Sunaina Maira and Piya Chatterjee, editors, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sunaina Maira and Piya Chatterjee (SM and PC): One of the experiences that propelled this book most immediately for us was a letter we co-authored in solidarity with women targeted by the US War on Terror. We circulated this as a petition that garnered national and global support. This generated a conversation between us about how to transform this petition into a project of solidarity, particularly in the context of the growing attacks on scholars critical of US foreign policy and US support for Israel. Many academics who had been targeted by vicious campaigns and were mired in hiring and tenure battles were friends and colleagues of ours, yet we were frustrated by the general distancing from these “radical” scholars and self-censorship among academics. We also wanted to highlight the ways in which these forms of institutional policing were linked to broader, ongoing structures of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the academy, and to elitist practices of gatekeeping and stigmatization.
SM: An experience I had in the university that crystallized my own concerns with the politics of academic censorship was the Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week organized by right-wing Zionist activist David Horowitz in fall 2007. Word spread that this racist program might happen at UC Davis, so a group of progressive faculty met to mobilize in response. We decided to organize a week-long series of events, titled Academic Freedom Week, to discuss the politics of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in the global War on Terror and to highlight intersections between Arab and Muslim American communities and antiwar, anti-imperial, and indigenous rights movements. An incredible and energetic coalition of faculty and undergraduate and graduate students sprang up to show solidarity with communities targeted by the discourse of “Islamo-fascism.” Concurrently, radical students in the Muslim Student Association invited Native American studies scholar and indigenous rights activist Ward Churchill, and he planned to talk about Zionism and Manifest Destiny. The student activists wanted the coalition to publicize their event in conjunction with the series.
This is when the limits of our own discourse of “academic freedom” were revealed, for some faculty involved in the series decided that this event should be excluded from any of our official publicity. This response was deeply ironic, and troubling, given that our events were in support of academic freedom. It brought home to me the way in which a politically ambiguous or liberal-progressive discourse of academic freedom fails, often in the most important moments of testing its boundaries. A critique of Zionism, especially as linked to settler colonialism, is off limits for many in the academy. While the series itself was successful, the Muslim and Arab American students felt betrayed. Horowitz’ racist circus never actually came to Davis, but the cracks in academic freedom that had been exposed left me thinking for a long time about the ways in which institutional politics continuously reinscribe academic policing to uphold the dominant state discourse and boundaries of “acceptable” politics in the imperial university. That line of permissibility has ever so gradually begun to shift in the US academy, especially in the wake of the growing academic boycott movement, but in 2007, it was very clear what the barriers guarding “academic freedom” were.
[Sunaina Maira. Image via the author.]
My conversations with Piya and the work and experiences of many authors in the book also compelled me to publish a book that would foreground this critique of the politics of academic freedom, one which proved prescient, given the AAUP’s censure of the American Studies Association for endorsing the academic boycott of Israeli institutions in 2013. The essays in the book underscore the ways in which academics have often paid the price for their support of BDS activism or critique of US imperial violence.
PC: In general, I was interested in exploring the question of both imperialism and academic freedom because of a certain sense of unease I have experienced about how these issues are dealt with (or not) within the academy. My sense of unease was less precise than Sunaina’s because I was not actively involved in the struggles of Muslim students and scholars, and/or Palestinian politics (though always in solidarity with them). It was more a sense that things that happened in other parts of the world were seen as quite irrelevant (especially at UC Riverside, where I taught for eighteen years). If one spoke passionately about—and critiqued—US foreign policy (in particular), one was met with a resounding, disapproving, or even baffled silence. Most folks could not even map the worlds I was talking about. I think the location of specific academic sites is important in this regard, but I knew it was a deeper issue around US exceptionalism and myopia.
