A Pro-Democracy Movement, Even More Crucial After Paris

In their protest, the students represent the highest aspirations of all education -- indeed of a public in democracy itself, writes Cathy N. Davidson.

November 16, 2015

This past Friday morning on Facebook, an English professor at the University of Missouri and former doctoral student of mine, John Evelev, made what he says will be his last post about the protests against racism at the University of Missouri. Those protests culminated in the resignation of the system president and the Columbia campus chancellor -- and then led to a horrible number of overtly racist counterprotests and threats of violence against black students, faculty members and even ROTC members.

Evelev has written before about the climate of racism that the students detected and that now pervades the campus. In this post, he extrapolates from their concerns and their protests about racism to the very idea of protest itself, to the concept of participation and civic action in a democracy.

What Evelev wrote is so important to the future of democracy and of higher education that everyone needs to take it in. He has given me permission to quote him here: “While most people see this as simply or exclusively a protest against racism, the proper way to see this is as a pro-democracy movement. Universities and public universities in particular used to be democratic spaces, spaces of civic representation in American life. Faced with decreased public funding, they are being run more like businesses with leaders who are unresponsive or downright dismissive of students and faculty. The student protesters, along with the faculty and administrators who worked to remove Tim Wolfe, UM system president, and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the Columbia campus, were not just fighting racism, but fighting for university leadership that was democratic, responsive to the community, that recognized the university is not just an institution with a really bad profit stream. It is easy enough for the right-wing to dismiss the goals of the students as ‘getting rid of racism,’ but what they really don't want is an American population that actually seeks representation in their institutions, whether education or political. If faculty want shared governance, they are ‘living in an ivory tower.’ We should all want more involvement, more stake-ownership in the important public institutions of our society, not less.”

The students were protesting against racism, a climate of racism, and specific racist acts. They were also protesting against being silenced, being rendered invisible -- which, of course, is one of the most devastating, debilitating and definitional features of racism. The students were also advocating for the ability to have a voice, to make oneself heard. If anyone is silenced in a democracy, we no longer have democracy. That is true particularly of race, especially at this historical moment, as these students have shown us.

It is also true about democracy in general. What I believe John Evelev is saying here is that, in their protest, these students represent the highest aspirations of all education, higher education and public education. Indeed, they represent, as he so beautifully states it, the aspirations of a public in democracy itself.

We have seen so many attempts to suppress democracy and participation in public life -- from voting rights being curtailed to Supreme Court rulings making corporations into “people,” thus allowing businesses and the vastly wealthy to have inordinate power in shaping democracy. President Jimmy Carter has said we are no longer a democracy but an oligarchy, and many social scientists have said that, by definition, he is correct. Is this the society we want?

We cannot, as a nation, allow this to happen. We must reverse this terrible tendency. And the university is the place where this re-energizing of an idea of a “public” must begin. The university is where young people who are minors learn to become full active adults. If universities were only about vocational training, learning how to participate in a democracy would be a secondary factor. And for the vast numbers of full adults returning for skills redevelopment, this certainly may be true.

But we in America have opted to make higher education the place where we send those who are just reaching their majority: these are our children, our nation's future. And we hope that, when they graduate, they will not only know more about a subject, field, discipline and vocation. We also hope and believe that they will be ready to be fully responsible adults, productive members of a society.

In a democracy, that means participation. That means standing up for one's beliefs -- in a way that is civil, responsible, meaningful and true. That means learning to think clearly and articulate one's ideas. It means being able to write eloquently and express one's opinions persuasively. It means knowing not just a subject matter but why that subject matters in the world.

And sometimes it means protests -- especially when an open car, in which the president of your university rides, drives into a stadium in an official capacity and moves forward into a group of protesters, possibly even, according to one accusation, clipping one. Throughout this, the president sits in the car silently. These are his students, at his university. And they are black students. In Missouri, a state already riven by the racial incidents in Ferguson.

There is a lot of talk about whether or not the president should have resigned. It is his prerogative to resign. No one forced that decision. I don't know enough to comment.

What I do know for sure, about any university president, is that he or she must set the moral compass of the institution. Silence, in the car and in the aftermath, is not setting an example, is not modeling public discourse, is not addressing a problem. In view of that, it is not a surprise that Wolfe resigned. Not because of protesters, but because their protest threw into such vivid light what he himself had not addressed for over a month of a silence.

He isn't just anyone. He is the president, the leader. His actions and his words represent the university. He embodies, in actual and symbolic power, what higher education and democracy are for.

Was he afraid to speak? We don't know.

In some ways, the resignation is as baffling as the silence leading up to it. Open, public, intelligent discourse -- from the beginning and with wise and attentive and concerned leadership of the president -- might have been far better for everyone. Now two senior leaders will be replaced with two other senior leaders. What does that solve? Replacing one president with another does not change the conditions of the university. Replacing one administrator with another does not redress the problem of racism.

Leadership change changes leadership. Period. Open, strategic, participatory democratic attention is required to identify, address and solve a systemic problem. Change will only happen if whoever comes into the positions is committed to a better way. Such commitment is hardly a foregone conclusion.

That leads to a larger issue, one that Evelev is pointing to because it is a condition of higher education throughout the United States now. University presidents everywhere are under tremendous pressures these days, especially at public universities, to speak certain kinds of carefully guarded and protective and screened truths or be faced with trustees who want their resignation. More and more presidents are being chosen by such boards, sometimes without real support from the faculty members, students, staff, alumni or other administrators. The case of the University of Iowa is especially pertinent here.

But it is a pattern, an alarming one. President after president is being pressured to respond to politics, not to the mission and the calling of higher education. And I don't mean the small-p politics of student protests but the larger party politics of governors, trustees and funders who have ideological motivations and corporate ones, too.

Higher education must be about the free circulation of ideas, about genuine and responsible expression of ideas, about public discourse at its highest and its most urgent, about debate and dissent conducted in public as well. If there is no room for democratic discourse at a university, then our society is, quite simply, sunk.

Indeed, since John Evelev’s original Facebook posting, the terrible violence in Paris has given new meaning to the call for sane, rational, informed discourse in a democratic society. Innocent people have been murdered. And one reason they have been murdered is because terrorists do not want sane, democratic discourse. They seek to feed blind, uninformed panic. Such panic can lead to retribution not just against the guilty (who deserve it) but also against innocent people who can seem (to outsiders) to share characteristics of ethnicity, race or immigrant status with the perpetrators of violence.

Feeding a cycle of unthinking blame laid against the innocent is exactly what terrorists want. We are hearing far too much of this xenophobia already in the tragic response to a terrible tragedy.

And that brings us back, again, to the issue of racism. Attributing guilt to an entire group is, of course, one attribute of racism.

We have bequeathed to this generation the legacy of a frightening, complex world where the solutions are as difficult to understand as the problems. It will be their job, in the future, to solve these problems. There is no more profound mission of the university than to help prepare them for a future where informed democratic discourse and deep and substantive critical thinking are in constant danger of being drowned out by the forces of ignorance, prejudice and violence. It is a formidable challenge. The least we can do is respect the seriousness of the struggle.


Cathy N. Davidson is a distinguished professor and director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.


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