If an alien from an exoplanet came to Erasmus University, or to any other university in the Netherlands, and if that alien considered the composition of the university in terms of gender and race, it would most likely draw one of two conclusions. One, this space has been invaded by white men. Two, the model that best describes the spread of white men through institutions of higher learning is that of some kind of plague or epidemic.

Of course us earthlings would be quick to explain to our alien friend that the unequal distribution of men and women, of white people and people of color, is normal – even though it is not a normal distribution in the statistical sense! There’s nothing to worry about here, no invasion or plague going on, this is simply how we do things. You see, we would tell this alien, the principle that governs our distribution over institutions of knowledge and power, is what we call quality. To which the alien might rightfully respond: “I see. And what is the principle that governs the distribution of your quality?”

University refused government money

At this point in time, I don’t think administrators at Erasmus University have a good answer to this question. Recently, our university refused government money for the appointment of so-called Westerdijk chairs for female professors. The dean of the Rotterdam School of Management, Steef van de Velde, made a classic patriarchal move and wasn’t shy about it: in an interview with Erasmus Magazine he said he hadn’t appointed any women because he wanted to ‘protect’ them. After all, an appointment on a Westerdijk chair would be perceived as ‘stigmatizing’, since people would think “that they needed this type of appointment because they could not get an appointment on their own merits.” Moreover, he said, this was not at all a question of money – the RSM has plenty and doesn’t need such money to appoint women. To top it, he said there were plenty of upcoming women in tenure tracks – and why give some women some money (in Dutch, he spoke of a ‘sweetener’, or douceurtje) and others not?

Intellectually lowly environment

I guess I just feel like an alien – alienated – when this type of bullshit is told by an administrator at an institution of higher learning. How does this stuff count as reasonable arguments? What kind of intellectually lowly environment must one be in for this to be normal, even rational? He’s ‘protecting’ women from advancing in their career? He’s a dean and he speaks of stigmatization, which he thus instills with the authority of his office rather than fights?

Should not women have a say in whether they need the patriarch’s ‘protection’? Does the reality of Scandinavian examples of quota without stigmatization have any purchase against this rhetoric? Since when is a professor’s appointment a ‘sweetener’? Does he really think that all the male professors were appointed purely based on their individual merit, without help by the fact that their friends were in all the positions of influence? And if money is not the issue, and there are plenty of excellent women in tenure tracks and one wouldn’t want to give just one of them some money, then why not give a lot of them some money?

Because, and this is the bottom line, he has been giving a whole lot of men a whole lot of money for decades, and that was certainly never a problem? I imagine, though, that those appointments were never galantly called ‘sweeteners’, but something along the lines of ‘strategic investments’ based on ‘quality’. But I gather from the interview with the RSM dean that his is a tough job, because, as he says, “we are all chasing the same women.” Have you ever seen someone so bad at finding women? But seriously, ‘chasing women’ is how you choose to talk about the embarassingly low number of female appointments? One thing is clear, and who would have thought to live to see it: what does it take for a university to refuse government money? Earmark the money for women!

Alienation from the university

This kind of reasoning and rhetoric is an affront on so many levels, including the level of intellectual discussion befitting a university. I have no intention to counter it with all the good reasons for the appointment of women. I don’t think it’s my place in particular to make that case, and I also think that the case has been made over and over again. We know all the arguments – that is, if we choose to pay due attention to the scientific study of ‘diversity’ – but they run aground in the morass of the white male dean-dominated powerhouses that university faculties are in this country.

So this essay is not a case for diversity. If anything, it’s a case for a university that may be gone, and that more likely may have never existed. It’s a personal account of alienation from the intellectual promise that the university keeps on making, keeps on being parasitical on, but always betrays and never fulfils. A promise of enlightenment that was always a lie, but now that it’s dressed in the garb of ‘excellence’, the lie has become a cynical admission of hollowness – as cynical as saying one ‘protects’ women by systematically excluding them from positions of influence and status.

The alien in my hypothetical example might assume that an invasion had occurred. And in a way, of course, the invasion has always already taken place. We are in a state of occupation. Getting serious about undoing it is what is called ‘decolonizing the university’. I don’t have any particular insights to add to those who do research and think about and practice this decolonization – I just think I know that it hasn’t started at my university. Here’s another way to think about what it means that our appointments are so one-sided. If I often feel alienated from the university – and if it helps university administrators to disregard this by interpreting my alienation as frustration, be my guest – it has something to do with the model of living together we embody.

Sheer stupidity

The university, like any other setting, is always also one answer to the question how to live together, how to be social, how to practice sociality as being in the world together. And I guess it just keeps on being disappointing that this – the current composition of the university – is the modality of sociality that keeps on being reproduced. The constraints that currently keep us there, in that exclusive, unequal, exploitative mode of being together, are a combination of sheer stupidity, latent and manifest misogyny and racism, and an overwhelming, overbearing embrace of white masculine mediocrity.

