'At USP, huh?!'…

Image: Rostislav Uzunov


Permanence and mental health at the University of São Paulo.

The indignation that is expressed in the title of this text was expressed by the presenter of the television news SP TV, César Tralli, in an article[I] in which challenging issues experienced by university students were presented: difficulty with food, housing and the precarious structure of Crusp — without electricity, without Internet, with destroyed collective kitchens.

With the use of interjections, we can imply that this precariousness could even be expected in other spaces, but at USP?! The astonishment stems from the paradox, as the scenario is incompatible with what one might expect from an institution the size of USP, which considers itself, and is considered, the biggest and best in Latin America.

Unfortunately, we know that this precariousness is also the USP. In 2020, while we held listening and welcoming circles for Crusp residents, a student from a prominent undergraduate course said to the professor who welcomed him: “I dreamed of studying at USP! Dreamed of living in student housing! I studied a lot to get in. Now I'm here and what we're living is very difficult! It makes the university feel discouraged!” The teacher saw herself in the student, thinking that she had also dreamed of being at USP. What is the ability of the University of São Paulo to bury dreams? So beautiful and important to generate expectations and so cruel to produce situations that can crush them?

Undoubtedly, USP is a university with research, teaching and extension of technological, scientific and social relevance; with a community made up of people who add knowledge and reflections to personal and professional training. But we need to have the courage to look at the vexatious part that also exists in our institution, especially that present in the field of caring for people – care being an important field of educational and social construction. The way in which USP has dealt with issues of permanence and mental health is at odds with the perspective of excellence. How can there be excellence with the existence of students who eat poorly (and some who even go hungry) and live in very precarious conditions in the housing that is the responsibility of the university? How can there be excellence if student reception policies are so precarious?

This situation is well enough known to all of us. Especially in the pandemic period, professors from different areas worked at Crusp. The question is: why, even after so many requests from students, faculty and staff, after so many announcements, reports and presentation of proposals, does the scenario persist?

We think that the answers from central administration instances to these questions have long been inconsistent and insufficient because the paradigm that subsidizes them is problematic. An organizational perspective guided by operational notions of innovation, meritocracy and productivism sustains the current USP's so-called pursuit of excellence. As numerous contemporary studies on the subject, developed in different disciplinary domains, reveal, this set of ideas implies a narrowing of institutional action, moving it away from its fundamental function of educating, producing knowledge, collaborating with society and deepening the debate on democracy. In this strict scope of ideas, everything that departs from the recommended model of success, that is: from this norm, is seen as an obstacle and not as a possible contribution to the advancement of knowledge and its necessary socialization. From a oriented point of view only competition in an international field of competition between higher education institutions, it is only visible what is translated into performance and productivity measures. How, then, are students treated who do not have adequate food, housing and appropriate study conditions?

Poor and black students are constantly expressing the university's problems, both in everyday interactions and in the effectiveness of permanence policies, in their material and symbolic dimensions. In addition to permanence, the broad and reasoned debate on teaching and research is important to compose paths with students and achieve the desired university diversity.[ii]

USP often seems to express, in speeches and institutional measures, that affirmative actions and social benefits are a kind of generosity, something that goes beyond its sphere of action. It seems to have been forced to adopt a seat reservation system, with no choice in the face of irrefutable data on the effectiveness of quotas and their importance in promoting rights. Maybe that's why the articles in the Journal of USP reiterate, frequently, how the university is benevolent in its social benefits — as if it were not their responsibility to do so to guarantee the permanence and effectiveness of teaching.

USP develops some answers, some initiatives, but it has failed especially in one of the main points of the dimension of care as ethics and praxis to face the impacts of inequalities: listening to the people involved, the adoption of dialogue as an institutional practice. This listening is necessary so that the administration can understand that there are gaps in the proposals presented and that these need to be overcome to satisfactorily meet the needs of students, following the model of the best universities in the world.

Fortunately, the USP is not a monolithic block. Mostly our community is made up of thinkers desiring structural transformations, for whom the maintenance of a status quo meritocratic and productivist is, to say the least, questionable and frustrating. However, university management has made theoretical-practical choices that are often different from the expectations of a large part of its community. In this text, we raise some points that generate these disparities and we believe that explaining them briefly could shed light on the tensions of the moment. We believe that only a democratic and frank dialogue about the different expectations in relation to the University will be able to lead us to new and fruitful horizons, clouded in the face of the current crisis.

Take, for example, the issues of permanence and mental health. Would permanence be a right or a charity? A grant to help the underprivileged? What is the role of the public university regarding permanence? It is astonishing that USP's management shows how much it has done and is still doing, ignoring the violence of keeping Crusp in the deteriorated conditions in which it finds itself for many years. Or would precariousness be part of a project to justify its unfeasibility, gradually eliminating housing that was never exactly offered, but rather claimed and conquered by students?

