On Democratic Governance for University Faculty, Staff and Students

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Making our case for administrative abolition

by Blanca Missé and James Martel

As a long ago and newly tenured faculty member at San Francisco State University, both of us have watched the effects of the administration—both of our own university and of the 23 campus California State University system to which it belongs—slowly but surely grind us down to the point where we are concerned about the future viability of our university. At the same time, as union organizers and scholar-activists we have experienced the incredible power, creativity, intelligence and solidarity that academic workers are capable of when they are given the space to think and organize together in bottom-up and democratic ways. We know that a truly democratic governance of universities is not only desirable but entirely possible!

All over the world, over the Anglosphere countries in particular, higher education has been under systematic attack from its own administration. In our recent paper for Theory and Event, “For Democratic Governance of Universities: The Case for Administrative Abolition,” we catalogue the history and the effects of this steady attack on a principal institution of public life. Although this attack is happening both at private and public institutions of higher learning, we are focusing on the public university system as an object—and in particular those lower-prestige schools such as our own that serve a diverse, working-class student body—that are particularly under the gun. 

We make the case that even though the very notion of a public university is becoming increasingly untenable as the forces of privatization and precaritization taking over institutions of higher learning, this concept needs to be fully re-imagined and re-invested in, allowing for faculty and student power to exist and affirm the emancipatory possibilities of education. For us, the public university needs to become synonymous with quality and democratic education. It needs to be the terrain where radical and emancipatory ideas are practiced, and where a new generation of students can re-invent a vision of democracy that is more expansive and encompassing than exists today, including the economic, racial and gender dimensions that are otherwise obliterated by the version of liberal democracy we live in.

Our research makes clear something that we both suspected, namely that the neoliberal attack on higher education—while reaching its apogee in the current moment—is not as recent as it might seem. It has its roots in the early 20th century and perhaps even goes back to the origins of the U.S. higher education model. 

What we found out was that the idea of an independent, self-managed model of higher education has always been seen as a threat to various elites and, accordingly, a long war on faculty, student and staff autonomy has led us to the situation that we face today. We learned that attempts at worker self-management going back to the founding of very elite and private institutions such as Harvard and Yale saw the rise of campaigns to manage and control the power of faculty, staff and students—attempts that were ultimately successful. 

This was the birth of university administration, a parasitical force that adds nothing to the life blood of the university, but rather sits atop it in order to dominate it and prevent it from its own self-expression. Entities like the AAUP, far from being facilitators of faculty power, are revealed as a product of a long-ago historical defeat where, instead of forums in which faculty have real power, they receive faux representation and “consultation,” the sum of which can be easily ignored by administers. 

Part of what motivated us to write this essay was the idea that these circumstances do not exist in isolation, but are rather connected to larger patterns of administrative and managerial domination of virtually every sphere of life under conditions of capitalism. The attack on higher education is matched by similar attacks on every form of self-organization that does not conform to elite and capitalist interests. 

We look to the model of abolition as a form of radical democracy because we think that a reformist ethos that tries to “fix” this situation is a way to allow this parasitic relationship to indefinitely continue. This is why we are now expanding our exploration into new forms of organization for faculty and students suitable to launch a radical transformation of universities, and to investigate previous experiences—both in the U.S. and internationally—that have achieved real gains in faculty and student self-governance.

To faculty reading our article who think that the prospect of running their own university is exhausting or intimidating, our response is: We already do all of the work. The staff make the university run. The faculty do all of the academic work. The students contribute their own labor both in and outside of the classroom. The administration mainly exists to draw money away from these workers, to create precarity that justifies austerity and cuts they can impose at will, and to create havoc with ever-new initiatives to justify their salaries and show that they will not be friendly to labor. 

We invite you to read our article in full, and ask, isn’t it more exhausting to live under this kind of endless assault rather than to take your own economic and political life into your own hands? 


About the authors 

Blanca Missé

Blanca Missé teachers French in the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at San Francisco State University. They specialize in Enlightenment literature and philosophy, and in the materialist tradition. They published on Spinoza, Diderot, La Mettrie, Fourier and Marx in journals such as Dix-huitème Siècle, Eighteenth Century Theory and Interpretation, Romance Studies or Cahiers Philosophies. They also work on Academic Freedom, Marxism, Post-colonial theory and Feminist/Social Reproduction theory and are an active union member in the CFA.

James Martel

James Martel teaches political theory in the department of political science at San Francisco State University. His most recent book is Anarchist Prophets: Disappointing Vision and the Power of Collective Sight, (Duke University Press, 2022). Other books of his include The Misinterpellated Subject (Duke University Press, 2017) and Divine Violence: Walter Benjamin and the Eschatology of Sovereignty (Routledge, 2011). He writes on anarchism, critical legal theory, critical race studies and comparative literature, among other fields. His email is jmartel@sfsu.edu and his website is https://politicalscience.sfsu.edu/people/james-martel


Written by: by Blanca Missé and James Martel
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