It's Up to Us

The power of appealing to solidarity rather than authority.
By David J. Siegel

Writing recently in the Chronicle Review, Jason England and Richard Purcell take higher education to task for its “toothless response to the killing of George Floyd,” observing that many of the official statements released by college and university leaders in the wake of Floyd’s brutal death “reflect an unholy alchemy of risk management, legal liability, brand management, and trustee anxiety” rather than a sincere commitment to combatting the scourge of systemic racism. Ultimately, the authors conclude, “It is up to university leadership to choose where we go from here: chaos or community.”

If this formulation seems to grant leaders inordinately broad powers to determine our collective future, it is also consistent with the conventional account of how substantive change proceeds in academe and elsewhere: from the top down. Especially in times of great challenge, we turn almost reflexively to those in positions of authority for the guidance, both moral and managerial, that we consider them uniquely equipped—indeed, obligated—to provide. As higher education, like much of the rest of the world, has careened from crisis to calamity over the last year, academics have looked toward their administrations for clarity amid unprecedented confusion. This continues to be the case despite widespread dissatisfaction with the decisions campus leaders are making on our behalf, including those related to the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. The sense of disillusionment is not new, and it is apparently felt across sectors and cultures; according to findings from the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Survey on the Global Agenda, 86 percent of respondents agree that there is a leadership crisis in the world.

The real crisis may be our abiding faith in the capacity of leaders to adequately represent our multiple, diverse, and often conflicting interests. Naturally, presidents, provosts, deans, and other high-ranking academic administrators play—and should be expected to play—a crucially important role in institutional responses to structural racism. At the same time, racial justice, like other social and organizational imperatives, is far too important to be left solely to the dominant stratum.

In fact, recourse to leaders and leadership has an unintended effect of reinforcing the same hierarchical structure of domination that upholds institutional racism and countless other “unfreedoms”—an interlocking system that bell hooks has referred to as “the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Even benign forms of leader-centrism implicitly privilege and maintain an elite theory and practice of power, which can recycle and reinforce patterns of exploitation and subjugation that underlie racism and other assaults on human freedom, autonomy, and dignity.

The community of scholars, which has historically regarded executive power with deep suspicion sometimes bordering on outright enmity, is far less culturally disposed than our counterparts in other professional fields to accept “command and control” as a legitimate style of governance. Nevertheless, there are unmistakable forces acclimating us to what the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker once called “the ruinous delusion that salvation always comes from above.” One need not be an avowed antiauthoritarian to recognize the consolidation of power—both within the academy and outside of it—that is reshaping the conditions and conduct of academic work.

Already, we see evidence of this reshaping in state legislative efforts to regulate what is taught in public universities, the adjunctification of the professoriate (including attempts by state lawmakers to weaken or eliminate tenure altogether), and what might be characterized as the adjunctification of higher education institutions, which increasingly resemble wholly owned subsidiaries of commercial enterprises. Performance-based funding schemes for public universities are doing their part to ensure institutional productivity that conforms to legislators’ priorities. Accrediting agencies and other external judges have created a culture of compliance that requires faculty members to seek approval and constant validation of their fitness. The “galloping multiplication of administrators” that social critic Paul Goodman observed nearly sixty years ago has continued apace, sponsored in large part by the rise of an ideology (if not the full-on idolatry) of managerialism, the belief that every endeavor should be efficiently and effectively directed toward preordained outcomes.

As patently objectionable as many of us find such incursions against academic freedom and institutional autonomy, our resources of resistance are being diminished through an erosion of the traditional norms of shared governance and by our own acquiescence to the new norms of neoliberalism.  Most damning of all, we have been conditioned to not see ourselves as valid and vital agents of institutional change.

This is not to deny that meaningful efforts are underway by faculty to agitate on behalf of causes ranging from social justice to the survival of the humanities. Numerous recent instances assure us that the long tradition of faculty activism is alive and well in many quarters. Still, much of the lexicon of activist reform, both within the academy and beyond, partakes of what the sociologist Richard J. F. Day has called “a politics of demand,” which maintains a relation of deference to and dependence on leaders for the satisfaction of our claims. According to Day, “The politics of demand . . . can change the content of the structures . . . , but it cannot change their form.” Or, in the words of Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” By contrast, a “politics of the act” calls our attention to the everyday construction—or organizing—of our institutions by our lived choices and gestures, thereby engaging more of us (regardless of occupational status or formal authority) in the enactment of the kinds of alternatives we seek.

