At the End of the University as We Know it

Logo for Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi

"Yes, the university needs to be reformed. Students and future generations need to understand that corporate values at the university are reinforcing the uni-lateral view, which beyond being uni-lateral, is deadly. The struggle for the control of knowledge is imperative in the twenty-first century. Knowledge controlled only by the corporations and States supporting corporate values will be the last weapon for a ruling corporate elite managing a totalitarian society with the sweet chants of consumption and happiness." - Walter Mignolo

On April 29, 2009 I received, as many others, a standard “call for paper.” This one called my attention: “World Universities Forum, Davos, Switzerland, 9-11, 2009, Call for Papers.”

It called my attention for two reasons. The first I explain here is that I saw it coming: the struggle of the twenty-first century will be a struggle for the control of knowledge. Up to this point the control of knowledge was not yet at the same level of conflict than the control of authority (international relations, military budgets and nuclear control agreements) and the control of economy (free trade, Doha Rounds, NAFTA, etc.). The second reason I stopped, opened and read it, was a ” coincidence.”

The coincidence was that on April 26 the NYT published an op-ed, signed by the Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, Dr. Mark C. Taylor titled ” End the University as We Know it”

There is a flat paragraph (just showing half of the story) in the call for papers, which is somewhat recast in the article by Taylor. The paragraph is the following:

“One of the paradoxical characteristics of our time is that some of the most creative thinking comes from business, politician and other community leaders rather than academe. The World Universities Forum has been created in the belief that there is an urgent need for academe to connect more directly and boldly with the large questions of our time. In much the same way that the World Economic Forum has forged a role of global intellectual leadership for politicians, business people and community leaders.”

Why does the author of this paragraph focus on a paradox and I see a flat paragraph hiding half of the story? Common sense will say that indeed the paradox is true. And that is exactly the point that Taylor is making in the NYT op-ed. The paradox is truly cast in terms of the World Universities Forum. Although in the past two decades (particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union) universities (particularly in the United States and Western Europe but also around the world, from Argentina to India) has embraced corporate values (instead of the humanistic values of the Kantian-Humboltian type of university that was dominant from the 1900 to 1945), the corporate university become prominent recently. It should not surprise us then that recent re-orientation of universities became strictly connected to corporate values and corporate needs. The crisis of Wall Street was not just a financial crisis, it was an epistemic crisis: it showed that the rational models in computers, the calculation of consumer reactions, the extreme confidence in numbers and computer models, was all just fine as an entertaining kids game, not serious knowledge. Kids are fine to forget about ” reality”that is why they are kids. But arrogant and unethical grown ups belong to the category of “crimes against humanity” that Human Rights organizations have been successful in pursuing and penalizing (Pinochet, various truth commissions around the world, Milosevich, etc.). There were a few who inflicted self-penalty and committed suicide, which the media exploited telling long stories and showing pictures to make believe that the guilty also suffer. So, there is something wrong in a paradox that promotes, from The Economic Social Forum, the rethinking of the university and of knowledge production. What is wrong is that half of the story is being told: an-other knowledge is needed.

I suppose that the organizers of the World Social Forum are already examining the consequences of The World Universities Forum. It will be indeed great and necessary, but much more is needed beyond what the World Social Forum may do. What is needed is a global epistemic and conceptual discussion of the de-colonial politics of knowledge: a massive and global debate about learning to unlearn what is presupposed in the call for papers and in Taylor’s article. What is needed then is a network of Worlds Epistemic and Ethic Fora toward communal futures, which means de-westernizing and decolonizing knowledge and education.

The World Universities Forum embodied corporate interests and the transformation of the university being thought out presupposes knowledge at the service of corporate values and horizon of life. This horizon, in its more acceptable formulations, would be “development and freedom” as argued by Amartya Sen. The problem is that ” development”is not a taken for granted horizon. Arguments showing that beyond the rhetoric of development the seed of exploitation of human labor and natural resources continues, has been mounting since 1990. The problem is that while Davos has the resources provided by development projects, those who suffer the consequences, or are aware of the devastating consequences of development, do no have the same resources (institutions, main stream media, book industry) to promote a communal, rather than corporate, life horizons.

