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


Knowledge and Power 

Knowledge has long been about ideas, research, skills, and their documentation; a process of history largely belonging to nobility and upper classes; the monastic in history, and in new American culture---to young, white men of power bent on shaping the country around a set of governing principles. This was how American democracy was formed.  In this historic drama, barriers to knowledge have also arisen, and those of which I write about here are both physical and social. These barriers are frequently inscribed into the class structure which underpins higher education and into the visible planning of college campuses and towns. Campus design most often reduces distraction and promotes the pastoral while bestowing identity through advanced architectures of control based in security systems and surveillance technologies while rising tuition discourages students through potential excessive debt.


The over-arching feeling is that of our universities becoming fortresses or places which need increased costly protection and security. Shooting rampages don't help. 'Smart' campus security systems: gateways, locks, card and biometric systems record the flow of on-campus bodies and resources while producing the "security" culture necessary for typical collegiality. Some electronic barriers are made to monitor and protect openings in the physical system while others control the flow of knowledge-making through digital means. When in fact societies suffer from socially-constructed digital divides, how is a digitally-based knowledge system accessible? Societies predicated upon online participation, for instance for government information or employment, need to have digital access and literacy for all citizens, like they need to provide water (usually) and other municipal services to ensure equity. Without widespread quality digital access and literacy, knowledge-making, which consists of participation, is predicated upon the exclusion of populations whose contributions to culture may never be seen or heard except in passive guise as market research 'data-gathering".  Without widespread digital access and literacy,education, tools, upgrades, the digital divide prohibits equity in access, participation in newsmaking, job hunting, and national digital conversations upon which our democracy is predicated. This digital divide haunts the entire internet revolution, and cannot be explained away by simple idealism at the university level- that students who are capable of "getting in" can get in and access the wealth of knowledge-making and resources. On the contrary, raised tuitions, fees, and other class issues destroy that democratic picture. It is lower income and minority students, many of whom fall into that economic bracket, who are affected most adversely by the privatization of the university.

But, a greater barrier to the social inclusion necessary to adequately equalize higher education are blatant stereotypes which reinforce fear of women and miniorities and what these students may bring (as lifestlye or critique) to the sheltered upperness of the substantially richer and more highly-educated, largely white and too frequently male populations with which our higher institutions have long been associated. Stereotypes, frequently appear in an over-attention to demographic analyses, data-gathering and statistics on "who" does "what" and, surely, in the recent attacks on progressive university professors (well supported by letter writing campaigns) 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 nudity in his Performance Studies class at UCSD). It exists in the rise of gun/tasers use by campus security guards. Along with the putting into place of Affirmative Action were educational programs to teach police about their stereotypes towards black people and women.

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 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 expectations of the future and 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 raised rents, gentrification, alienation of the poor and working class from 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 represent long suffering social injustice to those kept out, kept down. like Robert Moses' extensions of concrete highway 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, as a place to remove students temporarily from society such that they can come back as intense and engaged contributors, the new campus for Columbia seems, rather, to express its alienation from the city as an island culture, with potentially 25 foot towers and carefully manicured and controlled gathering spaces. At the same time, it has been designed as a space for the local people as well. 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 to be behind Saskia Sassen's refusal to hear the word gentrification associated with projects she was reviewing at a European festival a few years back when she defended the designers for their acts of good will. But should a university president act as an urban planner?  Is there no way for human beings to pull together to end poverty and degradation in neighborhoods rather than razing old buildings in giant bold gestures and relocating long-term residents? What would it take to rid cities of crime without ridding them of the criminalized poor?

Stereotypes also play a role as phantoms of the justifying imagination. They are a psychic symbolism which serve denial and which can assume monstrous proportions as objectifications. They help to 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.  Lumpen, ignorant urban hordes; a mass of human beings who for some reason (usually not supplied or spoken by them) will remain eternally un-bettered become feared as any unknown mass would be, but what horde? and for what reason? And, shouldn't we fear procilvities for levelling sameness upon populations and generalizing about whole groups of people?

