Bringing Abolition to the Ivory Tower

The fight to reimagine campus safety.
By Terri Smith and Adom Getachew

Campus police

“Who do you serve?! Who do you protect?!” These words could be heard booming through the streets as protesters around the country took action against police and state-sanctioned violence. The tragic events of the early months of 2020 propelled the issues of police violence and the disposability of Black lives into the consciousness of the world. The high-profile murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and countless other Black and brown people have led some to ask themselves, “Do cops keep us safe?” For many in Black communities, to question the effectiveness of policing and to lay bare state violence is not new. It has animated Black political thought and movement politics at each key juncture of American history. More recently, a critique of anti-Black state violence has been central to the Movement for Black Lives, which emerged from the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Yet despite the long history of Black mobilization against state violence, what made last summer’s uprising distinct was the range of people who participated in the protests across the country. Led by Black and brown youth, millions of people young and old joined what the New York Times called the largest protest movement in the nation’s history.

The uprisings, together with the public health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, made 2020 a year unlike any other. For teachers and academics, the social and political world engulfed their classrooms, overtook their research plans, and required a deep reckoning with the relationship between the academy and our society. If the myth of the ivory tower persisted for anyone, it was shattered in 2020. Many universities responded to the uprisings by issuing statements about renewed commitments to diversity and articulating solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. Yet rarely did such statements take up either the role of colleges and universities in justifying and reproducing racist police practices or the history and practices of university police.

Scholars and Organizing

Since its founding in January 2018, Scholars for Social Justice (SSJ) has worked to bridge the gap between movements and the academy by mobilizing the knowledge, skills, and resources of scholars to battle the repressive attacks on marginalized communities, advancing an agenda of equality and justice. SSJ emerged from conversations among leading Black feminist scholars such as Cathy Cohen, Barbara Ransby, and the late Leith Mulling during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, as waves of protest challenged the racism and sexism of his policies. The aim of SSJ was to offer a platform and network through which progressive scholars could articulate and support a political agenda that insists on equity and freedom, especially for those most vulnerable to discriminatory policies. This aim emerged from the view that the theory and practice of racial and social justice can and must inform each other. Multiple humanities and social science disciplines have produced scholarship on a variety of racial and social justice topics. Progressive scholars based in professional schools have engaged in cutting-edge social justice research as well. Simultaneously, the growing movement for social and racial justice in the United States has included work for decarceration and prison abolition, organizing for education as a human right, organizing against police violence, advocacy for immigrant rights, LGBTQIA activism, and the Fight for $15. Yet there is little communication between these two worlds. SSJ wants to build bridges between social justice scholars and social justice organizers.

This bridge and partnership cannot be conceived as a one-way street, with scholars supporting and enhancing social justice movements. Instead, informed by the frameworks, analysis, and strategies developed by social movements, SSJ also seeks to serve as a vehicle for expanding and reframing debates about equality and justice within universities. We have been inspired in this context by activists, organizers, and union members on and off campus who have worked consistently to undo the inequities that structure the “town-gown” divide.

SSJ’s first foray in this direction was the Reparations in Higher Education (RHE) platform, which we launched in 2019. RHE was informed by the reemergence of popular demands for reparations, including in the Vision for Black Lives Platform, put forth in 2016 by activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as by important reparations victories in the cases of victims of forced sterilization in North Carolina, victims of police torture in Chicago, and victims of British torture during the Mau Mau rebellion. At a moment of growing interest in the constitutive role of slavery and Native dispossession to the making of universities in the United States, the RHE project sought to intervene in these campus conversations by outlining a wider vision of redress and racial justice for universities through the lens of reparations. The RHE was explicitly modeled on the Vision for Black Lives Platform. It examined the university’s different roles, such as employer, property owner, and investor, to trace paths toward racial justice and equality in each domain. We take the view that reparations are not just a matter of settling past-due accounts but of transforming existing institutional structures that reproduce racial hierarchy and inequality. The platform served less as a definite blueprint than as a way of thinking about the many faces of the university and deepening our vision of racial equality on college and university campuses.

Reimagining Campus Safety

As one of its planks, the platform included thinking through how higher education has been implicated in the expansion of mass incarceration. Universities have funded and supported research used to justify policies that have contributed to mass incarceration. Social science research that framed structural poverty and inequality as pathologies to be remedied by force provided support for increasing policing. In her work on the war on drugs, Elizabeth Hinton illustrates how University of Chicago sociologists’ study of youth delinquency fueled the rise of mass incarceration. Moreover, universities have themselves been involved in the criminalization of surrounding neighborhoods by expanding the powers and jurisdiction of campus police, and they have benefited from endowment investments in private prisons.

Last summer’s uprising and especially the calls for defunding and abolishing the police provide an opportunity to deepen critical inquiry into the history of policing on campuses and to reimagine the meaning of campus safety. Yale established the first campus police department more than a century ago. Like their city counterparts, campus police forces began to expand in the 1960s. Student activism provided the immediate context for this expansion as protesters and local police clashed. The deadly Kent State and Jackson State shootings in 1970 are two prominent examples of how student protest drove expansions of police and National Guard presence on campus. To manage an assumed need for law enforcement, college presidents lobbied for state legislation that would allow the creation of campus police departments. Their efforts were largely successful: by 2015, at least forty-four states allowed colleges and universities to form their own campus police forces. Ninety-two percent of public colleges and universities have sworn and armed campus officers. Since the 2004–05 academic year, the percentage of both public and private colleges and universities nationwide using armed officers increased from 68 percent to 75 percent.