The University confuses assistance with assistance to guarantee rights and, by avoiding the first, denies the second, leaving its community, especially black and poor students, in a situation of abandonment. USP devalues ​​the social workers it has, overloads them, reducing the staff that was already insufficient by not replacing idle vacancies after retirements. And, it should be noted, it does not have a Social Service course, which is quite emblematic.

The same goes for mental health. For teachers, especially with training in psychology and health, it is a pity to observe that mental health issues have, in most of the answers, a management oriented by an individualistic and psychopathologizing perspective, which discusses individual illness as if psychic life were not intersubjective, intercorporal and did not establish a dialogue with the social and structural dimension in which the subjects are immersed.

Recently, students in our community committed suicide, which left us terrified. We certainly understand that one cannot reduce the complexity of a phenomenon like suicide to the expression “USP's fault”, but deny the context of the university as part of the biography of its members and, therefore, as an element engendered in the health-disease processes, is extremely reductionist in an institution that seeks excellence.

In addition to these two aspects — permanence and mental health — directly linked to the challenges we are experiencing at the moment,[iii] it would be opportune to think that we will not advance in the production of answers that make sense to a large part of the community if the innovation-meritocracy-productivism paradigm, deeply intertwined with neoliberalism, is not deconstructed, giving way to the democracy-equity-care paradigm.

The issue of democracy, as well as the operational university, is an old agenda of debates within USP, having been worked on by colleagues such as Marilena Chauí. The weakening of horizontal and bottom-up at USP it can be observed from numerous examples, but here we mention only two: the mechanism for emptying the University Council, with the holding of exclusive meetings for directors, a fact often pointed out by Adusp as especially undemocratic; and the recent case of the proposed Statute of Conformity of Conduct, an agenda that was presented to the CO for collective construction, in order to include gender and human rights issues, and which was transformed into an authoritarian work. In the case of this second example, the document presented by the central administration was written by a single colleague and, without the expected inclusion of gender and human rights issues, bypasses what is really innovative in contemporary thinking and avoids updating and strengthening the relationship between members of the USP community and even between the university and the society in which it operates.

Democracy is certainly the core of USP's organization, but we consider it equally relevant to include the agenda of equity and care as fundamental to the construction of a contemporary and up-to-date paradigm to support the University.

Valuing differences (and not erasing them) is a condition sine qua non for the dignity of life in society. Understanding the anti-civilizing effects of social markers of difference and the search for equity, for overcoming inequalities, are basic elements for guaranteeing human rights. And the university, in this meeting of differences, should aim to be the expression of the plural debate, in the construction of new ethics from these many voices that compose it.

In this respect, USP has fallen short, especially if we consider three fundamental elements such as gender, class and race.

Gender inequalities, especially issues related to harassment and sexual violence, are at the origin of the creation of Rede Não Cala. Despite our struggle — collaborative with the administration at so many different times — this agenda made minimal advances, well below what is reasonable. We still have identified aggressors, without investigations having been opened; teachers who yell at female teachers and students, or sexually harass them; students being “expelled” for gender violations and complaints shelved without response… The naturalization of supposedly subordinate places remains in the “details” of the administration, such as the holding of important events without the presence of women or the difficulty for trans students and students to update their academic documents with their social names.

Racial issues have been the object of much criticism by the black movement within USP, and the object of a recent demonstration by black professors.[iv]. Many people within the university do not understand what is at stake because they still cling to the old and historically unsustainable “myth of Brazilian racial democracy”, which supposedly gives whites and blacks equal opportunities. However, it is enough to look carefully at the data produced in academic research since the last century to see that this equality does not exist and that policies are needed that contemplate forms of inclusion that go beyond student enrollment quotas.

It is about a change of thought and attitudes, a policy of affirmative action. We adopted quotas late and now we are losing poor and black students. In constant dialogue with these male and female students, we follow reports of wanting to drop out of the university due to the undemocratic and racist way in which they are treated. Here, a central point needs to be debated: the idea of ​​meritocracy — one of the University's pillars — is historically and notably articulated with whiteness; that is, a mark of whiteness is meritocracy. How could black students not feel racism within USP?

With regard to class issues, it is also no different. A recent edition of the socioeconomic form of the Support Program for Permanence and Student Training (PAPFE) inquired about comfort items: fan, hair dryer, maid. An EACH freshman was indignant: “My mother is a maid! Is she an item?” We understand that this topic is used in market research forms, aimed at specific social groups, but it is symptomatic that the university administration adopts it without criticism or reflection.

With regard to care, we can follow the same line of reasoning. Crusp corridors have been without electricity for months, the supply of food is precarious, an entire block is without hot water. At the beginning of the pandemic, students organized themselves, reasonably outlined their needs and went to the Rectory to deliver a letter and seek dialogue. For these boys and girls, it was terrible to see what their lives represent for the university: they were not received or heard by the institution's bodies and representatives. At that moment, the idea of ​​“institutional abandonment” began to circulate. Something so basic in an educational environment, such as listening and acceptance (although the results take time to appear in the complex constitution of our administration), did not happen. What do we teach these young people? Who are not welcome despite quotas? Who don't have a voice even though they have the vacancy?

