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Seeing in the Red: Looking at Student Debt

Curtis Marez
American Quarterly, Volume 66, Number 2, June 2014, pp. 261-281 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/aq.2014.0019
For additional information about this article
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| 261 Looking at Student Debt
2014 The American Studies Association
Seeing in the Red:
Looking at Student Debt
Curtis Marez
urrently exceeding $1 trillion, federal student debt in the United
States has surpassed credit card debt, emerging as a brutal force of
domination in contemporary universities and beyond.
As Jeffrey J.
Williams argues, student debt is not just a mode of nance but of mode of
pedagogy. It teaches that higher education is a consumer service; that ca-
reer choices should be tailored to servicing debt; that the rule of the capitalist
market is natural, inevitable, and implacable; that democracy is a market
which obligates citizens to capital; and nally, that inequality is not a collective
but an individual problem.
To paraphrase from the 2013 American Studies
Association conference theme, the contemporary university of debt creates a
hierarchy of value in which nonnormative immigrants, unpropertied, illegal,
indigenous, marginalized, or queer others are cast as in debt or as failed
subjects. For these and other reasons, the critique of student debt involves, in
the suggestive phrase contributed to the conference theme by Lisa Lowe, a
critique of delity to the normative.
In tonights address I attempt to center collective dissent to student debt
in American studies. At the same time, I outline an American studies version
of critical university studies. In his groundbreaking book Black Marxism:
The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cedric Robinson argued that the
construction of Black people as racial inferiors was not incidental but integral
to the historical development of capitalism. Robinson coined the term ra-
cial capitalism to refer to the development, organization, and expansion of
capitalist society in racial directions such that as a material force racialism
permeates capitalist social structures.
Capitalism has been wedded to white
supremacy, and anti-Black racism has helped make capitalist exploitation
seem not only necessary but also right. Robinson subsequently developed this
line of thought in his book Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the
Regimes of Race in the American Theater and Film before World War II, where
he argues that racial representations in classic Hollywood cinema constitute
a kind of popular pedagogy of Black inferiority that reinforced racial capi-
| 262 American Quarterly
Similarly, I argue that the contemporary regime of university debt
constitutes a form of racialized and gendered settler colonial capitalism based
on the incorporation of disposable low-wage workers and complicity in the
occupation of indigenous lands. The university domination of land and labor,
I conclude, is pursued structurally but also ideologically, in lm and other
media representing campus life.

I rst began thinking about what would become this address in the wake of
the mass student protests against budget cuts and increased tuition starting in
the fall of 2010 in Puerto Rico, Europe, and the United States. Such protests
at UC San Diego, where I teach, were followed in February by protests in re-
sponse to a kind of blackface fraternity party called the Compton Cookout
and the larger pattern of structural racism on campus that made it possible.
A month later in March, as part of statewide protests against state funding
cuts for higher education, students at UCSD in effect reframed the budget
crisis as a racial project and the Compton Cookout as partly an expression of
the kinds of privatization that further exclude students of color. That spring
quarter, my colleague Yen Espiritu, an ethnic studies scholar, organized a
team-taught, undergraduate course called Californias Public Education Crisis,
and my contribution to the course was to create a digital archive of movies
and TV shows lmed on college and university campuses in California, from
the silent era to the present, and a companion lecture about the fantasies and
desires for education encoded there.
The result, which remains available on
the Critical Commons website, is a project situated at the intersection of
American studies, ethnic studies, visual studies, and critical university studies,
and it is in that spirit that I make the following presentation.

In 1970 a number of lms about the crises in higher education were released,
including RPM (or Revolutions Per Minute), which was lmed at the Univer-
sity of the Pacic (UOP) in Stockton, California.
RPM focuses on a conicted
coalition between white and Black student groups during the occupation of the
universitys central administration building. The lmmakers employed UOP
students as extras, and one of them, Victor F. Ornelas, was the president of
the campus chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztln (MEChA).
He recalls that at the time of the lming it was in fact a group of students in
MEChA and the Black Student Union who marched on the administration
with demands for access and inclusion.
At the start of the lm, however, the
ctional students demand that the radical sociologist Professor F. W. J. Paco
Perez, played by the Chicano movie star Anthony Quinn, be appointed uni-
versity president. The trustees reluctantly agree, but immediately try to co-opt
| 263 Looking at Student Debt
Perez and enlist him in their efforts to
contain student demandsa prospect
the professor seems to anticipate in his
rst meeting with the trustees.
