Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Cal, and the function of the university

The "Occupy Cal" crowd is pissed about how the University and the police treated them last Wednesday, and are calling for a "general strike" at the University of California Berkeley campus for this coming Tuesday (Nov 15). This is modeled on the "strike" at the Oakland port at the beginning of the month.

I've put the word "strike" in quotes because it does not fit the definition of "strike" as I understand it -- being the refusal of workers to continue doing their regular jobs. In both of the above "strikes", the organizers are seeking to disrupt regular economic activity by bringing in large numbers of protestors who normally do not directly participate in those economic activities.

In this case, someone supporting this action has explained why UC Berkeley is being targeted in this way:
“In calling for a strike, activists realize that the university’s function in society is to create a division between haves and have-nots. Therefore, this is meant as a special kind of strike, one where all those who have been excluded from the UC system converge on the campus and help occupy it. At the same time as we shut the university down, we open it up to all who have been excluded from it,”
This statement brings up some important issues; however, if I were to take it literally, I would say that it presents a view of our society that is both terribly naive and borderline paranoid. Instead, I will be charitable to the authors and assume that they presented this narrow view of things for the sake of rhetorical impact, and for the same reason selected as "the function" of the university one incidental effect of its activity. I assume that they intended to start a conversation among the stakeholders in the University system (UC, and academia as a whole), so let's get started.

What is the function of the university (and UC in particular)? I interpret "the function of an institution" to mean the goal being sought by the people who support and participate in that insititution. With that interpretation, the function of the university (and especially UC) is clearly not to divide our society. Still, divisiveness may be an unfortunate consequence of how the institution operates. An undeniable truth is that the people who participate in the university are often seeking their own prosperity; they are the getters, and are likely to become the "haves". This in itself is not particularly profound -- people regularly participate in activities that advance their own prosperity (from maintaining one's own home, to providing commercial services, to learning skill sets, and even seeking collaborators for projects). This is all normal and appropriate, and it is likewise appropriate that we form exclusive institutions to coordinate activities among people who are capable of advancing each other's productivity.

So how does the university produce social division by providing educational services? Stay tuned for more ideas on how that occurs (to the extent that it does), and what might be done to reduce those divisions.


Anonymous said...

Lots of great writing from you lately regarding the university. Obviously, as a biologist, you have opinions on the matter.

My greatest complaint against them is pay walls on accessibility of academic research. Access to academic research and the university library is one of the advantages of being a member of that club.

"Credentialing" is an instrument of social division in the same way that the division of labor is social division. It depends on whether you view society as instrument(means) to serve moral ends or as an end(emergent) product of cooperation and exchange.

of course, a political economy in "Credentialing" would a problem; a university system heavily subsidized to serve a moral end(national goals) is a problem.

Social division resulting from pursuing these types of moral ends would be the problem.

Ricketson said...

On the issue of Open Access publication, I think that a lot of progress is being made, even if it is slow.

After a decade of founding new journals, getting NIH support, and getting a lot of journal to participate in delayed open access, I think that the publication field is in a period of ferment. We (scientists) are making sure that the open access publishing model is sustainable. We're also trying to find other ways to leverage the internet in order to increase the efficiency and transparency of research publication.

You may like Michael Eisen's blog: