Two words recur throughout The Imperial University, with the regularity of a verbal tic: neoliberal (shorthand for all that’s bad) and Palestine (representing the good, the oppressed, and all that’s worthy of solidarity). The starting point of every contribution to this edited volume is that ‘higher education is firmly embedded in global structures of repression, militarism and neoliberalism’, and as such, ‘the US academy is an “imperial university”’. So convinced are the authors that ‘police in riot gear do not signal something exceptional; rather, their presence unmasks the codes of “the normal” in academic discourse and practice’ that readers may be forgiven for thinking universities have been turned into prisons, and scholars have become tragic victims. Each chapter recounts the restrictions placed upon those who teach about global injustices based upon gender, race, class and sexuality, or engage in scholarship that is critical of ‘the geopolitics of US imperialism across historical time and space’.
It is undoubtedly true that many US universities (just as in the UK) were founded upon the profits of empire. And post-9/11 there have been increased checks upon academic freedom. However, the authors of this volume do themselves no favours in making these arguments. They persistently over-dramatise the problems: we’re told, for example, that students who challenge neoliberalism ‘can quickly be removed from their positions of privilege and rendered part of the “criminal class”’ (‘rendered’ having particular connotations in the context of the ‘war on terror’). They elide different issues. ‘The rise in tuition and indebtedness within the context of the academic crisis simply is the militarisation of campus; they are one and the same’ (emphasis in original). Worst of all, the solutions they propose would denigrate academic freedom, knowledge and the very idea of a university.
For the academics contributing to this book, knowledge, it seems, is hugely problematic. Its production is ‘central to the imperial project’ and as such, ‘no piece of scholarship has ever been non-aligned’. Attempts at objectivity are derided as mere ‘methodological foolishness’. They argue that in disciplines such as anthropology, knowledge is used to ‘other’ ‘indigenous and minoritised communities’, providing ‘both information and “intelligence” for the subjugation and administration’ of such groups. In science disciplines, knowledge is considered tainted by the development of the atom bomb and it is said still to serve the interests of America as a global and military power. In all areas of the university, knowledge is seen as simply ‘a valuable commodity’, ‘marketed through books, articles and conferences as well as patents and governmental contracts’ in the neoliberal economy.
There’s an important point in here: scholars and universities should not align themselves with either state projects or commercial interests. To do so jeopardises both objectivity and the exercise of academic freedom. Unfortunately, this is again lost in the hyperbole of the arguments and the proposed solutions. Instead of making the case for more objective, or better, knowledge, the authors argue: ‘We ultimately fail to dismantle the academic-military-prison-industrial complex if we address it only through the production of more knowledge. Since knowledge is a commodity… the production of “better”, more progressive or counter-carceral knowledge can also be co-opted and put to work by the academic-MPIC.’