To help reset our thinking and expand our repertoire of possibilities for pursuing the systemic and structural changes we seek, we might consider examples of autonomous social movements—including campaigns for social and economic justice in Argentina, Greece, Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela—that explicitly reject the logic of representation and incorporate elements of leaderless organizing. These alternative modes of political action, emerging out of a collective feeling of frustration that those in power do not represent large segments of the population, move participants from hierarchical to horizontal arrangements and from representative politics to direct action. In her book about Argentina’s 2001 popular rebellion in the wake of economic collapse, Marina Sitrin explains that horizontalidad—a reorganization of social relations based on principles of equality—is “a goal as well as a tool: a means and an end.”

How are we practicing—here and now and without reference to institutional decision makers—the changes we think are necessary to dismantle invidious forms of racial hierarchy on our own campuses and in society at large? How do we claim and nurture spaces for antiracist work in our courses, classrooms, meetings, and routine interactions, even in the absence of institutional policies, plans, or protocols to light the way? A faculty that takes the initiative to read and discuss antiracist texts in small groups, for example, is nobody’s idea of a complete solution. But here is what it can do: It can affirm a commitment to open inquiry and to critical reading, reflection, and discussion, which are increasingly radical acts in a culture that increasingly devalues them as insufficient. It can serve as a model for courageous conversation and honest reckoning that interrogates the many ways in which legacies of oppression and exploitation prop up our disciplines, departments, and institutions. It can do vital relational work, helping us to create or reinforce bonds of solidarity within horizontal networks of other actors—colleagues, partners, allies, “critical friends”—even as the corporate university subscribes to a zero-sum mentality that sorts individuals and whole areas of study into a ruthless market hierarchy of winners and losers. Finally, it can remind us of the unique power of organic, uncoerced activity from below in initiating needed reforms.

Such small-scale efforts might seem almost pointless when we consider the sheer enormity of the social problems they are meant to ameliorate. Systems and structures retain the power they possess in and over our lives by convincing us that our contributions lack value unless they are coherent, coordinated, and appropriately scaled up. We internalize the narrative that our actions are inconsequential unless they result in a tangible outcome that can be appraised or appreciated somehow, so we discount the inestimable power of modest, imperceptible, or even private acts as asymmetrical weapons of rebellion against our condition. James Baldwin understood this when he wrote, “All our action and all our achievement rests on things unseen.”

Scholars of organizational behavior confirm the importance of incremental and occasionally invisible processes in pursuing change. Debra Meyerson has highlighted a whole set of tactics—ranging from psychological resistance to collective action—used by “tempered radicals” to challenge the dominant culture and “push the status quo door slightly ajar.” They are, or can be, what Karl Weick calls “small wins,” which recast major social problems as opportunities for action by lowering high levels of psychological arousal that overwhelm our capacity to solve problems. These approaches suggest that community, culture, and climate—contrary to what we are so often led to believe—are not merely the products of centrally planned policies, procedures, and programs; they also emerge and evolve from the minute particulars and peculiarities of our daily conduct.

G. Gabrielle Starr noted in her own Chronicle Review essay after George Floyd was killed, “It is a small thing, in the larger scheme. Yet my work is to teach, to make it possible for others to teach, and learn, and grow.” This is, of course, a statement about the role of education and educators in social change, one of many statements we regularly make—not necessarily formal or official ones circulated as press releases to the public, but ones that demonstrate and signal our values, interests, agendas, and hopes.

The substantial task ahead of us is and must be a multilateral responsibility. We need not go as far as the rallying cry of Argentines in the wake of their country’s economic collapse—“Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with them all!”)—to recognize that our own participation as upholders or disrupters of structural inequality is essential. The point here is not to supplant campus leadership but to supplement it, to turn into the leaders we need at this moment in addition to turning to them.

David J. Siegel is professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University.