Current Affairs Higher Education Political Rants and Raves Uncategorized

“Self-Portrait 2015” Roderick A. Ferguson University of Illinois, Chicago May 8, 2015

PiperCubIt’s a strange thing to find yourself as a character in the book you just wrote, especially when the book is neither fiction nor autobiography. Those of you who have read The Reorder of Things will recall that I began with a collage by Adrian Piper called “Self-Portrait 2000.” The collage in part “depicts” Piper as a downed airplane. But it also contains a sharp letter to Wellesley’s then president for allegedly violating the terms of Piper’s hire. And the collage is further intensified by presenting a poem to God that rails at God for producing a botched-up version of humanity. In The Reorder of Things, I use the collage as a way to open the book’s interrogation of how state and capital have followed the academy’s example in relation to the management of diversity. Like the academy, the state and the financial institutions it refuses to regulate, abandon the visions of equitable distribution and social justice fostered by the student movements of the 1960’s—especially in terms of their promotion of interdisciplinary scholarship and faculty and student diversity. Instead, all three institutions have actively worked to sabotage projects of intellectual and demographic redistribution while all the while promoting a love for diversity.


Enter the “Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative to Increase Diversity and the Interdisciplinary Culture at UIC.” As the name suggests, the initiative was intended to be a way to transform the University of Illinois at Chicago by hiring twenty-five junior and senior faculty who would be distributed among five research clusters—the Racialized Body, Middle East and Muslim Societies, Social Justice and Human Rights, Diaspora Studies, and Global Urban Immigration. While the official name of the cluster initiative implies that it was a mandate from on high, the categories that came to define the clusters were designed by the faculty and were the result of two competitive proposal phases that involved the entire campus, not just the faculty in Liberal Arts and Sciences. The faculty who wrote the proposals talked of meeting in coffee shops and in department conference rooms to hammer out what would be a truly historic dream if realized.

It would have been the first time in the history of the American academy that an institution—public or private—would reinvent itself based on interdisciplinary categories, categories produced in fields such as ethnic, cultural, gender, postcolonial, disability, and queer studies. It would have also been an epic achievement for a university with a working-class student body. This vision of what could have been, and indeed, what should have been, attracted those of us recently recruited from other institutions to the exciting but now short-lived UIC experiment.



The university insists that it is only “delaying” rather than canceling the clusters. This distinction is telling as it exemplifies a university administration attempting to establish itself as the rational arbiter and enforcer of hires around diversity while it strips those hires of any real substance. Our collective letter to Chancellor Michael Amiridis provides necessary context:

In addition to stopping the current searches, the Interim Provost and Dean explained that the entire cluster program was being delayed, and that before it could restart, the substance of the positions required recalibration that would supersede both the agreed to conditions of the cluster proposals (all applications were signed by Executive Officers and Deans) and the extensive internal peer review process that selected these clusters over others. Such an abrupt cancelation of four high-profile searches (not delay as recent communications have indicated), and a drastic change to the peer review process, fundamentally endangers this major diversity initiative at our public urban university and threatens to tarnish our national reputation and ability to recruit in the future.

It is important to note, as the above paragraph attests, that the prior agreement authorizing the clusters has been voided. The new conditions call for a reappraisal by the Deans of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As the letter states, “Over the course of the first three years, the PIs made requests for meetings with Dean Tantillo to discuss search processes; we never received a positive response and instead were re-directed to meet with Associate Deans who were not authorized to make decisions on the hiring process.” In other words, after the searches were authorized, we are now told that the searches can only be re-authorized by the very administrative players that abandoned them in the first place.

If not “cancellation,” perhaps we should call it an “indefinite or permanent delay?” That would, of course, allow us to continue with the fiction that UIC’S diversity initiative has not been cancelled, and its commitment to diversity will march on, one day reactivated by people who never meant it to survive in the first place. As one of the persons hired to realize this initiative, there’s no way for the administration’s actions not to be dismaying, but as a theorist, I can’t help but be intrigued—even by the maneuvers that have undermined what my colleagues and I have tried to accomplish. This part might be a lesson to us all.

The discourse that has caught my eye is the university’s use of “student demand.” In addition to the looming shadow of anticipated budget cuts, the dean at the April 16th meeting said that the clusters had to be delayed because of a lack of “student demand” for those areas articulated by the clusters—intersectional feminism, social justice, Middle-East and Muslim, political economy and globalization, and urban diaspora, in particular. This is an especially astonishing claim on a campus with a growing Latino, Asian, Asian American, Arab, Arab-American, Middle-Eastern and Muslim student body. What is even more interesting is that many of the students from these groups have for years demanded areas of study like the ones that have been cancelled. If these students’ demands are not the ones that the university acknowledges, who and what are the interests behind the administration’s deployment of “student demand?”



