you can’t administer your way to justice

I continue to be in this position that people seem to find untenable: I think some parts of the ongoing student protests are good, and some are bad, and I praise the good parts, and criticize the bad parts. I also make an effort to separate the goals of these protests from the likelihood that they’ll succeed, because that’s the way politics works: real allies assess the chance that given movements are actually going to be able to achieve their goals. All of this seems like the most natural thing in the world — to sort good from bad — but both liberals and conservatives alike, these days, seem absolutely bent on all-or-nothing when it comes to this issue.

I feel compelled again to be the voice of pessimism. Look at the demands from the student group at Wesleyan, where I grew up, where I learned about both college and activism. Demand number three:

HIRING OF AN EQUITY ADVOCATE

  • The Equity advocate will work under the Office of Student Affairs to engage with students regarding equity within the confines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, culture, gender-identity, and physical or mental disability*.

Look: this will never, ever work to meaningfully change Wesleyan. Never. Institutions cannot regulate themselves. And an equity officer, no matter how well-meaning that person may be, no matter how much input students have in picking them, no matter how much independence that office is granted, will always be a part of the institution. Always. That office will, as every administrative position necessarily must, work to defend the institution and to perpetuate the administrative class that governs it. It will function within the institution’s imprimatur. The equity advocate will be paid by Wesleyan. They will be colleagues with other Wesleyan administrators. They will go out for dinners with other administrators; they will go to administrative functions with the people they are meant to be keeping an eye on; they will go to parties at their homes. They will become part of the fabric of the institution. They will become an element of the very culture that they are meant to police. That’s not the result of some nefarious conspiracy, and it’s also not an artifact of the character of whoever fills that role. It is an inescapable aspect of the nature of administrative positions: they exist, and will always exist, to serve the institution. Always.

Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict. I can easily foresee the equity advocate functioning as a thorn in the side of faculty, deepening the already-existing divide on campuses between faculty and administration. After all, the list goes on to demand a formal system of student surveillance of professors, keeping an eye on them for microaggressions. I can see that sort of thing being very useful to any administration that is looking to keep professors in their place. But a meaningful force for change? No. A cushy private school administration position cannot be the force for change that these students are looking for. What it can do, though, is function as the kind of empty symbolic win that allows people to declare victory and go home, the kind that distracts from the lack of actual, structural change to institutions. It’s the kind of thing that the left falls for again and again, only to discover that somehow, the world is what it has been.

Now, the question is: are you an ally if you ignore these problems and just give these students the kind of golf claps they’re getting on social media? Or are you an ally if you tell them the uncomfortable truth?