As the World Turns: Spinning the Idea of the University As We Know It

On March 11, 2014, at around 5:30am, students installed three sets of banners about student debt around the UC Davis campus. Three hours later, one set of banners was taken down, and two hours after that, another set had disappeared. The students, eager to retrieve the banners they worked many hours to design and create, asked around, only to be answered with a wall of smoke and mirrors from an administration that in short can be described as a complicated, top-heavy structure of managers, marketers and messengers of all sorts. The students pressed their case, and the banners were found in the possession of Grounds and Landscaping Services. The removal of the banners was ordered after a complaint from someone in the Administration: why some, but not all of the banners were taken down remains a mystery.

The location and motivation for the installation of the banners were not a mystery. Part of an assignment for an art history course on curatorial methods that I teach at UC Davis, the banners were part of an exhibition on the student debt crisis. AHI 401 introduces students to exhibition-making. The course, in addition to provoking thought about how an exhibition functions as a space and relation, engages students’ interest in a growing and intellectually demanding field by challenging them to take the lead in producing and displaying not only objects but also visual information. The final assignment for the course is to curate an exhibition either at the Richard L. Nelson gallery or somewhere else on the UCD campus. This quarter, one group of students curated an exhibition, Art as Translation, that included prints and lithographs drawn from the University’s art collection.

The other group curated an exhibition on student debt, which required them to construct both the frame and its contents.

The primary stated aim of One University One Debt was to create awareness about the trillion dollar student debt crisis—what it means for students to be in debt and in default—in addition to serving as a platform that could complicate and invite discussion about and possible solutions to this growing crisis.

The One University campaign. Click to visit their website.

The curators of One University One Debt framed their exhibition with acts of appropriation and institutional critique. Parodying the University’s $81,249 “One World One UC Davis” marketing campaign—which describes how UCD prepares its students for the real world while simultaneously locating itself institutionally as part of an expanding global community—the students created their own banners and website.

Breaking institutional silence and widespread neglect of students’ own pressing concerns, that insulate them from pragmatic questions of which they are in fact all too aware as part of their own college experience, One University One Debt invited students to reflect on what it means to be in debt, and how it impacts their day-to-day lives.

In contrast to the University’s official banners that celebrate the achievements of individual students and faculty, the exhibition’s banners were a mix of images and text that portrayed students as overworked, overwhelmed and overextended.

Other banners included facts: a UCD student graduates with an average of $19,000 of debt; UC tuition has increased 225% over the past decade.  The online component of the exhibition——featured social media postings (tweets and Instagram images of empty refrigerators and a fuel gauge showing a full tank “thanks to Mom”) as well as interviews with students juggling debt despite taking a full course load and working several jobs (many of them work more than 20 hours per week).

The curatorial premise and explanation of both the physical and the online components of the exhibition were laid out on the “about” tab of the online exhibition, including the content and location of banners. One of the first administrative offices to notice the online component of the exhibition was the Office of Strategic Communications. The Office of Strategic Communications, in a set of email exchanges to me and the students seemed to commend the savviness of the students, describing the exhibition as “a clever way to leverage the university’s brand campaign to bring awareness to an important issue for students across the nation, by highlighting stories of UC Davis students.” While the Office of Strategic Communications was aware of the exhibition (as made clear by this correspondence), the banners were installed without formal approval from another part of the administration –Campus Planning and Community Resources—leading to their not-so-surprising removal by Grounds Maintenance. What was surprising, however, was the celerity in which they were removed. As explained to a student by someone in Grounds Maintenance, the removal of the banners was not usual protocol, as illegally posted items are usually investigated but not taken down unless there is an order or complaint. The next day, the students were given permission to re-install the banners alongside the “One World One University” banners with an apology from multiple levels of the administration, including the Office of Strategic Communications, stating that they were removed due to miscommunication and the lack of prior approval to install them.

“Parodying the University’s $81,249 “One World One UC Davis” marketing campaign—which describes how UCD prepares its students for the real world while simultaneously locating itself institutionally as part of an expanding global community—the students created their own banners and website.”

Slips of tongue by Grounds and Landscape staff and the waning enthusiasm by the Office of Strategic Communications sent mixed messages not only to the students, but also to a reporter from the school newspaper, The Aggie. Though the exhibition was featured on the front page of the school newspaper, its curatorial premise was barely engaged, as the “controversy” over the removal of the banners was placed front and center, with a headline on how the Administration initially saw the banners as vandalism. The print version of the article due to a possible printing error abruptly ends with the line “Because the posters highlight a negative issue” which was to be continued on page 13—but there was no article to finish reading on page 13, foreclosing any further discussion on student debt. The on-line version of the article went further to undermine the students’ intentions,  so that the removal of the banners seemed to serve as a warning to future students planning on presenting anything outside of the classroom on the UC Davis campus: follow university protocols or else.  These protocols—such as UCD’s  “Campus Posting Guidelines” and its proposed “Freedom of Expression” policies—seem designed to thwart any desire to confront and critique the University, making it almost impossible to present anything on the campus without prior approval from “the Administration” as though this body was external to its constitution by students and faculty.

