The university in a liquid world

I am writing this essay on my computer. A computer which is not at the university, but in my own house. Before the coronacrisis, I would have gone to the office of my study association and used the facilities of the university, but in this state of exception I am not able to go where I please. As my own example illustrates, the coronacrisis has had a profound impact on university life, but the absence of the ability to go and study where one pleases is not the only development one can discern. In this essay I will reflect on the role the university plays with regards to the coronacrisis and I will do so by tackling the thoughts and ideas of Zygmunt Bauman, Giorgio Agamben and Bruno Latour. Respectively I will take a look at the way in which the university exists in a liquid world, how the state of exception has affected the university and how the university could be the roots for a dwelling place for the terrestrial.

The first question we have to answer is what we mean by this liquid world. As Bauman puts it, we have come from a solid to a liquid world, “that is, into a condition in which social forms (structures that limit individual choices, institutions that guard repetitions of routines, patterns of acceptable behaviour) can no longer (and are not expected) to keep their shape for long, because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them, and once they are cast for them to set.” Instead of working at a company which takes you on for a lifetime, people nowadays tend to be flexible in their career.

A beautiful illustration of the liquid world can be found in the movie Sorry We Missed You (2019) by Ken Loach. This film tells how a working-class man, Ricky, decides to work for a delivery company, but not in the classical sense of being employed at that company. He rides his own car, does his own taxes, in short: he is his own man. The company he works for uses technology to dictate when and where he must be, meaning that although he has a sense of ownership with regards to his own work, he does not have the actual freedom to go and work as he pleases. If he were to ignore the dictates of the technology, he might lose his job. The threat of that loss is what puts him in a precarious position and illustrates how he is part of the liquid world. According to the CBS, the amount of self-employed workers has grown from 8% of the workforce in the Netherlands in 2003 to 12% in 2019. Ricky is not the only one.

How does this liquid world show itself in university life? If we take a look at the academic workforce in America, we can see that whereas in 1975 almost 45% of the workforce had tenure, this figure dropped to 30% in 2015. This trend is not only observed in America, but also the Netherlands has seen a rise in precarious positions of the academic workforce. The ideal of an undisturbed academic life in which one can pursue their own interests has become a fiction for a large part of academia. Instead of safe havens universities have become as much a part of liquid society as any other institution.

The coronacrisis has only accentuated the liquidity of university life. If a solid world means a world in which one has a certain sense of stability, the loss of stability is all the more clear if we look at the effects of the measures which have been taken to halt the virus on that particular working force. Consider that for the most part the non-tenured people are also the ones who have just started a family. Consider now that at once the education that you provide needs to be reshaped to fit to the digital world and your children are now staying indoors and at your home ordered to continue their own lessons. You can’t just say no to the demands of the job: there is no security that you will continue to have this job if you protest your position. You are completely at the mercy of your faculty administration: will they be flexible on their part if you fail to set up your digital education or research because your children have demanded much more attention?

We can’t blame the faculty however, we can’t blame the governing boards of the university, because they have just been following the protocols set out for them by an increasingly globalised world. We can see here the divorce between power and politics as put forth by Bauman: “Much of the power to act effectively that was previously available to the modern state is now moving away to the politically uncontrolled global (and in many ways extraterritorial) space; while politics, the ability to decide the direction and purpose of action, is unable to operate effectively at the planetary level since it remains, as before, local.” A university on its own is just like a little village, divorced from the extraterritorial space of the market which demands a university has a certain position on the university rankings.

Some decisions within the university should however be understood very critically. We can’t blame universities for adapting to a global world, but during the coronacrisis universities have used the state of exception as a situation where decisions could be made which are very much dubious. Before we look at some of these decisions, we should look at the status of a state of exception. What does it mean to have a state of exception? Reflecting on Schmitt, he says that “the state of exception separates the norm from its application in order to make its application possible. It introduces a zone of anomie into the law in order to make the effective regulation [normazione] of the real possible.” In a state of exception, there arises a paradoxical situation: the law, the norms, the constitution is no longer in effect, but whatever decision is being made has now the force of law. The sovereign, which in our example will be the executive board of a university, is able to make decisions which have legal effect because legality has been suspended. In a sense this means that whatever decisions are being made, every decision will hold up in court, because every rule written down has been annulled in the state of exception.