One reason City College in San Francisco has historically been so successful, and has come under neo-liberal attack from the conservative, private sector ACCJC,  is 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, not to mention its large chunks of desirable Bay Area land.  San Francisco's City College is a place where the so-called lumpen mass has the means and the power to represent itself. It functions as a place where that stereotyped Other is able to flourish; to 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" security, communications, knowledge-production, 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 society of control is the society of debt.

In the mainstream, corporate controlled news we hear the term "campus crime."  Is it an overly-exaggerated fictional threat concocted by a media which serves the privatizing corporate interest in higher education and its value to the mostly-white upper middle class and extreme wealthy, over populations of people of color, immigrants, and their children?

The conscientious mind must ask, why are goals of knowledge-production and goals of self/societal betterment, and the freedom gained from education cut off from, and in conflict with, the whole of society?-Why must our universities cordant themselves off, and hire armed cops as the answer to the problem of possible crimes or infiltration? The pen is mightier than the gun. The book is mightier than the gun. Benevolence is mightier than the gun. But the pre-crime mentality of Minority Report? That's the fully-policed, surveilled end of civilization.

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. 

Americans, Fees, and Corporate Media

Many of our finest American universities, institutional and community relationships began long ago within political rights which wealthy forefathers partook of whilst inventing 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 law, order, learning, and governance embodied an emerging patriarchal, white, wealthy, political system and class. The fairy-tale history of the colonists obscures what was a system of growth and development already steeped in patriarchy and racism. We do not need to go to Egypt 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.

Today, corporate-controlled media focuses upon the threat of campus crime and spurs on blockbuster-type showdowns between an outsider Other terroristic force and the civilized insiders. Campus police are given power to patrol communities with loaded guns, while college towns consist of over-priced amenities (and a service population) catering to their 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-bourgeiousie)

Resistance to university land-control abounds. 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" at Berkeley on Nov. 15th, 2011 with Occupy Cal. The cancelling classes in the first and largest gathering of Occupy demonstrated life in the ongoing pursuit of equitable, meaningful higher education and the UC system. At Columbia University (I went to Barnard) socio-economic and racial tensions arose back in the late seventies, early eighties, from the mere presence of an expensive, mostly white, western-canon oriented institution with costly admissions fees, amidst ethnic and racial squalor. Columbia is also a major landlord on New York's upper West Side. These tensions do not subside simply by reading political literature or by offering free lectures to the public. Rather, I argue that they are the direct product of obvious feelings of exclusion which Affirmative Action and multiculturalism did something to redress, but which do not go far enough. I argue that it has to do with the priorities of knowledge-production, for whom and for what.

Bumping up against the social horror of lumpen outsiders, whether lying on the street homeless, or as part of the clearly deprived 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 near Harlem. Safety of young people is a good thing, as is the preservation of civilizations. I am not an advocate of violent interludes and campus-shootings. But, I wonder, as a person who has lived my entire life, except as a child and when inside universities, in poor and ethically mixed urban neighborhoods, if we could not learn more and make better innovations and discoveries, about how to handle serious human problems.

Rhetoric of Class Affinities and Campus Life

Exorbitant tuition (and resulting student debt) continues to segregate and separate. The perceived need for armed campus police, surveillance and designing of streets into the image of suburban commerce to placate paying parents, this is the consumerist poison which redefines urban independence from suburbia as a suburban economy. To be sub-urban perpetuates the deep cultural injuries of felt segregation at having or not having. It keeps individuating humans from each other and is a slavery of the mind. That the intellectual power of institutions does not have enough collective power to rethink the boundaries of the institution to solve some of these inequities is a tragedy. I argue that if higher education were free-to-all, there would be far less sense of exclusion. Merit would prevail, but income would not make a difference. 

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 arguably underpins overt public 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 hoi polloi. We are not to 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 seclusion in Mountainview,Google rejects people living and working in San Francisco. The have formed a corporate elite.

As Tim Redmond implied years ago about the building of townhouses along Third Street, Silicon Valley is utilizing San Francisco as a bedroom community. The city is serving as a farm for Google to harvest bright, college-educated tech people. The perverse fleet of buses glide through city streets carrying these  workers—mostly young...white...and and from their campus in a ritual as old and oppressive as the processes of Jefferson's brain. 

How space is controlled, the contest of public and private sectors; the persistence of viable culture in a critique of separation, this is where the walls of oppression must come down.

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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