Thus, while many of us who see that “development is the problem”and would agree with organizers of The World Universities Forum and with Mark Taylor that the university is in need of transformation, we do not agree in what transformations are needed. And we do not believe that these decisions can be only taken at Davos. While defenders of corporate values in research and education are entitled to their own arguments, they are not entitled to act as if the final truth lies in devastating global futures of which we are having plenty of examples (food crisis, Wall Street, virus caused by lack of hygiene among food producers, water crisis, growing economic differences between the shrinking global economic elite and the global poverty masses). “Development and growth”are not the answer. Mark Taylor has a good point: universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, need to be regulated. Who will do the job and with what purpose? If we, all of us, want to live well instead of living better than our neighbors, as Bolivian President Evo Morales has been stating based on the tradition of Aymara philosophy instead of the tradition of Greek and European enlightenment philosophy of life, for which “nature” has to be known and dominated, then regulation has to be pluri-versal and not uni-versal and the main office of universality set on Davos.

The problem with Mark Taylor’s recommendations, what I surmise are Davos too, are only formal. And they are only formal because the supposition is that there is one, only one way to go: “forward, development, improvement of the existing horizon of life”which began to be formed and spread during the sixteenth century, in the Atlantic, under the leadership of Europe, the labor of Africans and the lands taken away from the Indians in the Americas and the Caribbean. It is not Greece we should place at the center of modern/colonial history if we really want to democratize the economy and put education at the service of economic democracy. However, after Wall Street the debates are not about economic democracy but about saving capitalism. And that the way of life, the ethics and the subjectivities (produce, save and accumulate; consume, consume, consume and be happy), cannot be solved with a transformation of the curriculum and the expansion of technology that, today, is part of the problem: water pollution in small towns, where metal extractions are being implemented by transnational corporations in Argentina for example (Cerro de Fátima), that polluted the water in order to wash the stone and the detritus and extract mineral to produce more cell phones, ipods, mini and maxi computers, etc.)

III. 1. The paradox mentioned in the call for papers that creativity lately takes places outside of the university is partially true. Indeed, biographies of political celebrities, comedians and anchors of economic programs like Lou Dobbs, are more successful in quantity of book selling than most faculty publishing academic books. “Success”in selling is one story. It has to do with information and books as commodities. “Creativity”is another thing. An area of impressive creativity in between the university of the world outside of the university has been the all kind of investigations, from violations of human rights, violations of security measures like in the case of the pork shine in Mexico recently (May 2009), all kind of water pollution incurred by mining corporations who are careless about the consequences of water pollution and endangering the health of communities along the river, Monsanto, Singenta, Dupont and other corporations speculating with food stock prices to increase gains at the expense of millions of human beings suffering the consequences of magnificent economic gains.

If as Taylor says in his article, universities need to be regulated like Detroit and Wall Street, so do the corporations, not just the universities. The World Universities Forum at Davos could be one of the places, together with the World Social University Forum initiated in Porto Alegre, as well as many other organizations like the Indigenous Summit of the Americas and the extremely well conceived, creative, ground breaking, life-oriented Amawtay Wasi (House of Knowledge), Universidad Pluri-cultural de los Pueblos y Naciones Indígneas del Ecuador. From the leader of Amawtay Wasi to Taylor’s article and the organizers of the World Universities Forum, and many of us, are all in agreement that the university as we know it today needs to be re-oriented to respond to the most pressing needs of our time. But of course, not in its totality, and here is where Taylor’s article is in need to be strongly amended. Two amendings are most pressing:

a) What are the needs of our time cannot be decided uni-laterally. And even less, what are the solutions. If there is an agreement between Bolivian organizations, the leader of the Summit of the Americas and the leaders of World Universities Forum, in consultation with all involved parties, that water is a pressing problem, the solution cannot be determined at Davos: Davos is not the United Nations but only a group of interest, a particular group of interest that advocates “development and economic growth”under the conviction, the belief, or just the interest that economic growth and development is the way to freedom and happiness. That is not a commonly shared view, not even a majority view;

b) It would be detrimental for the future of society and life on the planet if the university turns completely to support corporate values. It is crucial that the University remains the place of free thinking and research, where “creativity”is not valued in relation to pressing needs but will indeed contribute to anticipate future problems. What is crucial is that research at the university will contribute to “regulate corporate toxic excess in massive production and corporate legal excess in hiding and persecuting creative researchers who reveal their violations of the law and of human rights.” The World Universities at Davos could make a significant contribution to regulate the excesses of the values it defends. A just world and democratic economy, needs the collaboration of all sectors involved, and not just one, the economic elite more often than not supported by States drawn into corporate values (like the late G.W. Bush’s administration).

c) And that touches to the problem of tenure. It is imperative for a free and creative community of researcher and free thinkers, that tenure be maintained. It is imperative that researchers and free thinkers doing investigation to regulate the excesses of the corporate world and politicians be not only granted tenure but the necessary security of their life and families, and not be prosecuted, killed and sometimes forced into suicide. What could be done is that a sector of the university, say 25% of it, be organized around “creativity and corporate values”and that sector of the university will not grant tenure but it will work under contract regulations connected to the corporations. In other words, the corporate sector will be allowed to use university facilities and hire their researchers under contract.

