Eyes Upon the University

What could a transformative politics of the university look like?

On the top floor of Winthrop House’s newly-renovated Beren Hall, there is a beautiful meeting space built to host House and College events. In golden letters circling the ceiling, atop white pillars, are John Winthrop’s famous words: “We shall be as a city upon a hill: the eyes of all people are upon us.”

This is the promise of Harvard: We are an institution committed to truth, stubbornly free of influences that threaten it — the unbreakable bedrock of civil society. At our best and most courageous, we generate challenging ideas, launch incisive critiques at injustice, and call for the realization of a better and more truthful world for all of its inhabitants. In this vision, we are the city upon a hill, opening the eyes that gaze upon us and working for and alongside them. Through intrepid scholarship and bold critique, we live up to our liberatory potential, collectively expanding political possibility in a deeply aching world.

But just as Winthrop’s statement belied a brutal settler colonialism, this is not the Harvard — or, more broadly, the modern university — we inhabit today. Nor is it, if we are honest with ourselves, the university we have been cultivating for decades. Rather than critically assessing our scholarship and its complicity in global hegemony, we overwhelmingly opt for the performative politics of tokenizing multiculturalism. Where we should be a voice against the abuse of state power, we sanction it and support its goals. Where we can challenge modern bounds of what counts as knowledge itself, we accept them wholesale, unconcerned with those silence. Where we ought to champion human impact and community partnership, we cut costs and drive people out of their homes. And where — as faculty, administrators, and yes, as students — we ought to continually assess our own place in these halls of power, we choose to fight for symbolic inclusion rather than be accountable for our own complicity.

The truth is, in my four years at this institution, as I have engaged and challenged and engaged again, I have concluded that we — Harvard, the American university, modern education — quite simply lack the courage it would take for us to build liberatory and transformative institutions. Even as we celebrate symbolic successes, to truly contest the university’s entrenchment in toxic power — when its funds and its leadership and its programs often support it in its many forms — would take an audacity and moral lucidity that we do not appear to have. In their absence, we choose silence, and we pretend that it is not a choice at all — pretend that we are neutral, apolitical, even as the silence we are deliberately choosing may enable and perpetuate injustice across the world.

Some, like Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in their seminal “The Undercommons,” contend that this relation to social and political power is an inescapable characteristic of the modern university. For them, the truly subversive intellectual’s only choice is “to abuse [the university’s] hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony… to be ‘in but not of,’” as Du Bois said of Harvard. “The university,” they argue, “needs what [the subversive intellectual] bears but cannot bear what she brings.” Her only path forward, then, is refusal: the appropriation of university resources for the “the underground, the downlow lowdown maroon community of the university... the undercommons of enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”


I do not disagree with Harney and Moten, and I am still undecided on whether the university, at this point, is too entrenched in power to hold any liberatory potential. Nonetheless, as a College senior hoping to join the academy and the scholars I deeply respect within it, I cannot help but ask: if it is possible, what would a transformative politics of the university look like? How might our scholarship help us, in David Scott’s words, “[think] fundamentally against the normalization of the epistemological and institutional forms of our political modernity?” How can we re-envision academia as a liberatory, not simply a critical, space? In other words, can the university be a site of expanding political possibility?

In this column, I will think about these and other questions related to the university and its fractious relationship to power. Alongside readers, I hope to explore the politics of knowledge, universities, local communities, student activism, and subversive scholarship. In reflecting on four years of student activism and activist studentship, I hope to challenge myself and others to think outside of the traditional politics of the university, critiquing the bases of its knowledge, pedagogy, and positionality while simultaneously re-envisioning it as a site of radical possibility.

To be clear, I am not naïve enough to undertake this project as an optimist. But I believe enough in the “fierce urgency of now” to do so as a “prisoner of hope” — as someone committed to re-imagining academia’s liberatory potential even as I do not have the answers and even as the institution may not be able to bear them. After all, even as Harvey and Moten write that “it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment,” they also remind us that “it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge.”

While we are in this refuge, let’s see what, if anything, we can do with it.

Anwar Omeish ’19 is a Social Studies Concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.