Introduction to Struggles for the Public University Forum

Christopher Herring

Around the world, students, teachers, parents and employees have been protesting against the increasing commercialization and privatization of public education.

Around the world over the past decade students, teachers, parents and employees have been protesting against the increasing commercialization and privatization of public education.  The changes since 2008 have been more fundamental than anything before, and deep changes in the structure and dominant attitude of contemporary market democracies are everywhere putting pressure on the values that have sustained the ideals of public higher education.

This forum brings together a collection of essays and interviews written by student activists on the front lines, with a critical and social scientific eye linking their local struggles with broader social forces shaping the conflicts and opportunities on the ground. The forum is both retrospective and recent: featuring articles focused on the struggles during the first wave of austerity in the wake of the 2008 global financial crises to the more recent ongoing struggles against the continuing erosion of the public university. During this period, the dismantling of public education was often defined within the narrow economistic register of tuition increases and reductions of governmental funding amidst fiscal crises. The essays in this forum, sourced from seven different countries, reveal deeper political and economic machinations at work.

On one hand, the articles portray the struggles as over broader stakes of the Public University such as institutional autonomy against corporate and state influence, democratic control against administrative dictatorship, and supporting increased participation in the conditions and educational aims of their institutions.  In Ukraine and Chile, the authors’ highlight the struggles in preserving the faculties and courses of the humanities and social sciences when their ministers ruled such subjects negligent in their political programs of economic growth. While at the City University of New York, the US’s largest urban public university, student activists protested not only the appointment of former General Petraeus but also his course content, which eerily overlapped with his job description at a private equity firm. At the University of California, Ikebe and Holmstrom emphasize the interconnected fate of student and worker in the struggle for workers’ rights in the US’ largest and most prestigious system of higher public education.

However it is also clear that these are movements that have wider implications, reaching far beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower. At the University of California, the offensive by the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union is striving to reform modes of labor organizing both in and beyond the UC. The struggles against the militarization within CUNY led to the foundation of a collective campaign for Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and Channel Justice describes the critical role played by the student movement at Ukraine’s Maidan Square protest and its aftermath. While in Chile leaders of the student movement, including Camila Valejo interviewed here, are now elected officials in Parliament.

In the spirit of the new Berkeley Journal of Sociology, the essays offer social scientific perspectives on ongoing struggles from international authors, while answering a series of practical and tactical questions in terms of how success is defined, lessons from organizing, and what sort of collective vision for public higher education is articulated through reading these struggles together.