Swarthmore College

The fact that the public university is privatized is now impossible to avoid. At public flagship campuses, privatization means that the gap from state disinvestment has been filled with money from private donors, the pursuit of seemingly lucrative (but actually costly) grant funding, and other cost-saving measures. But what does this mean for other public campuses, especially ones that, unlike flagship campuses, tend to serve predominantly historically underrepresented groups? In their new book Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities (Chicago, 2021), Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen investigate how the defunding of public higher education has created a multi-tiered system that accumulates underrepresented students on campuses that have fewer resources than flagship campuses with disproportionately white student populations. They focus on two institutions within the University of California (UC) system – UC Riverside and UC Merced – to describe how neoliberal logics and the seemingly contradictory push for access have created a novel institutional form—the new university—and to portray an institution, like Merced founded in 2005, that distinctly has never not been neoliberal. 

Our Associate Director, Andy Hines, spoke to Laura Hamilton, Professor of Sociology at UC Merced, and Kelly Nielsen, Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Research and Evaluation at UC San Diego, in early March 2021. In the previous installment, we discussed Hamilton and Nielsen’s definition of the “new university” and “postsecondary racial neoliberalism,” and they considered the impacts of competitive logics between units in institutions, and reflected on how historical infrastructure on campus can disrupt the smooth functioning of neoliberal managerial dictates. In this final installment, we discuss how policing on campus relates to their political economic framework, as well as the benefits of scholarly collaboration across rank. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.


Andy Hines (AH): In Broke you allude several times to a chapter on university policing. If you’d like to share, what did you have planned for that chapter? It strikes me that such a chapter would be another way to connect these varied threads that you have described so far.

Laura Hamilton (LH): Someone needs to do a holistic study of campus policing. For us, this chapter was one component of a larger study that had a lot of different parts and with all those moving parts, we felt like we couldn’t do justice to this subject.

We had bold claims that we wanted to make based on our research, but we also know it would be attacked if we didn’t have interviews with all of the police on campus and observations of policing as it was being practiced. We didn’t have those things because this policing chapter was only one part of a larger puzzle. 

Nevertheless, there has been a lot of really interesting action in the UC system and around the nation on this issue so it was a difficult choice for us. We’ve talked about writing an op-ed, for instance, because the ideas that we had hoped to discuss are backed up in prior research but not necessarily in terms of our original scholarly contribution. 

Kelly Nielsen (KN): The idea for the chapter emerged from the data we collected mainly in stories of racial profiling from the police on campus as well as the historical memory on campus of things like the pepper spray incident at UC Davis in November 2011. Students kept referring back to that event and others when thinking about the role of policing on campus. In fact, many remembered a massive police presence around a Regents meeting at Riverside just after the Davis incident and the violence that occurred in concert with that Regents meeting left a kind of scar on the campus that called into question what UCR had achieved since the 90s when the campus was referred to as UC Racism.

UCPD thinks of itself as being fundamentally different from other policing organizations. They see themselves connected to the mission of the university in a close way that other policing organizations aren’t. They’re here for the students and they might even see themselves as part of the student experience. We also see this creep happening where policing becomes militarized on campuses. We were reading through Alex Vitale’s book on policing and how militarized policing has spread around the globe and on to college campuses. This tension and contradiction between police believing they are part of the academic mission and that they are somehow distinct from this other form of policing that is becoming more militarized, as well as the violence that is increasingly visible in protest settings and profiling on campus became increasingly interesting to us.

Another place this work on policing fits in is in the critique of diversity that we are making. The police on campus saw themselves as supporting the university’s diversity effort. When UCR students had a town hall with the police, what they really wanted the police to say is “Yes, Black Lives Matter,” which is what the students wanted to bring out and make public. But the police there didn’t do it. The students were deflated by this.

LH: To add to Kelly’s points, a lot of the issues that postsecondary racial neoliberalism poses for the university makes its way into the issues with the police. For example, we talk about in the book that diversity as a framework is incredibly problematic as the only framework to address race in the university. One reason is because it articulates this individualistic logic that all differences matter and should be protected. This works its way into policing when it comes to campuses like Merced and Riverside in the case of protests by small groups of white students, who are conservative. A diversity logic would argue that you need to protect the space because all viewpoints should be allowed to be expressed. One can see how quickly that would turn into a dynamic where police surround a small group of conservative white students who may be shouting the number for ICE to target undocumented students and their families. The police are there to make sure that the white students can voice their conservative views because the diversity logic locks them into the position where they have to support the expression of “marginalized” views.

In the chapter, we talked about this problem, as well as that austerity in general produces a lot of discontent. Students in the UC have protested steep tuition hikes for example. And on the two campuses we study, students logically mobilize over issues of lack of resources and then when they mobilize, the police will be deployed to push back against them. This dynamic is completely rooted in the austerity circumstances that the university finds itself in and it becomes a problematic cycle.