In keeping with national trends, this growth has coincided strikingly with a decline in crime on campus. After passage of the federal Clery Act in 1990, colleges and universities had to track, compile, and disclose crimes on and near their campus; provide timely notification of safety threats; and report on criminal activities. Clery Act data show that the violent-crime rate on campuses between 2004 and 2011 declined by 27 percent, while property crimes decreased by 35 percent. In the meantime, campus police forces added more and more sworn officers—including those outfitted with firearms (94 percent), chemical or pepper spray (94 percent), Taser-like devices (40 percent), and in some cases military-grade equipment. Campus police departments typically act as independent law-enforcement agencies and enjoy wide authority, including the ability to patrol off-campus areas (81 percent) and make arrests (86 percent). They have these powers without the same public-reporting requirements as municipal police; they typically report to university presidents or other high-ranking college officials.

In recent years, university police have been involved in fatal shootings at the University of Cincinnati, San José State University, and the University of the Incarnate Word, a private Catholic institution in Texas. University police have also aggressively responded to protests, for instance by deploying pepper spray during Occupy Wall Street protests at the University of California, Davis. In 2018, University of Chicago police shot a student who was having a mental health episode, a fact that the shooting officer acknowledged. In 2019, Yale campus police shot multiple times into a car where an African American couple, who were not students, were sitting and talking late at night, grievously wounding one occupant and prompting protests by both students and city residents. As of 2017, campus safety and security statistics from the US Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education reported more than 52,000 arrests at over 6,300 institutions across the country.

What began as a strategy to manage and control campus unrest has become an institutionalized mechanism for regulation, compliance, and order. While the impact may not be felt broadly, the images and narratives of those most affected by law enforcement—students of color and communities of color that surround universities—reveal that campus policing must be scrutinized alongside police and prisons more broadly. They must be subject to similar demands of abolition.

From Principles to Action

Building on our Reparations in Higher Education platform, SSJ has advocated for the radical transformation of institutions that have historically served as sites of harm through policing, mass incarceration, and racial hierarchy.

Divest from and abolish the police. As the University of Minnesota has done with respect to the Minneapolis police, universities should end contracts with city police forces. But they must also reduce and gradually eliminate their own private police and security apparatuses, first by disarming these forces. Universities can partner with surrounding neighborhoods to direct their research capacities toward developing and modeling alternatives to policing, such as decriminalization and decarceration. Additionally, universities can follow the lead of students who have drawn attention to the ways that universities financially benefit from investments in private prisons. Universities should divest from holdings in private prisons, which tend to be the most egregious violators of the rights of incarcerated people.

Invest in communities. Universities often promote hyperpolicing in surrounding neighborhoods in the name of protecting students, faculty, and staff. Surrounding communities bear the brunt of this police presence. These communities are also simultaneously sources of cheap labor for the university and are subject to displacement by university expansion. Safety for these communities does not come with greater police presence but instead with access to jobs that provide a living wage, high-quality education, and affordable housing. Through community benefits agreements, universities can make hiring local residents in unionized jobs that pay a living wage a priority, invest in affordable housing for staff, and provide leadership and financial support for neighborhood improvements, including public spaces and schools. They can also provide community access to university spaces at no cost. Such gestures toward community building create networks of security that are far more robust and protective than can be achieved by armed enforcers. Additionally, in recognition of the historical theft and dispossession from which institutions have benefited, SSJ calls for a rigorous examination and development of a reparations framework to restore communities victimized by US wars on Indigenous populations, slavery, colonialism, and gentrification.

Expand access to education for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Black communities have been devastated by the system of mass incarceration, as they make up a third of the prison population and are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. It is now time for universities to address those harms and extend access to higher education to the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated. Haphazard course offerings are not enough; prison education programs must be tailored toward the aims of allowing students to receive degrees. Models of this kind include the Bard College and New York University prison education programs as well as broader programs such as Northeastern Illinois University’s University without Walls. These programs go beyond offering one-off courses and provide degree programs with adequate advising and mentoring to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. Universities should also offer job-placement opportunities for those who leave prison and have completed their coursework. Moreover, universities should help reintegrate the formerly incarcerated by ensuring equal access in the admissions process and providing adequate financial support that takes into account imprisoned students’ previous exclusion from federal Pell Grants.

These projects for reimagining campus safety and repairing histories of harm are now being taken up across the country as faculty, students, and community members organize movements for abolition. At Johns Hopkins University, a coalition that includes students and faculty has successfully resisted the creation of a university police force. A systemwide campaign at the University of California is demanding #CopsoffCampus by September 1, 2021. Students with the #CareNotCops campaign at the University of Chicago have called for investment in mental health resources and divestment from police. The Tufts Action Group, consisting of faculty, staff, and students at Tufts University, has embedded divestment from police in a wider collective vision for a more just institution. These and other campaigns model what it means to bring the vision of abolition to the ivory tower.

The work of abolition on campus and SSJ’s broader call for rethinking racial justice is not separate from the wider project of building a New Deal for Higher Education. Instead, it can inform that project’s vision by placing the university’s role in the reproduction of racial inequalities at the center of an analysis of the contemporary crisis of higher education. We are all too aware that FDR’s New Deal failed on precisely these terms. It is only by attending to the ways racial hierarchy shapes the university in its various guises that we can plot a more equitable and just vision of higher education

Terri Smith is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. They study Black politics, queer theory, and social movements. They are currently a member of the Finance and External Relations Committee of Scholars for Social Justice. Adom Getachew is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago and author of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. She is a member of the Executive Committee of Scholars for Social Justice.