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The University of the Commons: a Progressive Alternative in San Francisco

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Participants were excited at the promise of starting a really great project for no-cost higher learning; to be able 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 from as far afield from San Francisco as Emory University in Atlanta; Queensland University of Technology in Australia; Northwestern University in Chicago and Columbia University in New York. 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. Big names in SF literature, such as Diane di Prima, read at the first "teach in". Our UOTC splinter group was essentially a resistance movement, however, to top down politics which emerged as a result of a few egos and a too-loosely defined "Collective". However, that former project, also a free university, had considerable, good, optimistic utopian energy. 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 run. To be a large collective without structure for voting or decision making frequenlty fails. Statements were made to the media that did not reflect the Collective's desires. Authority was questioned. It was a heads up about rushing in, and how to work together. So, desiring not to make this error again, the splinter group tried being protective of its collective position. We wanted to proceed with caution, add more people in, as we got to know each other and on which projects we wanted to work. We wanted consensus building and voting and meetings with minutes. We had a lot to do, too, because not all of us knew each other; some of us did. There were strong personalities. Some who had belonged in the first free university were still harboring resentiment, but not without humor. At first, the UOTC meetings were like a self-help gathering, but in a good way. Participants needed voice. Everyone had ideas. There had been disappointment and pain; there had been abuse. Large spaghetti dinners and utopian confessions in someone's backyard seemed the way around bad behavior. Hopes, and ideals of free university educational life were expressed. It was depressing and it was good. It was a good vibe against the backdrop of the UC system which had been floundering in cutbacks, protests, tuition hikes and criticism. Despair was shared. Despair was discussed. These sessions were a washing out.

Participants were excited at the posssibility of starting a really great project for no-cost higher learning; to be able to free form teach as we wanted, without money and profit motives and administrative harnessing to get in our way. At the same time, we failed to agree on how to begin, and there already seemed to be different camps among us when we had our first real meeting. Some wanted what they called structure, others, to dispense with it and "let things grow." Diamond Dave Whittaker, hand snaking in the air, reminded us not to panic, but to "keep it organic." This conversation went on for a long time, back and forth without any real agreement or sides and then two participant threw books on Collective formation and Consensus building at the group. We were reading On Conflict and Consensus and we came up with a long "process proposal" which tended to confused things more because others thought of this as "structure." Articles like The Tyranny of Structuralessness were thrown out as justifications for building a collective that knew how to operate as one. Failure to protect Collective action was at the heart of the first free universities problem. The Collective got pushed around. But, we could also see that Process bogged us down when it came to shaping a project. There was either a Collective well formed without a Project, or a Project imagined without a Collective. Participants left, impatient with the ideological debate. At best, it formed us into a coherent group with an approach to meetings that allowed for voting, motions, and a conservancy of ideas: minutes would be taken, transparency would be in effect, and 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 was that we tended to become too formal, 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. Arrgh.

We manipulated the process quite a bit over time to suit our personalities and inclinations. This, it turned out, was sort of important, a common rite of passage, if you will. We had trouble with the taking of Minutes. No one wanted to do it, or people overwrote, thinking they had to do all. We sort of made mistakes in front of each other, and learned a lot about each other, and there are probably people who don't even like each other at all now, having to work together because we have formed a great 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 process and our discomfort/comfort levels with it, we were often too embarrassed to bring in new people, though we needed new blood. At any rate, once we had a name—Yay!—then we could complain about it, and start to use it. It took us some time to get comfortable with it. You should try writing a Mission Statement with 8 people, all of whom are creative writers! That took another two or three months of sentence banter, OMG... You give up your utopian sensibility that demands a perfect world, and get on with it.

There were spats. There was an inclination to want to go over it and fix it, 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. 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 think I am in that camp. It was my concerted feeling that we needed process badly and that if we could get a core together to understand how meetings would work and could work in a civil society, then when we opened up the UOTC to the general public, we could grow peaceably, or at least in a semi-organized fashion.

We had our Launch in June and it was a great event. Everyone in the Collective, some 7 or 8 regulars at the meetings (mind you, not a huge group) stayed in and worked to make the Launch happen. There is such widespread support from young and old alike, we had no trouble filling up the storefront cinema at ATA (Artists Television Access). Everyone stayed. It was a hugely diverse group. Lots of older people. Lots of younger people interested in participating at the Launch and listening, speaking. These participants included 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. The Launch was a celebration for us of this camaraderie of having achieved that critical mass of coming together —and coming out to the press and the people. We stayed together as a group despite quarrels over style, process and so forth. We wanted the UOTC over and above our own individual concerns and this is what makes us strong.

That said, six free five week classes, a brochure, a website, a Launch with food, speakers, music, and the courses all starting well is a huge achievement, a community service, a benefit to humankind.

We had educators from all over the city attending the Launch. Disgruntled employees of San Francisco State University who have noted the decline in courses for women, minorities and others in its curriculum. Others complained of the decline in "discussion based" courses there. We had all railed against these things in our meetings. Some of us have taught in these corporate institutions. We had quit. Taken less pay. Moved out of this product- and vocation-based world, where students are rubber-stamped APPROVED for how similar their work is to each other, and how they can be forced into a small hole.

For myself, I'm learning as I go. I'm teaching, and it feels great to work in exactly what I want, develop a course with really good students, especially after working in corporate education and trying to become employed in Northern California during a recession, when all schools are merely holding on to what, and who, they have. Teaching jobs are scarce, and good jobs are already filled by the time you see the application online. It's a deeply corrupt system. So, our project has been to make a place to work.

What is "the commons"? The University of the Commons comes along at a time when books are being published, and events like the Anarchist Book Fair present regular discussions on the topic of "the commons," and part of our idea is 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 is also the Knowledge Commons and other things. One of our members is a long time employee of the San Francisco Public Library, and has gotten huge support from them for our project. The commons has different nuances for Latin Americans than for white academics. It's also a topic about the digital realm. What is essential to us is that we supply quality courses for free. We have had long discussions on what the word free means to each of us, and have disagreements and disputes.

We are trying to supply quality courses to the public in venues around the city of San Francisco, from the Mission district to North Beach and beyond. Venues are coming in, wanting to help. Our biggest issues now is the need for more people to assist with administration, and more proposals for classes. Ideally, as we persevere, people from all over the world traveling through the city could teach while they are in town. It's a social network, ultimately. A University of the Commons. It is going to be what the collective makes it, and we surely want the collective to grow beyond it's current tiny membership.

Our goal is to grow it. And it will grow because we have planted it and watered it, and convened and worked like fools to get it here. We can't solve every problem, but alternatives to the current educational climate and system, in the hands of the people, where collectively we can make an institution that feels like us; that educates us for the sake of education. That's the plan.

Molly Hankwitz holds a Ph.D. in media and communications and was one of the founding participant members of the University of the Commons where she taught "History in the Digital Culture" at the main space at Mutiny Radio, one day a week and Basic Computing classes for the public at the Valencia Gardens computer lab. She researches technologies and culture, with a special emphasis upon miniaturized, wearable, and new technologies, as they have influenced the production of public space in the modern/post modern city. The UOTC poster was designed by Archimedia. Photo by David Cox. More photos of the UOTC Launch with speaker Andre Grubacic, Megan Shaw Prelinger, Mike Pincus and others can be seen at flickr.

Copyright © Molly Hankwitz . All rights reserved.

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