At the most recent DSC plenary session on 24 October, an emended resolution regarding the Doctoral Students’ Council boycott of Israeli academic intuitions was unable to pass due to a lack of quorate, despite having more votes in favor. One of the claims of the opponents of the resolution, during the most recent debate, was that the DSC, in entertaining two plenary sessions that hosted lengthy discussions around the BDS resolution, was doing a disservice to the Graduate Center student body. This supposed disservice stemmed from the idea that the DSC (specifically the Executive and Steering Committees) was devoting time to the BDS resolution debate in lieu of other – “more important” – issues. Such individuals failed to recall the amount of work that the DSC has been doing and continues to do on behalf of the thousands of students at the Graduate Center (such as the recent unanimously passed resolution on mental health coverage, the continued access to legal consultation, and health service at the Wellness Center, sexual harassment in GC housing, and disparities in funding, to name but a few). A portion of the BDS debate touched upon the issue of whether or not the DSC should even be involving itself in political issues and if they should rather focus on, as one DSC representative put it, “issues that affect students.” In response to this statement, a student attending the plenary said that she “refuse[d] the framing of Palestinian solidarity not pertaining to [her] everyday concerns” as her life and research were closely tied to the region.
Coming out of the recent plenary sessions debates is an important question of our role, as part of a student body as well as as individuals, in relation to broader political issues. Some of those that staunchly opposed the recent BDS measure have articulated a desire that the DSC be divorced from any political matter not directly affecting the student body at the GC, whilst some have gone as far as to advocate for a complete divestment from politics by those in the academy. Though these issues were raised in the last two plenary sessions, specifically during the BDS debates, the question of the role of the academy in broader political enterprises is a fundamental one that needs to be addressed in light of recent anti-political rhetoric. The recent debates in the DSC (as well as those within the English Studies Association at the GC) have highlighted three camps that endorse a refrain from political activity. The first and most vocal, are those that are critical of the DSC’s engagement in politics outside of issues viewed as not directly relating to students, second group are those that think the DSC should avoid politics as a body, though individual members should pursue their given political agendas, the last camp are those that articulate a complete separation between the academy and political activism.
The first two sets of folks, taking issue around perceived DSC involvement in political issues, are seemingly more concerned about the ways in which they (via the DSC) will appear if a contentious politically resonate resolution is passed within the DSC. They worry that such politically charged activity may jeopardize their future careers. While this may be true to some extent, it is merely a reflection of wider political issues which must be remedied. Here is a hypothetical example: let us say that a GC student loses out on some fellowship funds because of their political positions, which are antithetical to the ones held by the individual or committee deciding upon who receives the monies. Should future students with similar politics mute their political activism to secure a better chance at professional advancement? Some may answer yes to this, but why not destroy the socio-cultural apparatuses that allows such a process to persist rather than silencing oneself? The Steven Salaita case is a perceptible and recent reality of this in the neoliberal university, and he did not remain silent, neither should members of the DSC nor the DSC as a constituted body.
Still, there are others that legitimately believe that the DSC should not be involved in politics, or only in political situations relating to the student body. As the aforementioned exchange at the last DSC plenary hints, what one finds politically irrelevant may be part and parcel to a colleague’s intellectual, social, economic, cultural, or even political existence. Furthermore, the DSC’s engagement with politics is something that is fundamentally crucial to its viability as a body that advocates on behalf of students. To only involve itself with internal issues is to follow a course that elides interconnected societal issues that have an impact on students. Even those students largely unaffected by a given socio-political issue have a stake in it. If there are discrepancies in funding female students of color (a potentiality highlighted at the September plenary session), should the DSC take a stand on the internal issue in addition to the broader issue of oppressed nationalities in this country? Yes should be the unequivocal answer. One cannot take on the in-house political issue without, at the very least, recognizing that a broader process is fomenting such a course internally. If members of the GC student body endeavored to bring forward an explicitly politically motivated resolution to the DSC, the body should not reject its presentation or debate over the given issue. If anything, such a debate can lead to further discussion on other important topics, as the recent BDS resolution has led to discussions revolving around how democracy is practiced at the GC and the role of students in relation to the academy and political activism. As the representatives of a body of public university students, it is the DSC’s duty to remain politically involved in issues that directly affect its constituents as well as those that its membership find valid or politically salient.
