Monday, May 19, 2014

Protests against commencement speakers and the politics of symbolism

My latest Baffler piece concerns campus protests against commencement speakers, which we're seeing a lot of these days.  I certainly support some of these protests, like the one at Rutgers against Condi Rice. But overall, I tend to think that the protests are largely symbolic gestures that may feel briefly exhilarating, but don't change anything structurally. Activist energies would be better targeted elsewhere. Here's an excerpt from my piece:
Let’s start with the institution of the university itself. The vast majority of colleges in the U.S. receive lavish taxpayer subsidies, because they are not-for-profit. Nonetheless, there is startling economic injustice on campus. Many of the nation’s top private colleges have endowments in the billions, and college presidents and coaches earn eye-popping salaries, with total annual compensation frequently reaching in the millions. Yet over 700,000 employees across American campuses do not earn a living wage, and pay and working conditions for adjunct faculty are often wretched. (See, for example, this recent Salon article about professors living in homeless shelters and subsisting on food stamps.) The American taxpayer is underwriting that system of economic apartheid. 
Taxpayers also bankroll our oppressive student loan system, which impose an onerous debt burden on millions of Americans. (The un-dischargeable “loans” are more akin to contracts for indentured servitude). There are many other bizarre features of the modern university, such as the fact that elite private colleges tend to receive more in tax subsidies than public universities. Even for the Rutgers students protesting Condi Rice, a more promising target for long-term reform is the system that enabled outrageously high speaking fee ($35,000!) the school was prepared to pay her. That fee was offered in spite of the painful and well-publicized budget cuts that the school has recently suffered—and also the fact that a massive shortfall in the New Jersey state budget was recently announced.

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