One of the more frustrating struggles threading through the protests has been about who is entitled to be “an ally”. What this often amounts to is well-meaning white kids begging for a gold star, an affirmation of their goodness. Sometimes accompanied by asking for that gold star despite some dissent from some goal or another of the protesters.
The word “ally” has no meaning independent of a strategic objective. It doesn’t mean “friend”: you want to know if someone’s your friend, ask them when you’re sitting down together over a beer. It doesn’t mean “colleague” or “peer”. Someone’s my colleague if they work with me: it’s not a choice that I can withhold, and whatever obligations I have to a colleague or peer are dictated by a professional culture that’s bigger than me.
So if we take the list of objectives that the student activists offered this week, the only time “ally” is a relevant word is whether they need allies to accomplish them. Considering that almost all of them not only involve changes in the structure of the institution but also the working labor of its employees, I would say yes, yes they do need allies, willing allies, unless they’re willing to embrace a highly centralized and corporatized university where the President is a CEO who can hire and fire and discipline and dictate at will. (Which some of the students seem to skirt dangerously close to embracing in fact.) But this is the point: if you’re working towards an objective you can’t accomplish on your own, you don’t get to choose your allies. It’s not your privilege to anoint them. You need whomever you need.
You can make choices about how you treat your allies, about the terms of your alliance, about how long your alliance will continue. You can think about that in terms of instrumentality (as little or as long as necessary, no longer) or in terms of philosophy (as long as possible, in the view that alliances are spiritually and politically a good thing in and of themselves, a sign of the achievement of pluralism and democracy and peace). You can even decide that some alliances are so distasteful that you will defer realizing your goals until you can find some other way to get there.
And you generally need to have a realistic view of your position in the alliance, of your degree of dependency. The students at Swarthmore and elsewhere who hope to forge significantly new institutional processes for dealing with charges of harassment, assault and rape have an external ally with considerable power that they reasonably hope will assist them in reaching their goals.
The students who want a shift in the curriculum and in the content and philosophy of teaching at the college do not. But at some disorienting moments in the process of the last week, trying to talk about those action items directly has been rather like talking with an unsympathetic boss.
“I want those items on my desk by MONDAY!!!” (pounding fist on desk).
“But, boss, you know, there’s a problem with…”
“I don’t want to hear it! MONDAY!”
One of the supreme frustrations of the last week has been hearing some students report that for four years they’ve been “working on faculty diversity, with nothing to show for it”. Have they been working with faculty who are experienced with those issues, who have been working on the same issue, in the committees and structures that engage those issues? Are they aware of what faculty and administrators have been doing, saying, struggling with? Not from what I’ve seen and heard. In some cases, students have said that’s not their brief, not their problem, and that they can’t be expected to do that work or know those things: that they want to tell us what they want and expect us to do it for them.
Sometimes the question is not “Can we be your allies?” but “Can you be ours?” To be our allies in relationship to that strategic goal, you have to be willing to understand the landscape of faculty training, hiring and retention. There are constraints that are bigger than us, problems beyond us, that we can work with and think through but that we don’t control. There are really basic considerations, too, where you can do more harm than good in making demands if you’re not aware of them at the outset. If, for example, you ask that there be more GLBTQ faculty, you have to recognize that there are practical and philosophical problems with designing a position that is about sexuality or identity or gender (etc.) and thinking that this will get you diversity. The ways that faculty find their disciplines and subjects has mapping onto identity and subjectivity but it’s not a one-to-one correspondence. There is a bigger problem with imagining that in the process of a search you can identify and prefer GLBTQ faculty. You’re not allowed to ask someone in interviews nor should you be nor would most GLBTQ faculty want that you should. You sure as hell shouldn’t be sitting around in a meeting trying to make a decision based on your gaydar.
There is no way to get around the fact that students are here (I hope) because they believe that trained and skilled teaching and academic professionals know some things that the students don’t know, have training the students don’t have even by the time they graduate, and that some kinds of authority and hierarchy have to flow out from that disparity. The only reason to stay here if you don’t believe that is out of a cynical desire to collect the credential of the degree as a precondition of middle-class life, a goal that many of the activist students have disparaged. So on at least some of those action items, there is no way out but through: if you want them, you’ll have to listen to and respect what we know about the practical and philosophical limits and difficulties with them as proposals.