Issue 3 (December 2010)

Two Hundred Years of University "Reform" and How to Dream It

Rei Terada



In a clear winter in Los Angeles, the ache of the struggle for the University of California flares up in strange ways: in sentences that hang in the air, a fatigue that remembers the gray prose of lost bureaucratic battles. To experience the events and sensations of this time as only obscurely, even hypothetically, connected is already to encounter the epistemological challenge of characterizing its problems. The privatization of the University of California has been exacerbated by many factors—most of all by ever more limited opportunities for the extraction of profit in the U.S. economy that now make the university worth mining to business interests. Such factors themselves, however, seem so much a part of “capitalism” and “rationalization” that they fail to draw a circle around the current problem that would be any smaller than these epochal categories. Accordingly, no one really seems to expect the crisis to have an end. What, indeed, is “it”? The largely open-ended demands and expressive and self-constitutive character of UC protests have been, among other things, ways of acknowledging the boundlessness and namelessness of what they respond to: even “capitalism” no longer seems capacious or contemporary enough as a name. Just as this indefiniteness acknowledges the need for forms and relations that don’t exist yet, it suggests, as well, intransitive attitudes of protest to sustain involvement for who knows how long: ways to live protest—and the unfreedom that is its matrix—that offer more than the conventional oppositional virtues of criticality and commitment. 

I’ve been reading in the nineteenth-century history of the universities of the various German states, and on a bad day it can seem as though the rationalization of education under the auspices of the police has been going on forever (and has been fought by students forever). In the late Napoleonic regime and early nineteenth century, German universities underwent a series of complex reorganizations and transformations.  Some closed entirely, others closed and were later re-opened, and a few new ones were launched; at times it seemed that the very existence and idea of the university could be abandoned. The upheaval was overdetermined socially and politically. Late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century German universities are often described as underthought and antiquated, and the best reason for reorganizing them seems to have been that university students themselves were dissatisfied with the education on offer, which they increasingly viewed as boring and irrelevant. Enrollments had been shrinking for a long time. But the attention that the universities received was often “reform” of the cynical kind. Their vulnerability exposed them to the self-interests of political players. There were strenuous debates between “neohumanists” who wanted to revise the curriculum toward (idealist) subjective development and “utilitarians” who wanted to focus more narrowly on professional schools; the former felt attacked by the latter, inertial traditionalists resisted both, and along the way democratization, which had seemed possible to radicals under Napoleon, went missing.

Historical questions can be (and have been) asked about what it means that this period of turmoil preceded the eventual development of the German state university along the lines of the University of Berlin—an institution now taken aspirationally, often uncritically, as a metonym for European-style higher learning. Long thought to have been the relatively happy ending of the story, the ideal of the national university, like the nineteenth-century nation-state that erected it, now looks more like a temporary stabilization in a sequence of events that is less and more than a narrative. No dialectic quite explains the passage from the German universities’ near collapse to their establishment as supposed pillars of humanistic education; nor did any determinism of destruction materialize to put them away, even though the concept of the university was fragile to the crumbling point. There were only threats, abuses, decades of stifling repression, protests, meetings, opportunities, and lost opportunities. The “confusion” of the post-Napoleonic era, before the consolidation of nineteenth-century nations, can no longer be seen as an anomalous condition.

One of the most discouraging parts of the picture is what seems steadiest in it: the patterned response of university students and faculties in which students propose changes to the culture and governance of the university, while faculties continue to perceive themselves as its constituents and regulators—finally its only real inhabitants. Here it’s worth quoting a historian of the period, Charles McClelland, at some length:

a meeting of students at the Wartburg [sic] in the spring of 1848 produced, inter alia, demands for the end of separate faculties and the restoration of the principle of the unity of learning; for the abolition of university attendance as a prerequisite for certain civil service jobs; for a greater role of students in the election of academic officials and the appointment of professors; for student self-government and the abolition of separate academic courts; and for complete freedom of teaching and studying. The meeting turned into a self-appointed student parliament, further demanding the abolition of lecture fees, the institution of salaries for the Privatdozenten [untenured faculty], the elimination of Latin requirements, and open enrollment of students.
A second student congress in Eisenach in the fall reaffirmed many of these points in a “constitution” for the German universities; in addition, the abolition of state examinations for the professions was demanded, and a new governing structure consisting of student-faculty committees to replace the bureaucracy was envisioned. These demands represented the viewpoint of the most radical students, with some support from Privatdozenten.

