Reversing the Privatization of the University Through Research Militancy

In order to resist and reverse the privatization of higher education, student radicals should establish and grow university-community networks, and push researchers to base their work with and for popular movements fighting against state and capital.     

In a previous essay, I theorized about the idea of recomposing and renovating the student movement in California by drawing on lessons of student struggles in Venezuela during the ‘60s and ‘80s.  To summarize, I argued that mobilizing as students, for issues related specifically to students (i.e. tuition hikes), has proven itself to be a dead-end strategy insofar as resisting privatization or building a mass movement of any sort.  Instead, students need to move beyond student-centric issues in a way that breaks down the walls between the university and the wider community, and that this process is desirable because 1) it breaks down the privilege of academia and forces university constituents to be accountable to the needs of wider society, and 2) connecting to community struggles can help overcome the transient nature of students and develop more effective methods to record and maintain political memory.

I want to elaborate on a particular dimension of this line of thought that I didn’t really touch upon—namely, that this process of building university-community relationships is a critical strategy to directly halt and reverse the privatization of education.

Privatization of Knowledge Production

Privatization affects many aspects of the university; some obvious examples include the way that tuition hikes make higher education more exclusive, and how cuts to liberal arts and social science departments in favor of more lucrative fields undermines the idea that education is for the general development of human potential, and not for producing commodities (that is, skilled workers) for the labor market.

What I will focus on here, however, is the way privatization affects one of the key functions of the university—that of knowledge production.  Universities invest huge amounts of resources into knowledge production, with journal papers, essays, patents, databases, etc. flowing out of its office and laboratories on a daily basis.  This production does not happen out of thin air, but is the result of the toil of knowledge workers: graduate student researchers, laboratory technicians, junior faculty members, and so on.  In the age of neoliberalism, this research—particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—is largely funded and controlled by corporate sponsors, who not only have an increasingly large say in the kind of research that gets done, but also often gain access to partial or full rights to the produced knowledge.  This suits the administration quite well, given that they themselves are usually drawn from the ranks of elite capitalists, and who see industry partnerships as the best way to get high returns on their investments—a paradigm which is dependent on seeing the university not as a public institution, but as a private corporate entity whose primary goal is to maximize profits.

Thus, while the university was once (if we are to don the rosiest of rose-tinted glasses) an arena for the free exchange and development of ideas that served to push society into progressive directions, it is now a site where what is researched is increasingly controlled by whether or not investors will turn a profit.

Irrelevant Academics

Another trend in academia is the fact that even in spaces that have not yet been subsumed by capitalism, knowledge production often is still equally divorced from the needs and interests of the wider society—particularly the sectors of society which are struggling against state and capital.  This is the case even for those intellectuals who are researching and theorizing around issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality—while the content of their work is highly relevant to gaining a better understanding of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, and the historic ways in which resistance and rebellions have functioned, the form in which this work is contained is often inaccessible, linguistically dense with difficult prose, and published in exclusive journals or expensive books.  As far as those who are actually doing concrete organizing work are concerned, the work of these so-called radical intellectuals might as well not exist at all.  And even when academic researchers do engage with existing social movements and popular struggles, it is often done in a top-down fashion, where the researcher positions herself as an external actor, bouncing around from space to space, organization to organization, until enough information and interviews have been collected for a paper to be published and a career to be advanced.

Public-Public Partnerships and Militant Research

In the face of these two types of reactionary or stagnant trends that beset the university—privatization and academic elitism—the strategy of building university-community partnerships takes on a new importance, that is beyond just being a vehicle to reinvigorate student struggles.  By establishing networks between local movements, community organizations, workers’ organizations, etc., we can “socialize” sectors of the university in a similar manner that the administration seeks to privatize sectors of the university.  These “public-public partnerships”, as opposed to the standard public-private partnerships, will then be able to leverage university resources for the public good—something public universities are supposed to be doing in the first place!