After 9/11, I was also struck by the ways I censored myself, how even more self-consciously I moved into the margins in terms of what I was doing in the classroom. I was ashamed of that—and I knew there was “something” going on or “something” accelerating in the unspoken (and spoken) repressions within these so-called liberal and humanistic spaces of learning. Furthermore, I was also interested in how professional academics deeply internalize a certain “mode of being” in the ways that that they talk about controversial issues—contained, modulated, “civil.” I was fed up with how quickly even the mildest forms of organizing would be read as “radical.” I remember meeting with a Dean at UC Riverside and being asked, when I walked into his office, “Where is your posse?” It was ridiculous to be viewed as some rabble-rouser when one’s reality was so different—isolated, marginal, and viewed as an outlier. When Sunaina and I started talking about some of these modalities of repression and “being,” we thought it would be good to engage these in a broader way. I would have wanted more conversations about the internalization of “academic civility” as a mode of being, but I think that is another book that I will be writing—through a feminist Fanonian lens—on racisms, misogyny, and violence in these elite and privileged spaces of knowledge production.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
SM: My previous research has focused on understanding the daily experiences of living in an imperial state for young people who are the targets of national security and counterterrorism regimes. My current book project is an ethnographic study of the political subjecthood and mobilization of South Asian, Afghan, and Arab American youth who have come of age in a post-9/11 era. In all these projects, I have been interested in the politics of knowledge production and the ways in which academics are implicated in imperial mappings of different populations and the limits of permissible academic work in the US university—including in my own case. How can we subvert the US state’s thirst for “data” on target communities in the War on Terror? When and why are we silent as scholars about imperial and racial violence, both here and there? This volume is very much an outgrowth of these questions that I have been grappling with as I have been involved in organizing with antiwar, civil rights, and Palestine solidarity movements, as well as in faculty efforts and student campaigns critiquing the neoliberal university and its collusion with the surveillance state.
PC: I have been interested in the theories of pedagogy and literacy for some time and have written about teaching in the US classroom itself. I am a disciple of Paulo Freire, with a strong postcolonial and antiracist feminist twist. I am currently writing a book called Decolonizing Pedagogies, which looks at the three sites in which I have organized around “literacy”—the US university classroom, and plantations and villages in eastern India. So I am deeply engaged with what “education” means in informal and formal sites, across borders of empire and the so-called “post” colony. This particular book is pitched at a different level of analysis, but it dovetailed with a life-long interest in education as cultural and political process. I am now inspired to write more ethnographically about my “tribe” of academics and the cultural and political practices of academia. If Pierre Bourdieu could write Homo Academicus, then it is time that we postcolonial, feminist, antiracist outliers turn our fine ethnographic lens on the cultures of imperial academia and “out” the secrets and the violence that is also perpetrated in its hallowed halls. I am itching to write about secrets and lies—as well as the creative work of resistance and “spirit-survival” against these ways of being which are hyperindividualistic, fragmented, and isolating. But first one must out the hypocrisy, the cowardice, and the secrets of these places.
[Piya Chatterjee. Image via the author.]
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SM: I hope that the book will be read by the broadest audience possible! I would like it to be read by academics across disciplines and fields, of course, but also by university administrators, community activists who often find themselves working alongside academics, policy makers concerned with higher education, students, and others in the general public. I would love for it also to be read by an international audience, given that the book touches on many global issues. People I talk to outside the US are often puzzled or shocked by the politics of academic containment and knowledge policing in the US academy, which wields so much influence in the global academic sphere, yet where the possibilities of dissenting scholarship are often so circumscribed and the conditions of academic labor so corporatized. I hope that the book might have some kind of impact in generating critical conversations about these conditions, by sharing the individual and collective experiences discussed in the essays.
PC: I hope it has the broadest audience possible as well. The essays are wonderful and some are quite brilliant. I think, as Sunaina notes, an international audience would be great—and important for folks outside of the United States to recognize that some of us who work within these particular citadels of privilege do struggle against its terms, which are shockingly repressive. I would love this book to really catalyze conversations in ways that carry forward the work that it is doing in the spirit of solidarities—how fabulous it would be to have a campaign or something concrete emerge out of this text, something that actively supports dissenting voices, or other texts and anthologies too.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SM: Currently, I am finishing a book project that explores new coalitions forged by Arab, South Asian, and Afghan American youth in Silicon Valley and what it means to be “political” for Muslim American youth in the post-9/11 era. In a climate of hypersurveillance and regulation of Muslim American political subjecthood, what kinds of alliances and activism are permissible for college-age youth? The turn to civil rights and human rights activism in the “9/11 Generation” reveals the potential and pitfalls of rights-talk in the War on Terror, at a moment when the US wages humanitarian wars for women’s rights or in the name of neoliberal democracy. The book is based on an ethnographic study that I have been conducting for over six years in the greater San Jose and Fremont/Hayward areas, and it discusses issues of censorship and containment of political mobilization that resonate with analyses in The Imperial University.