The scenes shotreverse shot struc-
ture, combined with Perezs protective sunglasses, suggests a critical gaze
directed at the white supremacist university, here represented by its all-white
male trustees. I return to Perez later, but for now let this scene serve as a sort
of visual shorthand for critical university studies (CUS), a term coined by Jef-
frey J. Williams in a 2012 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Work in
CUS, Williams explains, focuses on the consequences of corporate methods
and goals, like corrupting research and increasing managerial over academic
control, cutting labor through reducing regular faculty positions (while increas-
ing adjunct positions), and exploiting students by requiring them to work more
and take on more debt.
I would direct you to the extended bibliography
in his Chronicle article, but highlight from his list: Marc Bousquets How the
University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation; Michele A. Mass
and Katie J. Hogans Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language
and Literature Workplaces; Christopher Newelds Unmaking the Public Uni-
versity: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class; and Williamss own essays
on student debt in Dissent.
Williams further emphasizes the Internet basis
of CUS as represented by Bousquets blogs, How the University Works and
The Chronicles Brainstorm; Newelds site, Remaking the University;
and the Italian-based international collective Edufactory. At the same time,
Figure 1.
Shotreverse shot sequence from RPM (1970)
with Professor Paco Perez and the university
| 264 American Quarterly
scholarship in American studies and eth-
nic studies has taken the university as its
object of analysis, including in works by
Noliwe Rooks, Roderick Ferguson, Stefano
Harney and Fred Moten, Grace Hong, Jodi Melamed, and the contributors
to two anthologies: Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class
for Women in Academia and The Imperial University: Academic Repression and
Scholarly Dissent.
Student debt as a critical problem cut me to the quick last year while I was
teaching an undergraduate class on Chicana/o lm and media. We screened Salt
of the Earth (1954), a movie made by a New Mexican mining community and
a racially integrated crew of blacklisted Hollywood lmmakers, about a recent
strike that began among mostly Mexican male miners but that was ultimately
taken over by Mexican women in the community when a court injunction
prevented the men from striking.
The lm is often admired for the way it
attempted to represent intersections of class, race, and gender, and this scene
of the police interrupting a party in order to repossess a radio purchased on
credit grabbed the attention of my students.
Figure 2.
The police repossess a radio purchased on
credit in Salt of the Earth (1954).
| 265 Looking at Student Debt
When I explained that in southwestern company towns, management used
debt to control labor, one student raised her hand and said, That sounds like
college. As other students nodded their heads in agreement, we decided to try
and list points of comparison between company towns and college campuses.
Management in company towns tied workers to the company and limited their
alternatives by selling them consumer goods such as cars, washing machines,
and radios on credit; students are tied to the university, and their options
are limited by crushing levels of debt not only for tuition but also for books,
equipment, and computers, all sold by the campus bookstore. In Salt of the
Earth, the miners are dependent for food on credit from a company store but
credit is cut off when the strike begins; at contemporary colleges and universi-
ties students often depend on expensive dorm meal plans, not to mention the
fast-food franchises in the student union. While miners were often paid in
scrip that was redeemable only in company stores, todays students use their
university-issued IDs like debt cards to pay for goods and services on campus.
The workers in Salt rent company-owned shacks and are threatened with evic-
tion if they organize; college students rent campus housing and often live in fear
of not being able to pay their bills and reenroll. The mining community was
dependent on the company for medical care when they were injured at work;
contemporary students, who now tend to work long and dangerous hours and
are therefore vulnerable to injury and illness, often depend on the university
for health care. In the lm, the violence of debt is racialized and gendered,
such that Mexican men are more vulnerable than their Anglo coworkers, and
Mexican women are the most vulnerable of all given their unpaid domestic
labor in substandard company housing. Most of the students in my class were
women of color, and they testied to how debt made their lives as students
especially precarious. In the party scene from Salt, we hear in the background
dance music from the radio as Ramon tells Esperanza of his hopes for the strike,
and then we hear the voice of the police, but the music stops when they repos-
sess the radio. The radio as debt machine is internal to the lms diegesis, the
source of music the characters all hear and dance to until the police pull the
plug. In the contemporary college scene, the machinery of debt is the students
constant surround, an ambient feature of lifeworlds where hope is interrupted
by the police, who, in the last instance, enforce debt.
Debt connes students to the status quo by colonizing the future, tying
present activities to plans for servicing its imperatives and limiting time for
reection, experimentation, protest, or any other unprotable endeavors.

