- Abolish the UniversityBuild the Sanctuary Campus
The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me.—Ta-Nahesi Coates, Between the World and Me
We must work and insist and repeat and invent and never give up.—Hélène Cixous, Perpetual Peace Project
As a longtime professor of humanities who has taught in five universities in two countries, it may seem strange to call for the abolition of the very institution that has given and continues to give so very much to me. But that is precisely what I am saying. Why? Simply put, universities are facing unprecedented levels of agonized distress: anxious and dispirited students, precariously employed faculty, and overworked and underresourced staff all make for a disillusioned and disillusioning mess. Manifestly unjust structures of [End Page 1] oppression that thrum through Canadian society also mar campus life. As far as concerns about unfairness and exhaustion are concerned, students, staff, and faculty work in a city without walls. Racialized exclusion, the looming climate catastrophe, and debilitating levels of indebtedness threaten even the most resourceful and committed students, of which there are very many. At my university, the office devoted to ensuring accessibility to students reports having to make 911 calls each week. The pandemic conditions have only made these fractures and open wounds more legible. There is so much going on that is unnecessarily hurtful and unhealthful on campus, just below or just at the surface of universities that otherwise spend so much time and energy broadcasting messages of success, innovation, achievement, resilience, and excellence. Smart, purposive students who are simply struggling to survive are compelled to endure patronizing university promises of a "brighter future."1 Brighter, but for whom? While the university gazes into the far-off light, I am more worried about how to keep the eyes of my students from growing accustomed to the dark. It is time, and long since time, that Canadian campuses stop believing a great part of their own hype and really look at what their citizens are enduring in the workplace and in classrooms—time to radically transform the university's priorities, specifically by putting the health and well-being of its people first. The harm done to individuals and communities on campus violates the very idea of the public university. To adapt something Immanuel Kant once said as a professor watching the youth of Europe destroyed by endless wars, if some campus citizens are harmed, then everyone is harmed.2 So my question is this: what would the Canadian university look like if it made the labor of frankly addressing the conditions that create that suffering, as well as the affirmation of human capabilities, its very highest priorities—higher than our international ranking, research productivity, enrollment figures, or "excellence." What would a healthy, inclusive, and, indeed, abolitionist university look like, meaning not a university that addresses harm after the fact or as an administrative problem but instead a campus for which flourishing, justice, dignity, equality, and well-being are given absolute precedence—and therefore guiding all campus policies and practices, not to mention self-understandings and self-representations, from the ground up? [End Page 2]
Let us consider abolishing higher education as it is currently organized and administered and replace it with what I will call the sanctuary campus.3 The phrase is not mine. Historically speaking, sanctuary universities in the United States and Europe are institutions that offer substantive protections to all members of the campus community who are undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary is activated by a strongly practical sense of what it means to act ethically and to be hospitable. It does not mean, as I will go on to emphasize, escape into a utopian retreat, free from the political quotidian. Far from it. A sanctuary university both teaches and learns how to cede one's place and voice to the needs, strengths, and aspirations of others (never a gesture that isn't imbued with complex forms of power, of course, as Jacques Derrida more than anyone has argued4). And by committing itself to that welcoming practice, a sanctuary university risks undergoing an irrevocable abrogation and transformation.5 In other words, I am...