III.2. Let me illustrate my previous considerations. I offer three examples, although there are thousands of them from the multiple denunciations prompted by the Bush’s administration, including parallel ones like the Enron scandal, the Wall Street jambalaya, Katrina’s negligence (which could have been taken advantage of “creative research,”but creative research that prevents and denounce do not deserve the same attention as “creative research”like Wall Street that expands to the limit of the sky the financial planetary growth and the paradise of globalization).

1) The creative research of organization such La Via Campesina and Sovereignty of Food are two unparalleled developments of the kind both creativity and research that shall be supported by all organizations working toward “democratic economy”(instead of “saving capitalism”), for the well being, full participation of the population of the planet. Beyond the creative, looking forward, imaginative in devising and implementing measures to build social organizations not pushed and managed by corporate and state interests, they do creative research to unveil the strategies used by corporations, in many cases with the assent of the state, to prevent such development. Corporations interested in exploiting natural resources are not interested in having “competitors”like La Via Campesina who are not competitors in the same terrain, but organizations that are de-linking from the rules of the game established by corporations who are interested in increasing gains and not let people improve their quality of life. Monsanto, or any other corporation, cannot decide what quality of life is for peasants who are producing their own knowledge, leading their own life, and not competing with Monsanto in terms of gain but competing in terms of the vision of life and quality of life.

One of the major roles of the non-corporate sector of the University, the free thinking and research sector, confronted with the problems of our time is, precisely, to contribute to regulate the corporations and the state, rather than leaving the state and the corporation to regulate the university. In a balanced situation, indeed, the three entities should regulate each other. One of the main changes, that is not clear in Taylor’s article and in the principles of the World Universities Forum, is that there is no zero point of regulation. Corporations are entitled to defend their interest, but they have no right to impose their interest to other sectors of society.

For example, there has been a significant amount of controversy over the combined project, Bill’s and Melinda’s Gates-Rockefeller Foundations to enhance agriculture in Africa. The controversy has been detailed, and creatively researched, and professionally reported by the , in March/April 2007. One can not doubt that both Foundations have the best intention to improve conditions in Africa, but it so happened that African Farmers and organizations like La Via Campesina have their own ideas of how to improve conditions in Africa, but their ideas have been mostly ruled out and African actors and agencies are placed in a position of “receivership.”Experts in the West, living in the West, with life experience in a developed country supposedly know what is good for people living in Africa. Christian missionaries operated on the same principles for over 500 years. That we move from theology to economy and international relations shall not hide the fact that the philosophy is the same.

And that is the main problem we, all as students and faculty at the university and citizens, will face with projects like the World Universities Forum if the leaders of such organization do not open up their projects to promote and enhance “critical research toward economic democracy and communal”(not communist, communal—based on the principles of Indigenous organization and not on the European commune after the enlightenment); and “critical research destined to regulated development enterprise which, with good or bad intention, will continue to operate uni-laterally.”

2) Second case. “Consider, for example, a Water program” Taylor suggests. And he continues “In the coming decades, Water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of wter will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges.”


This is indeed a good point. Aymaras in Bolivia reminded us once and again, during the “water war” that ended up expelling the multinationals run by the giant Bechtel, of a basic truth that coloniality of knowledge managed to make us forget. In that process Aymaras insisted in that “water is a human right, not a commodity.” Any creative investigation to solve the water problem shall start with this crucial point. To do research to solve the problem of water while at the same time maintaining it as a commodity, is a problem without solution.

Now, there are two trajectories under which research to solve such problems could be done. One would be under the horizon of life guided by ideals o economic development and social modernization. In this case water will be a commodity and research may be more oriented toward generating gains for the corporations than solving problems for the humanity.

The second trajectory would be to do research demonstrating why water problems could not be solved as far as water remains a commodity. This kind of research (technically, ethically and politically) had to show a) that a new type of economy is needed; b) that the knowledge of local Western experts has to be complemented with the knowledge local communities that for centuries were successful in solving water problems; c) Western local expert would have to submit themselves to the needs and knowledge of communities to help solve the problems and not to bring with solutions based on abstract knowledge and not in living experiences and knowledge accumulated for centuries. This second trajectory of research, creative research, would have to unveil the danger of coloniality; that is, of the ideology of economic development and of modernization

For example, in Water Wars (2002) Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva reports about the principle and structure of knowledge that for millennia allowed people in desert zones to build balanced systems of irigations that insure the water availability under adverse climatic conditions.

