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Dec 6, 2005 10:17 pm

Military-Academic Complex Questions

A group of activists has occupied the offices of University of Hawai'i System Interim President John McLain for several days now, demanding that the UH system back out of an agreement to establish a military research program and undertake substantial research projects. As much of a throwback as this is, we live in a new age, where protests have websites and live video feeds and, of course, blogs. The symbolic nature of protest actions is greatly amplified by these technologies, though it does raise the question of effectiveness: can anyone think of examples where office-occupation protests produced real results?

The protestors, though they have a variety of positions related to war and research, have backed away from demands that the programs be cancelled, and now are proposing that the approval process be more open and rigorous. In other words, they are making procedural demands which they believe will enhance their push for substantive changes, but which are not, actually, directly related. Sounds a lot like a certain congressional issue, to me.

Then there's the actual substance of the protests. The main components of the protest, as I read it, have to do with secrecy and with environmental degradation, and the conflict between military and educational goals. Military research is not all bad [via The 50th Star] but then it's not all good, either. But statements like

"Research that facilitates military aims is the same as creation of the weapon itself. ... The person who makes the plutonium or pulls the trigger are equally culpable."

bother me because it extends the idea of moral complicity so far that only constant, active resistance to legitimate governments would be acceptable. One could limit the argument specifically to government contracts, but even then, even the military funds some research which has fundamental roots and broad applications: why should a researcher turn down money to do research which they'd do anyway?

You could argue that historians don't have to worry much about this, but we do, for two reasons. First, we are institutional citizens, and both the ethical position and financial status of our universities matters to us. Second, military history.

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Hugo Schwyzer - 5/4/2005

Well, at UCLA in 1993, we had a combination hunger strike/building occupation by Chicano students to get a Chicano/a Studies Department. It worked:

Robert KC Johnson - 5/3/2005

The group's homepage states that its central belief is that "UARC represents Military Encroachment onto the UH Campus that violates the University’s core values and threaten its integrity and educational mission." It doesn't seem to me that any procedural change would matter to the protesters.

I don't know enough about UARC to say whether this would be a good idea. But the idea that cooperation between the military and universities ipso facto violates UH's core mission is a disturbing theory. And, taken literally, the protesters' demands would seem to suggest that courses in military history also contradict UH's core values.

Tyler Zander - 5/3/2005

"[C]an anyone think of examples where office-occupation protests produced real results?"

Last month at Washington University in St. Louis, a number of students occupied an administration building for 2-3 weeks in support of a living wage for subcontracted service workers at the school. The protestors' considerable demands were not met by the administration, though they did secure a guarantee that one million dollars in university funds would be directed toward supplementing the lowest-paid workers' wages over the next two years, so I suppose that could be considered successful.

I think the fact that this was largely an internal matter helped the occupation's success, as did the current climate of administration/student relations (especially at expensive private schools), in which universities seem to be going the extra mile (grade inflation, etc.) to please their students, so as to get more money through alumni gifts, increase their US News ranking, and so on.

Whatever the validity of the protestors' means or cause, I think it's a positive thing that they acknowledge their university's non-academic "obligations" to society, though some people are definitely capable of taking that concept too far. Dorn is right that operating only with a sole concern with teaching and research can reap undesirable consequences.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 5/3/2005

I've been thinking about this larger issue of the morality of money in universities recently, in part because of the Solomon amendment case in front of the court next term and also because of my own writings. Let's suppose for a moment that we strike the moral dimension of money out of university policy as a legitimate reason to make decisions, because the core function of a university or college is to promote an intellectual community, especially public universities that don't have a particular institutional mission focused on a religion or moral sense. That more libertarian view would be consistent with one set of leanings I have.

Yet, once we do that, then I suspect we'd have to conclude that student activists in the 1970s and 1980s were wrong to push for divestment from South Africa. And that it's not central to a university whether branded sweatshirts are made in sweatshops. And that administrators shouldn't care if they pay poverty wages to staff members (though I can make a good argument that there's a link between the educational mission and graduate-student pay). And that conclusion makes me pretty squeamish.

Louis N Proyect - 5/3/2005

In Chapter Four of Barsky's bio of Noam Chomsky, we learn that Chomsky views the university as some kind of refuge from politics and the class struggle. As Chomsky put it in 1996, "Nothing should be done to impede people from teaching and doing their research even if at that very moment it was being used to massacre and destroy."

During the time Chomsky was involved with protests against the war in Vietnam, he was always hostile--like Theodor Adorno--to on-campus protests that got in the way of pursuing the Truth. It was one thing to march against the war; it was another thing entirely to occupy a building that was dedicated to counter-insurgency research. According to Barsky, Chomsky admired "the challenge to the universities" but thought their rebellions were "largely misguided," and he "criticized [them] as they were in progress at Berkeley (1966) and Columbia (1968) particularly. This is corroborated by Norman Mailer, who spent time with Chomsky in a jail cell after being arrested at the Pentagon protest in 1969: "He had, in fact, great reservations about the form that the 1968 student uprisings ultimately took."