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The University of the Commons: Story of a Free University in San Francisco

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Participants were excited at the promise of starting a free university for no-cost higher learning and to free-form teach as we wanted, without money and profit motives and administrative harnessing getting in our way.

by Molly Hankwitz

The University of the Commons (UOTC) kicked off its first schedule of classes on June 2nd, 2012. The six courses would be taught by educators experienced in teaching from as far afield as Atlanta, GA, Brisbane, Australia, Chicago, IL, and New York City. There would also be local activists involved. Some would wear both scholars' and political organizers' hats.

The UOTC formed as a splinter group from a previous, similar project that erupted nearly two years prior with a lot of fanfare and celebration. Names in San Francisco literature and poetry scene such as Diane di Prima and Alan Kaufman read or taught at the first "teach in". There was a huge turn out and a rush of energy. I had been invited to the first meeting, already stiff with conflicting interests among those leading the show and the so-called Collective. But, alas, due to egos and politics, the splinter group of about 15 people, which I was also invited to join, became a resistance movement to top-down politics which the members questioned and found themselves hurt by.

That first free university project had considerable utopian energy and many followers. It formed quickly however, without any guidelines of conduct, involved a large group of 75 or 80 at every meeting, and found out too late that there was dissenting opinion about how it should work, and that there was sharp resistance to being the brain-child of one or two people. Large collectives without voting or decision making practices agreed upon collectively is a recipe for failure. Then statements were made to the

At first, the UOTC meetings were similar to self-help gatherings because people were peeved and needed to talk about how they felt they had been treated before. Everyone had ideas, too. There had been disappointment and pain. Large spaghetti dinners and utopian confessions in a backyard seemed the best antidote to bad behavior. This was going to be a grassroots endeavor. Hopes and ideals of free university educational life were expressed to salve the wounded, share ideas, rethink society. It was depressing and it was also good and it was amazing on some levels. Mostly, however, it was a comforting revolutionary utopiansim vibe against the backdrop of the then floundering UC system with its in cutbacks and tuition hikes. Despair about California was shared and discussed. These sessions were a way of washing out ideas. They were social debriefings.

To Structure or Not To Structure

Others were excited at the possibility of starting a really great project for no-cost higher learning and to free-form teach as we wanted, develop teacher-student relationships without money and profit motives or administrative harnessing. At the same time, we failed to agree on how to begin, and there were different camps among us when we got together. Some wanted what they called structure, others, to dispense with any structure altogether, and "let things grow." Diamond Dave Whittaker, hand snaking gesture working in the air, reminded us not to panic, but to "keep it organic." (And Diamond Dave is one of the most prolific organizers of utopian events in the city, being both a regular at the annual "Human Be-in" and the progenitor of "Poets Under the Dome" when hundreds of the city's poets come to City Hall to read.) I listened.

Conversations went on for a long time, back and forth without any real agreement or sides. Then two participants, including myself, brought books on Collective formation and Consensus-building to the group. Since the Collective's lack of political input into decisions had been the problem before, we were trying to address this concern. We read 'On Conflict and Consensus' by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein and we came up with a long "process proposal" thinking we were helping, but it just tended to confuse everyone since it was considered too much "structure" by others. What did they want? I wondered this often since some who contested process had been loudest to condemn the misused Collective of the earlier project. On the group's e-list, articles like The Tyranny of Structuralessness were posted. Building a collective that knew how to operate as one was on our minds, since failure to protect Collective action was at the heart of "splintering". It needed to be addressed. We could also see, however, that process was bogging our group down. There seemed a choice between either a Collective well-formed without precise project, or project imagined without a well-formed Collective. My feeling was for the former since I thought we were about making a school of some kind. But, it was apparent to me at least that one or two members wanted power in the group; to be "advising" or listening, having without interest in offering any classes, as if they were waiting to see what opportunities might arise from it. In the long run, those who did give a class, and those who attended classes were the project. Participants left, impatient with the ideological debates and the occasional rancor. At best, we formed into a coherent group with an approach to meetings that allowed for fair voting, minutes to be taken, transparency, and the thought that we could grow.

It took us months to come up with what we really wanted, and that was a name. This was a long process—we were meeting every month and were talking online back and forth during that time. We had a list of possible names that we threw out in a brainstorming session provoked by one of our artist members. That list was sent around and we ended up voting for our top three, or something like that, and eventually whittling it down. Process, which included some good things like learning not to interrupt others and to obey a "stack" in which folks had the right to speak in a particular order, but also some very negative elements which were that we tended to become too formal and start speaking a formal tongue which hampered and stifled creativity. At times I simply could not stand seeing anyone I had ever socialized with in the context of these meetings and stayed away completely.


Over time, we manipulated the process quite a bit to suit our needs. This, it turned out, was a rite of political passage, since we all had trouble with taking of Minutes. Either no one wanted to do it, or people overwrote and no one wanted to read them. We made mistakes in front of each other, and learned about each other, and there are probably people now who don't like each other at all as a result of having to work together because we had formed a good idea: The University of the Commons.

We had visitors at times, members of San Francisco's Liberation Institute, and other organizations. Since we were still nutting out our discomfort/comfort levels, we were often too embarrassed to bring in new people, though we needed new blood. Once we had a name——then we could complain about it as well as start to use it. It took us some time. You should try writing a Mission Statement (for me this language was already problematic) with 8 people, all of whom are creative writers! That took another two or three months of sentence banter. You give up crafting your utopian sensibility and get on with it. You teach free classes.