Another example that requires precisely the kind of “creative research around problems” that Taylor asks for. Recently in Argentina, noted scientist Andrés Carrasco denounced the poisoning of soya seeds, covered up under the rhetoric of increasing productivity and economic growth (that is, rhetoric of growth, development and modernization). Not surprisingly, the corporate sector (which one would surmise would support world university forum in Davos and most likely the kind of research promoted by Taylor). The end result is that is no longer the state but the corporate world repressing creative research.

These are indeed a paradigmatic examples to understand that “creative research”toward communal futures and economic democracies, has to solve the combined problem of the ignorance of Western experts and the knowledge of non-Western ignorant (ignorant, of course, from the perspective of Western experts).

One day the experts from the West came, with technology, tubes and water-pumps, all explained in their rhetoric of modernization and development. Technology will solve the problem. They dug into the dry desert and splashed water …for a while. The millennial system of irrigation built in the process of building knowledge by doing and living, was dismantled by the ignorance of the expert. The local generated knowledge in the process of organizing their life. The expert acquires knowledge to help economic growth by ignoring his ignorance by imposing his or her expertise.

Another example, a extremely creative research by Vandana Shiva about “the disappearing knowledge system”and the “appearing of the monocultures of the mind.”
Western experts go to an Indian Forest or to the Amazon. They see timber and weeds. They are ignorant about properties of the “weed”that has been organized and transmitted by millennia by local knowledge of people living in the forest, to which the local knowledge of the expert living in the city or university, is totally clueless. But the expert has the support of the corporations and of the local state where the timber and the weed are. So, weed are being destroyed because of uselessness and tress too because timber is needed to enhance development.

Yes, the university needs to be reformed. Students and future generations need to understand that corporate values at the university are reinforcing the uni-lateral view, which beyond being uni-lateral, is deadly. The struggle for the control of knowledge is imperative in the twenty-first century. Knowledge controlled only by the corporations and States supporting corporate values will be the last weapon for a ruling corporate elite managing a totalitarian society with the sweet chants of consumptions and happiness.

3) Another case. The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s greatest natural resource – the most powerful and bio-actively diverse natural phenomenon on the planet. Yet still it is being destroyed just like other rainforests around the world. The problem and the solution to rainforest destruction are both economic. This is a case in which accumulation of wealth at expenses of life promotes the production of objects over the reproduction of life. Common sense will say that this is totally irrational, but the rhetoric of modernity is constantly converting the irrational into the rationality of progress and development. highlight production instead of regeneration. Thankfully, this viable economic alternative does exist. Many organizations have demonstrated that if the medicinal plants, fruits, nuts, oils and other resources like rubber, chocolate and chicle, were harvested sustainably – rainforest land has a much more economic value than if timber were harvested or if it were burned down for cattle or farming operations. Sustainable harvesting of these types of resources provides this value today as well as more long term income and profits year after year for generations to come. However, viable economic alternatives are important but not yet enough: it is imperative to shift the geography of reasoning and understand that the ” conquest and domination of nature” is one of the most detrimental principles of modernity.

This is no longer a theory. It is a fact and it is being implemented today. Today, entire communities and indigenous tribes earn 5 to 10 times more money wild harvesting medicinal plants, fruits, nuts and oils than they can earn by chopping down the forest for subsistence crops – another reason why so much rainforest land is lost year after year. This much needed income source creates the awareness and economic incentive for this population in the rainforest to protect and preserve the forests for long term profits for themselves and their children and is an important solution in saving the rainforest from destruction. Once again, while it is crucial to have economic incentive in a still capitalist economy, de-colonial future horizons do not accept that economic incentives are the only ones. Economic incentives make sense only in the philosophy of capitalist economy. But, as I am arguing here, economy and capitalism are not the same, and non-capitalist economies are thinkable and available. Democratizing the economy will be one specific and concrete way of thinking de-colonially and promoting de-colonial creative research.

4) A couple of examples from the Humanities, although the Humanities shall be the overarching frame for critical investigation toward communal futures and critical investigations unveiling excess in the name of development and growth hiding personal and group economic private interests.

4a) Taylor reports the following, in his op-ed published in the NYT:

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate. on their own premises.

