Op-ed: Reactive Citizenship

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Peter R. Dolan’s email to students and faculty regarding the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate’s recent resolution on divestment titled “Affirming Tufts University’s Policy on Divestment Proposals,” should remind us, again, of the laughable tokenization of student power in the form of our so-called student government. Rather than signify student power, the obedient performance of our supposed “active citizenship” within the narrow confines of student government parodies actual engagement and confrontation with the status quo.

Dolan cites University President Anthony Monaco and Dean of Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Alan Solomont’s “concerns about the process” by which the TCU Senate passed a resolution recommending divestment from corporations that assist in managing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I would add that TCU resolutions amount to little more than a comment card mailed to corporate headquarters, which in this case is Ballou. Dolan’s dismissal of the resolution should make this apparent, but if it doesn’t, I would urge students to consider the repeated failure of attempts to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The Board of Trustees reaffirmed their commitment to fossil fuel companies after a TCU Senate resolution was passed in favor of divestment four years ago, in 2013. They did it again after students staged a sit-in of Monaco’s office two years ago, in April 2015, and yet again when faculty voted overwhelmingly for divestment a year ago, in May 2016. When it counts, Ballou meets the political engagement of its students as well as its faculty with silence and inaction. When it matters, active citizenship is mocked by the university.

There is the matter of the symbolic power of the April 9 resolution in regard to Israel, but, as usual, the university’s investment portfolio determines its political stance, and so it will always mark the limits of the university’s willingness to capitulate to the political demands made by its students. These limits have never and will never extend far beyond fashionable liberal politics.

David Westby and I argued in an April 13 op-ed that concerns raised about the process of the April 9 resolution distract from the un-democracy of Israeli political reality. This is a position we would continue to defend, but I believe that even this line of critique distracts from the rampant un-democracy on campus, which is related to a national state of un-democracy. Discussions that bring concern about the process of the TCU Senate to the foreground inevitably fail to register the appalling and demonstrable lack of democratic power extended to students by the Board of Trustees and by Ballou.

Power at this university is concentrated neither in TCU, nor any student-run body, but entirely in the Board of Trustees. President Monaco is paid by the Board, and he answers to the Board. The political structure of our university resembles democracy far less than the hideously wealthy cabinet assembled by our billionaire President Donald Trump and ratified by our millionaires in the Senate. These individuals represent students and citizens only in the most deprived sense of the word.

Instead, they represent the “interests” of students or citizens only insofar as students identify their own interests with the financial assets of the university, or with the stock index. I have overheard students claim that the university is, in fact, a business, and so it should not be reproached for acting like one. This view conveniently evades articulating a position on whether or not the university should resemble a business, but in either case it does not excuse the ridiculous charade of student government and democracy that occupies and delimits the political rhetoric on this campus. It does not excuse in the least the continued administrative reproach of student-demonstrated power. This charade works tirelessly to conceal the operation of power as it actually occurs.

It did not take four years on campus for me to generate the suspicion that only students who organize outside of student government demonstrate any actual political power or articulate substantive critique, but four years on this campus have irreversibly confirmed that suspicion. Chairman Dolan’s email and the uproar over the TCU Senate’s disregard for democracy, which has never even remotely existed on this campus, should make this apparent for all of us.

Unless some of our fellow students here have forgotten: It took a student hunger strike, amidst other action, to defeat the university’s plan to escalate the systemic depreciation and objectification of the janitorial workforce and to layoff 35 janitorial workers. Before announcing a less destructive plan for restructuring the cleaning workforce, our administration waited and watched the Tufts Labor Coalition encampment next to Ballou for five days. Ballou has been waiting and watching on divestment for four years and counting. All the while, the Tisch College delivers sermons on active citizenship and funnels student power into structures which exist only to disarm it.

Ballou can well afford, as Dolan points out, to reaffirm that our university “must remain an incubator of ideas, knowledge and perspectives” precisely because the Board of Trustees has zero obligation to act on any moral imperatives to which the pursuit of ideas, knowledge and perspective might point, whether it be divestment from Israel and fossil-fuels, or the humane treatment of university staff.

Deliberately and successfully, Ballou runs this university as nothing but a parody of active citizenship.