By Megan Turrill | UC Berkeley
Multicultural co-curricular resources in higher education are more severely affected by university budget cuts than academic resources at UC Berkeley. Budget cuts to multicultural student spaces and development offices force the number of diversity programs offered to decrease, restrict hours of operation, and limit the number of staff that they are able to employ. It is in these abandoned spaces that students, specifically students of color, are able to develop a sense of community, deal with the stress of student life, reconcile classroom experiences with day-to-day experiences, and gain confidence in embracing a self-determined success. The student activist who seeks to respond to the current issue of multicultural resource budgeting at UC Berkeley or any other situation of university injustice must ground their understanding of the situation and their response within and beyond the language of the present day through the act of theorizing.
“University administrators don’t just wake up one day and think, ‘Diversity is important.’ It is important to ask yourselves as students why that is.” -Director of a multicultural office at UC Berkeley, personal communication, August 3, 2016**
This university staff member was speaking to the fact that historically, multicultural resources have been implemented as a result of student activism, not as a result of administrative action. As the director stated, this should lead us to ask: Why do higher education administrators continually fail to maintain sustainable multicultural resources? Why do budget cuts occur to multicultural resources on a more frequent and severe basis? According to many administrators the reason is pragmatic: when budget cuts affect universities, administrators will eliminate non-essential student resources before academically essential resources. In response to this, student activists may seek to prove that multicultural resources are essential, and they have taken this approach. Yet, in order to affect lasting change, it is crucial that activists begin to ask in what dominant structures the current understanding of “essential versus non-essential” are located and legitimized. The defunding of multicultural resources is justified through a specific understanding of the essential. What is this understanding of essential grounded in? How is it possible to work as an activist within it? Is it possible to work beyond it?
Acknowledging the recurring struggle of legitimizing multicultural university resources, it is crucial to arm ourselves as student leaders with a set of theories, the same theories that we discuss in classrooms every day and gruel over every midterm season. Theory allows student activists to frame and respond to the issue of multicultural resource budgeting as a historically and structurally implicated issue; theory will offer answers that administrators may not readily recognize or concede. Critical theories that are discussed by students and professors in social sciences and humanities classrooms daily will offer student activists new ways of responding to current university decision-making trends.
It is true that theory has its limitations; it is neither indisputable law nor indestructible solution. It is never entirely applicable or intersectional. Yet, as student activists we should seek to actively recognize the healing, emancipatory ability of theory. We should struggle to make the theory that we delve into in classrooms accessible and applicable to our everyday experiences of injustice through individual and group reflection. We need to encourage the practice of theorizing within student movement spaces.
In the words of bell hooks,
“When our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice…Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.”
We should never doubt the ability of the theories that we learn in our social sciences and humanities classes to arm us in response to the marginalizing experiences several student communities face even in this “liberal” education system. Let us remember that just because our universities provide us with radical theories in classrooms does not mean that those same universities are not implicated in the very systems of oppression that radical theories often denounce. We should seek to introduce theorizing into the pedagogies and practices of our social movements against instances of higher education injustice. Past student movements have been successful in creating multicultural resources; now, we need to begin to ask why the fight to sustain multicultural resources has continued to be a consistent struggle across both decades of time and space. We need to begin subjecting university budget decisions and administrative rhetoric to critical social theory and facilitating group reflection in response. It is in these efforts that we will be able to recognize and respond to not merely individuals but structures that consistently motivate and justify university budget-making decisions. Beyond attempting to prove that multicultural resources are essential, we need to address the structures that legitimize the dominant understanding of “essential” versus “non-essential”. If we fail to do this, we will fail to ensure long-term sustainability for multicultural resources. We will continue to see the purpose and significance of multicultural resources de-legitimized and defunded in pursuit of the pragmatic.
**Asked not to be named for fear of reproach from UC administrators.
Megan is a fourth-year at UC Berkeley studying Rhetoric and Education. She transferred from Antelope Valley College in southern California. She loves baseball, critical theory, and shopping online.