PC: As mentioned above, I am currently working on Decolonizing Pedagogies, which certainly resonates with some of the themes brought up in this edited volume. I am also putting together ethnographic notes for another book which will be called “Going Ape”: Racisms, Violence and Resistance in the US Academy. That will take some time, but I will write it—probably when I am out of the US academy, because it will be painful: a decolonizing memoir/ethnography, really.
J: What strategies would you propose for confronting the Imperial University?
SM: Having worked as faculty advisor for the Students in Justice in Palestine chapter on my campus and on academic boycott campaigns at a national level, it is clear to me that the only way to confront the imperial university is with a core group of politically principled faculty and students. In general, it is always student movements that confront the academic-military-industrial complex in an organized way. Organizing among faculty is generally disappointingly weak and usually not sustained over the long term, including in ethnic studies. The mounting pressures of professionalism and tenure and promotion have eroded the desires of faculty to stick their necks out to critique their institutions, particularly on issues deemed “risky.” Academic organizing is unfortunately often a lonely endeavor, in my experience.
Furthermore, in trying to counter censorship of events related to Middle East politics, it is very evident that well-funded, off-campus lobby groups exert a great deal of pressure on administrators to suppress political views they do not like. But administrators too are increasingly part of the well-funded neoliberal academic complex that is in line with the security-surveillance state. In this context, it is remarkable that a very small group of scholars organized a successful academic boycott campaign in the American Studies Association that shook up the imperial university and became an issue of national and global concern. The success of this campaign was due to the unwavering political commitment of the faculty involved, all of whom put this organizing above their own professional interests and career concerns at a time at a time when such a boycott resolution was considered unthinkable for a professional academic association in the US, and unpopular among US academics at large. The same is true of the conditions that made possible the academic boycott resolution adopted by the Association of Asian American Studies. The collective academic organizing that made these two historic resolutions possible did not resemble the new models of “engaged scholarship” that are being promoted and funded by the imperial university. It does not bring the rewards of promotion, and it should remain outside of the culture of academic celebrity. I think this is key so that resistance to the imperial university is not appropriated, but rather remains oppositional and links the many movements that are challenging the neoliberal restructuring of higher education and the policing of radical knowledge production that is relevant to our times.
PC: In general, I follow bell hooks’ call to “flourish” in the margins. The more I see what the “center” of these places is about, the more I realize it is better to work in the so-called margins, to be off-radar. As the US academy heads into open crises around labor issues, in particular, I want to be more directly involved with labor movements—in alliance with student-workers and other workers who keep our institutions alive and possible. I was just speaking to a colleague and friend who was involved with adjunct and graduate student labor mobilization in the Pacific Northwest and was amazed by all that they had done. One of my closest friends at UC Riverside was a grievance steward for the lecturers’ union and I learned a lot, again, about what really goes on in the university: who is disposable, who is not—and the incredible ruthlessness with which even the most “liberal” or “radical” administrators (some former professors with liberal-left credentials) will excise human beings for their bottom line, their “new normal.” This is a horrible but telling phrase, one that justifies neoliberal corporate violence—indeed, a mantra for neoliberal cutbacks anywhere! Many of us didn’t join the academy because we wanted to be part of a corporate machine. I think many of us could have earned a lot of money—and not deluded ourselves—by just being part of a bank, legal firm, or other corporation. It is clear that this is what the academy is—and so the battle must begin by first clearing up our illusions and delusions. I think that more tenured faculty, in particular, need to stand up and be counted and recognize their own incredibly privileged position at the top of this pyramid of the knowledge industry—and call out its violent, and often dishonest, corporate culture.