Debt is thus increasingly coming to shape and limit how we imagine the future.
This is the case, for example, in several recent works of speculative ction in
| 266 American Quarterly
which student debt denes a dystopian future,
including Alex Riveras lm Sleep Dealer (2008).

As the director explains, the lm represents a
world where the USMexico border has been
closed, and instead of physically migrating to the United States, workers go to
cities in Mexico and work in giant factories or sweatshops where they connect
their bodies to high-speed, network-controlled robots that do their labor. So
their pure labor crosses the border, but their bodies stay in Mexico.
Dealer focuses on Memo, a migrant to Tijuana from Oaxaca, who has installed
electrical nodes all over his body so that he can operate a construction robot
in the United States. While most commentary has focused on the high-tech
maquiladora where Memo works, the lm includes two other characters who
also perform long-distance virtual labor: a Chicano drone pilot, Rudy Ramirez,
and a recent Mexican college graduate, Luz Martinez, who sells the stories of
other working people on the Internet to service her student loan debt.
Rivera has said of this scene that he was attracted to the interface between
the contemporary moment of student debt and the speculative future where
dreams and memories are for sale, but I would suggest that such an interface
characterizes the present, where student hopes for the future are already
exploited for prot.
Recalling the radio repossession scene from Salt of the
Earth, the debt collectors threat of conscating Luzs possessions, followed by
the imperative to have a nice day, effectively deconstructs the cruel opti-
mism of the university of debt. This last formulation is drawn from the title
of a panel organized by Abigail Boggs, a graduate student and member of the
Figure 3.
In Sleep Dealer (2008), student debt
colonizes the future.
| 267 Looking at Student Debt
Students Committee and ASA Program Committee, that builds on Lauren
Berlants theorization of cruel optimism to analyze the consequences under
regimes of debt of imagining the university as a fundamentally future-oriented
institution that students and scholars inhabit . . . as an aspirational site of
life making. In Sleep Dealer, the university as debt collector suffocates student
aspirations, while the schools name, The Institute for Bio-Media, is sugges-
tive of the kinds of biopower that debt reproduces in the form of disciplined
low-wage workers.
Student debt teaches lessons in value and difference by reproducing and
rearticulating historical forms of racial and gendered capitalism. According to a
2013 study by Brandon A. Jackson and John R. Reynolds, over 70% of black
students who borrow do not receive a college degree. Given that borrowers who
do not complete their degree are more likely to be unemployed and default
on their loans in comparison with borrowers who complete their degree, these
black students face long-term economic disadvantages.
This is particularly
the case at for-prot schools, where students of color are overrepresented. The
numbers are similar in the case of Latino students, and while it is difcult to
nd data about Native American students, they likely face similar burdens, as
is suggested by the out-of-court settlement for Rodriguez and Gregoire v. Sallie
Mae, a 2007 class action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination at Sallie Mae
in which the loan provider agreed to include Native American students in the
settlement class and to advertise the settlement in the Native American Times.
Rodriguez and Gregoire vs. Sallie Mae was led on behalf of a Latina student
named Sasha Rodriguez and a Black student named Cathelyn Gregoire. It
alleged that the company had, in a version of student loan redlining, calcu-
lated loan fees and rates on the basis of the racial composition of the schools
attended by different students, such that students of color attending colleges
with relatively higher numbers of minority students received worse loan pack-
ages than white students attending less diverse schools. Without admitting any
wrongdoing, Sallie Mae settled out of court, and while the focus was on racial
discrimination, it also helps us think about student debt at the intersection
of race, gender, and other axes of difference.
Both Rodriguez and Gregoire
went into debt to attend for-prot schools owned by the Career Education
Corporation, which is infamous for putting prots above graduation and
placement rates and whose student body is made up largely of women and
people of color who are offered training in service-sector jobs in health care,
restaurants and hospitality services, and fashion design and merchandising.

In this case, debt effectively serves to track women of color into the service
sector where, if they do get jobs, servicing their debt works to keep them there.
| 268 American Quarterly
Not only do women take out student loans in greater numbers than men,
but as Amanda Armstrong, a Berkeley graduate student and antiprivatiza-
tion activist, explains, women take out larger loans than men, anticipating
that theyll need to be better credentialed to compete for the same jobs, and
because of the continuing gendered wage gap, it takes women longer to pay
off their student debt. Moreover, when combined with cuts in state spending
for child care, public housing, and welfare, debt-nanced higher education
intensies the burden of unwaged domestic labor . . . that still falls unevenly
on women, and particularly on women of color. Student debt captures time
that could otherwise be used for care work, among other activities, and captures
income that could otherwise go to purchase increasingly privatized goods, such
as childcare or housing.
