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A Thousand Possibilities

What is it that we do here? And what is it that we might do?

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

Universities, like most institutions, are built upon choices. Entrenched choices, perhaps, seemingly inevitable choices, but choices nonetheless. We choose, for example, to neglect our limitations, to ally with hegemonic power, to marshal our truth-seeking as absolution from moral duty.

But these are choices we do not have to make: We can, in fact, choose otherwise. We can choose to confront our scholarship’s complicity, to lead against injustice, to accept responsibility to those around us. We can choose to understand that inaction, too, is a form of action; that refusal to choose, too, is a choice. We can always choose otherwise.

The work we do here, then, need not be useless to our goal of building new futures. This semester, I have argued as much, offering both critique and possibility for modern universities. I have noted that I undertake this inquiry as scholar-activist and activist-scholar, believing in the profound power of ideas to serve justice — but only if they, and the institutions that produce them, are designed with justice in mind, too.

So how might we take on this project — of (re)envisioning, (re)designing, (re)building our choices? In past columns, I have discussed what we need to change. Today, I am interested in closing this series with how we — workers, students, administrators, faculty — are going to change it.

For some, this is an old question. Take the 2016 Harvard University Dining Services strike, for example, in which collective action transformed this University and set labor justice precedent that has had ripples nationwide. Today, workers and allies demand moral courage elsewhere, insisting on the prioritizing justice at this institution. Unions here have always been at the forefront of demanding better, serving as critical guides and teachers for others along the way.

Perhaps it is time for faculty to use this playbook, too. In response to recent trends, some have called scholars to form unions or other “inter- and transdisciplinary solidarit[ies]” with real power to confront University politics and demand the tenure levels (and diversity) necessary for faculty independence. Faculty members can no longer allow expansive University administration free rein over University politics, whether via actual administrative power or faculty deference to administrative suggestion. Such closed-doors governance keeps us from being courageous in pursuit of moral visions.

This pursuit requires collective dissent, such as that exercised by Yale’s ethnic studies scholars, rather than individual efforts that leave dissenting faculty members vulnerable to reprimand and removal. It requires alliances that precede university crises, not just respond to them. Further, as I have suggested, this reclamation of power cannot serve faculty alone — it must also come with accountability structures that look beyond the University, prioritizing collective ownership rather than check-box tokenization.

Administrators, meanwhile, must recognize that, overwhelmingly, they enable a broken system. They must realize that facilitating student growth without accountability is not, in itself, a radical act; that celebrating student progressivism does not prove their own (especially when students face administrative roadblocks at every turn). Administrators, too, are actors; there is work that they can do in their own positions, alliances they can form that give them power beyond their reporting relationships to their employers and to the bottom line.

Which leaves us, of course, with students. Students must, as always, serve as engines of change, using our privilege at elite universities to demand accountability beyond ourselves. But in doing so, we must be precise, locating problems in their proper place. We must temper our selfish logic of “existence as resistance” — of individual flourishing in broken systems as resistance to them — and confront how this logic renders us complicit in domination. We must recognize that liberal multiculturalism’s inclusivity rhetoric cannot secure the justice we seek, because the goal has never been increasing student diversity, or even including all students upon matriculation. It has always been dismantling the structures that limited that diversity in the first place.

This individualistic focus on student struggle and success enables “the cultivation of sympathy over the creation of social justice,” enables student-facing programming to substitute for real accountability for institutional harm. This is not to say that student pain is not real, but it is to say that the problem with elite universities is not, primarily, that they cause (relatively privileged) students pain. The problem is that they support incarceration, war, environmental destruction. The solution to that is not more inclusive programming. It is more radical politics — a politics that, in pursuing a more just institution, builds a more inclusive one in the process.

This is true across the University. We need a new language to express the difficulty and urgency of this work, one that moves beyond ourselves to the world(s) we want to build. We need new alliances and energies and solidarities, new tools to fashion futures. We — students, workers, administrators, faculty — must hold and be held accountable to realizing transgressive politics at the University and beyond it, not as saviors but as partners in collective worldbuilding.

It is tempting to see such worldbuilding as unthinkable, to see modern universities as inevitably hegemonic forces that cannot be faced. But the truth is, it is our choices that open and close horizons, offer and revoke possibilities. Behind these choices are a thousand possibilities, a thousand ways we can produce and share and steward knowledge in and for this world.

We can see them, if we have the courage to try.

We can see them, if we choose.

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

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