At a meeting of professors in Jena, proposals for change were much more modest, reflecting the preponderance of Ordinarien [permanent faculty] there. Though yielding on many points in a direction of change, the professors refused to abolish lecture fees or academic justice, or to make more than token changes in university governance, examinations, entrance requirements, and so forth.  The professors did favor the abolition of the curator system, improvement of their own pay scales, and rights in professorial appointments. Even these modest requests were withdrawn during another meeting of professors in the far more conservative environment of 1849. [1]

Some radical (by the standards of the time) professors were vocal, and were censored and persecuted; but even radical professors act (note my change of tense) as though the social and class distinctions professor/student and permanent labor/temporary labor are more compelling than equality within the university. This is itself, of course, a social and class-based position: tenure-track professors’ disinterest in refusing the conversion of permanent to temporary labor has literally impoverished their own students’ futures as the price for compliance with the administrative order that lends them social status—and minor financial advantage in the short run. The prevailing attitude is to treat all non-professors as not mattering because, entirely circularly, they are transients who have little or no representation in faculty governance (no one, I think, has tried to make more than “token changes” in the rules of academic senates to include non-professors; no one imagines that this would be possible).

Faculty act as if no one is speaking if a professor or administrator is not speaking, fail to consider student and worker protesters as thinkers as well as performing bodies, assume that the institutional and political understanding of non-professors must be rudimentary compared to their own, and largely fail ever to ask or even conceive of asking non-professors to opine on what they—we—take to be the business of the faculty: the organization of the university itself. The passivity of assistant professors who were students yesterday [2] is no more surprising than the passivity of the progressive faculty as well as the traditionalist faculty, of labor historians and antiracist scholars alongside economics faculty and rationalist political scientists. The logic of social distinction preys on all, founded as it is in the belief in meritocracy that has been the core principle of the university since the Napoleonic rationalization of civil service, when humanistic education, and not just law and medical schools, attuned itself to employment qualification. [3] The social caste system of the university is firmly at odds with the enactment of the democratic political ideals in the curriculum. What is surprising is that students do so often try to change hierarchical practice, as though they were aware of having to transform the culture before it transforms them.

In the period I’m reading about—which is more an epoch than a “period,” so that it seems difficult to call it“ours” or “theirs”—the “reform” of the universities unfolded under the protection of the police. The Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, a set of strictures on student protest, academic inquiry, and free speech, were issued after a member of a radical student group, Karl Sand, assassinated the rightist playwright August von Kotzebue, who had derided calls for freedom of speech by student groups specifically. It’s reported that after stabbing Kotzebue at his house, Sand spotted Kotzebue’s four-year-old child and was filled with such consternation that he tried to stab himself to death; the Prussian state nursed him back to health for the satisfaction of executing him. In the turbulent September of 1819, John Keats noticed portraits of Sand, the unfortunate “destroyer of Kotzebue,” for sale in a bookshop, and remarked in a letter to his U.S. family, “His very look must interest every one in his favour—I suppose they have represented him in college dress . . . A fine Mouth, cheek bones (and this is no joke) full of sentiment.” [4] The group to which Sand belonged had only fifteen members, but the incident became an excuse to persecute dissidents across the university system. Each campus was assigned its own state representative to censor, surveil and police its population. McClelland notes that radical dissidence went “largely underground” after the Decrees and purges, yet mentions various “exceptional times” that students rose up before the revolutionary year 1848: “the Hambach Festival in 1832, the abortive student coup of the Frankfurt wachensturm in 1833” (220).

