What We’re Reading: Refusing the University

image by Clare Reid

On September 23rd, students, staff, and faculty participated in the first of three conversations hosted by the Doyle Program on anti-racism in higher education. (The next session is on November 11th.) As a point of entry into the conversation, we read “Refusing the University” by Sandy Grande, associate professor and Chair of the Education Department at Connecticut College. 

In this book chapter, Grande begins by situating the foundations of higher education in North America at the center of the institution of slavery and the disposession of Indigenous people, describing how the academy “never stood apart” from either, illuminating the university’s “long-time accessory in the perpetuation of settler crimes against Black and Indigenous humanity” (48). Grande leverages the concept of refusal as a strategy that can help bring new responses to institutional life to the fore. Grande describes refusal as non-engagement with the structures of the university, or non-acceptance of the rewards it offers for collaboration in its systems. Our discussion of the article focused on this suggestion, and we were left with compelling but challenging questions: What are some practical applications of a refusal? How can we put the concept into practice while maintaining our relationships to the academic institutions of which we are a part? 

One of Grande’s suggestions stands out as an actionable change that we can attend to even in (and perhaps especially because) of our current distanced state. Grande argues in favor of cultivating “fugitive spaces” within the university, where students, staff, and faculty work to “cleave study and struggle, where they can be in but not of the university” (49). Teach-ins, strikes, protests, conversations, and networks of support—to name a few formations—all have the potential to be fugitive spaces in this sense. How can we cultivate and nurture these ways of working alongside one another, under the auspices of our university, but not necessarily in uncritical alignment with its institutional goals? Our present moment has pushed us to reconsider and redesign our ways of being “in” the university. Can it help us uncover, develop, and celebrate ways of working, learning, and teaching that refuse complicity with the university’s past, and support the design of a more just institutional future?