Are Woke College Students Too Powerful?

Nope, but the market is.

Prompted by Jodi Shaw’s ongoing temper tantrum, the New York Times published a piece describing how employees at Smith College became the targets of student outrage and institutional scolding following an incident in which a student felt she’d been racially profiled. 

The article explains how a white janitor called campus security when he saw Oumou Kanoute, a Black TA, eating lunch in a closed dorm. The janitor was following orders, as Smith’s internal investigation later confirmed, but the college’s president responded to the incident by putting him on paid leave. 

Kanoute posted the pictures, names, and emails of Jackie Blair, a cafeteria worker, and Mark Patenaude, a janitor, accusing them of “racist, cowardly acts.” The two were not responsible for the call to security, but Kanoute’s posts caused them to be hit with a flood of furious phone calls and mail. Smith apparently pressured Blair to participate in a mediation with Kanoute.

The article portrays both Kanoute and Smith in an unflattering light. It echoes a common refrain from Intellectual Dark Webbers, civil libertarians, and far right grievance hustlers: Colleges are submitting to every bullying demand from social justice warrior students, disabling the free exchange of ideas.

The author, Michael Powell, alludes to some fair points about the problems with employer-mandated anti-racism programs. But by mainly portraying just one dimension of the problem, his article made it possible for conservative outlets to claim the Times had vindicated the absurd declarations underlying Jodi Shaw’s grift


Perhaps Kanoute’s Facebook posts were careless. Quasi-doxxing people, even when they’re the right people, isn’t a great tactic. According to Powell’s article, security was called because Kanoute was in the wrong place. But Black people have been killed for being in the wrong place--and frequently, for being in the right place with the wrong skin. So it seems pretty understandable that Kanoute would be shaken by the incident and wish to call someone out. 

But why did Smith take Kanoute’s complaint as an occasion to discipline or retrain employees who were, apparently, either following problematic orders or completely uninvolved in the incident? The conservative Smith professor Powell spoke to suggests that students like Kanoute are slapping the administration around, potentially imperiling free speech and scholarship. Is it true that woke college students have gotten too powerful?

If we pan out a bit we can see that the problem is market-driven. As the logic of capitalism takes over every aspect of higher education, students more fully assume the role of customers. It makes sense that young people rail against their college systems, which reflect the profound inequities of society at large. But as customers, the main avenue of protest available to them is to call a manager. 

This is the sort of petty power customers, generally, have to address situations we find unfair. We can withhold tips, complain to the boss, or take to Yelp to warn others. These actions may provide a momentary feeling of relief, but none of them challenge the structures that oppress us as consumers. Because the power afforded to us within the market is always directed against workers, our expressions of anger leave capital unscathed. Similarly, Kanoute’s expression of legitimate concern about how racism is institutionally reproduced at Smith primarily served to hurt workers who hold zero institutional power. 

Capitalism and neoliberalism have created a situation in which we are all justifiably enraged, and the only thing we can do about it is yell at each other. You want to blast Verizon over unfair charges, but all you can do is scream at someone who is laboring in a call center for starvation wages. 


Market mechanisms have encroached on each function of the academy, profaning what was once thought to be holy. 

It’s worth noting, of course, that the academy was never the ideal, disinterested, intellectual realm it purports to be, largely because it has always relied on funding from elite interests. Lamentations over a vanishing free market of ideas often thinly conceal nostalgia for times when naked chauvinism was acceptable. 

Because capitalism requires constantly revolutionized markets, we are forever in flux as capital mines civilization, manufacturing more and more monetizable needs. Needless to say, this process disrupts institutions of higher learning. You can view the market’s encroachment over centuries, but in the last 20-30 years it looks something like this: Diminished state funding under neoliberalism leads to a heightened tuition-dependence among public colleges and universities. As state schools compete with private schools for students, both types of institutions become increasingly dominated by a customer service model. The academy starts to act more and more like other industries.