Of course that is not the whole story. Ours is a conditioned stupidity. It is conditioned by an imagination limited to market-based modes of finding value in life. An imagination that cringes when words emerge that do not stem from market vocabularies, even though not that long ago, the university was a place where such words, strange words, were at least studied, and were at least contested. Words like ‘domination’ or ‘oppression’ (though it is what we experience daily but prefer to express in psychologizing, individualizing terms), ‘being together’ (though it is all we can be), or even ‘mediocrity’ (which doesn’t like its name). But being so conditioned is not a condition; it is a constraint that is enforced, but over which we might have control.

University produces paleness

So whatever happens, let it be obvious that our ‘diversity’, that is, the composition of our togetherness, is a choice. And the university as it is produces what might be best called a form of paleness. By this I mean a uniformity and homogeneity, a desire for and expression of an order of looking and working alike, an order of whiteness and masculinity, in which ‘I don’t recognize this picture of the university’ even counts as an argument. This paleness is of course a form of whiteness, which, to be clear has nothing to do with the colour ‘white’ but everything with the domination that accrues to those with access to it. But the paleness I’m alluding to is also an intellectual desolation or drabness, an achromatics of thinking, which should be an acrobatics. And it is a submission to neoliberal procedural routines in the ways we work, as well as a general appreciation of mediocrity sold as ‘excellence’ – remember that, at the latest after appointing men on half the positions available, we’re tapping into the lower tiers of intellect and creativity if we continue to appoint men.

Students are not to blame

And what a bleak picture it is to see those with a ticket to inclusion! What has happened to this supposedly smartest part of the population when the order has them so disciplined that they sit silently behind their computers churning out papers for people just like them, individuated and compartmentalized, cordoned off in what are even called ‘disciplines’, which they defend to death even when they talk the talk of an imaginary ‘between’ the disciplines (‘interdisciplinarity’)? What has happened when students (they are not to blame for this!) don’t even think to criticize the curriculum set by the order of pale sameness?

What has happened when technocratic markers of achievement that are ‘evidence based’ take precedence when in fact most have no clue what a genuine spirit of inquiry would be, what intelligence might be as a mode of sociality beyond individuated IQ indicators, or how study might be a shared venture to recompose the world in ways that subvert the pale order of sameness to which we currently sacrifice ourselves, but mostly others, for the noble cause of producing ‘knowledge’?

Money based on choices of 17-year-olds

And what has happened when two of the biggest, and purely therefore most powerful faculties – the ones drenched in the ideology of neoliberal entrepreneurialism – simply get away with a sexist composition of their faculty, and when all of this occurs out of the sheer irrationality that their power and their money is based on the spurious choices of seventeen-year-olds? Are we even able to fathom what the university could or should be, if it were not arbitrarily governed by the uneducated guesses of those seventeen-year-olds?

It’s obvious my ideal university differs from its current reality. It’s not that I prefer an ‘ivory tower’. In fact, I think the ‘ivory tower’ metaphor is a deeply rhetorical instrument. It falsely presupposes that the university is not currently a corporate institution, with its specific credentializing, entrepreneurial and ‘innovative’ functions in the larger order of capital, only to push for more ‘openness’ (and who can be against that?), i.e., for a stronger realization of the university’s corporate character. If anything is clear it’s that the university is invested in state and corporate power, including criminal fossil fuel companies, and divested in diversity.

So when we keep on seeing how diversity basically functions as what Sarah Ahmed calls a ‘non-performative’ – something designed not to produce its stated goals – the only way to move forward is to step up our critical reflection on, and our subversion of, the university at large. The point is thus not to consider the university as basically fine as it is, and to just grant access to it to a greater number of people, or by people of a variety of genders and race. It’s not about letting others get a piece of the pie, of sharing in the otherwise unchanged corporate paleness that marks the university today – though this is easy for me to say, I know. It’s also not a matter of living up to diversity PR talk. Much more fundamentally, it is a matter of living as such, of living together. After all, this is what we do on campus: during the day, ours is a specific modality of being together, a selective, tilted, and pale form of intimacy. So the question who gets to be there is pertinent, and concerns us all.

University as a place of refuge (from itself)

In a brilliant book published some years ago called The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten  depict the university as a place of refuge. As they say: “it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment.” To anyone able to consider the normal order of everyday corporate paleness with alien eyes, they are no doubt right. Though the question is for whom it is a refuge, the university is no doubt still a refuge. It’s just that, increasingly, or so it seems, it’s a refuge from itself.

That, too, is Harney and Moten’s point: the university is always parasitical on the genuine study that goes on underneath the official, underneath its pale order. It needs the study and intelligence, the informal and the genuinely creative, the modalities of being together in diversity that it at the same time breaks down, the unexpected that it can only register in the commensurating classifications of ‘impact’ and ‘excellence’. Fuck all that. That’s just stuff that tries to render our living together pale, and it seems that inevitably, after millions of years of evolution and then a couple of decades of neoliberal promotion of hollowmindedness, you get a bunch of people that start to actually believe that shit. ‘Impact’, ‘excellence’, we may well conclude by now (as many have before), that these are today’s media for making us pale and controllable. Organized, ordered, normal, same: everybody excellent.

The question we now face is how we fight our paleness, and who or what we grant the authority to compose us.

Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)

[1] Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Durham: Duke University Press
[2] Harney, S. & F. Moten 2013. The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York: Minor Compositions, p. 26

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