Breaking down the walls between the university and the community can also put pressure against the elitist tendencies of knowledge workers in academia, by creating the space and networks necessary for “militant research”.  Militant research, as opposed to academic research, is knowledge production that is done by and for the masses, and in the service of popular struggles of the oppressed and the marginalized to empower themselves and fight against systems of domination, exploitation, and violence.  Lessons on militant research can be seen in this excellent article that discusses the dynamics of Movimientos de Trabajadores Deocupados (MTDs), or Movements of Unemployed Workers, in Argentina during the last two decades.  Liz Mason-Deese writes:

Through intense col­lab­o­ra­tions…Colec­tivo Situa­ciones began elab­o­rat­ing the con­cept of mil­i­tant research/research mil­i­tancy against both aca­d­e­mic research and tra­di­tional left­ist activism. Against aca­d­e­mic research that pro­claims objec­tiv­ity, the neu­tral obser­va­tion of a pre-defined object that often does not go beyond soci­o­log­i­cal descrip­tion, and mainly serves the career inter­ests of the author. Opposed to tra­di­tional forms of activism with pre­de­ter­mined “rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­jects,” forms of action and orga­ni­za­tion, aims and con­clu­sions. Both aca­d­e­mic research and tra­di­tional activism con­strue them­selves as exte­rior to their object; the researcher and the activist both pose as experts, out­side of the strug­gle. Mil­i­tant research, on the other hand, is imma­nent to the sit­u­a­tion at hand…the mil­i­tant researcher does not pre­tend to be objec­tive, but rather val­ues the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge for strug­gle.

In the context of Argentina, militant research facilitated an explosion of alternative grassroots political and economic structures to replace the failing institutions of capitalism and the state.  While traditional institutions floundered during the crisis of the ’90s, popular organizations set up schools, farms, and health clinics–and later, seized idle factories so that the workers could manage themselves.

It should be clarified that the research done by the MTDs was not via universities or other sites of formal knowledge production, but by the MTD members themselves.  In this context, militant research was done by and for the community.  If we are to apply the ideas of militant research to California and the US in general (as I think we should!), we need to recognize that when taken to its logical conclusion, a key ideological component is the recognition that the identity of the student–that of a privileged, separate entity to that of the community member–needs to be abolished.  Militant research, then, is in a sense a suicidal pact; those that take the practice to heart are destroying themselves as students and reforging themselves as participants in a long-term, revolutionary struggle.  Hence, why Mason-Deese points out that:

Mil­i­tant research is more than a dif­fer­ent form of research; it is also a dif­fer­ent way of doing pol­i­tics and under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between the two.

Paths Forward

Of course, various forms of research that have similarities to militant research are already being practiced at certain levels at plenty of universities.  At UC Berkeley there are partnerships between the Department of Conservation and Resource Studies and a local community farm, to study and develop agroecology (it should not be surprising that this area is destined to be sold to a development firm in order to build a supermarket).  Another example is the requirement of the Asian-American Studies Department (itself first founded after a series of strikes and protests by students of color) to produce research based on community service with local organizations.  No doubt, similar examples can be found at other universities across the Bay Area, California, and beyond.

These spaces are obviously a world apart from the privatized, corporate research laboratories that are sucking up more and more of the university’s resources–they are a clear, practical example of an alternative system of academia, one where knowledge production is truly public.  These types of spaces need to be not just defended, but expanded—all while making explicit the political character of these spaces, and their opposition to privatization and commodification of knowledge production.

In addition, recognize that these are just examples of public-public partnerships on the institutional level—but we must not forget the way militant research can, and does, manifest itself in the form of individual radical undergraduate and graduate researchers, who make their own choice to make the primary purpose of their work to help support and bolster anti-systemic movements.  Undergraduate students have enormous freedom in essay or project-based classes to choose the topic of their study; this freedom can easily be used to create powerful, organized spaces to guide undergraduate work to benefit real struggles, and a concrete way to establish and grow university-community networks.  Another strategy could be to struggle within graduate student unions, to argue for coordinating research projects more closely, and more along the lines of militant research.


Fighting privatization does not mean marching around a plaza with signs, asking an unaccountable administration to “stop privatization”; it means going on the offensive and reconfiguring the university to be intimately linked with existing public entities and local communities.  One key site of struggle for this reconfiguration is the area of knowledge production (that is, research); there is huge potential to build a movement around transforming current norms of research to become more militant, and to push more and more knowledge workers to base their research not on aimless intellectual posturing, or for the sake of wealthy private investors, but on the basis of collaborating with real movements, real people and real struggles.

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