Remembering the General College in its closing days

The conflict between those dedicated to elitism and exclusion and those struggling for democracy continues.

One year has passed in the struggle to save the General College with the General College Truth Movement and the Equal Access Coalition leading the way. Why have these two groups built such a strong movement on our campus? Why will they continue to be around – in some shape or form? The apathetic climate on our campus – and nationwide – dictates that some have no choice but to fight.

Since the first students attended the University in 1857, the University has been embroiled in a struggle over equal access to quality education, democracy and social justice. The conflict between those dedicated to elitism and exclusion and those struggling for democracy and justice has saturated every pore of the institution.

It is accurate to assert that many lives changed in March 2005 – when University President Bob Bruininks and his administration widely announced its desire to become one of the top three public research universities in the world. For several months before the announcement, an elite private ad hoc committee began writing a strategic positioning report,

the origin of immense changes to the University. The elite work group’s strategic positioning report was completed clandestinely, without the voice or input of University students, many faculty and staff members and everyday working-class Minnesota citizens. The document first was revealed to the University community via a meager e-mail from the administration – soliciting the University community to read their finished, autocratic and unchanging online report.

In the report, the strategic positioning work group rhetorically rattled on about integrity, diversity, academic freedom and the “status quo;” yet, at the same time, administration officials consented to the censorship of campus activists – without ever questioning the process by which the proposal came to be – and never once evaluated their actual multicultural competence to be able to make such claims. It also must be noted that University administrators used intimidation, harassment and loss of employment for those students and staff and faculty members disagreeing with administration politics. They locked down Morrill Hall. University police arrested and pepper sprayed students. They pressed trumped-up “obstructing legal process” charges against a union president who condemned police brutality. All these charges were ruled baseless and thrown out of a Hennepin County court. They nonetheless showed a rabid willingness to use taxpayer money to threaten and punish dissenting voices.

Protesting Washington’s policies does not mean that one loathes the United States. Protesting the University administration does not mean the University repulses us. It is our fondness of this institution – with its ample potential – that obligates us to fight for its betterment. If we sit on our hands, the communal advantages that make the University great easily would be robbed from us. Some have said that this struggle is one that will test our will – do we act on “principle” or do we do our best to salvage the General College’s values during its transition into a new department, meaning: Do we act upon what is “achievable?”

It is the opinion of the General College Truth Movement that aiding the administration would have represented our compliance with an undemocratic process that closed the General College. Furthermore, we believe that the General College should have been given more assistance, encouragement and resources rather than have been stripped of all its substance and heart. Our movement was based on a sentiment that almost all General College community members held at one time – that the “process” was mean spirited, undemocratic and even unlawful as defined by the Morrill Act.

Movements do not occur in isolated moments of time. The General College Truth Movement also was not erected in a vacuum. There was already an atmosphere of resentment and anger on campus toward the Bruininks administration. Grievances of groups across campus include, but are not limited to:

The strategic positioning plan that will replace the two-year, 875-student General College with a department that only admits 475 students for one year is no way to “better

the positioning” of the University. While not publicly admitting it, this decision was made to increase the overall GPA and test scores of the incoming student body, thereby boosting its position in the national rankings. This restructuring puts the administration in a good position to completely annihilate the department in the future.

They have set up a number of rubber-stamp committees to create the mirage of “community input” while real decisions are being made behind the backs of those affected by these policies. The administration has scheduled major votes and discussions on strategic positioning during times in which class is not in session, thereby stifling dissent.

They have adopted aggressive anti-labor policies. They have refused to negotiate with unionized workers in good faith. They have mobilized taxpayer resources to prevent the unionization of graduate students.

They have cloaked their exclusionary policies within the shroud of providing a limited number of “scholarships” to be doled out to “under-privileged students.” This piecemeal “solution” creates the appearance of an actual concern about “diversity” while simultaneously obscuring the competitive and elitist agenda being forced upon the University.

They have not used their considerable institutional influence to fight for increased educational access for undocumented workers. While people all across Minnesota struggle for the successful passage of the DREAM Act – which will allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition – the administration remains silent.

They have ignored their internal polling data showing that more than 70 percent of Minnesotans prefer equal access to education over the administration’s out-of-touch restructuring plan.

They have not publicly opposed the raising of tuition and fees, thereby demonstrating their complacency with – if not enthusiasm for – the neoliberalization and privatization of this public land-grant institution.

They have used valuable political capital, time and fund-raising energy to build public and legislative support for an on-campus stadium while ignoring educational projects that could increase access and diversity.

They have increased the number of high-paid administrators while insisting the University is experiencing a “budget crisis.”

They have increased tuition 132 percent in the past 10 years, thereby forcing low- and middle-income students out of the University. They also have ensured that those attending the University will be burdened with student debt for decades to come.

They have failed to live up to the obligations of the Morrill Act, which demand that the University provide access to quality education for all the working people of Minnesota. In breaking with this charge, they view education as a commodity available only to those with social privileges and sufficient finances. In doing so, they have erected racist and classist barriers to education.

The administration has made itself accountable only to profitability, corporate culture and privatization, which only will benefit the upper crust and continue to polarize class groupings, which already plagues our nation. It is also safe to say this administration’s worst nightmares regarding “diversity” on campus and the closing of the General College will come true in time. Though surely proud of the “legacy” they will leave behind, we believe their “legacy” no longer will retain any honor when it is known as the racist, classist and elitist process it has been all along.

The University community should thank the General College Truth Movement and the Equal Access Coalition for its perseverance and sleepless nights over the past year. Without them, this administration would continue to violate the promise we have to Minnesota, particularly working class students and those with less privilege.

Thank you, General College – all staff and faculty members, students, friends and family who assisted us in the struggle! We will continue to fight on behalf of the students you serve and honor the promise of the General College through the student body of today and tomorrow!

Nathan Whittaker is a General College Truth Movement co-founder and General College alumnus. Please send comments to [email protected]