Which is to say that debt is a coercive means of
gendering and racializing student workers, enforcing and devaluing as forms
of feminized and racialized reproductive labor the work that students perform
if they graduate but also while they are students.
In How the University Works, Bousquet argues that while administrators
are mesmerized by the vision of an online university without workers, their
dreams obscure higher educations ongoing dependence on the labor of part-
time faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. The last three decades
have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the universitys exploitation of women
workers, who are overrepresented among the ranks of part-time instructors,
as well as in the exploitation of undergraduate and graduate student workers,
particularly young women and people of color. In such contexts the category
of student refers to someone who can be put to work but does not enjoy
the rights of labor.
The university works by reproducing raced and gendered hierarchies of value,
or what I would call forms of raced and gendered settler colonial capitalism
specic to universities as employers of labor. The typical faculty member has
become a female nontenurable, part-timer earning a few thousand dollars a
year without health benets. The typical administrator is male, enjoys tenure,
a six-gure income, little or no teaching, generous vacations, and great health
Nontenurable faculty and nonteaching staff are more likely to be
women and people of color than the tenure-track faculty, while administra-
tors are more likely to be white the higher they are in university hierarchies.
The ranks of casual, exible workers in the university are made up of gradu-
ate students and former graduate students, often working at poverty wages to
service their student loan debts. University regimes of debt devalue student
labor to better exploit it by constituting graduate student work as simultane-
ously racialized and gendered forms of service. The case of undergraduate
| 269 Looking at Student Debt
workers compels a similar conclusion. About one-third of college students
work thirty-ve hours a week or more, but often without the kinds of benets
traditionally linked to full-time employment.
A large number work directly
for the schools they attend, while in many other instances universities partner
with private employers to provide them cheap student labor.
The story of two undergraduate roommates, Paige Laurie and Elena Marti-
nez, suggests how universities of debt reproduce students as raced and gendered
workers. Laurie is the heir not only to the Walmart fortune but also, as I show,
to the system of managing a exible workforce that Walmart pioneered and that
contemporary universities emulate. Her parents are also corporate university
partners, having given a $25 million naming rights gift to the University of
Missouri to build a basketball stadium named for their daughter. The assertion
of naming rights by wealthy patrons has a long history, linking universities to
white supremacy and empire. As Gauri Viswanathan wrote about the naming
of Yale after an East India Company merchant, the practice of naming institu-
tions after individuals gestures toward the survival of the institution beyond
the limited lifespan of the individual by metaphorically translating biological
reproduction into institutional growth. In this regard the power of naming
represents a form of appropriation and possession parallelingindeed, even
perpetuatingacts of territorial acquisition.
Given that many public land
grant campuses such as the University of Missouri sit on Native land, we can
read the claiming of naming rights as a settler colonial gesture consistent with
Walmarts broader exploitation of indigenous workers, lands, and resources.
In 2001 Laurie the Walmart heiress enrolled at the University of Southern
California, where she met Elena Martinez. From a working-class family in
Banning, California, Martinez joined the Army Reserves and took out student
loans to pay tuition. After Laurie graduated with a degree in communication,
Martinez, who remained degreeless, appeared on the news show 20/20 and
revealed that for three and a half years Laurie had employed her to write all
her course papers and e-mails to professors. Martinez was ultimately forced
to drop out and reenroll in a community college when she could not afford
USCs tuition, but she continued to write Lauries papers for pay.

In her interviews with the press, Martinez makes visible the material and
ideological pressures that discipline raced and gendered student labor. Like
many students, Martinez was forced to service debt by working in undesir-
able and precarious jobs, including not only her work for Laurie but also for
the Army Reserves, which she joined at a particularly dangerous time in the
aftermath of 9/11. At the same time, Martinezs roommate treated her like a
domestic servant: Shes always had everything done for her. . . . When she rst
| 270 American Quarterly
came I taught her how to do her laundry. I did some of it for her sometimes,
Martinez told 20/20.
The fact that Laurie required Martinez not only to write
course papers but to e-mail professors further suggests the relationship between
a manager or administrator and a secretary, a job that, like that of a maid, is
also often a raced and gendered position, including in many universities. And
the Walmart heiress was a stern taskmistress, sweating her employee to produce
the most for the least by yelling at Martinez for small errors in punctuation or
a less than perfect grade.
