Fortress Campus and the Power Relations of a Google Bus Window

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Class issues dividing communities and universities are reinforced with increased campus security systems, hefty tuitions, and privatization of public resources.

Molly Hankwitz


Americans, Fees, and Corporate Media

Many of our finest American university and community relationships began long ago as part of political rights to which wealthy forefathers were privy whilst they invented American democracy. Early American sense of place was a quilt-like town planning of ever-so-slightly-manicured fields and dirt roads woven together with central, well-appointed stone buildings where our early system of Law, Order, Learning, and Governance was embodied by white, wealthy, mostly male participants. The fairy-tale history of the colonists obscures what was a system already steeped, from their European roots onward, in patriarchy and racism. We do not need to go to Egypt, for instance, and think of slaves sweating out a grueling tomb construction. Many of our own greatest democratic institutions were built with slave labor; our finest politicians, themselves, owned slaves.


Perceived threat of campus crime spurs on blockbuster-type showdowns in the conservative news between outsider Other terroristic forces and civilized insiders while at the same time campus police are given power to patrol communities with loaded guns. College towns consist of over-priced amenities (and a service population) catering to privileged students often at the expense of longer term and poorer residents (living in another time frame) who are squeezed out by gentrification. (Gentry, alone, a term reserved for lower-end nobility who managed land; a petite-bourgeoisie)

But, resistance to these traditions of university land-control abound. The declaration of a 'free space' at Berkeley's Peoples' Park in the sixties and the recent militancy of the Berkeley community to generate a "free university" on Nov. 15th, 2011 during Occupy Cal have something in common. In the first and largest gathering of Occupy, cancelling of classes at UCBerkeley was one of a long line of actions towards equitable, meaningful higher education in the UC system. And at Columbia University (I went to Barnard) socio-economic and racial tensions have long been present. The mere presence of an expensive, mostly white, western-canon oriented institution with costly admissions fees amidst ethnic and racial degradation and squalor is highly problematic. Columbia is also a major landlord on New York's upper West Side. Such tensions do not subside simply by reading political literature or by offering free lectures to the public however. Rather, they are the direct byproduct of obvious exclusion which Affirmative Action and multiculturalism did something to redress, but which did and do not go far enough. I argue that it has to do with the priorities of knowledge-production. Knowledge for whom and for what?

Bumping up against the social horror of lumpen outsiders, whether lying on the street, or begging, or as part of the clearly deprived and oppressed urban milieu, seems to scare up a certain social demand for privilege and protection in the management/administration types of the current class system. The "college town" mentality, in the case of Columbia, has gentrified block after block of Upper Broadway into a carefully orchestrated Potemkin Village. Worried parents, the dominant customers and fee-payers, can now leave their sons and daughters more or less comfortably albeit near Harlem and Morningside Park. Safety of young people is a good thing, as is the preservation of civilizations and I am not an advocate of violent interludes and campus-shootings by any means, but, I do often wonder, from the perspective of someone who has lived my entire adult life, when not in universities, in poor and ethically mixed urban neighborhoods, what would happen if knowledge-makers paid more attention to the ways that these communities work and rewrite research agendas to boot.

Rhetoric of Class Affinities and Campus Life

Taking up the rhetoric of safe and privatized campus life, corporations have modeled their offices and their business ethos on ideas of campus-like workplaces where knowledge-making, innovation, athletic activity, collaboration and green transportation systems appear to converge and to connect workplace camaraderie with clubby college memories in a hegemony of power.

