The U’s duplicitous administration

Government and public institutions like the University are, in fact, captive to the interests of capital.

Last weekend hundreds of people commemorated the 1969 takeover of Morrill Hall. Honoring this struggle, many expressed opposition to the University’s plans to close the General College. This was to be expected. Any sincere celebration of what the brave women and men did 37 years ago to make the University more accessible to historically disadvantaged populations would have to recognize that the administration’s plans violate the substance and spirit of their heroic actions. For more than 75 years the General College was the major gateway to the University for these groups.

The key leaders of the 1969 takeover, Rose Massey Freeman, Horace Huntley and Marie Braddock Williams, had been, in fact, students in the General College. They all expressed their concerns about the administration’s plans and gave their support to the ongoing struggle led by the Equal Access Coalition and General College Truth Movement to halt its implementation.

At the youth round table discussion Friday morning, a representative of the two groups and a high school student, Sofi Shank, gave a forceful defense of the college. Two female Somali high school students in the audience voiced their agreement and poignantly related how the college’s closure would undermine their educational hopes. Afterward, they and hundreds of other high school students carried out a spirited and militant march on Morrill Hall to demand the General College remain open.

University President Bob Bruininks inaugurated the Saturday morning panel session attended by a largely African American audience. The moderator, whom he introduced, longtime Twin Cities black leader Yusef Mgeni, detailed how the gains for access to the University in the aftermath of the 1969 takeover had deteriorated for urban youths and especially African Americans. Exactly for these reasons he “lamented” the end of the General College.

In my own presentation, I called attention to the remarks of Associate Dean of the General College Robert Poch in the Feb. 28 Daily. He said that by fall 2007 the number of entering students in what had been the General College would be 475, almost less than half of the class admitted for 2006, and that it would be reduced from a two-year program to a one-year program. “Beyond that, we don’t know,” Poch said.

I noted that the administration had not disputed Poch’s comments and that while I hoped to be proved wrong, I predicted that nor would there be a denial on the part of the president that morning. I was right. If the president thought the moment to be inappropriate – half of the panelists were critical of the administration’s actions – I still welcome the opportunity to be proved wrong.

The administration’s silence reveals that it acted duplicitously in its campaign to dismantle the General College. The sophisticated strategy it mounted last winter – no doubt having learned from the two previously unsuccessful attempts to get rid of the General College in 1988 and 1996 – entailed two messages.

One was intended for those who want to believe in the good will of the administration. It claimed the purpose of folding the General College into the College of Education as a department was simply to make it more effective. Phasing out the college, as the Poch revelations make clear – and as the Equal Access Coalition and General College Truth Movement have argued all along – is an odd way to improve its work, especially when nothing is being put in place to carry out its historical mission. The administration, in other words, deliberately misrepresented reality.

The other message, intended not just for those who accept the false premise of the incompatibility of access and excellence, gave the impression that the closure of the college was a done deal that could not be successfully resisted. The sweetener in the deal – for those who might have experienced a few pangs of guilt about what was being done – was the promise that the University would become one of the top three research universities in the world.

It is no accident that the Star Tribune became one of the most ardent cheerleaders for this campaign. The “don’t-flinch-this-time” instructions its editors gave to the Board of Regents on how to vote on the eve of the June 10 meeting revealed what was at stake. As the major print voice of corporate Minnesota, the paper views the making of a more exclusive and inaccessible University – the only research university in the state – a necessary step in the long-term enhancement of the profitability of its big business constituents.

I argue that we should be outraged, but not surprised, by the administration’s actions. If we truly understand the logic of the capitalist system, including this particular stage in its history – one of deep crisis at the heart of which is declining profits – what the administration is doing makes sense, from their perspective.

Government and public institutions like the University, which rhetorically serve all “the people,” are, in fact, captive to the interests of capital. The individuals who manage these bodies ensure, consciously or not, that those interests are prioritized. This is not hindsight. In the aftermath of the Board of Regents’ vote in 1996 that rejected the then-administration’s efforts to close the General College, I noted in the Daily (April 26, 1996) that they likely would, for the same reasons, try again.

The uncontested thesis that informs the actions of administrators of public institutions under capitalism is that in times of economic crisis, reflected in stagnant growth and declining revenues, belt-tightening and triage are necessary. Government, as the mantra goes, cannot be all things to all people.

Never should it be forgotten, however, that it was in the depths of the deepest economic crisis in U.S. history, the Great Depression of the 1930s, that the first major social safety net came into existence. This also included new opportunities for the working class such as the creation of the General College in 1932.

Working-class masses in the streets demanding concessions were decisive in this turn of events. Minneapolis in the summer of 1934 – the gigantic teamsters’ strike – was in the forefront of this national development. What the historical record shows is that in spite of the inherent pro-capitalist bias of government and other public institutions, working people can win concessions – but only if they fight. It’s also true that in the absence of such struggles the tendency is to go back, literally, to business as usual – especially in periods of crisis.

The lesson of the 1969 Morrill Hall takeover that many of the hundreds of high school students who participated in the commemoration learned is that, again, only through struggle can gains be made and maintained for the historically oppressed. They also got a small opportunity to carry out this lesson in the march Friday from Coffman Union to Morrill Hall.

It was amusing but also of concern to learn that the administration feared that the students, inspired by the example of 1969, might try to replay the Morrill Hall takeover. The unusual presence of two University police on horseback near Morrill Hall at the time of the march registers the administration’s anxiety – despite its best efforts to portray the closing of the General College as a “done deal.” Our militant but disciplined protest passed, however, as planned, without incident.

Although there might be sighs of relief in Morrill Hall this week, the fight for equal access to education at the University and in Minnesota is far from over. It continues and takes many forms, not the least of which is the Dream Act, the ongoing effort to make higher education in Minnesota more accessible to the children of undocumented workers. This fight is part of the larger struggle for immigrant rights that many of us in the Equal Access Coalition and General College Truth Movement lend our energies to.

Since the fall of 2005 we’ve tried to plant the seeds of struggle within a new generation of potential fighters, some of whom took ownership, without official permit, of the steps of Morrill Hall last Friday – a fact that bodes well for the future.

August Nimtz is a University professor and a member of the Equal Access Coalition and General College Truth Movement. Please send comments to [email protected].