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Screw Us and We Multiply

Three letters from Amsterdam

Melissa Doherty, Untitled (Apartments). 2006, Oil on Board. 10" x 12".

Even though this protest has been emphatically and sometimes goofily Dutch, the broader predicament is everywhere. Many American public universities are facing similar budget cuts. In my home state of Wisconsin, for instance, the legislature recently voted to cut the university’s budget by $250 million, and to erode the already tenuous tenure system (tenuous because fewer and fewer people actually have it). Things are far more dire in Wisconsin than in Amsterdam. This is especially galling because the University of Wisconsin system is predicated on the “Wisconsin Idea,” which enshrined both academic freedom and academic engagement. Articulated in the Progressive Era, it holds both that “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth” and that university research should improve life beyond the classroom: “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Wisconsin’s diabolical governor, Scott Walker, has tried to strike both phrases from the university’s charter.

How far beyond the academy do our commitments extend? Are we defending our right to teach and study things that might be useless? Or are we insisting on our usefulness? After speaking at the march, I told my students that I did not see scholarship as activism, that I only wanted to defend the autonomy of scholarship and the necessary if inconsequential sanctity of the seminar room, that it was fine by me if they found the protests ridiculous or indulgent. And I meant it! But even as I claimed to keep the atmosphere rarefied and apolitical, I must admit that the protest wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the radicals and the parachutists, and I have a new admiration for direct action. And our encounters with vluchtelingen have sharpened my sense that if a university can include allochtonen, refugees, or stateless people within its borders, then it should. The boundaries of the university are wider than the boundaries of the state.

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