Thomas Jefferson's pastoral master plan for the University of Virginia, contains all kinds of longings to be away from "the mob" (to borrow Jefferson's own rhetoric)  and this idea underpins my overt distaste for Google's buses as they glide, dark and silent, through the streets of San Francisco. The black-glass window, like a celebrity's private limosine, makes a distinct separation of Google and its workforce from the rest of us. We don't mingle with them on sidewalks, or travel with them on buses and trains. From my perspective  all that black glass indicates is sinister rejection of the exterior world by one of the most globally-influential corporations, a corporation which should be trying hard to get down with the people, and, yet, with this one gesture, this first step towards Mountainview, rejects the actual people living and working here. As once-editor of "The Bay Guardian" Tim Redmond implied years ago about the slick new townhouses along Third Street, Silicon Valley is utilizing San Francisco as a bedroom community. The city is serving as a farm for Google's harvesting of hip, college-educated tech people. Their perverse fleet glides through our city streets carrying these workers—-mostly young...white...and and from their campus in a ritual as old and oppressive as Jefferson's brain.

Class and Architectures of Control

Populations which benefit from Jefferson's "academical village", those matriculated, tenured, hired by and serving the institution, the store owners and restauranteurs of college town food malls are social agents of a specifically protected, language of privilege. They preserve an image of control and stasis; future and wealth, that preserves the future of the value of the picture of education in the mind of those buying it. And that idea, that image, arguably, is already pre-ordained with inclusion/exclusion based on class. The commercialized college town marketed to the student is a learning lab from which to study their own expectations of the future thus the preservation of class. The elitism of this traditional social organization and its history in white male power relations, was actively thwarted by Affirmative Action, the set of progressive social-engineering laws which created enrollment quotas for women and African Americans in higher education. Yet, the problem rests with more than simply better admissions policy for marginal groups. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, and leader of the way towards the proposed Renzo Piano design for a new West Harlem Columbia University campus, and new paradigm for university culture, has been, while at University of Michigan and now at Columbia a strong proponent of Affirmative Action. His driving support for MANHATTANVILLE, the project which will essentially raze whole portions of West Harlem where neighborhoods have existed for better or worse for decades, can be amply criticized for what will be a promise of alienation of the poor and working class, gentrification, and raised rents in the surrounding zone of the university. Others have already written about the gentrification of Harlem. Where does the do-gooder spirit of inclusion at the level of admission policy go when in other arenas, urban spatial control /revitalization is at the heart of what black people have long called "Negro removal?" (New York Times, 2006)

In many cases the barrier(s) about which I write are simply symbolic iron and stone walls/fences which in their very literal presence reinforce long suffering social injustice to those kept out, kept down, not unlike Robert Moses' extensions of concrete highway which now cut across New York City ghettos. Bollinger, who confesses to being somewhere between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in his urban planning, epitomizes the problem of the university campus in the city or elsewhere. On the one hand, he and his cohorts envision the campus as a place to remove students temporarily from society such that they can come back as intense and engaged contributors,(NYT,2006)yet the new campus for Columbia seems to express its intellectual alienation from the city in the form of an island culture with potentially 25 story towers and carefully manicured and controlled gathering spaces. At the same time, it has been designed as a space supposedly for the local people. This set of values is the litany of gentrified discourse. The same argument is given here in San Francisco, while 8,000 Latinos are moved out due to rising rents. It seems also to be behind global economist Saskia Sassen's denial of the word gentrification when associated with projects she was reviewing at a European festival a few years back in defense of designers for their acts of good will. (critiqued in nettime posts) But should a university president act as an urban planner?  Is there no way for smart, important human beings to pull together to end poverty and degradation in neighborhoods without razing homes, architecture,places of meaning, in giant bold gestures and relocating long-term residents and their valuable memories? What would it take to rid cities of crime without ridding them of the criminalized poor?

Stereotypes also play a role in this conundrum. As phantoms of the justifying imagination, they are a psychic symbolism which serves denial and which can assume and be passed on quickly through images in monstrous proportions. They create barriers to difference, compassion, language, and the silenced creativity of the people at whom they are directed. Urban throngs, thus, are treated as unwanted mobs. Locals are discussed as if they weren't in the room.  They become lumpen, ignorant urban hordes; a mass of human beings who (usually not supplied or spoken by them) will remain eternally un-bettered to become feared over and over as any unknown mass would be. But what horde, and for what reason? And, shouldn't we fear proclivities for leveling sameness upon populations and generalizing about whole groups of people?