Finally, this tale of two college roommates suggests how the cruel opti-
mism of higher education disciplines student labor. Exploited by her wealthy
classmate, in debt, and without a degree, Martinez remained positive about
her experience: I learned a lot in her classes. . . . In a way, it was nice because
I was getting the quality education I had wanted. . . . I liked the classes Paige
took so much Ive decided to major in the same thing she did, but in a com-
munity college back home.
And even though the scandal and media attention
ultimately forced her to drop out, she vowed to nish college and devote her
career to education.
Here the formal idealization of education, disconnected
from historic demands by student movements for educational access as a means
of material redistribution, obscures conditions of raced and gendered labor
exploitation. This is partly, I suspect, why Martinez repeatedly expressed her
feelings of guilt and her need to take responsibility for her actions, as though
she was a failed student and not an exploited worker, and why most of the
media framed the story as one of student cheating and not labor exploitation.

Universities and corporations increasingly mobilize a kind of educational
exceptionalism as a way to control their workers. A good example is the UPS
earn and learn program in which the company partners with universities to
supply undergraduate workers for packing facilities euphemistically referred
to as colleges. In Jodi Melameds account, the UPS slogan What Can
Brown Do for You? exemplies neoliberal multiculturalism. As she writes,
Brown emerges as an antiracist coalition-building term among people of
color, a shorthand for racial pride and solidarity that short-circuited restric-
tive black-or-white notions of race relations. The UPS appropriation of
brown, however, kept the color but blotted out the people and the move-
ments. UPS in effect sublated brown, canceling out its antiracist history
while preserving its positive associations with pride, warmth, solidarity, and
functioning community networks. More insidiously, Melamed concludes
that the slogan What can Brown do for you? plays on racist associations of
people of color with service.
Melameds analysis helps us understand UPSs
exploitation of student workers in the guise of multicultural education and
| 271 Looking at Student Debt
diversity. UPS recruits college students to work the worst and most dangerous
shifts loading packages. The company presents the ction that students are
working toward a degree, but the reality is that taking a job at UPS dramati-
cally reduces a students chances of graduating. Meanwhile, UPS continues
to target undergraduate women and, ironically given the history of its slogan,
Latinas and Latinos for low-wage service work.
In The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority
Difference, Roderick Ferguson presents a compelling analytic framework for
understanding the universitys mobilization of intersecting differences of race,
gender, class, sexuality, ability, and nation in the production of surplus values.
Ferguson constructs a critical history of contemporary US universities react-
ing to the radical student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas those
movements insisted both on more equitable forms of racial representation
and on material redistribution, universities responded by focusing on repre-
sentation as a way to contain demands for redistribution. Universities thus
became laboratories for producing new techniques for managing differences by
absorbing them. According to Ferguson, the academy and things academic
became conduits for conveying unprecedented forms of political economy
to state and capital, forms that would be based on an abstractrather than a
redistributivevalorization of minority difference and culture.

Rather than imagine the contemporary university crisis as a reection or
extension of forms of neoliberalism produced elsewhere, as is sometimes sug-
gested by phrases like the corporate university, Ferguson concludes that in
recent history it has in fact been the university that socializes state and capital
into emergent articulations of difference.
Which is also to say that part of
the pedagogy of student debt is to teach the inevitability and indeed justice
of raced and gendered capitalism and the exploitation of low-wage minority
workers, both inside and outside the academy. While access and degree rates
remain relatively low, when students of color are incorporated into the univer-
sity it is often as unpaid diversity workers, not only simply by virtue of their
presence on campus and in university promotional materials as representations
of institutional diversity, but also in terms of the formal and informal labor of
recruiting and retaining other students of color, work that universities often
outsource to students.
The analytic of student debt opens possibilities for comparative, transna-
tional, and global critical thinking and action. This is suggested by another
party scene, from a lm, about campus life called Higher Learning.
John Singletons Higher Learning was loosely based on his years as a screen-
writing student at USC, but it was lmed at UCLA and set at the ctional Co-
| 272 American Quarterly
lumbus University.
Higher Learning was released
in 1995, in the wake of the Rodney King rebellions
and at about the same time as the founding of
what would become the Department of American
Studies and Ethnicity at USC, and just ve years
before Elena Martinez arrived on campus. Ice Cubes character, a radical col-
lege student named Fudge, envisions a world already dominated by nance
capital and cashing out in terms of student debt. In the conference theme,
we raised questions about how debt shapes or mediates relationships between
the global South and North, and to what extent strategies rst deployed in
the South have subsequently been extrapolated among the poor in the North.
