“The university no longer exists.” I read it on a bumper sticker on a van parked outside my college dorm. I chuckled, thinking of the irony, but didn’t fully grasp the meaning or implications of this provocation. As a Venezuelan-American who grew up in Caracas during the 1980s and 1990s, I always harbored a relatively healthy skepticism toward institutions. 

After all, I grew up under the penumbra of Hugo Chavez’ rise to power, a man who vowed to fix corrupt institutions, fight poverty, and curb the power of the elite. And although the role and purpose of higher education was hotly contested during his presidency, I ardently believed in the university as a site for individual and social transformation. In this setting, I understood, students and scholars could acquire and generate knowledge in the service of democratic ideals like truth, justice, and equality.

Last week, the Biden Administration announced that it would eliminate up to $20,000 of federal student loan debt. This move came in response to a decade of organizing by union organizers, activists, and student debtors, all of whom raised fundamental questions about the ethics and economics of a system whose costs continue to skyrocket but whose value is far from certain. These questions are not new. The past several years have seen intensified critiques of the value of higher education, particularly given the disruptions of a global pandemic, the ascendancy of online and hybrid learning technologies, and the continued bureaucratization of the academy

As a tenure-track professor at a public university, I experience these broad-based trends in a personal and acute way: an endlessly proliferating email inbox, a never-ending roster of students who need advising, and an assortment of tasks, committees, and acronyms that have little to do with the fundamental questions of pedagogy and research which got me into the work. I’m not alone in experiencing these stresses and demands. My colleagues are leaving the profession in droves, often for industries where they can be more innovative, impactful, and better compensated.

Where is the university that I so ardently believed in? Was it all a charade?

This image of the university inspired me to study at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Columbia, and then later, to pursue the life of a professor, all of which was supposed to vindicate the sacrifice, commitment, and capital I invested during years of study.

To be sure, this image was always a bit myopic. Perhaps such a university never existed in the first place, or maybe it only served a generation of students and scholars who benefited from a halcyon period where tuition was marginal (or free) and tenure (and security) was expected. After all, the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, for which many universities still lay claim, presupposes a certain level of freedom from economic and vocational pressures. And today, buoyed by neoliberal reforms, the university has become increasingly defined by careerist and entrepreneurial trends, which position students as consumers and faculty as service providers. 

Either way, as my colleagues and I navigate an exponential increase in administrative demands, along with the psychological toll imposed by constant feelings of stress, precarity, and uncertainty, we feel that, as philosopher Jorge Larrosa describes, the university is no longer ours. 

The situation feels dire. But, perhaps there is more to it. Maybe the news is not as depressing as it may appear. We may mourn the decline of campus life and the rise of virtual teaching tools, but this very same disruption is democratizing access and meeting students and scholars “where they are.” We also know that the hierarchical structures of traditional departments and disciplines continue to crumble, leading to wider and more diverse vistas of learning and research for historically marginalized groups. Finally, there is also cause to applaud the very phenomenon that threatens our professional autonomy; the decentralization and democratization of knowledge and expertise, which cultivates the kind of agency that we ostensibly seek to empower in young people. Taken together, there is much to celebrate here. 

None of these changes paper over the fundamental problems facing the university; it’s only to recognize that disruptions often lead to surprising opportunities and openings within a system that would never change on its own accord. We can also derive inspiration from acts of resistance within the academy. Drawing on the theory and practice of the black radical tradition, Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey deploy the image of “the undercommons” as a site of disruption, invention, and fugitivity, where we neither extend or change the university, but seek to generate new possibilities through collective gestures of refusal: “To be in but not of [the university]—this is the path of the subversive intellectual.” As Bartleby would say, “I prefer not to.”

Perhaps that is what the bumper sticker meant by proclaiming the death of the university – it’s not so much a negation, but an invitation to radically reimagine its purposes and practices. But such reimagination cannot be done alone. It requires solidarity and partnership between tenured, non-tenured faculty, and staff, so that advocacy – for greater work/life balance, more reasonable service loads, and more competitive compensation, for example – does not rest on the shoulders of our most precarious colleagues. It demands the time and funding to develop models that are responsive to needs of students and faculty, a process which may involve forging alliances with existing efforts to reimagine higher education. And of course, any reimagination must foreground the real and pressing issues within our local and global communities, so that faculty and student-driven inquiries advance the larger goals of racial, climate, and economic justice. Together, these endeavors can allow us to recenter the public we set out to serve in the first place, our students and their communities.

Erica Colmenares

A Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, Erica Eva Colmenares is an assistant professor and coordinator of the Liberal Studies program at San José State University. She received her Ed.D. in Curriculum...