Officially, the Netherlands didn’t declare a state of exception, but we can reasonably say that our universities have acted as if we are in a state of exception. To deliver on its task of education, universities have transitioned in an incredibly small amount of time all their activities to the digital world. As I have noted earlier, “Zoom-meetings have become a standard not to be disputed.” Some companies and organizations decided to ban Zoom as a meeting software because of privacy demands, but they opted for alternatives instead. Nobody from the managerial elite has thought it would be a possibility to just stop. Stop for a moment with the pressure on work, stop for a moment with the need to continue with business as usual. As Marc van Oostendorp noted, why didn’t we take this opportunity to reflect on what is going on? The irony here is that universities have made decisions based on a state of exception to make sure that life would be as similar to the state before the exception. Universities have failed to realize, to fully understand, what it means for a state of exception to be in effect, but they did use the state of exception to take measures which are questionable.

Which decisions did they make? For one, they have opted for online proctoring. In order to safeguard the validity of the exams, making sure no good grade was achieved fraudulently, students needed to consent to online proctoring. Online proctoring is the mechanism where software registers what’s going on in the view of a webcam. Students needed to show their room and every odd-looking movement was signalled as being an indication of possible fraud. As you can understand, this is quite some invasion of privacy, but given the state of exception every student who was confronted with this measure couldn’t decline. Declining would mean a student could go for the resit or, if there are actual grounds for not participating with online proctoring, a student might write an appeal to the exam committee which, as every student knows, takes its time. One could argue that these procedures make online proctoring not a given and therefore not something to make a fuss about. However, the regular procedures in which education committees are tasked to formulate the rules and regulations for exams have been ignored. Online proctoring is exactly a measure which indicates that executive boards of universities have used the state of exception as a means to implement certain procedures which otherwise might have been halted.

As we have seen there is much to be critical about with regards to the university, but the university is the place for the future. Universities can be the actors promoting the dwelling places as Latour described them. “To define a dwelling place, for a terrestrial, is to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be,” writes Latour in his book Down to Earth. A university, being a gathering place for knowledge in every way possible is the place where the divide between the Local and Global can be broken. Instead of fully succumbing to the trend of internationalisation (and thus globalization), a university can focus its attention towards what it can provide for the community on different scales. Critics concerning internationalisation have become louder in the recent past, but this coronacrisis only more enforces those critics because universities have become much to dependent on internationals and those internationals aren’t crossing borders for a while.

A university as a dwelling place stands in stark contradiction with the university as an institution which offers increasingly more precarious jobs. A university as a dwelling place will not go into a state of exception in order to boost its digital presence and thereby ignoring questions of privacy. A university as a dwelling place is, however, a place where students and teachers alike can work on their self-actualization and the actualization of society at large. It means universities have to share their knowledge, need to use open standards and open access. But, at the same time, a university also needs to foster tradition, cultivate its own history and that of society. Being a place for tradition, it is anchored in the Local, but sharing its knowledge it is oriented towards the Global and thus, university is indeed the dwelling place for the terrestrial as described by Latour.

The coronacrisis has laid bare the liquid and global world our university resides in and it has been used as an excuse to take measures which can not be considered to be for the good of society, where a university should be the place par excellence to consider the good. The university as a dwelling place, however, does not only mean considering the good. It also means doing the good. Marx has famously said philosophers “have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Once the university is a dwelling place for the terrestrial, it does precisely that: it changes the world and hopefully for the better.

Agamben, G. (2005) The State of Exception (pp. 32-40). The University of Chicago Press
Bauman, Z. (2007) Liquid Times. Polity
Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity

Paper for the MA course Philosophy of International Law and Migration by Martijn Stronks the Vrije Universiteit te Amsterdam

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