To the Corporate Management Team (CMT) of the University of East London
University of East London
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We are writing to you to express our anger following your decision to cancel permission to hold the planned UCU (University and College Union) sponsored alternative summit and close down the university on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd of April 2009. We are urging you to reconsider both of these decisions.
In the last 15 years, anti-g8/g20/WTO/debt etc. protests have been held across the world; often to coincide with the meetings of the powerful, taking a stand of dignified rage against decisions that have led to increased poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, war, the violation of human rights, and a global economy that is now imploding after huge wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The very vast majority of these protests have been peaceful. In the case of the Genoa demonstrations in 2001, as has been reported by a variety of sources - including leading newspapers in the UK - the police were found to have been responsible for the violence that ensued.
On these occasions, universities around the world have often played a crucial role in hosting fruitful debates between individuals and civil society organisations, in a common effort to develop strategies and visions to put the world on a better course. Alternative summits have often been held in university spaces, as occasions open to a wide public. There is a reason for this. The life-blood of democracy is the meeting and sharing of hearts and minds, and the university is one of the best existing institutions that can facilitate this: in fact, this is the universitys only fundamental purpose. A university like the University of East London (UEL), proud of its open access policy and of its commitment to inclusion, even more than others, must take a stand to defend its public role of facilitating dialogue and promoting social justice. But in order to do so, the university has to be open. It is the responsibility of its management to defend the historic role of the university as a sanctuary for open debate; not to collude with those who are responsible for the present crisis in depriving it of that role.
Yet, a few days ago, senior university management of UEL decided to cancel the alternative summit that was sponsored by UCU, citing security considerations (the classic excuse for every historic attempt to curtail free speech). Now it even proposes to close the campus for normal academic activity. So instead of opening up to the world, UEL shuts down and closes in on itself. Instead of seizing the opportunity to become a common space thriving with creative energies, it plans to become an empty shell for two days.
It is time for the university management to become accountable not only to the government funding bodies, but to the wider public to whom it owes both its livelihood and a duty to fulfill its role as a part of civil society. The past 3 decades have seen public spaces such as universities hollowed out by the state and by corporations, as more and more of our common resources are transformed into sterile commodities, valued only in cash terms. In universities this has led to a policy regime which increasingly sees employability in the creative industries or in business and finance as the only benchmark of success by which a university education can be judged; which sees research separated from teaching; which sees knowledge transfer to the commercial sector as the only legitimate destination for the fruits of inquiry.
There is a deep connection between this process and the ones that have led the world to its current state of social and economic injustice and climate chaos. In all such cases, the real collective creativity that generates value of all kinds - from the factory to the seminar room, from the laboratory to the orchestra, from the field to the home - is channeled into the endless, mindless production of commodities. This connection between social creativity and commodification must be weakened, if we want to meet the challenges of our times. But this cannot be done if spaces for debate, questioning and social invention are closed down.
We can all see where such neoliberal dogma has led the global economy. Now is the time to decide whether UEL will carry on following the rules of this discredited programme, becoming a part of the deepening problem; or whether it will start to become part of the solution, as a university should.
We urge you to reconsider your decisions and take this unique opportunity to open the university as a crucial centre of democracy, since democracy is now the only safe path for the world out of the current multifaceted crisis. We must keep our university open to staff and students, rejecting the claims and risk assessments that reproduce fear instead of promoting dialogue. We urge you to take responsibility for enabling the university to act as a truly public space for debate in a time when nobody can doubt that radical new ideas are needed. The alternative summit must go on; classes and lectures must go on. We would feel ashamed of UEL if this institution - to which its staff is so committed - were to become known as the university that had closed its doors to democratic debate and education in times of crisis such as these.