Such a periodization is supported by the history of Chile, where the neoliberal
experiment in higher education began with the installation of army ofcers
as administrators in ways that anticipate the recent renewed militarization of
US campuses and the appointment of former US military leaders to positions
as university teachers and administrators.
But representations such as Higher
Learning also suggest an expanded historical frame for understanding austerity
measures in the North and South not as successive but as overlapping and in
many ways convergent projects.
Such a historical framework is suggested by Edufactory, a transnational
collective engaged with the transformations of the global university and con-
icts in knowledge production. Its website collects and connects theoretical
investigations and reports from university struggles, and the network has
organized meetings all around the world, paying particular attention to the
Figure 4.
A college student explains nance
capital at a dorm party in Higher
Learning (1995).
| 273 Looking at Student Debt
intertwining of student and faculty struggles.
Edufactory also produces a web-based journal
of the same name, and in its rst issue (January
2010), the editors outlined the double crisis
produced by contemporary regimes of debt:
the crisis of the university and the crisis of postfordist conditions of labor
and value, many of which are circuited through the university.
This double
crisis, they stress, is global, and the inaugural issue includes essays about the
United States, Africa, Europe, and South America. The contribution to the
issue by George Caffentzis about African universities provides a particularly
important point of comparison for American studies scholars. He argues that
World Bank demands for cuts in African state spending on higher education
during the 1980s reproduced neocolonial labor relations. Spending cuts ef-
fectively downgraded universities, reproducing Africas historically subordinate
position in the global economy as a source of resources and cheap labor by
further marginalizing Africa in the world patent system and by increasingly
training students for manual labor. While the African situation is dramati-
cally different from the North American, the history recounted by Caffentzis
roughly coincides with the history of cuts in public funding for US higher
education in the 1980s and 1990s and the increasingly extensive reproduction
of students as exible workers.
The students in RPM simultaneously demand local representation and
redistribution, the latter in the form of divestment from South Africa. In a
related way, a critical university studies for American studies helps us under-
Figure 5.
Professor Perez delivers to the trustees
the student demand that the university
divest from South Africa.
| 274 American Quarterly
stand regimes of student debt as a dening feature of the imperial university.
This last phrase is from the title of the forthcoming volume The Imperial
University: Race, War, and the Nation-State, edited by Sunaina Maira and Piya
Chatterjee, which analyzes the imperial dimensions of contemporary struggles
over privatizing universities.
As the editors suggest in the introduction, rather
than disinterested bystanders or even by-products of imperialism, contempo-
rary US universities are imperial institutions with multiple direct and indirect
connections to militarized state power. In the rst place, universities police
dissent from post-9/11 US imperialism, and the volume includes contribu-
tions from scholars who have been at the center of conicts over academic
freedom. In particular, several essays foreground the limits and contradictions
of the forms of academic freedom that have been used to sanction student and
faculty critics of the US war on terror and of Israels occupation of Gaza and
the West Bank. The Imperial University persuasively demonstrates that far from
being exceptional or marginal, such repression is a normalized and constitutive
component of US imperialism. In addition to serving as sites where the cost
of dissent is made increasingly high, contemporary universities also produce
military weapons and strategies, as well as cultural knowledge about race, na-
tion, and religion, which often support US militarism.
Chatterjee and Maira argue that universities are complicit in the history and
present reality of US settler colonialism, which shapes, for example, post-9/11
knowledge production but also efforts to limit dissent from the US war on terror
and US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, including
student and faculty calls for boycott, divestment, and sanction. Indeed, the
history and present context of US universities overlaps with the history and
present context of US settler colonialism in multiple ways. In his remarkable
Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of Americas Universities,
Craig Steven Wilder argues that settler colonialism and slavery were materially
and ideologically intertwined with the founding and consolidation of powerful
northeastern universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and the
University of Pennsylvania from the colonial period to the mid early nineteenth
Ebony and Ivy demonstrates that colonial universities often served as
garrisons helping fortify settlements, while administrators, faculty, and gradu-
ates participated in missionary efforts and anti-Indian warfare. Colleges grew
by appropriating Indian land and investing in Southern and Caribbean planta-
tions. Planters, slavers, and the merchants who proted from slavery served as
trustees and were the most important donors in the early history of universities.