* * *

Sand wandered into Keats’s mind as Keats was wondering how to sustain his own marginal existence. On September 13, four days before Keats’s letter about the Sand portraits, there had been a large rally in London—30,000 is the estimated turnout Keats cites—to protest the killing of peasants by troops at another mass gathering in Manchester (the infamous “Peterloo massacre”). [5]


In the letter Keats reflects on heterogeneous things: his practice of getting reasonably dressed just in order to stay home and write, people who act like idiots when they’re in love, a sketchy theory of political development in England, and the look of doors along the side streets in the town of Winchester, where he was then staying: “most part black with a little brass handle just above the key hole—so that you may easily shut yourself out of your own house” (369).  And the portraits of Sand, commodified fragments of an anger that the English bookstore apparently saw as relevant to its customers’ economic rage.  It isn’t automatically obvious why London workers would be interested in buying memorabilia of a martyr to German nationalism, German democracy, and student rights; if they were, hatred of authority jumped several borders here to mark out a common space without defining what exactly makes it common.

Keats ponders Sand at a time when he’s not sure what to do to make himself publicly useful, and the image of Sand would not seem to be helpful in this regard. Karl Sand is a figure of pathos and incompetence; his acts issue as much from his psychological fragility as his philosophical beliefs, and the same is true of Kotzebue, whose career was notable for his vulgar and out-of-control attacks on the sexuality of his enemies. Their meeting place was a kind of implosion, commitment taking the form of collapse. Passing by that point of collapse with sympathy, Keats does not know how to positively characterize his own political identity. In a way he is an area of indeterminacy on the individual level, a tissue of sympathies and antipathies that don’t average out to any sum. But this too is a phenomenon elicited by the scale of the problem (that problem at least as large as capitalism that I have declined to name). How then do people support themselves through the resulting disorientation, in which dissent seems fated to know so little about itself and where it’s going?

Keats’s writing clothes and black doors, and the drifting figure of the poet in general, who confessed during this time that he didn’t know how to think about the time and didn’t know how respond to its problems effectively, are experimental organizations of the scene around him,  no less political and impolitical than it. Writing clothes are his defense against the depressions of unemployment. Juxtaposed in the letter to George Keats’s own failed middle-class investments (“good God—who can avoid these chances” [305]), they assert against the evidence that Keats’s poetry is a respectable occupation: “whenever I find myself growing vapourish, I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly and in fact adonize as I were going out—then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write” (305). The seemingly inexpressive Winchester doors express the crabbed somnolence of the neighborhood, the “nothing going on” there—a nothing actively maintained—of which the election of the mayor, on the day of writing, is the equally absurd other side (“It was indeed high time the place should have some sort of excitement” [344]—this election being another way, maybe, of locking oneself out of one’s own house). Meanwhile, Keats enjoyed another side of this nothing going on—the fact that there wasn’t “any thing like manufacturing” there (309). [6] Keats’s aleatory language encloses, traverses, and releases the diffuse and slightly ominous phenomena of his so-called life. He contemplates the blackness of the doors until they yield a little of what made them impose themselves on him, and so add something to his understanding of Saturday, September 18, 1819. This understanding in turn collects just enough momentum to make him feel, on the 20th, like continuing the letter in which he passes on his understanding to George and Georgiana, his brother and sister-in-law. What’s at issue is not the legitimacy of trying to make slight experiences count for more, nor “aesthetics” count as “politics,” but the suffusion of perception by a heightened sense of alienation and solidarity that one might as well follow. It’s possible to get acquainted enough with alienation to navigate, by it, a labyrinth of unmarked possibilities. To a situation of too much scope and unknowability for anything to be irrelevant to it, there corresponds an endless potential of perceptions to reflect it, and the chance of any one perception’s becoming a resource for a new response.

