Occupy the Farm and the Conditions of Academic Freedom

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For two weeks now, a group of food justice activists, University of California students, Albany residents, and Occupy movement stalwarts have been farming and living continuously on a couple acres of UC-owned land, known as the Gill Tract. Those farming didn’t ask the university permission before tilling and sewing the plot, setting up tents and a food station, or holding daily educational events for children. Instead, upon learning that much of the Gill Tract was slated for development – including for a Whole Foods – organizers simply made a plan for where and how to plant some vegetables on the tract, invited supportive people to join them, and started digging lines in the ground.

"Occupy the Farm" activists have planted 150-foot rows of lettuce, beans, cucumbers, and other vegetables on land owned by UC Berkeley in Albany, California. Credit: Creative Commons/Steve Rhodes.

In response to this bold – if also understated – gesture, the University initially responded in a manner reminiscent of the Quan administration in Oakland: they claimed to the press that the encampment’s facilities were unsanitary, fixating particularly on the activists’ composting toilet. But this line of attack never really caught on, and was soon replaced with a colder, eminently reasonable tale – namely, that the unsanctioned farm was impeding scientific research, and would ultimately have to be dismantled in order that the ideal of free inquiry might be upheld. An added advantage of this updated administrative rationale for police intervention was that a number of professors and university researchers were willing to express similar views to the press, meaning that, in forcing a confrontation with those farming on the Gill Tract, University administrators could claim to be acting in support of researchers. This Friday, Vice Chancellor Breslauer issued an ultimatum to the farmers that cast their continued presence on the land as a stark threat to academic freedom:

On Thursday evening representatives from UC Berkeley and the group engaged in the occupation of agricultural research fields on the Gill Tract met to discuss the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the protest…. During the discussion Keith Gilless, Dean of the College of Natural Resources, emphasized that by the middle of May college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research, and that this requires that full control of the property revert to the university. He also emphasized that these complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment. At the same time, we reiterated that if the encampment is voluntarily disbanded, we will commit to include occupation participants in a broad-based discussion about the continuation of urban farming under university supervision on a portion of the tract, as well as any future discussions about the long-term future of the property. Also discussed was the value and principle of academic freedom that allows faculty members at UC Berkeley to pursue their educational and research interests without interference. During Wednesday’s Spring Divisional meeting of UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate, the chairperson, Prof. Bob Jacobsen, noted that faculty research had been “usurped” by the protesters’ unilateral actions and stated that, “If there is no way to reach a win-win resolution, then I believe that the faculty’s freedom to do their planned research must be supported as a key principle. As a faculty, I think we must stand by this.” We are now waiting for the occupiers’ response to our offer to participate in a broadbased community dialogue if they agree to end their encampment. Today, in a letter to their attorney, campus counsel outlined the process for the proposed community dialogue that would be led by the College of Natural Resources, and requested a response no later than Saturday night, May 5th. If they decide not to peacefully end their illegal occupation of the agricultural research field and refuse the offer to subsequently participate in the formulation of a plan for continued urban farming under university supervision and control, we have every intention of honoring our commitment to ensure the research activities are not impeded, and the rule of law is maintained.