As Sunaina suggests, I think that much of the work needs to happen outside of the “celebrity circuit” of academia (including the “radical celebrity circuit!”). We should all be re-reading Fanon, especially his critique of nationalist intellectuals. But as Sunaina notes, working “in solidarity” with fellow professional academics is very hard—on the whole this is a lonely business, which is tragic and telling. Gramsci might have a lot to say about that, but I think as professional academics we are, on the whole, a compromised caste and class.
Academic celebrity and its circuits of capital and value (the brand names, the fine honorariums) should also be excavated and critiqued, but given the crises we are in, I think it is much more important to go “off radar” and to work in solidarity with those who do not have economic security, but like us, continue to believe that intellectual critique and dissent is absolutely vital for democracy—however we define it.
Excerpts from The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent
Piya: 19 January 2012. It is midafternoon on a brisk and beautiful winter day in the Inland Empire of Southern California. I enter my second floor office in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside. The hallway is silent. It reminds me, sadly, of any colorless and functional corporate office building. I wish for sound, some sign of collective social life. This alienating silence is particularly acute today given the noisy scenes of protest (including some Rabelaisian revelries with drumming and chants) taking place just a few hundred feet away in the student commons. The Board of Regents of the University of California (UC) is meeting on campus to address the budget crisis that has, for some years now, imperiled this great public university system and led to severe tuition hikes. Students know that their fees will be raised again. Contingent faculty and other workers know they will be plunged into further precarity. For some years now, the alliances forged among student, faculty, and labor unions in response to the public education crisis have meant that any high-level UC administrators’ gathering is met with well-planned protests and resistance. But it also means that police officers and other law enforcement agents are in full gear and out in full force.
Earlier in the day, I join other protestors who throng the site of the meeting and whose mood is quite upbeat. “Whose university?” someone chants. “Our university!” replies the crowd. Plainclothesmen mingle with protesters, which is photographed by dozens of witnesses. A friend, familiar with surveillance techniques, nudges me: “No need to get paranoid,” she says, “but you do realize we are all being photographed?” A police officer repeatedly asks us to clear the commons. “Our university!” chants the crowd in response. In that micromoment of regulation around who should people “the commons,” I sense that a fence is being built—and reinforced—around who can inhabit this public space of higher education and what it means for them to do so. Whose university, indeed?
Later, sitting in my quiet office, I suddenly hear a loud buzzing sound outside my window. A police helicopter is circling over the empty sports field adjacent to the building. It might be an optical illusion (because from that lofty mobile panopticon, it can see much more than I can), but it seems to be circling an empty expanse of green. I watch as the helicopter’s circles become smaller, tighter—it begins to resemble a psychotic bee. It seems utterly mad: the silence within, the angry buzzing outside. Suddenly, a small troop of khaki-clad youth march around the corner to my right. They have little bandanas around their neck, they are in perfect formation—they pass by quickly. I blink hard because it seems so unreal—the quick, youthful military march whose steps I cannot hear. Later, I am told that they were deployed by the Riverside sheriff’s department.
This tableau feels surreal and I decide to move back to the noise and action near the student commons. The scene has now turned tense. Police in full riot gear are nose-to-nose with students who are pushing them back. Protestors want the police out of their commons. I learn from someone that some protestors have been arrested. The Riverside Police Department’s SWAT team is already here and the regents have been escorted to their meeting in what looked like a secret service mission and military cavalcade, fit for royalty: regents, indeed. By late evening, the protestors have dispersed, but some of us, witnesses and participants, remain—talking about the various registers of militarized presence: the sheriff’s scouts, the campus police in full riot gear, the SWAT team. The disruption of this collective protest seems to have hardly caused a ripple as we stand there in the now-quiet bucolic green expanse. But as if to remind us of the hyperreal qualities of this landscape of power, we hear the thump of marching steps. Twenty men in light green khaki march by in platoon formation. They make no sound except for the quiet thud of their steps. They are young, not much older than some of the students I teach. The SWAT team is going home.