A lot of the themes of the book found their way into the policing chapter and policing was always there in certain ways, particularly because of Merced’s location. The Central Valley, where UC Merced is located, is considered in California to be prison alley because of the disproportionate number of prisons that are located in that area. Alongside those prisons, there is one UC, leading students to comment that the concrete construction of the campus has a bit of a prison feeling itself. 

KN: I want to add that as democratic movements take the form of these large protests, the division between “campus” police and “off campus” police breaks down. Campus police are never large enough or organized enough to handle a large protest movement. In other words, there is no way to keep that separation between a police department that adheres to the mission of the university and a police department that doesn’t. Policing can’t be reformed on campus without reforming it or abolishing it elsewhere. 

This is my stance but getting police off campus and having an abolition movement is the only way to allow these democratic movements to function and to address police violence both on campus and off.

LH: Yes, agreed!

AH: I appreciate you going through this because your book points to the disciplining function of neoliberalism as a means of depoliticizing radical movements. I know you know about, for instance, Virginia School economist James Buchanan’s reaction to the murder of Black Panther students Bunchy Carter and John Huggins at UCLA in 1970. Buchanan suggests that making college, particularly the UC, not free is a way of deflating political movements and he ties this to an increase in policing. History bears this logic out. Campus police departments begin their professionalization and expansion in that early 70s moment. It highlights that the “law and order” discourse associated with Nixon and Reagan–Reagan of course having a direct line in all of this, especially in California–is both policing and the defunding of public goods that is made manifest in the university. This clearly has a racial dimension and not just because it has to do with policing. 

It is nice to hear you talk about this because a lot of the arguments in the book are clearly informed by a way of thinking about policing on campus even if policing on campus does not make it into the book. 

On a different note: this book is written in collaboration. I am really interested to hear you reflect on the challenges and advantages of working on and writing this project collaboratively, especially in terms of writing across differences in terms of gender, rank, security of employment, etc. 

LH: I’ll start by saying collaborative work is where it’s at! Idea generation, the ability to bounce off things with another person is so important and I prefer to write like this. But it’s really hard to find someone that can bring that and bring unique strengths, so this partnership has been such a joy. Kelly is phenomenal and I’m so lucky to be collaborating with him.

I think it is really helpful to do collaborative work with people who are in different positionalities in what Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination. We’re both white, but I had a more senior status and was employed in the institution I was studying and Kelly was not. Kelly is a man, which actually turns out counts for a lot. Not surprisingly, there were times when having a white man interview another white man led to a different data collection. 

We also wrote with Veronica Lerma, who co-authored the chapter on the Community Centers at Riverside. That has also been a wonderful collaboration. Veronica is currently a graduate student so she also is in another place in the academy. 

It is really important right now for us to be critical of the way that the university organizes its labor and extracts labor from graduate students and also those who are not on the tenure track. Critical voices are less likely to come from the ranks of the tenured. As a full professor in the UC system, I have an incredible level of security and it is easy from that position to try to forget–as a lot of people try to do–the massive changes that are occurring in our institutions, including the change in available jobs, the change in the markets, and that people who are working in adjunct positions could be us. It’s better to put aside the merit argument because the merit argument that a lot of professors like to hang on to that they earned or they deserve the position they are in is another piece of that neoliberal cycle that we are so eager to push back against. Having people write together from different positions within the structure of academia is really important.

KN: I was so fortunate because Laura was never anything but an equal in this project. She treated me like an equal, even when she was treated as somehow lower status than myself. This did happen on a couple of occasions and it never reflected back on our working relationship. Even though Laura had developed this project, gotten funding for it, guided it, it was always treated as our project. That kind of willingness to share ownership is huge. I was able to contribute my ideas and they were taken as serious ideas to consider. That part of Laura’s character mattered so much for the ways that someone in a senior position, an accomplished scholar, treated a junior colleague.

We also brought different strengths to the project. We think differently. You can probably tell from this conversation that Laura is able to take complex ideas and develop this clear prose. I would have produced a much messier piece of scholarship if it wasn’t for her. 

It was the same with Veronica. She could come back to us and say “I’m in a different relationship to the student body,”  “I’m seeing different things in my view of the administration,” “You guys aren’t being critical enough of what’s going on.” And that let us think through what was happening from a different, particular position, which is an awesome quality to have.

Collaboration is by far the best! I’m one hundred percent with her: it’s the way to go. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. 

LH: I just want to quickly note that Kelly is the theorist! The wide breadth of stuff that Kelly has read is really impressive. Kelly’s more widely read in that area of the humanities and critical university studies than the vast majority of social scientists that I know. It shows up in the book!

About the Author

Andy Hines is the Senior Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He is the author of Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University .

More Posts by Andy Hines
Posts by Andy Hines
April 1, 2021