There was an inclination either to keep refining the idea or to move forward. In consensus based decision making, voting twice on things slowed us down. You have to leave ego at the door, and let confidence in each other and in the good of the whole project rule, rather than the majority, peer pressure, or other factors taking over, as they do. Some members were impatient with having to wait on things; others seemed to feel that all this hashing out, and the complexity of process and working together, was more important than outcome, and I was definitely in that camp. At the same time I wanted to make the free courses happen. My feeling was that we needed process badly and that if we could get a core group together to understand how meetings would work and could work, then when we opened up the floodgates of the UOTC to the general public, we could grow peaceably, or at least in a semi-organized way, and no Collective of the future would be bereft.

The UOTC Launches

Other Cinema agreed to give us their 16th Saturday for a "launch" in June. All 7 or 8 regulars from our meetings worked to make it happen and that brought about camaraderie for the day. There was widespread support and we had no trouble filling up the storefront cinema at ATA (Artists Television Access). Those who attended were a diverse group with lots of older people. Lots of younger people were also interested in participating and listening, speaking. Mike Pincus, organizer-teacher in the Palo Alto-based Midpeninsula Free University of the 1960s, and the San Francisco Socialist School project of the local Democratic Socialists of America) in the late 1970s and early 1980s came to our Panel, as did Andre Grubacic from California Institute of Integral Studies, and Megan Prelinger of Prelinger Archives/Internet Archives.

The Launch was a celebration for the group as we achieved that critical mass of coming together —and bringing our project to the press and the people. We stayed together afterwards despite quarrels over style and process because we shared the same idea of wanting the UOTC to happen. Students and educators from all over the city attended the Launch. Disgruntled employees and Faculty of San Francisco State University noted the decline in courses for women and minorities in the curriculum. Some complained of the decline in "discussion based" courses there. We had all railed against these things while organizing and those who had taught in corporate institutions nodded our heads. Some had moved out of this product- and vocation-based world, where students are rubber-stamped APPROVED for how similar their work is to each others. Moreover, we had a roster of six 5 week classes ready-to-roll and to be taught and taken for free.

To me teaching was the most important building block of this utopian university - being "Faculty" so that was where I concentrated my effort. I could do exactly what I wanted. I lead a 5 week course which was very successful. It felt great especially after working in corporate education and trying to become employed in Northern California during a recession, when all schools were merely holding on to what, and who, they had. Teaching jobs were scarce here at that time. And even when times are lush, jobs are often filled by the time the application goes online. It's deeply corrupt. So, our project was to make a place to work, with high standards for learning, in which the community would be included, all free of charge. Probably the most significant deterrent was space, seconded only by disputes.

The Question of the Commons

What is "the commons" of this university? I know I imagined it like an architecture - as a loose organization of various places already committed to the public commons. Prelinger Library could be, for instance, the research institute. Art venues were the classrooms. Something like that. The University of the Commons idea came along in the context of events like the Anarchist Book Fair which yearly present regular discussions on "the commons" and thinkers like Ian Boal were giving new life to the term. Part of our idea was to try to diversify the population having this discussion. On one hand, "the commons" is what we own in common as a public. Public good. Public goods. On the other hand, it was also the Knowledge Commons and other meanings. One of the members has been a long time employee of the San Francisco Public Library, and arranged support through the Library from time to time. The commons has different nuances culturally, and some thought it had too academic a connotation and that many would not know what it was. So the debates wore on. What was always important was quality courses for free. We had long discussions on what the word free meant.

Our goal had been to grow it. And it would have grown because we had planted it and watered it, and convened and worked like fools to make it happen. And it happened for more than a year. We could not solve every problem, but alternatives to the current educational climate and system, in the hands of the people, where collectively we could make a university that felt like us; that erased barriers between Faculty and students. Education for the sake of education! That was the plan. Ultimately, those who taught really were the UOTC, and unfortunately, we disbanded before the t-shirt and pennant were designed or we would have paid back our donors for photocopying. Personally I wanted it all to be less serious and a reformation of the university-as-we-know-it and more lighthearted and free-wheeling, but I'm a big fan of the Cacophony Society. I rejected, for instance, the idea of "Deans" of departments.

Now it is possible that the project may come back to life in some incarnation under the same name. Like many such projects in San Francisco, it may rise and happen again in a newly articluated form, and it will then probably still have to deal with the politics and structure and non-structure of its organization. Or, it may also go away permanently due to time and resources under the pressure of the increasingly neo-liberal capitalistic climate around living and working in the city. If there is inclination to veer it more left or go underground, it might have more chance of survival. At any rate, the UOTC will have evolved, and at this point, it is probably very important to thank Craig Baldwin ad Other Cinema for their utopian vision in helping us to launch the project, and for offering us their Saturday afternoon space, because our launch brought the edgy educational community together and gave us a way to mark and celebrate our idea.

Molly Hankwitz holds a Ph.D. in Media and Communications and was one of the founding members of the University of the Commons where she helped bring in radical notions of social organization, taught "History in the Digital Culture" at the main space at Mutiny Radio, one day a week and developed Basic Computing classes for the general public as part of her work. She researches technologies and culture, with a special emphasis upon miniaturized, wearable, and new technologies. The UOTC poster was designed by Archimedia. Photo by David Cox. More photos of the UOTC Launch with speakers Andre Grubacic, Megan Shaw Prelinger, Mike Pincus and others can be seen at flickr.

Copyright © Molly Hankwitz . All rights reserved.

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