In a continuation of Colorado College’s First Monday tradition, on Sept. 23, 2019, the school hosted Professor Robin D.G. Kelley to speak on the topic “Whose University: Third World Studies Against the Neoliberal Turn.” Kelley’s experience as a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angelesgave him a unique perspective on this particular topic, which straddles the boundary between history, current events, and the complex politics of higher education.

Photo by Daniel Sarché

The speech began with Kelley addressing the work of student protestors in the 1960s who demanded that colleges and universities provide opportunities for the study of marginalized groups, resulting in the establishment of what would become modern ethnic and gender studies departments. These protests, despite their eventual success, were often confronted with stiff resistance from conservatives, and some endured brutal crackdowns from local police.

Beginning in the 1970s, a combination of economic crisis, political pressure from conservative groups, and the rising power of social movements resulted in a notable political shift — what we now recognize as “neoliberalism.” This new political ideology focused on the expansion of capitalist values, the cutting of social programs, and the establishment of a more globalized economy. Despite giving lip service to diversity and progressive social legislation, many proponents of neoliberalism were deeply opposed to the social movements fostered and supported by universities, and proceeded to attack higher education as a whole. These attacks focused on the newly established departments of gender and ethnic studies, driving many of them out of the universities where they had just been created, and preventing their spread.

  Throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s, Neoliberal ideas sank further into the American political sphere, resulting in further cuts to social programs, greater privatization, and the continued marginalization of both ethnic minorities and labor groups. While these ideas were protested on college campuses, there appeared to be little to no effect on the greater political scene. 

  However, by the middle of the 1990s, neoliberal groups had begun to come around to the idea of ethnic and gender studies. As a result, these subjects began to crop up again in many colleges and universities, but this time with a neoliberal ethic. The spirit of radical protest and solidarity was gone, replaced by a capitalistic appreciation of diversity and difference as simply a way to sell more products to more people. 

  This “corporate diversity” was fiercely opposed by the very students whose protests had helped reestablish ethnic studies, and continues to be opposed by current students and teachers of the subject. These arguments within the departments were overshadowed by the greater “culture wars” in which gender and ethnic studies have become a flashpoint. 

   Kelley went on to explain that the students who fought for the inclusion of gender and ethnic studies in college course offerings would use similar tactics to oppose other oppressive actions — in many cases, using skills that they had learned in the classes for which they fought. The protest mentality and solidarity that these classes inspire is one of their most important effects. According to Kelley, it is a large part of why students across the country must continue to fight for these classes to return to their roots as incubators for engaged citizens. 

  This message clearly resonated with some students at CC. Over the past few days, students have gathered in both private conversation and in facilitated discussions, such as Shove Council, in order to continue thinking on Kelley’s words, and how they themselves can become more engaged with changing both higher education and the world. This speech has sparked conversation among people who need to be at the forefront of CC’s journey toward inclusion — CC students.  

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