We see evidence of academic marketization in numerous places, including schools set up like department stores. Reporting often focuses on state-of-the-art sports facilities, gourmet cafeteria dining, and lazy rivers constructed to attract student-customers. We hear less about the fact that American colleges and universities are now spending more on non-instructional staff, including marketing staff, than on instructors. Higher education relies more and more heavily on the labor of underpaid, overstretched contingent faculty. Non-profit schools turn an ever greater share of their operations over to for-profit companies like Sodexo and Aramark, known for their enhanced exploitation of workers. In order to afford college, students are forced to acquire substantial debt in the capital market. 

All of these forces--the amazonification of the academy--work against students, just as they ultimately work against most faculty and staff. Many components of marketization tend to disproportionately harm people of color. 

Adjunctification, for example, harms people of color in two ways: 1) Instructors of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be adjuncts, meaning that they’re more likely to be uninsured, work multiple jobs, and struggle to make ends meet. 2) Low-income students, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, are more likely to attend schools where they are primarily taught by contingent faculty. Students taught mainly by adjuncts are less likely to graduate

Even at prestigious institutions like Smith, students are assuming crushing loads of debt in order to afford a college degree--which no longer even remotely guarantees them a prosperous future. Student debt harms people of all races and genders, but the harm falls most heavily on Black women. Oumou Kanoute expressed concern about the ways that schools like Smith are unwelcoming to Black students. Campus security systems are undoubtedly a huge problem, but arguably the high cost of attendance plays a far greater role in keeping Black scholars out.

Over the past two decades, college tuition has risen at nearly eight times the rate of wages. Textbook prices have risen even faster, thanks to publishers’ ability to exploit captive consumers much the way drug companies do. It makes sense that students are acting like angry customers, eagerly demanding good experiences in return for their sizable investments. But in their roles as customers, efforts to flex power or build solidarity with other student-customers frequently only end up further solidifying the power of the market. 

Joshua Sperber examined how students use the website RateMyProfessors to vent about bad experiences and warn others. Their ratings have the effect of making instructors, especially precarious adjuncts and those at community colleges, “play to the crowd” rather than following their scholarly instincts. 

These ratings may give students a feeling of managerial power, but they do nothing to alter the system that enables Wall Street to profit from student risk. If anything students’ consumer management of their professors may leave colleges more thoroughly marketized, by weeding out practices, like rigorous grading, that interfere with high enrollment numbers. 


College students are right to be worked up about unfairness. Oumou Kanoute was right to express outrage at how Black people are victimized in academic spaces. Students deserve to voice their frustrations. But within the marketized academy, schools’ responses to these sorts of incidents are necessarily constrained by marketing concerns. Equity and diversity are crucial goals, but Equity and Diversity are largely about branding. Under capitalism, inclusion becomes a product just like everything else. 

Michael Powell and others suggest that students are gaining too much control over colleges and universities. At a glance, this perspective seems pretty compelling. In reality though, it’s capitalism that has too much control over colleges and universities. Marketization creates an illusion of student power, but ultimately it disempowers students, like Kanoute, just as it disempowers faculty and staff, like Jackie Blair and Mark Patenaude.  

Those who are genuinely anxious about the free exchange of ideas should focus on funding mechanisms that confer corporate control over the scope of academic scholarship. The fact that Uber can purchase entire departments at public universities is a real threat to academic freedom. So is the fact that an increasingly at-will professoriate might feel tacit pressure to avoid activities that could raise the eyebrows of powerful funders. Outraged Smith students are not a real threat. 

Oumou Kanoute wanted to hold Smith accountable for an experience that struck her as hostile. But her call-the-manager approach only served to hurt workers who are oppressed by the same forces that endanger Black students. Capitalism is brilliant at dividing groups of people whom solidarity might empower. If we want to fix any of these higher education problems--institutionalized racism, censorship, precarious labor--we need to address the role of the market.

 

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