We are radicals at Penn. We are undergraduate and graduate students, some in the humanities, others in the sciences. We are professional students training to become lawyers, doctors, nurses, and engineers. We are university staff, some blue collar, some white collar. We are faculty, some tenured, others adjunct.
We’ve all had enough of the corporatization of American universities like the University of Pennsylvania. We want to stop education from becoming a commodity, universities from becoming corporate businesses, and inquiry from becoming ideology. Most importantly, we want to change the society that has allowed this to happen, which means connecting the critique of the university to the critique of capitalism. But we’ve got to start by struggling where we are, especially since our university has become one of the pacesetters of this transformation, and the model many others are trying to follow. That’s why we’re taking aim at Penn.
In the past, capitalism concentrated, stratified, and disciplined a heterogeneous workforce into massive factories; today, in an era of deindustrialization, it’s the university that’s become one of few institutions in the United States to amass so many workers in one place. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, is now the largest private employer in what was once one of the most industrialized cities in the world. Last year there were 20,000 workers employed at Penn. There are now over 11,000 graduate and professional students, and 10, 319 full-time undergraduates. In short, this university is a massive network of different kinds of workers, managers, and students. But its institutional architecture has stratified all those who work here, sealing everyone into tiny departments, closed isolated spheres. When there is contact, it’s perfunctory, mediated by management, or at the mandate of administration. No one really knows how other people work here, what they do, or what they want. Despite all this talk of a community, the university is fragmented, with different branches simply doing their own thing. This means isolation, atomization, and despair.
Our first objective is to bring into contact the different groups of people who make up Penn. Through joint publications, open forums, teach-ins, and solidarity networks we hope to tear down all these boundaries. We want to not only connect radicals at Penn, but bring together Penn’s disconnected sectors at large.
Penn has become essential to preserving the present state of affairs. Not only does it literally reproduce America’s ruling class, sending more graduates off to Wall Street than any other university, it plays the far more important function of ensuring the reproduction of capitalism as a whole. Whatever its intentions, Penn’s structural function, like those of all educational institutions, is to transform students into precisely the kind of subject – trained with certain skills, molded for certain roles, guided by certain values, blindly wedded to certain ideological assumptions – needed to keep the exploitative gears of class society turning. So although it cultivates an image of civic entrepreneurialism, pathbreaking innovation, and social opportunity, Penn ultimately works to prop up a failing society. With its institutional values completely dominated by Wharton, the university boasts a “pre-professional” atmosphere: students compete like rats for the internships that will put them on the fast track to helping this society stay the same, or are shaped into the professional ideologues who will go on to craft capitalism’s next media soundbite or justify America’s next imperialist war.
Once hotbeds of political activity, American universities have become very conservative places to be. Critique is confined to English papers, and free speech is largely hollow. It’s difficult to have a serious discussion about sexual violence, suicide, or institutional racism; or whether graduate students should be unionized; or about the state of Israel; or if Penn, which does not pay property taxes, should at least make some payments to the city it has colonized, as most other Ivy Leagues do. Of course, there’s great work being done here, but sadly, so much of it is lost in the echo chamber of academic chatter.
There’s a possibility, however, that the vast intellectual arsenal Penn relies on to furnish the ideology of the ruling class – state of the art libraries, seemingly infinite resources, world class instructors, and talented students – could in fact be repurposed to build a different society. Our second objective is therefore not just to forge connections on campus, but to draw on all these resources to radicalize the Penn community. We want to consistently articulate, in words and in actions, an alternative perspective on Penn’s functions, goals, and role in the world.
Universities today are not only massive workplaces; they now generate such immense profits they’ve become some of the most powerful institutions in the country. Penn had an endowment of $7.7 billion last year, more than ten US state government budgets. Penn President Gutmann makes $2 million. Penn owns over four hundred acres of property in the city. While Penn may not divvy up surpluses to shareholders, it is governed by the practices, values, and logic of a corporation, and is more profitable than many businesses. Penn invests in the stock market, hedge funds, patents, real estate, and a host of corporations that it does not disclose. The Board of Trustees is composed almost entirely of corporate managers who refuse democratic governance; last month they rejected the faculty council’s unanimous recommendation to divest endowment funds from tobacco companies. The university exploits thousands of unrepresented workers, and charges astronomically high tuitions. Many instructors are adjuncts who get paid by the course, have no health care coverage, and can be fired at any moment. This extraordinary monopoly over resources in a city with so few has unsurprisingly translated into enormous political power. Penn’s private police department — the largest in Pennsylvania — safeguards Penn’s gentrification of West Philadelphia; its longstanding ties to the Department of Defense, which includes heavy drone research, lend enormous influence; and its massive profits allow it to spend millions on political lobbying.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the city itself. Philadelphia is the poorest of all large cities in this country, and its unemployment rate one of the highest. The public school system, which is millions of dollars in debt, understaffed, and undersupplied almost failed to open last year. With vital social services slashed, everyday survival has become a serious challenge for many Philadelphians. In the face of all this, it’s truly shameful that Penn, which parasitically relies on the city’s infrastructure, doesn’t pay a single cent in property taxes. Instead, it exacerbates the crisis by trying to make a profit on what little is left of the city’s social infrastructure, as when it spent $50.6 million to buy up Philly’s 30th Street Post Office in order to turn this former community space into high-end apartments and corporate offices.
But if Penn is such a strategic site, politically and economically, then our third objective can only be to build a revolutionary base here. We want to use Penn’s vast resources to forge real, popular, counter-power. In this, we are inspired by Penn’s rich history of struggle. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, students, faculty, and staff went on strike, organized teach-ins, and even occupied College Hall. They protested sexual violence, tuition hikes, budget cuts, an authoritarian administration, and the displacement of thousands of local residents. They demanded transparency, and an end to military research of biological and chemical weapons. They joined with community leaders, and students from other universities like Temple, to demand that appropriated land be returned to West Philadelphians, and that Penn’s development corporation provide money to build low-income housing for displaced residents. We want to follow their lead by using Penn to create a popular movement that connects those of us inside the university to those outside in the broader community, that links our many struggles to those in the neighborhoods around us, and that ties our fight to all those raging in society today. For we want to change Penn, but we also want to change the society that has made Penn what it is.
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