What can we make of this strange coupling of the bucolic and the brutal, of storm troopers and students? How can we make sense of a corporatized alienation and silence alongside the visible regulation of the “public” and contours of permissible protest? How can we understand more deeply this militarized performance of state university power and its “normalization” within the quiet green peace of a public university campus? What is being “secured” in this performance of power?
Occupy the Occupation
Sunaina: November 2011. Just a few months prior to the events witnessed by Piya at UC-Riverside, I had watched the pepper spraying of students by police on my campus, UC-Davis. I was actually halfway across the world at the time, in Ramallah, Palestine. Pondering the question of US public university students’ right to protest from contexts such as the occupied West Bank, where the basic freedom of mobility let alone right to education is highly restricted, underscores the ways in which higher education is firmly embedded in global structures of repression, militarism, and neoliberalism. In fact, that November morning while I was working in Zamn cafe, one of the many upscale coffee shops that have burgeoned in the new neoliberal economy of Ramallah, I looked up from my laptop and saw the image of Lt. John Pike, spraying UC-Davis students with chemical weapons, on the large-screen television that was broadcasting Al Jazeera news. It was a slightly surreal moment.
The video of the attack on the student protesters, seated on the ground, quickly went viral and drew national and global condemnation of this stark staging of state violence against the ninety-nine percent, renaming the campus “Pepper Spray University.” Not all who watched the video of the police attack on the student protesters, however, were aware that this dramatic event was the culmination of a long history of UC student protests, including at UC-Davis, against tuition hikes as the burden of the UC and state’s budget crisis was increasingly placed on UC students. In the months leading up to the infamous incident of 18 November 2011, UC-Davis students had joined the growing Occupy movement, inspired by the revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In fact, they had protested just a few days earlier against the fee hikes and also the violent assaults by police on UC-Berkeley students and faculty. Student protesters, some of whom belonged to Occupy/Decolonize UC-Davis (UCD), occupied the administration building and erected tents on the campus Quad. The administration refused to allow Tahrir Square to be brought to the Quad but the protesters insisted on their right to remain—in defense of the right to education. Then the pepper spray.
In fall 2009, UC-Davis students had also occupied the administration building, and fifty-two protesters were arrested. In March 2010, three hundred protesters had shut down the campus bus service and marched to the freeway to attempt to block traffic; they were beaten by police with batons. Many of these students were youth of color; some were from immigrant and working- or lower-middle-class families. When the Occupy/Decolonize UCD movement was launched in the wake of the Tahrir Square uprising, some began to also critique the ways in which neoliberal multiculturalism effectively masked the racialized politics of exclusion from higher education. In spring 2011, Occupy protesters began doing a regular sit-in at the US Bank branch on campus, protesting the bank’s contract with the campus and the complicity of both institutions with mounting student debt and the privatization of higher education. On 29 March, the bank was shut down, but eleven students and one faculty member were charged by the Yolo County district attorney with a slew of misdemeanors, facing up to eleven years in prison. Among the “Davis Dozen” were students who had been pepper sprayed and who were part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the university. In fact, given that it was the university who had asked the district attorney to file criminal charges against the Davis Dozen, it was apparent that this much-less publicized case was an opportunity for the administration to clamp down on the campus Occupy movement after having been unable to do so in the fall, given the national and international outcry over the pepper spraying. Some student activists were also brought up individually for investigation by Student Judicial Affairs for issues apparently related to involvement in other campus activism. In other words, this was a tactic of legal pepper spraying.
One of the issues that had rocked the campus earlier in spring 2011, and in which some Occupy activists had been involved, was the attack on the Palestine solidarity movement at UC-Davis in the wake of the controversial interruption of an Israeli soldier’s talk on campus by a student. Off-campus, pro-Israel groups began issuing vitriolic statements of condemnation, and UC president Mark Yudof sent a strident letter to the entire UC community condemning the disruption. The UC-Davis Students for Justice in Palestine had actually staged a silent walkout at the event in order to avoid criminal charges similar to those that had harshly penalized the UC-Irvine and UC-Riverside students, known as the Irvine 11. These eleven students had disrupted the speech of the Israeli ambassador at UC-Irvine after the 2009 massacre in Gaza and had been prosecuted by the Orange County district attorney for their civil disobedience. The criminalization of the Irvine 11 sent a chilling message to Palestine solidarity activists that free speech in the case of critique of the Israeli state was not free, even in the academy, and came with the price of possible felony charges by the state. But the case also sparked creative organizing strategies as student activists nationwide began walking out of pro-Israel events with their mouths taped, silently performing a critique of censorship and the exceptional repression of open debate on this issue. It became apparent that Israeli government officials and soldiers of a foreign (occupying) military—supported and funded heavily by the United States—had more freedom of political speech on US public university campuses than college students (not to mention the fact that many Arab and Muslim American youth have been subjected to FBI surveillance and entrapment since 9/11).
