real world’ of business and industry. This was rather faithfully captured in the David Lodge 1988 satire Nice Work. Academics played along, some rather enjoying sabbaticals and secondments which sidestepped the circadian rhythm of the academic calendar. I remember one of my supervisors returning to campus from such a corporate sojourn and exclaiming in relief at not having to wear a pass or sign in to a laboratory. Universities were seen as freely accessible to all who should wish to wander their halls, libraries and galleries. This was the era of the ‘big civic’ university. The university opened its doors to the city, and the city took pride in its university.

Thirty-five years on and one of the many manifestations of the surveillance culture which operates in UK universities has been the incremental imposition of barriers and swipecards which exclude the non-paying citizenry. This has always irked me. Universities  have sacrificed that sense of spontaneity in favour of number plate recognition, and the HR team safely penned into an impregnable executive suite.

Oddly this fetishisation with security – usually justified with infantilising appeals to protection of vulnerable young people (or technical equipment) – does not obtain in most US universities I have visited. Granted I may be caught in the sights of a sniper rifle or mown down by an armoured car, patrolling courtesy of the 1033 program that transfers surplus military weapons to both city and university police forces, but nevertheless, I can probably browse the bookstore, run the track and blag my way into the swimming pool without arousing too much suspicion.

Richard Hall’s blog 7th November 2016 talks about reasons for his despondency over the future of academia. He laments the closing-down of our wider connections to civil society, by which he means an open and critical engagement with the intellectual concerns of the civitas, but I think we can also mourn this immuring of universities which symbolizes their anti-intellectual and corporatist trajectory.

I share Richard’s despondency at the impossibility of universities as spaces for openness and emancipation. I share his despair at our unwilling co-optation and the obstruction of our pedagogical responsibility to offer something better. Where is the space for the curriculum-as-praxis as a means of negating the basis of domination? he asks. It seems impossible to protect universities as spaces of free enquiry and access.

A post last week by Paul Prinsloo argued that not doing anything can still be a form of activism. There is a recognition that in managerial cultures, those who resist are marginalised, and Richard complains that playing in the margins seems like hopelessness. So I think Richard and I, and everyone else who is feeling defeated by audit culture, surveillance and pedagogical asphyxiation should embrace  Paul’s idea of hospicing which, he writes, “entails accepting the death/decline of a system and accepting that due to various factors, that you cannot directly intervene/act, but you also don’t allow yourself to walk away. In hospicing as activism, you remain involved, caring for a system in decline to the extent that the system allows you to care for it, nothing more, nothing less”. It is not inertness; rather it requires analysis and bearing critical witness. And a great deal of unreciprocated caring.

Paul Prinsloo ends with this moving sentiment. “But activism most probably also requires a letting go, a critical self-knowledge of your own locus of control, and things beyond your locus of control. Activism involves self-care, allowing the community to care for you, to shield you, to hide you, to allow others to speak on your behalf”. At least we can do that for each other. Offer affirmation. Support. The university will survive because we are the university. Pass it on, and don’t build that wall.

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