Some of the initial fears around the politicization of the DSC in the September plenary regarded the body’s relation to CUNY administration. At least one representative at that meeting lambasted the Executive Committee for ostensibly putting a strain upon the relationship between the DSC and the CUNY administration by simply entertaining the debate over the BDS resolution. Why should we, as individuals involved in rigorous and critical inquiries, be beholden to the (very political) whims of an administrative apparatus that largely views us as cogs (adjunct labor) in a rather lucrative machine? The political aspirations of GC students are as equally important as the politically influenced machinations of the bigwigs that work within this university. The DSC does not currently have the political space in which to say “abolish the board of trustees,” “bring back open admissions,” “stop hosting meetings and for charter schools,” the last one very incongruous for a public university. But I will say (and advocate for) these things here, and if a DSC representative were courageous enough to put these thoughts in the form of resolution, again, it should be discussed and debated, without pressures to suppress such a measure of deliberation. Agreement on the issue is a different aspect entirely.
It is impossible to divorce our individual selves, or our collective selves from politics. Our scholarship is often politically influenced or derives from a particular set of experiences that involve political thought, this is particularly true for those of us in the social sciences and humanities. As graduate students, most of us pursuing a PhD, we are invariably engaged in political contestations, not only at DSC plenaries, but also in the class room or with colleague, at seminars, at workshops and the like. For the DSC to abjure politically charged issues amounts to a disservice to the students that the body represents. In fact, everything that the DSC does (and in general social relations and processes throughout U.S. society) can be construed as political. One of the most recent chartered organizations, a GC chapter of the International Socialist Organization was paradoxically approved unanimously at the October DSC plenary. The ISO joins the CUNY International Marxist Club as a distinctly political organization supported and sanctioned by the DSC. Nothing – be it a social, economic, or cultural phenomenon, thought, or process – happens in a void, without a history, without an attendant political genealogy. The DSC is, and must remain, a body in which concrete (as well as diffuse) political agendas can be presented, debated, endorsed, and rejected. This must be the case without acceptation and devoid of attempts by “anti-political” people with the erroneous view that what the DSC constitutes does not, or should not represent a form of political engagement.
Though the majority of those clamoring that the DSC dissociate from any politically charged agendas are not opposed to political activity within the academy (just not in their “name”), there are those that would like to see a sort of purified academy, one bereft of politics, devoted solely to the common good an abstraction that has little salience given the plurality of the world in which we inhabit. Additionally, any sort of dedication to the “common good” as it were, on behalf of a university (or a group within) is devotion to the extant political practices. There is no room for reformism, let alone the possibility of revolutionizing our society if we, as members of the academy, do not use the tool (and it is a tool) of our access in the academy to attack the political problems, as well as the related socio-economic and cultural ones, that reproduce themselves in the wider polity. Going even further, we can revolutionize the academy itself, if we are bold enough to try, and why not attempt to leverage successes gained out of university struggles to broader social issues? The great potential of this has already been noted with the strikes and massive protests coming out of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in the wake of the disappearance and murder of student protesters by the police (see photo essay on page 10). The former (and hopefully future) Morales/Shakur Center at CCNY serves as a prime example of why it is important to maintain a political presence on college campuses, even in the face of brutal assaults and clandestine subterfuges; important for both the university students as well as for the community in which the school is located (see article on page 28).
The university, particularly the public university, can serve the interests of a wide variety of groups. Currently, at CUNY, we see this in the most pronounced and aggressive form in the return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps to our campuses, largely aimed at recruiting the sons and daughters of Blacks and Latinos to serve in imperialist wars abroad and domestic repression. Political neutrality is an unfeasible in life as it is in academia. Even those that would say they are politically neutral implicitly support a given side or agenda; generally the status quo or those groups or individuals with socio-political power skewed in such a way to benefit themselves. With a politicized university, there is the risk of reactionary measures by those in power or those with contesting or oppositional ideologies. This should not deter people from voicing their opinions, unless we truly endorse the tableau of a hermitic academic in the ivory tower. Without political activism on the university campus, the student bodies across the United States, as well as the professoriate, would be Whiter, straighter, more male, and feature less nuance and suppleness in the pursuit and production of knowledge. We can in fact expect that the university be supported by the public and buttressed by a wide range of governmental institutions, but we must also agitate to change who exactly is considered part of the “public” and who wields state power. This monumental task can be accomplished with the support of a politically active and diverse university community, in fact it, drastic social change may very well necessitate a politicized university. We must remember that political discourse, confrontation, and activism is not anathema to universities’ venture in educating about, and interrogating the world in which we live, rather, it is the life-blood of the project, and can ultimately lead to the transformation of social relations throughout the broader society.