Ask About An Autonomous University: 5 Exam Questions For Life

When I talk about the current crisis with people who use universities, I like to find out what they want, so I ask questions. Since I can’t imagine a level of funding that would make the education industry tolerable under capitalism, I ask how we can imagine simultaneous occupation of and withdrawal from school. Common university ideology makes us feel that our work is a labor of love, yet resentment and fear fill our days. Exhaustion grips us to such an extent that we have no choice but to withdraw, but rather than fleeing into our families, the latest 3D entertainment or the hippest new bar, perhaps we could collectively seek refuge in an autonomous school we might tolerably call our own. Perhaps such a university could somehow open a future.

I ask soft questions at first, leaving more difficult issues for others to ask in discussion. Starting with our immediate desires for working and learning allows a group to wonder about the kind of world an autonomous university needs and might help to produce. Almost always, someone, usually an undergraduate, wants to know how militancy can become part of education and how a school might become a dynamic seed of revolutionary change. Someone else, usually a faculty or staff member, usually asks what sorts of change would be needed so that a parent who needs time wouldn’t have to worry about child care. In order to answer that question, the group has to imagine radical restructuring of what it means to live and work at a school.

All of these questions ask how we can imagine a university independent of the state and designed by our desires: a communized school. Most people think this crazy at first. Then they start to fantasize. The gap between what they really want and what they currently have to do to participate in universities starts to educate us about the challenges we face. More importantly, our fantasies could be realized if we stopped attending to our masters. Our bosses say that outside of science and business education, the university doesn’t produce anything worth paying for. I choose to take them at their word and suggest we let them try to live without us.


1) Why are we interested in continuing to work in universities as they are?

If we remain at our jobs for our paychecks, let’s admit it. Compensation for students, staff and faculty dwindles every year while our workload increases. Recently, group of department heads at my institution proposed unpaid furloughs and increased teaching loads to help solve the schools financial woes. Such an offer assumes that we love teaching and learning. Surely we do, but we can also imagine ways to act on that love other than by rendering ourselves daily to an institution that betrays the very premises of education and makes every creative act painfully frustrating. We must sort aspects of our current situation that we value from the conditions that revolt us.


2) How can temporary autonomous schools be made more stable without becoming institutions?

We can think of many examples of temporary autonomous zones within and around universities: reading groups, support forums, certain kinds of exhibitions, self-funded film series, informal athletic communities etc., etc. Historically, in times of extreme hardship such as the Russian revolution, classes taught by figures like Lev Kuleshov became autonomous zones because there weren’t any institutions to receive support from. The glories of 1920s Soviet cinema emerged from Kuleshov’s winter classes in a roofless room without a projector, camera or film stock. One might also think of the Bahktin Circle from which works emerged as powerful as Toward a Philosophy of the Act, Marxism And The Philosophy Of Language, and The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship. After the revolutionary the period, what had been autonomous became institutional once again. How can we learn and live without reifying ourselves and reproducing our current hardships within yet another system?


3) What role does accreditation play in what we do?

People often tell us that even if we could occupy the buildings of a university and build our own curriculum there, we would lack legitimacy. Accreditation mostly serves as a sign that a school can legitimately create a hierarchy of job candidates for employers. As labor at all levels become increasingly precarious, a degree and a high GPA become increasingly expensive but illegitimate commodities. If jobs don’t exist, a degree can’t help us get them. The idea that education aims at employment lacks any legitimacy in the first place. Many faculty members got into the business partly out of a profound discomfort with the lived experience of capitalism. We all must eat and care for our children. Can we imagine a way to do so and have the world respect us without serving as a motor of social reproduction in a system that makes so many of us want to flee?


4) Would autonomous universities evaluate learning?

An autonomous university might not have grades. Perhaps the faculty would be able to acknowledge that they learn as much as the students do. Perhaps the students would be able to be open and honest about what they get out of their experiences at the school. Like accreditation, grades serve to differentiate the labor force while rendering future workers servile. To add insult to injury, of all the onerous tasks current universities demand, those who do it complain about grading the most. We can think of more productive forms of feedback.


5) How can the exploitative character of self-administration be corrected?

Aside from the utterly unnecessary managers, underpaid women do most university secretarial work. In the late 1980s and the 1990s universities used personal computers to shift some of the administrative burden onto faculty members without compensating them for the work. Teachers became more exploited and many secretaries became unemployed. Today’s institutions oblige faculty not just to print out their own syllabi and do their own accounting, they also require teachers to use poorly designed web-based learning software for every class and help build the departmental websites, creating more work while salaries get reduced. Perhaps in a university we could call our own, administration would take a different form.


2 Replies to “Ask About An Autonomous University: 5 Exam Questions For Life”

  1. I’m really curious.
    What do we get out of a university besides money that we couldn’t get out of autonomous reading groups?

    Universities support the institutionalization of structures and knowledge regimes on a large scale. They allow for commodification of specific discourses and writers and modes of thought production/reproduction.

    Depending on how one feels about the state of relations between universities, multiple layers of governments, businesses (regional and national) etc… these items are either beneficial, ambivalent or destructive.

    What is a truly autonomous university and what are the affects of that? Obviously, that it is a university, it has a selective stamp of approval that may function to maintain or rupture particular class alliances?

    I don’t quite understand why a radical university need be autonomous- though I do understand and highly value the worth of autonomous and collective intellectual labor. Why tangle the two?

    Can solidarity between autonomous zones be an alternative to accredidation… respect earned in mutual struggle?

    IS an autonomous institution an institution by another name… but with a non-normative goal?

    How does duration and questions of individual worth frame these questions?

    What would it be if our economy ended and we continued to learn? Inside of institutions and outside? How would that affect these questions?

    Its interesting that in “less developed economy” anecdotes have been relayed to me that there is much larger resitence by students to labor (study and/or produce) within institutions-be they explicitly radical or not, because of the way that acceptance of insitutionalized knowledge forms becomes a cost-benefit analysis between spending time learning the form (and submitting to any discipline in the first place) and learning/practicing being in non-institutionalized models that don’t seem to be within the frame of an “autonomous univeristy.”

    How may general knowledge or the distribution of the sensible its own best teacher during ambiguous times?

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