who and what is the university for?

Freddie DeBoer

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign with activist friends of mine. We went to protest in support of Dr. Steven Salaita and the several unions and student groups who were rallying for better labor conditions, for the principle of honoring contracts, for collective bargaining rights, for recognition by the administration, and for respect. It was a beautiful, brilliant rally; I estimated 400 people, many more than I had thought to hope for. And it posed the simplest question facing academics today: who and what is the university for?

The labor unions in attendance that day were fighting for better conditions and more honest, direct bargaining with the university administration, as labor unions in Illinois have fought for decades. Some fought for fair pay and transparent, equitable rules for advancement and compensation. The school’s young graduate union, the GEO, fights simply to be recognized by the university, in an academic world in which universities could not survive without graduate student labor. What was remarkable about the event was how easily and naturally these labor issues coincided with the fight for Dr. Salaita. Some might mistake these issues for disconnected and separate, but in fact they are part of the same fight. The fight for Dr. Salaita is about Palestine, and about academic freedom. But it is also about labor and the rights of workers. It’s about faculty governance in a university system that has seen ceaseless growth in higher administrators and an attendant growth in the cost of employing them. It’s about recognizing that a university is not its endless vice provosts and deputy deans, nor its sushi bars and climbing walls, nor its slick advertising campaigns, nor its football team, nor its statuary. A university is its students and its teachers. To defend Dr. Salaita is to defend the notion that, in an academy that crowds out actual teaching and actual learning in myriad ways, the actual teachers in the academy must preserve the right to hire other teachers, and to honor those commitments once they are made.