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The Point: Bots


Greetings, Colleagues.

Whose Streets? Our Streets!

If you’ve been to a protest march or rally in the modern era no doubt you have heard the chant “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”  Maybe you have even shouted along with it. 

“Whose Streets? Our Streets!” is always an elegant performance —a bait-and-switch that seems to ask a knotty rhetorical question only to answer it with the fact of its own iteration.  But what if we apply “Whose Streets?” to our own campus?

It is a simple documentary statement to note that most of our institutions seem to be failing—our healthcare system overrun by the avoidable mistakes caused by our cruel and inept federal government while Big Pharma continues to fold money and our immigration apparatus turned into a surveillance arm of the police state (as with this week’s ICE cruel targeting of international students), just for instance. 

It might be worth taking a second to think about the governance in of our own institution in this moment of radical disintegration.  Who is minding the UMass store?

Here’s the short answer: the Board of Trustees (BoT).  Have a look at our foundational Wellman Document if you want to see how little power faculty, students, and even campus administrators have over the governance of our university.  Then take a look back at the current constitution of the Board of Trustees (BoT), and think about whether you are feel better that this power is vested in a wealth manager, a real estate developer who works for this guy, and a wholesale liquor distributor—just to pick a couple of trustees at random.

During the 2016 presidential campaign and election many of us came to worry about bots, those automated computer applications that seemed to be controlling so much of our cultural and political lives from afar.  If you don’t trust those bots neither should you trust our BoT: I am a historian and I know that even the quickest survey of the relevant literature will teach us that Boards of Trustees were never meant to support best practices in pedagogy, student life, faculty research or any of the other aspects of university life that we center in our work.  They were invented in the early 20th century, as Nick Romeo and Ian Tewksbury explain in the Chronicle of Higher Education, to promote the interests of industrial capitalists: Romeo and Tewksbury helpfully point us back to a 1918 work by Thorstein Veblen called The Higher Learning in America (original subtitle: A Study in Total Depravity) which made it clear that scholarly inquiry is “incompatible with the business values of profit, maximization, efficiency, and consumer satisfaction.” (We faculty are not off the hook with Veblen either: he made clear that this corporatization of the university also relied on adopting “dubious statistical measures of teaching and learning efficiency”—that’s course evaluations and grades, to you and me.)

Thankfully, students have begun questioning the oligarchic logic under which we operate, asking us to imagine a “democratically elected and fully accountable committee of students, workers and faculty.”  In a time when activists are challenging systemic racism in the streets and in the courts, expending energy on cosmetic, incremental change is coming to seem like tacit collaboration propping up failed institutions. Bringing us back to Veblen, Romeo and Tewksbury remind us that that “there is one principal disease at the heart of higher education”—the corporate actors who “hold near complete power over the university.”  As staff, students, and faculty are “being asked to bear the burden of drastic austerity measures” in this pandemic moment, the democratizing of boards of trustees becomes a matter of real urgency: if we don’t do this, Romeo and Tewksbury explain, “the postpandemic university will be shaped entirely” in their image.  We must fight—on campus, at the system president’s office, and on Beacon Hill—for a new vision of higher education management that is for the common good.

Lack of staff, student, and faculty input is a feature of BoT life, not a bug:  The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) has long wrung its hands about such participation—worrying about the ethical issues that would arise if actual members of the campus community had an actual say in the governance of the campus.

If you think the correct answer to the not-rhetorical question “Whose campus?” is “Our campus” then we might need to work together and go back to the drawing board on campus governance.

This is your union: what are your ideas for fighting back against the overvaluing of corporate interests in the administration of higher education? Let us know


Jeffrey Melnick

Graduate Program Director, American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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