Blog Post

Summer Thoughts on the Open University

Summer Thoughts on the Open University

I've been thinking about my first HASTAC post of the semester since early this summer, when I caught this intriguing line from Prime Minister David Cameron buried in reporting from the London riots:

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Cameron said in an emergency session of Parliament on Thursday, during which he announced that officials were working with the intelligence services and police to look at how and whether to “stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Cameron said: “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”

Parallel censorship has been called for in San Francisco in the wake of BART protests, as Scott Lemieux has noted in a recent article that explicitly draws the obvious parallel ("Mubarakism in the Bay Area") to the so-called Twitter Revolutions of the "Arab Spring":

China censors Google and other search engines to prevent activism. During the Arab Spring then-Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak shut down cell-phone service in an attempt to control protesters in Tahrir Square. Can we now add to this list of oppressive regimes the transit authority in the San Francisco Bay Area?

This reversal of the usual logic of openness -- which typically posits that the West is open and free, to its great credit, and Everyone Else is closed and authoritarian to its great detriment -- seemed to cry out for some sort of pointed commentary. Indeed, such a post about the hypocrisy of a system that loves the revolutionary potential inherent in digital and social networking technologies, until it doesn't, would seem almost to write itself.

But my interest in writing such a post has come up short -- or come undone -- in a number of recent posts that have challenged academia for its own version of this very hypocrisy. Alongside July's well-publicized arrest of the founder of Reddit for crimes related to an attempt to effectively "steal JSTOR," we have this striking manifesto from George Monbiot against the copyright-centered, rent-seeking model of academic publishing:

Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the Western world? Whose monopolistic practices makes WalMart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch look like a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that academia, too, may love the revolutionary potential inherent in digital and social networking technologies until it doesn't.

What might a truly open university system look like? One possible vision comes from the exciting "Freedom University" experiment in Georgia, which seeks to replicate traditional coursework at UGA for the benefit of undocumented students currently barred from admission by a ruling from the Georgia State Board of Regents. Others might come out of the pages of Hacking the Academy, itself an open access volume on digital scholarship forthcoming from the University of Michigan library and already available online.

But it seems to me the crucial first step will have to be the reinvigoration of a sense of a collective knowledge project, shared in common, that was once the cornerstone of the public university in the United States.

As Chris Newfield (among others) has written about extensively, most recently in "Devolving Public Universities" in Radical Philosophy, an open university is fundamentally and irrevocably incompatible with the increasing privatization of the university system in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere. The alternative is the twenty-minutes-into-the-future dystopian university system Newfield names Gold U:


Gold U does enormous volumes of high-end research at colossal medical centres and national laboratories, and loses enormous amounts of money doing so (there’s UC’s gross revenues of $3.5 billion, which lead to net revenues of minus $720 million). But they lose this money on behalf of politically and financially powerful external sponsors, such as Intel, BP, and the Departments of Energy and Defense, as well as of thousands of overloaded faculty scientists, struggling with reduced grant acceptance rates and shrinking support staff. Gold U will be obliged to continue to lose this money in order to save money for influential sponsors.

The alternative, of course, is a university that "loses" money on behalf of the common good -- the sort of infrastructural spending we once recognized as no loss at all but as an investment in the future. This was the mission of the university that was once the core of a system like the University of California, where state support for education has been plummeting (in favor of prisons) for decades and where tuition is now only half-funded by the state. The argument may be a familiar one, but it cannot be made enough: an open university goes hand in hand with a politics of "the common" that seems more and more difficult to find in this moment of recession and austerity. An ethics of openness can never be separated from the politics of openness -- and it is the political struggle for funds and against cuts that is surely the most urgent crisis for the generational project of the university at this time.



My thinking on this post was obviously influenced by the planning we've been doing for a grad student conference Duke Lit will sponsor in January on "Marxism and New Media." Details on that coming soon...


A nice way of making this connection.  I was reading Siva Vaidhyanathan's book on Google yesterday and was struck by his conception of neoliberalism.  He says the rise of Google (particularly in relation to the Google Books project) is the result of public failure, a failure of the state/society to produce this resource, a failure which is designed by neoliberal ideology.  Little of this is necessarily earth shattering as an observation, but it is good to relate it to academia, where (as you seem to point out) public failure is increasingly the rule rather than the exception.  And thanks for the Radical Philosophy cite--looks like a good article.


Thanks for the cite -- I'll definitely check that out. At my blog a friend of mine has been pushing on some of the language I use in this post in really interesting ways, but we agree on the basic point: a genuinely "open" university requires a university independent of capital in ways that have never yet been actualized, and that this is a struggle that demands a university that looks beyond the liberal assumptions that historically have structured and justified it. 


What's interesting to me is how widespread this need is obviously becoming.  The expansion of what is sometimes called the "precariat"--or really, the realization that precarity is the primary mode of existence in capitalism, that the previous era of Fordist support was largely a once off--is making it clearer everyday that to support all kinds of work  (the vital intellectual work that will be needed in the coming years, and the amazing capacity for new kinds of collaboration these digital tools allow for) we will need an entirely new mode of production.  As our leaders double down on the American century redux, we need to think beyond--in your words--the liberal assumptions that have structured not only the university but western society in general.  I know it's already Wednesday, so we won't get it done this week, but maybe we can just put that on a big "To Do" list somewhere. Meanwhile, you are definitely onto something here.