by Luis Oyola
(PDF version at bottom!)
Wait… WHAT??? :*(
I don’t want Teresa Sullivan back. But let me clarify: I don’t want Teresa Sullivan back because I don’t want anyone back. The position of the president is not a position of decision-making on behalf of students, it’s a position of reproduction. It’s reproduction of the same economics, the same privileged academic bubble, the same class system, and the same “traditions” that reinforce white supremacy, patriarchy, gentrification, and even have much wider global effects. It doesn’t matter who’s the president, because it’s the structure, the flow of capital within it, and its maintenance through compliance that reproduce the same conditions that make us point at individuals instead. The more content people are with “those at the top”, the more smoothly the cycles of misery, violence, and separation recreate themselves. I don’t want anyone in Carr’s Hill because I am in no way “content” with the relationship they claim to have with me. I want something else entirely.
But what if the Board of Visitors appoints someone worse?
That would be a valid question if there was such a thing as oppression that is “ok” to have around. I don’t want Sullivan back because we shouldn’t tolerate any of it. The administering of our debt, of our labor, of our education is something that’s not quantifiable. If the relationship is there, there is struggle. This argument is usually made in defense of the Democratic Party in contrast with the Republican Party (and a lot of the rhetoric around Sullivan parallels this). But what happens then is that the Democratic Party will continue doing the same things the Republicans were doing, but with the justification that it could’ve been worse. We don’t deserve to fear this. If we put our trust on ourselves, rather than those who claim to represent our interests, we would not be mourning what is, in the end, just a reshuffling of the university’s economy. We would be using the instability and vulnerability that the university is exposing now to build our own power for our own interests.
But she was the first woman president! And she’s so nice!
Well, yes, that’s a fact. And I don’t doubt that it would be a good time having a drink or two with her. But this rhetoric is artificially separating her identity from her very real role, which is explicitly to keep the university as the power and financial machine it always has been (yes… even back in the Jefferson days…). Her identity as a woman in a position of power might be pointed by some as the one sign of progress worth defending, as a sort of feminist project. But “progress” should never mean that these historically marginalized identities recreate the same relationships that made us yearn for liberation in the first place. It should mean destroying these relationships. Or, on the short-term, celebrating the instances that go against that narrative of “progress” as tokenizing allocations of power. I prefer to celebrate all the amazing women of color that fought during the UVA Living Wage campaign, for example, because at least it wasn’t about having a position of power, but about challenging it.
Won’t she be thankful for our work if she gets reinstated due to our pressure?
Let’s be optimistic and say: probably. Regardless, it doesn’t get to the more terrifying fact that we just reinstated and restabilized the same system that has always fucked us over. And let’s be real, if it does happen, it won’t go beyond a vague letter to the university, thanking “her constituents”, and then she’ll go on to do what every other president would do, except that no one would be mad about it anymore. We need to let go of our sort-of-Gandhian fantasies of winning hearts and minds. The poverty recreated by the university is neither pretty, nor pitiful, nor exotic. It is real, and so should be our struggle.
Alright, well what do you suppose we do instead?
First, let me start with what we shouldn’t be doing: mourning her, defending her, talking about this situation as if it’s just a matter of “greed” and “robber barons”, and worst of all, rallying for her. We’re talking here about an infrastructure that’s been around for centuries and has found ways to survive despite the generations of strikes, revolutions, and movements that have fought for something different. We need to treat it as such, and analyze the system as what it is, a system. Those at the top, those who stand to gain from our labor will try to calm us, to concede to us, to absorb us… anything so that we remain compliant with the basic relationship: they extract and manage, we work and obey. The UVA administration deserves neither our pity, nor our half-critiques. What we must do instead is recognize our true role within the university, whether as workers, as students, or as faculty. We are here as interchangeable pieces of a node to keep money and labor flowing. If you want a clear example of what to do instead, look at Quebec, look at Puerto Rico, look at Egypt… we must refuse our roles and build solidarity with each other, not with those at the top who only have superficial ties with us.
A special note to those in the Living Wage campaign:
I was a hunger striker. I fought (and so did many of you) through the administration’s attempts to silence us, to buy us out, and to keep us from connecting with workers. Yet some of you have stood in vocal defense of Sullivan. Did you somehow forget her letter to the University and all those moments between February and March? Where were you? What will happen next time we band together? Will we stand together only for you to turn around a little bit later in defense of the same people that ignored us, that played with us? I feel disheartened by that prospect. Some of you stood in front of the Rotunda going point by point through all the ways the administration was cheating us. Yet somehow, now that Sullivan is getting fired, she’s exempt from all of this? Let’s be strong. No movement will be successful if it’s shifted around this easily. Refuse to get bought out.