Think back to the moment of the sixties and seventies student movements and how large the word “demand” loomed in radical manifestos, manifestos that called for widespread social change. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front of San Francisco State issued their “TWLF SF State College Demands,” listing the establishment of a “School for Ethnic Studies” as their number one demand. In 1969 the Lumumba-Zapata student movement at the University of California at San Diego, upon hearing of the institution’s plans to build a new—“Third”—college responded by writing, “We demand a Third College be devoted to relevant education for minority youth and to the study of the contemporary social problems of all people.” In that same year, African American and Puerto Rican students at City College in New York would issue their “Five Demands” intended to change the university’s institutional and intellectual structure to speak to the histories and realities of students at that institution. The sixties and seventies saw the emergence of the category “demand” as the keyword of student militancy directed at university administrations, directed at them so that knowledge might be reorganized rather than diminished.



As they vie for control of that category, university administrations attempt to absorb and neutralize the possibility of radical change on college campuses; those administrations are increasingly doing so by laying claim to the idea of “student demands.” Instead of using the discourse of “student demand” to promote the progressive reorganization of knowledge for the good of faculty and student development, the administration uses the category to arrogate power unto itself. In this way, the figure of the student becomes the ethical motivation and justification for expulsion rather than redistribution, determining what forms of knowledge and critique can be expelled from intellectual space and livelihood. Steven Salaita’s firing is a case in point. In her justification for terminating him, the Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise implicitly invoked “student demand” as the rationale for that decision, stating “We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.” As an institutional discourse, student demand, thus, provides a handy justification for a diverse array of administrative expulsions, ones that could conceivably involve courses, people, hiring initiatives, and so on.

With the rise of the administrative control of student demand, the student is turned into an absolutely serviceable abstraction, the evidence of which can be seen in the simple fact that the administrators who deploy the figure of the student are actually not the ones—for the most part—who teach them, listen to them, or learn from them. In the end though, a move like the one that we just saw at UIC is not only an attack on diversity and interdisciplinarity; it is also an assault on academic freedom. The classical definition of academic freedom means that the faculty controls the curriculum and therefore presides over the hiring of those persons who will execute it. As the new enforcer of student demand, the administration can then say it is best positioned to manage the curriculum and hiring. The result of this is the overturning of academic freedom. If neoliberalism, as Lisa Duggan has argued, is the upward redistribution of resources—in this instance toward the administration, the administrative seizure of student demand is neoliberalism par excellence.



It has only recently occurred to me that anti-intellectualism might be something more than “anti-intellectual,” more than the description that so many of us use when we find ourselves in the throes of institutional distress, more than a grievance or an annoyance. I have only now begun to think about how anti-intellectualism might seriously be the “mature” and defensive expression of academic institutions, an expression that retaliates against past and present campus uprisings and a formation worthy of serious theorization. Consider all the meetings with and speeches by administrators in which intellection is turned into the clumsiness of prima donnas, and bureaucratic thinking is taken to be the privileged capacity of reasoned individuals to properly run the university, individuals whose intelligence is measured by how much can they dilate over the bottom line, people who—by some bureaucratic clairvoyance—can determine which undergraduate fields will yield jobs, profits, and a future, a clairvoyance that allows them to judge which forms of knowledge are worthy of life or death.

In the hands of the administration, “student demand” becomes the reason to discourage speculative thought, producing a situation in which the most extreme forms of anti-intellectualism are found among an institution’s elites. As an institutional discourse, anti-intellectualism is necessary to make the administration the center of university authority, allowing it to impose administrative control over all intellectual activity, activities that should be the province of students and teachers. In the days of the sixties and seventies, the student—no longer content to be defined by external forces but self-marked by gender, sexual, ethnic and racial particularities—was the catalyst for the multiplication of forms of knowledge within the academy. In our moment and through a backlash against the prior one, the figure of the student—cynically—becomes the administration’s alibi for the degeneration of knowledge. I began this piece with Adrian Piper’s “Self-Portrait 2000.” I’ll end with two other “portraits” that bear upon this discussion. Ai Weiwei’s “A Study in Perspective” is a series of photographs in which the artist gives the middle finger to structures of power in Paris, Berlin, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Hong Kong. The series is designed to critique governments’ dismissal of everyday people’s freedoms. Commenting on it, Ai said, “I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.”


On April 29th UIC students mounted a demonstration in support of the Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative and demanded that the cancelled searches be fully reinstated. A group of protesters who were inspired by Ai’s “A Study of Perspective” staged their own version of the series. In the photo from the UIC demonstration, we see three fingers shot upwards at University Hall, the building that houses the UIC administration. Similar to Ai’s critique of governmental abuses, the UIC photo contests the administration’s disregard of faculty members and students’ freedoms to set their own agendas for intellectual expression, particularly around curricular development, interdisciplinary hiring, and diversity. Moreover, we might read the three fingers as a sign that challenging structures of power is a collective rather than individual endeavor, one that demands that we counter the necessarily anti-intellectual nature of neoliberal practices by returning to the boldness of intellection. Indeed, the UIC photograph suggests that a finger, rather than being an apolitical symbol of vulgarity, might—to quote Audre Lorde—be “loaded with information and energy.”


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