Curating an exhibition, as the students learn over the course of the quarter, requires one to be organized and detail-oriented, to work within a budget (under $450) and to deploy a wide range of research strategies, including synthesizing and condensing information into concise texts and/or visuals. The students also learned how to navigate around campus rules and regulations and recognize the spin generated and managed by a corporate university. Despite the Office of Strategic Communication’s acknowledgement that “debt is a most pressing issue” and its initial interest, enthusiasm and support of the exhibition by intending to feature One Debt on the main UC Davis webpage, the Office ended up not writing any kind of story on the exhibition or student debt–claiming that the moment had passed and the exhibition was no longer timely. The same administrative office also bypassed a perfect marketing opportunity to promote a career option or set of options for students who major in the humanities, this being purportedly the core of their mission. The students’ exhibit thoughtfully framed student debt in multi-layered and open-ended ways, and invited their peers and the rest of their audience to think critically about, rather than merely accept, different reasons for the enduring debt crisis and how both debt and the high cost of tuition raise the question of whether college is “worth it” and whether it has become a necessary measure to secure a job rather than a way to open minds or pursue passions. The Office of Strategic Communications’ failure or negligence to showcase these extraordinary students’ ability to problem solve and connect on a global level with other students who are in debt ultimately led to a number of valuable “life” lessons, over and beyond the course objectives—including the potential power of social media. Yet the experience of working with these amazing students was at the same time a sobering realization of how naturalized and endemic neoliberal principles have become in the way the University is run: encumbering and indenturing students with “good debt” in order to maintain the brand of the university, the status quo of a state government that doesn’t want to raise taxes, and a federal government that profits alongside with Wall Street and lenders, by not pushing for loan-forgiveness legislation, stronger consumer protection statutes, or revised bankruptcy laws.

Much scholarship has been written within the social sciences and humanities about the “neoliberal” and “imperial” university and its championing of the free market and free trade. The neoliberal university straddles the divide between this economic desire and goal and its need to remain a place of academic freedom. “One World One UC Davis” encompasses both of these aims by promoting an identity that celebrates multicultural faces and voices, but at the same time must remain univocal in its message.  Operating like a corporation, UC Davis (and the entire UC system) feels the need to brand itself, make itself legible and visible, which entails establishing a homogenous core identity of “positive” signifiers conveyed through a consistent voice and logo (recall the fiasco of the UC logo redesign last year). While a number of questions arise in terms of what it means to brand a university, I want to keep my focus in concluding this essay on the students’ exhibition and its engagement with “One World One UC Davis.”

one debt_our stories
Click to read students’ stories of debt collected through the One Debt website.

One Debt revealed the gap between the students’ day-to-day experience and the aligned interests of the marketers hired to promote the university and to organize the ways alumni, faculty, students, and donors think and feel about UC Davis. “One World One Davis” constructs a fantasy through an aggregation of social media and sound bytes that in the end send the same message: “One World One World Davis is YOU, a global network of…unsung heroes, imaginative research teams, and innovative thinkers.” One Debt posed a threat to this consensus of UC Davis as one unified, happy, positive experience. By not engaging the exhibition—first through pre-emption, then through indifference—the University revealed to the students the tension behind the politics of branding itself and what happens when curriculum—not an extracurricular activity—seeps outside the privacy of the protected classroom. The late Stuart Hall said, “the University is a critical institution or it is nothing.” In the absence of a mechanism for criticism, UC Davis threatens to become nothing, but a brand—a brand moreover, that student-consumers cannot necessarily trust. The need to promote and protect its “brand” conflicts with the University’s “other” “core missions” and services—including the need to serve as a place of higher learning for all students. Even with the terms set by corporatism, then, censure harms the University’s product.

On another level, refusing to critically engage the exhibition can be seen in hindsight as a cover up: not of some administrator’s mission to shut down the exhibition, but rather, the University’s inability to acknowledge or discuss its complicity in the intensification of the student debt crisis, precisely one of the global issues that the University’s “One World” campaign might be addressing.

The student debt crisis points to how UC Davis has lost its resolve to address this crisis of student debt. Like countless numbers of university administrators which accept the logic of higher education as a business, UC Davis is engaged in an act of ongoing primitive accumulation—or in the words of David Harvey “accumulation by dispossession”—by raising tuition, admitting more out of state and international students, and colluding with banks, lenders, and the federal and state governments to circumvent change and maintain the status quo. Tied to a structure that forces it to upkeep its identity and brand, the University cannot appeal to its own faculty members for alternative solutions. Rather, it must rely on “strategic communicators” to frame and regulate conversations from student debt to BDS.

Rather than looking at the students of One University One Debt as the future, a means to change the world in ways that are unforeseen—to think critically and to innovate, in other words—the University would rather tether itself to an embarrassingly outmoded and ineffective “branding” process and corporate structure that requires regimentation over experimentation. Revealing the potential of an unruly social media and the promise it holds for building momentum and future actions, the students learned how to shift the contours of discourse. The student curators of One Debt showed that they can do more than curate an exhibition. They can make the world turn and torque in more ways than one.  That’s part of the grand tradition of art and exhibition-making—the brand managers really should check it out.

The author would like to thank the student curators of One University One Debt and Evelyn Frederick for giving permission to reprint the photographs from the exhibition that took place at UC Davis at the beginning of March 2014.

Susette Min