We Demand…

In We Demand: The University and Student Protests, Roderick A. Ferguson's understanding of the campus activism of the 1960s and ’70s rests on a clear sense of the university as a crucial part of the social machine, writes Scott McLemee.

November 1, 2017
 
 

The assertive, present-tense title makes Roderick A. Ferguson’s We Demand: The University and Student Protests (University of California Press) sound like a manifesto or an organizing manual. Likewise, with the book’s opening salutation to “you, the student who believes that we can or should do better than the world that we’ve inherited … in which people are thrown into a chasm full of dangers, cruelties and inequalities,” the implied audience is likely to be in search of advice about how to turn conviction into action -- or an informed account of how others have done so in the past. Ideally, both.

We Demand provides neither, although the author (a professor of American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago) obviously wants to be helpful and encouraging in other ways. The book is neither long nor opaque, but the exact nature of what it brings to the activist’s card table is not immediately clear. I will venture a guess on that score later, but first an outline of the major points.

We Demand makes a historical argument about the student protests of the 1960s and ’70s but spends little time on particular issues, events or movements of that period. (References to student activism before or after that period are even more perfunctory.) Instead, Ferguson is concerned with those protests as part of a wider -- and ongoing -- challenge to the order of American life by those previously excluded or marginalized: “communities made up of immigrants, people of color, women, indigenous people, queers, transgender persons and disabled people.” (Besides American studies, Ferguson is also professor of gender and sexuality studies and African-American studies.)

The university was not just one of the tables at which these communities were demanding a place. An institution with countless links to political, economic, military, scientific and other institutions, the postwar American university is a site of public life par excellence -- giving student protest far more potential social impact than the number of participants alone could register.

“In this context,” Ferguson writes, “the makeup of university knowledge, faculty hires and student admittance takes on both political and intellectual importance … Plainly put, when students challenged the university, they were calling for a new social and intellectual makeup of the university and for a new social order in the nation at large.”

But hegemony can’t be dismantled in a day, or even a decade -- and the aftermath of the late-1960s peak in social upheaval was a series of efforts to delegitimize or suppress student protest, including through violence. Ferguson’s reading of the Nixon-era “Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest” (1970) and other documents traces how university administrations responded to pressures from outside to contain the disruptions. University presidents started lobbying state legislatures to permit them to set up on-campus police departments; most colleges and universities with more than 2,500 students now have one. Diversity became an area for administrative specialization -- something to be managed, rather than a challenge to orderly functioning.

The product, the author says, was “an institution that dramatically transformed itself from a simple and straightforward academic enterprise into an administrative system that has become more and more state-like, with apparatuses that try to ensure order by both persuasion and force.”

Hence the order of things that “you” (the concerned student addressed at the beginning of the book and again at the end) find on campuses now -- on not quite the 50th anniversary of the spring semester of 1968 that shook the world. “You will more than likely graduate with not only a degree but a financial debt that will probably follow you for years to come,” the author says, though few will need reminding.

The level of social tension that Ferguson understands to have driven the student protests of an earlier era seem to ratchet up continuously. The status quo Ferguson describes, however, amounts to Dystopian U -- managed and surveilled too well for rebels to get much traction.

But We Demand is not an apathetic book by any means. The references to student protests of the recent past are fleeting but hopeful. And it has implications that are easy to overlook -- at least they escaped my attention on first reading. For Ferguson’s understanding of earlier campus militancy and of its containment rests on a clear sense of the university as a crucial part of the social machine -- a spot where cogwheels mesh and circuits connect. Student movements are distinctly positioned to be able to identify, in his words, “the connections among systems of power that [arise] between academy, government and corporation.” A little disruption sometimes goes a long way. Full awareness of the connections is worth cultivating. Once that awareness reaches a certain intensity, the demands will pretty much issue themselves.

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