Certainly; for many of us dwelling in the modern/colonial history of the South Atlantic since 1500, international law, theology, political economy (before it existed as such) and racism, went hand in hand. Francisco de Vitoria in Spain, and his followers in Spain and Portugal, had to deal with questions of divine, natural and human law; recognize the humanity of the Indians, but at the same time, justify the Spaniards right to disposes from their land. About half a century later, when Hugo Grotius was working at the service of Dutch interests, and defending Dutch interests from those of Spain and England, was rehearsing Vitoria not vis-à-vis Indians in South America, but Indians in India. Indeed, here is an issue of enormous relevance to investigate, not as a historical treasure trove, but in the very fact that we are living under the same presupposition, although the make up has changed somewhat. But most interesting, is that there are already significant numbers of “creative scholars”doing “creative research”at various universities; research I suspect leaders of the World Universities Forum are not well informed (perhaps Taylor is not even aware of it), perhaps not interested. But if they are not interested, it doesn’t mean that the issue is not interesting.

I was recently in a dissertation defense. The dissertation’s fist sentence was something like: “Human beings are political animals, we’ve known it since Aristotles.”I will accept that Aristotles said so, but from the fact that Aristotles said it doesn’t follow that indeed human beings are political animals. Certainly Aristotles is entitled to his own opinion and he certainly had reason and needs to make such an assertion. Aymara and Quechua intellectuals in the Andes, when the Spaniards arrived with the same Aristotelian convictions in their shoulder, I suspect their (Aymara and Quechua intelligentsia, man of wisdom as much as Aristotles), would have reacted with a strange expression on their face, a sound of surprise, and looking at each other would have said in their language: “what are these guys talking about.?”

4b) Let’s take the case of the artist. Artists are not necessarily at or interested in the University. However, more and more departments of Art History, Literature, Drama, Film and Video, etc., are hiring “artists”since the “scholar”doesn’t have the same experience. This is indeed a welcome change at the University that, I hope, will transform that sector of the university in the next decades. Immanuel Kant’s (invoked by Taylor) devised three primary disciplinary formations in the radical transformation, in Europe, between the Theological University in the Renaissance period and the Secular University that, in Europe, unfolded after the Enlightenment. Unless we decide that artist do not have nothing to do with “crucial issues of our time”and that their role is entertainment and enjoyment when the world population is not concerned with survival, death, war, violence, and the like, their role at in the Future De-Colonial and Humanistic university is essential.

Why? For many reasons, but let’s just take one, which is the most crucial and perhaps the most invisible for the leaders of The World Universities Forum at Davos: the distinction between labor and work. This distinction which can be found in Karl Marx was elaborated in the sense I am taking it here by Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Condition (1958). The basic distinction is this: in a communally organized society you have to work to live. In a capitalist organized society, you live to work: this is labor. Labor is a force of de-culturation, it takes your soul out of you, like in the slave system, as you labor for somebody else. The trick of a capitalist society has been build a type of subjectivity in which the religious belief is that you are “free to choose”between labors. That was the justification for the end of slavery when labor was needed for the new stage of capitalism. William Walker, the character played by Marlon Brando in Queimada (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969), says it is all in front of the governing elite in the Island. “Gentlemen, said Walker during a business meeting, what is more convenient a wife or whore?” Walker response is longer but the essence is this: whore you pay by the hour, wife you have to take care and invest in her. While “labor as freedom”is the rhetoric of modernity, the other side, the “labor as cheaper service”is the logic of colonialilty.

Now, imagine that part of the curriculum, the interdisciplinary and international curriculum in the new, de-colonial university, will elaborate on the distinction of labor and work, and the distinctions between a concept of economy that promote “creative research to accumulate wealth”and a concept of economy that will promote “creative research toward communal life?”Remember, not communist, but communal. Communism did not make the distinction between labor and work and turned the exploitation of labor in the direction of the all powerful state instead of doing in benefit of private investors and corporations. Because the society we are envisioning and the university we need are communal, not communists, corporations should be allowed to have their creative research corner to improve “commodities”that will be no longer such but “goods”for the well being of the community which will not report gigantic gains to the corporations. Therefore, the corporations will maintain their previous name but their function will change: they will work toward the communal not toward the board of trustees and the shareholders accumulating money without labor and working in their own interest. However, this work will be unethical as far as their work is possible because of the labor of others. That is why capitalism and communism are brothers who do not get along. Global Fora for de-westernizing and de-colonizing knowledge and transforming the university toward a non-capitalist horizon of life is what we all shall strive for: a democratic economy that will allow the plu-versality of communal organization in different parts of the world, allowing people to live and re-create languages, histories, religions, values, etc., that over the past five hundred years have been eroded by the belief (in the West and among elites in the non West) that Western life-style, industrialization, technology and the like was the point of arrival in the history of Human civilization. While Western civilization has made a great contribution to the history of the humanity, the achievement is not a good enough reason to expect that everybody else does the same. There is a global consensus, among de-westernizer and de-colonial that that cycle has been close, and that global futures will be decided by many and not by one (be that United States, European Union, China or a globally spread Islam).

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