Like a lot of other universities around North America, my university has been talking over the last few weeks about anti-racism and what universities need to do to do better. Among other things, events included a workshop I attended last week. I've been thinking about an important point that the speaker made, which is if you say that you have anti-racist values (which universities do), then you have to put those values into practice, otherwise it's just talk. Success at putting those values into practice is manifested in practical outcomes, and can thus be seen and measured.
This point got me to thinking about the different ways that university systems work to create the outcomes that we do, in fact, experience and see. One thing that happens a lot in universities, to one degree or another, is that decisions are driven by undergraduate enrolment statistics. Departments and faculties get resources if they attract more students and majors. Departments and faculties die if they fail to attract students and majors. Individual classes run, or don't run, based on whether they attract students. As you can imagine, this can influence big decisions, like who gets hired to do what, and vast numbers of smaller decisions, like what gets on a syllabus.
This way of proceeding has always seemed to me a bit bizarre. Are we really going to let the decisions of a bunch of 18-22 year-olds -- and, the narrow slice of them who happen to go to university -- determine the direction of scholarly research and the ideas that a community invests in? This is nothing against young people -- it's just weird to have this tiny cross-section of society wield this enormous power over something that is quite important and complicated.
And even from an abstract point of view, you can see how this way of proceeding might tend away from, rather than toward, teaching and research focused on anti-racism and anti-oppression. Young white people may not want to confront their place in an unjust system. Almost all young people are pressured to study practical subjects. In universities without breadth requirements, students in STEM majors may feel they don't have time in their course schedule for other things. These pressures don't come just from anxious parents, they also come from the way our world is -- hyper competitive, capitalistic, etc. etc.
If I understand correctly, one way of framing decision-making based on enrolment goes something like this: undergraduate tuition pays the bills, so that is the income; a sensible organization of a system lines up the income and the expenses so that the one pays for the other in some linear kind of way. I've even heard of universities where they say "you eat what you kill": the idea being that self-sufficiency market-based norms coordinating input and output should undergird university decision-making.
There is much to say about this, but what I want to focus on here is the veneer of objectivity and neutrality sometimes placed on this framing. Apportioning resources in a way that seems to line up supply with demand can seem like you are avoiding these problematic value-laden judgments. It may seem like you're taking a step back -- *we* aren't the ones making these decisions. It's just how things shake out when you look at the numbers.
But all ways of making decisions are value-laden and non-neutral. If you do a cost-benefit analysis, you're making judgments about how to weigh everyone's choices and what other values -- like justice -- you're ignoring. If you base everything on consent and individual liberty, you're making judgments that privilege the status quo, and that rule out rectification of historical injustice. The metaphor of the market rests on assumptions that what your customers want and need is what should be created, and that their sense of worth should inform yours.
As racialized people have been saying for a long time, the social structures in place that feel neutral or objective to those in the dominant social group are anything but, and often work to reinforce the injustices of the past.
Of course universities should factor into their decision-making what students are looking for. When they do so, they pay respect to certain values, including respect for student needs and student autonomy. The point here is just that other values matter too -- values that are distinct from these, and may conflict with them. If you say you care about these other values, you have to find a way to make room for them in practical decision-making at various levels, which can mean bringing judgment calls back into the picture.