A similar enigmatic pertinence surfaces in the student movements’ simultaneous interest in protest strategies and photographs of the events (the black doors of the events, so to speak), positional debates and the minimalist aesthetic observations juxtaposed to them orally, graphically, and in writing. These are also part of the investigation. Remarking resonances and studying them are among the techniques for understanding and communication; at least as importantly, they are among the means for self-support when external support is not forthcoming. These tags index the growing assemblage of objects, phrases, and images that compose the common, some to be used only once, some again and again. I’ve been dwelling on the phantasmagoria of thinking about the University of California in relation to the idea of an epoch of rationalization—a scale that risks overwhelming perspective—because I suspect that, to put it as radically as I can, this struggle is not localized in time. How can you maintain yourself through a struggle that has no time? With a thinking and imagining that shapes times, and reimagines what counts as effective. Sustaining protest into whatever it will become (even as what it will become will still be likely to be protest) depends less on doubling down on determination or coherence than on allowing our necessarily wandering thoughts to feed it in alternating rhythms of engagement and distraction, free perplexity and tentative organization. Laclau remarks that “social demands” operate in excess of themselves in the moment that disparate desires become connected: “Ergo, ‘vagueness’ and ‘imprecision,’ but these do not result from any kind of marginal or primitive situation; they are inscribed in the very nature of the political.” [7] The opposite of fetishized purity, “vagueness” is the chemical byproduct of combining positions. It isn’t necessary to bring in here the entire theory of the “people” Laclau is building as he writes this sentence, but only to register his implication that collective thought—what happens as needs are exchanged, consolidated, and divided—can shape a common area without naming it.


Rei Terada went to California public schools and UCLA; she is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Critical Theory Emphasis at UC Irvine. Some of her other writings on the UC situation include "Imposed Minority and the Student Movement," Work Without Dread, March 2010; "UCOF Education and Curriculum Recommendations: Less for More," Remaking the University, March 2010; and "Open Letter to Chancellor Michael Drake," UC Rebel Radio, January 2010.

1. Charles E. McClelland, State, Society, and University in Germany, 1700-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 223-224.

2. What sounds like an idealization of the student/faculty barrier (good students, bad faculty) is qualified by the fact that students become faculty without undermining the intensity of the barrier. Although the comparison is melodramatic, I remember Jamaica Kincaid’s understanding of structural inequality at the end of A Small Place: “all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this . . . . Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings” (A Small Place [New York: Macmillan 2000], 81).

3. Differentiation from someone below or absent is offered to everyone, from admitted freshmen to endowed chairs. Acceptance of it—in the form of willingness to make more distinctions, including on the basis of grades—is heavily rewarded, and taking a distance from it itself devalues one’s status for all who do believe in it to the degree that they believe in it. Mesmerized by its symbolic exceptionality, the research professoriate finally consumes its own justification for existence as trainers of graduate students for futures that they have allowed to be compromised and eliminated. The "qualifications" that allow professors to overlook the welfare of non-professors, and thus finally their own welfare, cover for a distinction so pure that ultimately even the professoriate itself is not included in it.

Rationally enough, students and workers have mostly stopped addressing professors on UC issues. Still, anyone who has come into contact with this faculty death-spiral of twenty-five years’ (or two hundred years’?) duration must wonder how to relate it to the university’s future, since the university is founded historically on the meritocratic principles that make the concept of the “student” such a problem. A university without faculty-as-we-know-it is possible, and maybe a desacralization of “pedagogy” will eventually be the silver lining of the administration’s assault on instructional funds.

4. Selected Letters of John Keats: Based on the Texts of Hyder Edward Rollins, ed. Grant F. Scott (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005), letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 17, 18, 20, 21, 24, 25, 27 September 1819, p. 367. Elsewhere Keats refers to Kotzebue casually as “the German dramatist and traitor to his country” (Selected Letters  275).

5. The crowd turned out to greet Henry Hyde, the Chartist activist who had spoken in Manchester, as he returned to London. See Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP ), 128-131.

6. Winchester tourism today tries to sum up this situation: “his visit to the city seems to have been a peaceful, reflective interlude in his troubled life.” “Keats: A Winchester Walk in the Poet’s Footsteps” (Winchester City Council,

7. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), 99.