Northern campuses catered to the white male planter and merchant class for
donations and enrollments. The colleges, moreover, were built by Indian and
| 275 Looking at Student Debt
African slave labor. Owning Indian and African slaves was the norm for the
majority of college presidents and for many faculty and students, such that
college campuses were often sites of white supremacist violence where slaves
were imprisoned, whipped, raped, and tortured. At the same time, universities
were invested in the production of racist knowledge purporting to demonstrate
white superiority and Black and Indian inferiority.
In all these ways, Wilders study suggests that from the colonial era to the
mid-nineteenth century, higher education was built on a foundation of settler
colonialism and slavery that continues to serve, I would argue, as part of the
sedimented conditions of possibility for contemporary universities. A longer
genealogy of US universities and settler colonialism would include the establish-
ment of Native American boarding schools; the history of racist team mascots
and of Indigenous protests against them; university resistance to demands for
the repatriation of Indigenous remains; the struggles of Indigenous students,
intellectuals, and activists over existing universities and efforts to produce alter-
native educational institutions; and nally, of course, the marginalization and
indebtedness of contemporary Indigenous college students on US campuses.
To return to The Imperial University, Chatterjee and Maira begin the intro-
duction by describingthe rst from the perspective of her university ofce
in the United States and the second from Ramallah, Palestinethe heavy-
handed police responses to student protests over a 31 percent tuition increase
in the University of California, including the widely disseminated images of
a campus police ofcer pepper spraying peaceful protestors. Which raises the
question: what is the relationship between the disciplining of campus dissent
by settler colonial militarism, on the one hand, and the disciplinary force of
student debt, on the other?
In distinct yet not unrelated ways, both student debt and the occupation of
Palestinian territories cut to the heart of articulations of a right to education,
or more broadly what Harney and Moten call study, a practice of collective
thought and social activity irreducible to and in fact antagonistic to market
logics. This point was partly suggested by a recent contribution to American
Quarterly by Rana Sharif titled The Right to Education: La Frontera to Gaza.
Sharif s essay was part of a forum based on a teach-in at USC organized by
David Lloyd and Laura Pulido to consider the connections and differences
between the struggles of the Chicana/o and Palestinian peoples. Sharif notes
that the cartography of the Israeli occupation, with its fragmentation of land
due to borders, checkpoints, barricades, and the apartheid wall, limits Palestin-
ian students access to education. The wall, for example, blocks the path of 36
percent of students at Al-Quds University and prevents about 15,740 students
| 276 American Quarterly
from reaching their schools, while over 90 percent of An-Najah University
students report missing classes because of checkpoint delays. Palestinian stu-
dents are also often harassed and detained for their campus organizing efforts.
Finally, Sharif argues that the educational system in the occupied territories
often elides knowledge about Palestinian history and culture: The systematic
denial by Israel of the histories of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes,
the fate of the refugees, and the destruction of Palestinian villages, amounts
to an attempt at eradicating any cohesive Palestinian identity. The material
obliteration of Palestine is thus complemented by its ideological erasure in
education. Sharif draws on the work of Birzeit Universitys Right to Education
Campaign, and the story titles on their website provide a concise taxonomy
of how the occupation blocks Palestinian education: Students in Detention;
Closure of Educational Institutions; The Walls Impact on Education; and
Incursions and Attacks on Palestinian schools and universities. Their website
also reports on how the Israeli blockade of Gaza has nancially devastated
both universities and students, who have increasingly gone into debt. Finally,
Birzeits website features notices of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS)
endorsements from non-Palestinian student groups focused on the abolition
of student debt. The student-led BDS movement on college campuses could
thus also be described as part of a broader effort to take some control over the
student debt nancing of settler colonial violence.
At the end of Sleep Dealer, a migrant worker, a dissident drone pilot, and an
indebted former college student collaborate in the destruction of a corporate-
nanced and state-protected dam that has privatized the common resource
of water. In this way, the lm represents a speculative vision of debt abolition.
This drawing by Alberto Ledesma called Berkeley Dreamers is also a specu-
lative vision of debt abolition, but one that radically reimagines architectures
of privatization.