What’s interesting about this ultimatum is the degree to which it turns on the recognition that particular material conditions are necessary in order to uphold the ideal of academic freedom. In this case, Breslauer and Jacobsen want to argue that planned agricultural research projects have as their precondition an undisturbed and uninhabited tract of land. Moreover, we’re told, this land must be “under university supervision and control,” meaning that a particular configuration of ownership and governance are being presented as conditions of free academic research. Breslauer’s concluding line makes this linkage of property laws and academic freedom abundantly clear: “[W]e have every intention of honoring our commitment to ensure the research activities are not impeded, and the rule of law is maintained.”
While it would certainly be possible to read Breslauer’s concluding line as revealing the pretextual quality of his purported concern with academic freedom, I want instead to ask after some of what would follow from his conflation of university ownership and academic freedom, particularly in this moment of educational privatization. If Breslauer presents one view of what underlies academic freedom, what are the implications of this view? And what are some possible counter-views as to how material conditions might enable the realization of freedom, academic and otherwise?
The University’s ultimatum to those farming on the Gill Tract implies that academic inquiry, in order to be free, should occur entirely within the bounds of the university, and that it should be carried out using university property, undisturbed by any thing or person not bound contractually to the UC Regents. This is a conception of the proper ‘location’ of academic research that is also reiterated every time a University employee is forced to sign a form declaring that the fruits of their academic labors – their discoveries, curricula, and lectures – are property of the UC Regents. It’s a narrow (not to mention fantastical) conception of free inquiry, which assumes that knowledge can be cordoned off from broader publics and can be wholly contained within the parameters of private ownership. According to this view of academic inquiry, the greatest threat to academic freedom is the possibility that research might be contaminated by the bodies and minds of those not affiliated with the university, whether they be squatters on university farmland, those who would freely disseminate inventions or other effects of research, or publics that would seek to give direction to professors’ research. For someone like George Breslauer, university police and administrators exist to keep such unruly elements at bay, and thus to allow academic research to be carried on in isolation.
Of course, research is never, in fact, quite so enclosed or self-contained. Breslauer’s view, while materially consequential, rests upon a fantasy of autonomy that occludes the degree to which universities remain dependent upon worlds beyond their gates. Social scientific research, for instance, generally involves the transcription of words spoken and gestures made by those not associated with universities. And natural scientific research, while often occurring on land controlled by universities, also takes place within state-controlled parks, on the open seas, or on someone else’s property. University researchers are trained to treat populations and places pretty much anywhere as sites from which knowledge may be extracted. Moreover, researchers themselves are socialized and educated outside the universities (by parents, public school teachers, self-publishing bloggers, etc.), meaning that their work is enabled by the labors of those not enclosed within the bounds of the university. Universities thus feed, in an exploitative mode, on worlds to which they give little back, at least not directly.
The process of university privatization we’re currently facing casts these exploitative dynamics in particularly sharp relief. Higher tuition rates, for instance, create a situation in which enrolled students fund university research by taking out massive debt burdens, and in which working class communities, particularly communities of color, are increasingly excluded from participation (first as students, and ultimately as researchers) in university life. Of course, even as they are excluded from direct participation in university life, working class communities will continue to be studied, to have knowledge extracted from them, to be objects of the academic gaze…
University privatization – which, let’s not forget, is being enforced by campus administrators – reshapes not only the composition of the student body and the conditions of academic life and research, but also the content of this research. Public and private foundations, corporations, and wealthy donors are increasingly shaping the direction of academic research, ensuring that the work academics do is more directly generative of knowledge useful for managers and technicians at private firms and state institutions. Which is to say: university privatization is a threat to academic freedom, among other things we might value.
But it’s not enough simply to call for the restoration of unrestricted state funding as a way to defend unfettered free inquiry. Such funding would merely ensure that research was a little less determined by instrumental ends; it wouldn’t alter the exploitative relations underlying what we’ve come to know as university research – relations that are being put into question by the reclamation of Gill Tract. Open, self-governing formations, such as the Gill Tract farm – where, everyday, workshops are allowing those interested to learn how to grow food, and where experiments in autonomous social reproduction are continuously being carried out – provide bits and pieces, glimpses, of the material conditions necessary for free, and freeing, educational life.
For the sake of free inquiry and autonomous life and learning, we should defend the Gill Tract farm from those who would prevent, through force if necessary, the cultivation of such freedoms. One simple way for California-based supporters to do so is to attend and speak up at this Tuesday’s open forum on Occupy the Farm, which is being held at 6:30pm in Morgan Hall, on the UC Berkeley Campus.
(Crossposted from Reclaim UC)