The strike at USP

Image: Artem Malushenko


This strike could lead to deeper fractures in a “university community” torn apart by precariousness, productivism and inequality

It is not uncommon for strikes at universities to leave fractures that last for some time and often reorganize relationships. Students, administrative staff and teachers have different relationships and expectations with the university, live in different times and also have different dispositions and resources for political action.

In a strike, even more so in critical circumstances, these differences meet with greater intensity, in the same historical time and with representation and decision mechanisms that are communicated, but are not shared (except in the situation of a general assembly).

There's a joke among us teachers that says that our students are always the same age, it's us who get older. The truth is that we face changing the world mainly through the succession of young people who go through University.

This (dis)encounter is always difficult, pedagogically (in the classroom) and politically (during the strike). And I think it has become more difficult in recent years, for several reasons: the process of inclusion in higher education in recent years, ethnic-racial quotas, the new demands and expectations placed on the university by this new student body, world views, of the university and the teaching and learning process that increasingly distances generations.

Furthermore, in the same period there was a political crisis, coup, Jair Bolsonaro, pandemic, economic and humanitarian crisis, coup threats, political violence, secondary education reform, labor reform. And a huge break in the expectations of young people of different ages who arrived at university at some point during the rise or fall of the PT governments, or the regressive processes that came with the governments of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro.

The reasons for the strike at USP (and what could become a strike at São Paulo's state universities) are not just the threats posed by the government of Tarcísio de Freitas, the loss of funding, the absence of teachers and the closure of departments and courses. They are in this process that begins with democratization, inclusion and ascension, and ends in fascism, neoliberalism and recession.

Latent conflicts are now appearing, including (but not only) in the strike. The university that had been changing was stuck there, halfway between transformation and conservation, inclusion and exclusion, expansion and retraction, innovation and self-preservation.

This strike has been waiting to happen for a few years, stopped by what we have experienced in recent years, and released by the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro and the expectations of Lula's victory. I don't know what will come of it, but I fear that even deeper fractures will emerge in a “university community” frayed by precariousness, productivism and inequality.

However, that is no reason for it not to happen. The strike is necessary and legitimate. That said, I think that the discussion about the means of action cannot be carried out on social media or in the abstract, just as I do not consider calls for supposed “civility” or generic accusations of “vandalism” productive.

It is true that the conflicts that the strike at the university exposes cannot be resolved with violence, but they will also not be resolved with generic condemnations of violence, as if a broken doorknob were the same thing as a bodily injury, as if a scribble on the wall was a terrorist attack. This is a historic strategy for criminalizing social protest that progressive sectors have adhered to since 2013, when it was widely used by public security and the press to criminalize protesters, social movements and left-wing political parties.

It is not up to us professors to resort to criminalization strategies against those who fight for public universities, even if we disagree with their demands and methods. Power relations in the world outside the university are already full of criminalization strategies, security apparatuses and uncontrolled state violence. The role of the university is to resist these processes, not to feed them, so that it can assert itself as an effective space for dialogue and democracy.

We teachers need to admit that perhaps we live in a different world and university than those experienced by our students. And admitting that the university that will come will not be the simple resumption of the university that existed in 2016, nor what we projected as its future that year.

Admitting this seems to me the first step so that a dialogue can emerge between the different groups that make up the university community and even between those who, apparently, defend the same flags. And this dialogue needs to be carried out avoiding two extremes into which we teachers run the risk of falling when dealing with the student movement: equating them with us in values, worldviews and experiences with the university, appealing to our sense of community; or reduce them in a complacent way, as students who need to learn how to do politics and understand (our) university, appealing to our role as educators.

Neither one thing nor the other: act with frankness and openness, recognizing the enormous differences that separate teachers and students, within a set of expectations and actions that we can share when we talk about “defending the public, free and socially referenced university”.

Of course, this is a two-way street: the student movement cannot confuse the university bureaucracy with the faculty that eventually occupies it, and must know how to build alliances with the teaching and administrative sectors whenever possible. But we must keep in mind that political processes such as a strike have different timing and dynamics than the bureaucratic processes through which we professors manage and intend to change the university based on its institutionality.

Precisely because we teachers are and will remain at the university for longer, it is up to us to make an effort to understand the new that present conflicts bring, so that we can think together about the future of the university.

*Frederico de Almeida Professor at the Department of Political Science at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

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