USP has changed and hasn't changed. The university is no longer exclusively elite, white, hetero-cisnormative, but acts as if it still is. Conflicts—and the sufferings arising from them—are thus significant. Thus, despite individualistic and psychopathological perspectives on mental health, it is understandable that subjectivities are shaken in a space where one is not represented, where one is not heard. The norms, centralizing, outdated and rigid, do not contemplate the existing singularities.

USP's Office of Mental Health received a message from a student, shaken, on the seventh day of the death by suicide of a student at Crusp. The author reported that both lived in the same block, spoke of her sadness, the racism to which they were subjected, including sending a video of Grada Kilomba. It was a message of mourning, quite sensitive, which sought a point of institutional dialogue. The Office of Mental Health offered an automatic response, informing her that if she needed foster care, she should fill out a form (cold, unwelcoming, and even invasive). What kind of (non) care would that be?

What we are enunciating here is that the neoliberal-meritocratic-productivist paradigm, to the extent that it disregards the democratic paradigm of equity and care, is incapable of offering answers compatible with the demands of permanence and mental health of the USP community today. In this sense, the university management offers protocol responses, lacking the listening and interlocution that would be necessary for the care and guarantee of rights.

USP offers answers that are not effective for people and maybe they feel resentful because, after all, they assume that they offered care. However, care is relational, something that cannot be perceived if the very idea of ​​care is not assumed as part of the university's support in teaching, research and extension, and recognized in this dialogic perspective, of encounter between different subjects . We have seen how educational institutions and theoretical production in education have incorporated, with great success, the dimension of care as a transversal axis in its support.

In everyday practices, conscious and unconscious manifestations of modus operandi of the institution. Crusp students take a cold shower and, in a tense scenario mobilized by three suicides, students receive automatic responses of the Office of Mental Health.

Without a conceptual, ethical, and policy review, community members who raise these issues, scientifically grounded and modeled after top universities, will only be considered complainers or enemies. Good proposals will be shelved or focused on the automatic conveyor belt of the production line that crushes subjectivities, attributing an individual character to success that disregards inequalities (especially those resulting from social markers of difference), ignores the absence of rights and democracy, and treats the illnesses and evasion as exceptional situations.

One of the authors of this text asked her students about the university and the professors: did they have the perception that they care about them? The answer was: “Professor, 99% of USP do not care about us, some professors, few, yes”. Sad reality. We know that empty words don't matter, but we also learn from students how important it is to say. For this reason — among our numerous functions — we worked at Crusp in 2020 and recorded here: Students and colleagues: we care about you, your life and trajectory, your health, your learning and your happiness and your future.

Michel Foucault, among other emblematic authors, draws attention to the production of new ways of life, based on friendship and on an ethics and aesthetics of existence that can make life a work of art. This could very well be a perspective of excellence for USP: investing in the powers of the plurality of life, creating life with meaning, in a less bureaucratic and more artisanal work. Life without racism, elitism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, without obsolete aristocratic hierarchies.

Are we worried about suicide? Yes. But have we been able to take care of life?

Suicide and illness prevention and, more than that, the construction of fuller life projects (which include health, relationships, work and study) materialize in the construction of these life possibilities. It is life with encounter, with equity, with active listening, with looking and being seen, with unique existences, creativity, democratic construction, debate and new ethics and aesthetics. It is life as a work of art, woven in everyday encounters.

Finally, we observe that we are at such an acute limit in this productivist scenario and in this sterile way of life, that we perceive — in various groups and units — the strength to call for other responses and possibilities.

Would a Uspian spring be near? Who knows, maybe the crisis will open doors for the expansion of reflection on the fraying and dissonances that exist in our university today. May we produce other ethics and aesthetics for the existence of USP, may new seeds and flowers come!

*Elizabeth Franco Cruz is a professor at EACH-USP

*Soraia Chung Saura is a professor at EEFE-USP

*Heloisa Buarque de Almeida is a professor at FFLCH-USP

* Ana Flavia Pires Lucas D Oliveira is a professor at FM-USP

* Adriana Marcondes Machado is a professor at IP-USP

*Maria Luisa Schmidt is a professor at IP-USP

*Patricia Izar is a professor at IP-USP

*Christina Brech is a professor at IME-USP

*Elizabeth Lima is a professor at TO/FM-USP

*Silvana Nascimento is a professor at FFLCH-USP

* Claudia Vianna is a professor at FE-USP

*Vima Lia by Rossi Martin is a professor at FFLCH-USP

*Sylvia Gemignani Garcia is a professor at FFLCH-USP

Originally published on adusp website.



[I] https://g1.globo.com/sp/sao-paulo/noticia/2021/05/28/metade-dos-alunos-de-faculdade-de-ciencias-humanas-da-usp-deixou-de-receber-beneficio-e-tem-dificuldade-de-manter-estudos.ghtml

[ii] https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/dialogos-possiveis/

[iii] It hurts me  https://youtu.be/tmOXXjjbRBU


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