One reason City College in San Francisco has historically been so loved and so successful, and has come under neo-liberal attack from the conservative, private sector ACCJC,  is precisely because of its all inclusive admissions policies, cheap tuition, many critical, community-based programs which challenge a status-quo idea about what education is, i.e. Labor Studies and Womens' Studies, and quite probably its large chunks of desirable Bay Area land.  San Francisco's City College has historically been a place where the so-called lumpen mass has been given the means and the power to represent itself. It functions as a place where that Other, so deplorably stereotyped in the mainstream, is able to flourish; to see itself and hear itself think.

Separation of the Classes

Separation of one kind of person from another kind of person for reasons of purity or class or race or gender is a form of violence. The cost of American universities and the standards of acceptance to them (often in direct relationship to their cost) frequently underscore a culturally-pervasive logic of insiders and outsiders that cuts across society; those who can "get in" and those who cannot; who can afford, and who cannot. Now that the smart campus of surveillance cameras, swipe identities, campus police communications, and other security apparatus has arrived and is being put into place as "state of the art", does higher tuition seem more justified? Are universities a new paradigm as panopticon? Has the security of greater long-term wealth and higher education merged so fully in the new 'smart' class that elitist values are controlling in new ways? Perhaps through debt? Deleuze writes in his post-script to A Thousand Plateaus that the society of control is the society of debt.

Knowledge Making

Are universities quickly becoming places which require increased costly protection and security? The feeling that they are in near present danger is generated by news reports of shootings and “campus crime,” while 'smart' campus security systems provide new means to locking down the flows of life. But, the question remains how much of the current fervor is a byproduct of other social ills such as pro-gun fever, rise of gun/tasers for campus security guards, corporate-model privatization, and blatant cultural stereotypes which reinforce fear about what outsiders may bring (as lifestyle or critique?) to the campus or are doing in communities nearby. Stereotypes also come about in too much “sociological" thinking--in the over-attention to demographic analyses, data-gathering and statistics on "who" does "what”. Indeed, culturally, are we developing formulaic ideas about our population which lead to what some call the development of a near ‘third-worldly’ underclass in contrast to the 1%? Recent attacks on progressive university professors and their research (deemed wrong by conservative politicians or ignorant parents in the case of Ricardo Dominguez and the Transborder Tool Project and his more recent debacle with nakedness in his Performance Studies class at UCSD), the rise of gun/tasers for campus security guards and national gun-fever are symptoms of right-wingdom. So, the question remains: To what extent is the spin on “campus crime” and parent-as-customer critique of Faculty, a function of rising, privatizing capitalism and corporate control of education?

With increased corporate privatization of higher-ed we get increased knowledge-for-profit and research-for-profit. We get knowledge-factories, not human libraries or non-profit classrooms. We LOSE public discourse about privatization and we become enmeshed in the language and vicissitudes of privatized THINKING. Yet, tragically, human progress, for this writer, does not exist there. It exists in the political functioning and failures of human neighborhoods and streets, in the good and bad functioning of low-income people, who are adept at using resources well for the good of themselves and others. Social eco-systems are demonstrations of how humanity works. Even ineffective projects and failed utopias tell us about what worlds are possible. Some of the best ideas were never formulated by anyone at a university or with a degree. Perhaps its time for a new architectural plan. A people's plan.

Molly Hankwitz holds a Ph.D. in Media and Communications and is an activist, writer, editor, independent scholar, and technology teacher in San Francisco.

Image credits:

1. Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown. (wikicommons)

2. "Smile You are on CCTV" generic security signage. (wikicommons)

3. Thomas Jefferson's drawing for Library porch/columns at University of Virginia. (wikicommons)

4. Google bus on Valencia St. photo from article by sustainabile transport activist, Drew Reed on, entitled, "Thinking Outside the Bus: San Francisco Deals with Google Buses."

Copyright © Molly Hankwitz. All rights reserved.

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