In Ramallah, as the Arab revolutions swept across the region in 2011, Palestinian youth, too, protested against military occupation as well as internal repression. Palestinian students continue to be abducted and incarcerated by Israel, which restricts their access to schools and colleges, as highlighted by the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University. Young activists began stenciling graffiti on the walls of Ramallah with slogans such as “Occupy Wall Street, Not Palestine” and “#Un-Occupy.” Student activists at UC-Davis were simultaneously rethinking the vocabulary of “occupy,” which signifies a tactic of protest and also a colonial practice, and adopted the label “decolonize” to indicate their solidarity with indigenous peoples. “Decolonize the university” is their demand—occupy the banks and occupy the occupation of other lands, other universities, and other societies transformed and devastated by settler colonialism, militarism, and neoliberal capitalism
The Imperial University
This edited volume offers reports from the trenches of a war on scholarly dissent that has raged for two or three decades now and has intensified since 9/11, analyzed by some of the very scholars who have been targeted or have directly engaged in these battles. The stakes here are high. These dissenting scholars and the knowledges they produce are constructed by right-wing critics as a threat to US power and global hegemony, as has been the cases in earlier moments in US history, particularly during the Cold War. Much discussion of incidents where academics have been denied tenure or publicly attacked for their critique of US foreign or domestic policies, as in earlier moments, has centered on the important question of academic freedom. However, the chapters in this book break new ground by demonstrating that what is really at work in these attacks are the logics of racism, warfare, and nationalism that undergird US imperialism and also the architecture of the US academy. Our argument here is that these logics shape a systemic structure of repression of academic knowledge that counters the imperial, nation-building project.
The premise of this book is that the US academy is an “imperial university.” As in all imperial and colonial nations, intellectuals and scholarship play an important role—directly or indirectly, willingly or unwittingly—in legitimizing American exceptionalism and rationalizing US expansionism and repression, domestically and globally. The title of this book, then, is not a rhetorical flourish but offers a concept that is grounded in the particular imperial formation of the United States, one that is in many ways ambiguous and shape-shifting. It is important to note that US imperialism is characterized by deterritorialized, flexible, and covert practices of subjugation and violence and as such does not resemble historical forms of European colonialism that depended on territorial colonialism. As a settler-colonial nation, it has over time developed various strategies of control that include proxy wars, secret interventions, and client regimes aimed at maintaining its political, economic, and military dominance around the globe, as well as cultural interventions and “soft power.” The chapters here help to illuminate and historicize the role of the US university in legitimizing notions of Manifest Destiny and foundational mythologies of settler colonialism and exceptional democracy as well as the attempts by scholars and students to challenge and subvert them.
 See Sunaina Maira and Julie Sze, “Dispatches from Pepper-Spray University: Privatization, Repression, and Revolts,” American Quarterly 64, no. 2 (June 2012): 315–30.
 Ann L. Stoler and Carole McGranahan, “Introduction: Refiguring Imperial Terrains,” in Imperial Formations, ed. Ann L. Stoler, Carole McGranahan, and Peter Perdue (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2007), 3–44.
 Amy Kaplan, “Where Is Guantánamo?” in Legal Borderlands: Law and the Construction of American Borders, ed. Mary Dudziak and Leti Volpp, American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2005): 831–58; Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).
[Excerpted from The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Sunaina Maira and Piya Chatterjee, by permission of the editors. © 2014 University of Minnesota Press. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]