On April 13th, a group of around 300 antifascist students initiated an occupation of Sorbonne University in Paris after the administration attempted to shut down a meeting called by the inter-university antifascist organization, Coordination Antifasciste Inter-Universitaire (CAIU). As students gathered, the university decided to revoke permission for the meeting, which was set to discuss opposition to both candidates in the second round of French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. The administration proceeded to deploy security guards to block off all entrances, preventing hundreds of students from entering. A general assembly made up of the students who had already made it inside began their occupation of the university’s east wing that afternoon, supported by the students locked outside. Their occupation joined with a wave of student demonstrations against the election, including occupations at ENS Jourdan and Sciences Po as well as protests at several high schools around Paris.
Images of militarized police assaulting protestors outside the Sorbonne the following day will be familiar to anyone who followed the George Floyd uprising of summer 2020. Free speech is under attack – not from the left, as those on the right and center claim, but from the imperialist state and its institutions. Progressive students in France correctly see the false choice between the neoliberal incumbent Macron and the far-right Le Pen. An article published by students at ENS Jourdan stated “We refuse the possibility of ultra-liberalism and fascism in the second round.” Although the occupations have since dissipated and Macron has been reelected, the courageous efforts of progressive French students demonstrate the possibility of an independent student movement.
In both France and the U.S., the university has historically been a site of revolutionary and progressive politics, but this is no longer the case in American higher education. Decades of privatization, “restructuring,” and skyrocketing tuition have resulted in an indebted student population with declining job prospects and universities run on profit-driven business models. Students and workers are more vulnerable than ever, while unaccountable administrations continue to make decisions at their expense. The New School is a case in point: consider management’s 2018 push to lay off more than 30 unionized cafeteria workers, or the cowardly mass firing of 122 staff members under the cover of the pandemic in 2020; not to mention the school’s refusal to lower tuition despite the complete shutdown of campus due to COVID-19 (instead it continued to raise tuition). In fact, the student occupiers in France were partly motivated by their discontent with Macron’s education policies, which have encouraged tuition increases and privatization based on the American model.
How can students and workers in the U.S. fight against these draconian policies? Clearly not by allying ourselves with university administrations. Despite its claim to a history of radicalism, the New School has no interest in a resurgence of the student movement, as the past few years have shown. Instead, it prefers that we acquiesce to the neoliberal, capitalist model of higher-education – one that views education as an exclusive commodity, a business transaction between the individual and the institution – a model that encourages isolation and prevents solidarity. As those of us who have experienced distance-learning know, no technological fix can make up for the experience of classroom and campus life. It is telling that colleges and universities in Paris moved classes online for the duration of the occupations, using remote learning as a weapon against the student movement. This act shows us the fear of the ruling class towards an organized, independent resistance.
“I think the New School teachers are great, but they’re so focused maybe on the coursework that they don’t invite a space to talk about real political events here and now…for example, the war in Ukraine – in only one of my classes did my professor mention it, so it’s as if it’s not happening.”
As we begin to come out of a mismanaged pandemic that has killed more than one million people and counting, many of us students are understandably alienated, disillusioned, and depressed. Now that school is back in-person, we are dealing with the effects of a student body that has been demobilized for almost two years. For Sophie, a transfer student at the School for Public Engagement who enrolled right before COVID, the lack of community she felt at the New School due to remote learning has continued: “Maybe I could’ve tried harder [to get involved] especially now that we’re back in person, but I feel like I haven’t seen enough opportunity… I kind of just go to class and then leave.” Autumn, a student at the Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs and a Graduate Student Assistant at Lang, felt that the absence of student life on campus could be attributed in large part to “the lack of a common space, where students can come together… there aren’t that many events that are in-person that are just fun.” On political discussion, she added, “I think the New School teachers are great, but they’re so focused maybe on the coursework that they don’t invite a space to talk about real political events here and now…for example, the war in Ukraine – in only one of my classes did my professor mention it, so it’s as if it’s not happening…I feel like there’s a disconnect between what we learn in class, which can be very humanitarian-focused, and real events that are taking place now, and I think that’s a missed opportunity.”
“I think it’s because I’ve had a COVID experience,” said Puneet, grad student in the Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management program, on why he feels that the New School lacks a sense of community. “Also, I feel like it’s hard to keep track of what is going on, and maybe marketing isn’t as good [as it could be],” he said. Regarding the administration’s attitude towards student input, Puneet recalled the layoffs that occurred during his first semester in fall of 2020: “that consisted of letting go of a lot of staff and other people at the university without an informed warning, I know a lot of students were blindsided and faculty also felt that same way. Insofar as the EPSM program is concerned, [the restructuring] definitely weakened it…[the staff members] didn’t necessarily have to leave, and they wouldn’t have left if the student’s voices were heard.”
So how can we as students deal with the related problems of isolation, depoliticization, and an undemocratic administration? We need to remove all financial barriers and burdens on students by making higher education free and accessible for all. That includes cancelling existing student debt. We must strengthen the student body by demanding a university that is democratically controlled by and serves the interests of the people. The realization of full democratic rights for students must include freedom of speech, freedom to organize, and complete access to school facilities. If the administration deems it safe enough to be back on campus and attending class in person, then the campus should be fully open for students to use as a space for learning, socializing, and organizing. Finally, we must bring the politics of socialist revolution to the student body both inside and outside the classroom, a politics of solidarity with people everywhere fighting for democracy and progress – whether it be the student occupiers in France, or workers right here at the New School. Down with the bourgeois university! Up with student and worker power!