As demonstrators march on provost’s office, admin appears more concerned with storytelling than substance
IU strike organizers entered the reception area of the IU provost’s office Monday as part of a pre-strike demonstration, and the office’s Janus-faced response could not be more telling. Accounts of the incident from the perspectives of the demonstrators and of the provost’s office are available in several places (see the Herald Times Online, the IDS, and the IU On Strike webpages). Rather than rehash these in detail, I’d like to examine the particular language of Provost Lauren Robel’s response. Robel’s statement manages to appeal to democratic ideals while, ironically, threatening activists and avoiding any substantial response to the issues they raise.
The statement from the provost moves quickly from her account of that afternoon’s events (which supposedly included an “assault” on her secretary, though IUPD present at the scene have yet to corroborate the story) to a lecture on non-violent civil disobedience. “There is a deep literature around civil disobedience,” she writes, the practice of which “requires a discipline of careful fact gathering, dialogue and negotiation, and as a last resort, direct action.” Indeed? Setting aside the irony that a powerful person is lecturing activists about how to confront power, Robel’s reading of history seems woefully incomplete. Would the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s have won new legislation simply by dialoguing with white politicians? Did women gain the right to vote by carefully comparing interpretations of fact with men in power, or by standing up? The provost implies that a fairer university is just a few dignified conversations away, but I think history tells a different story. Moments that alter the course of our society are created by collective action first. We have no basis on which to negotiate if we do not present a potent, oppositional force.
Equally confused is the provost’s use of the phrase “direct action” to refer to what, as far as I can tell, was a mostly symbolic (albeit, noisy) demonstration. Direct action is what you call an action that moves to immediately address the complaints of its participants, as when factory workers occupy their own plant to wrest control of it from unfair bosses. Provost Robel wouldn’t be the first person to mistake a sign for the thing it signifies, but speech is simply not the same as direct action. The difference between chanting, “We want change!” and actually making it happen is, well, everything.
Still, it’s worth asking: If workers and students should focus first on negotiating rather than on other kinds of activity, as the provost suggests, what would such a negotiation look like? Her email offers at least a clue about what strikers may expect from the administration’s end. In it, the provost indicates that she would be interested in discussing the facts behind strikers’ demands (which are posted on the group’s tumblr page). “For instance, they insist that the support staff have been subject to a wage freeze. […] There is no wage freeze. Support staff have received base increases ranging from 1.5-3.5 percent every year except 2009 […].” On the heels of an article in the city newspaper which revealed that president McRobbie’s salary exceeds a million dollars, the provost proudly defends a policy that shifts IU’s budget woes onto the backs of its very lowest-paid employees by failing to raise wages at pace with inflation. She neatly sidesteps the ethical concerns behind strikers’ wage demand, and doesn’t bother to address their other concerns (except to reiterate that all options are on the table with regard to punishment for strike participation). Until administrators honestly address the substance of the strike’s demands, they are merely doing a rhetorical dance.
The provost saves her most impressive feat for last: “I am holding on to the hope that there will be no further physical assault of community members, or other actions that detract from our ability to react, as a university, with reason and fairness to concerns.” This sentence from the conclusion of her letter manages a number of falsehoods: first, it asserts without evidence or witness corroboration that an “assault” took place at her office; further, it holds the whole strike campaign (which consists of hundreds of participants) to blame for this assault and implies that they may commit the act again; it counter poses the strike with “the community,” of which the provost’s secretary is a member, but students and workers who oppose administrative policy, apparently, are not; and it seems to suggest that whatever action administrators might take to repress demonstrators on the days of the strike are justified a priori, since strikers themselves “detract” from IU’s ability to respond with fairness.
I cannot blame the provost or others in her office for being “unsettled” by the rowdy demonstration that arrived at their door on Monday afternoon, but to question the strike on the basis of ethics is, in a word, absurd. This is a university system that saddles its students with a life of debt and locks workers into low-wage servitude. Perhaps Provost Robel’s conscience is comfortable with extreme income disparity among staff, run-away tuition hikes, embarrassingly low enrollment of black students, and policies that favor growth and profit over accessibility—but I don’t think so. If not, and indeed we “share many concerns,” then I urge her, without acrimony on my part, to prove it. The fight for a fairer kind of school will be long, and we need all the allies we can muster.