The image represents UC Berkeleys Sather Gate, a landmark designating
the entrance to the center of campus that is prominently featured in ofcial
university representations as well as in numerous Hollywood lms, including,
most recently, Monster U. The gate is named for early Berkeley trustee and
wealth banker Peder Sather, whose widow, Jane Sather, donated a portion of
her fortune to pay for it and the campuss clock tower. Berkeley Dreamers,
however, displaces Sather Gates namesake with icons representing models
of critical thinking and social solidarity beyond the logic of debt, including
gures from within and without the university such as Carlos Bulosan, June
Jordan, Barbara Christian, Ron Takaki, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frida
| 277 Looking at Student Debt
Kahlo. Whereas regimes of debt
presuppose an iron logic in which
yesterdays debt is inevitably due
tomorrow, Berkeley Dreams combines the living and the dead in ways that
short-circuit debts linear temporality.
Together, Sleep Dealer and Berkeley Dreamers are dialectical images that
mark the challenges for American studies of moving between a dismantling
of the university as a site of domination and its radical revision as a sustaining
place of study and possibility. At one and the same time the university has been
a key institution of racialized and gendered settler colonial capitalism and a
site of transformative critical thinking and practice. For the foreseeable future,
then, universities continue to ground conict and contestation over debt and
the violence it nances, as well as critical projections of different and better
worlds beyond debt. As my experience discussing Salt of the Earth suggests,
classrooms and other university spaces simultaneously reproduce regimes of
debt and sustain critical thought and action against debt. And as centers of
debt, universities can help organize broad collective dissent, since debt in its
many forms is common to everyone but the most privileged.
As places where capitalism and state military and police power come together
so powerfully, universities can potentially link and be linked to solidarities across
Figure 6.
Berkeley Dreamers (2013), by Alberto Ledesma.
| 278 American Quarterly
social differences. This is indirectly suggested by The Berkeley Dreamers, a
reference to a movement of undocumented youth taking direct action against
deportation and exclusion from citizenship rights. While Damian Vergara,
a former UCSD ethnic studies undergraduate and current Yale American
studies graduate student, argues that the Dreamers focus on undocumented
college students risks reinforcing a binary between deserving and undeserving
undocumented youth, the movement has nonetheless helped support wide-
ranging political solidarities involving students and nonstudents. This is sug-
gested by the prominence of Dreamers in protests over the militarization of
US social space in general and on college campuses in particular, most notably
in protests against the recent appointment of Janet Napolitano as president of
the University of California. In addition to BDS and undocumented student
movements, I would add movements for university divestment from sweatshops
and the private prison industry to the list of important efforts to reenvision
the university.
Finally, I nd sustenance in the Strike Debt movement, represented earlier
today at the event Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy: An Assembly on Debt,
Race, and Neo-liberalism. An offshoot of the Occupy movement, Debt Strike
aims to abolish all forms of debt, including student debt. Its slogan, you are
not a loanspeaks out against the individualizing drive of regimes of debt
with their basis in capitalist shame. To paraphrase from the program, Strike
Debt assemblies are not simply places for the scholarly analysis of debt; they
also provide a supportive environment for participants to speak out about
their own debt situations and collectively discuss actions that might be taken
to resist debt. Abolish debt, abolish prisons, abolish empirethese imperatives
form the immediate dream work for our academic institutions. That is to say,
our hopes and desires for knowledge and justice will depend on our abilities
to turn imperial universities into schools of abolition.
1. Rohit Choppa, Student Debt Swells, Federal Loans Now Top a Trillion, Consumer Financial Protec-
tion Bureau, July 17, 2013,
now-top-a-trillion/. When private student debt is added, the total US student debt is $1.2 trillion.
2. Jeffrey J. Williams, Debt Education: Bad for the Young, Bad for America, Dissent (Summer 2006), The withdrawal
of state and federal support for higher education over the last several decades has driven dramatic
tuition increases and hence student debt, which now exceeds credit card debt. A 2013 study found
that at 514 colleges in the United States, a student is more likely to default on his or her loans than
| 279 Looking at Student Debt
graduate. See Andrew Gillen, In Debt and in the Dark: Its Time for Better Information on Student
Loan Defaults, Education Sector, July 2013,
3. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1983), 3.
4. Cedric J. Robinson, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in the American
Theater and Film before World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
5. While not the only way in which inuential ideas about universities are circulated, lm and media
about higher education have powerfully represented its possibilities and limits for modern mass audi-
ences, the majority of whom do not study or work at a university. Representations of the university
form their own cinematic genre, the college lm, which is composed of hundreds of examples,
from The Freshman to Monsters U. Film and media studies are also long-standing components of
college curriculums, shaping how students and faculty experience and cognitively make universities.
See Dana Polan, Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2007). Ronald Reagan played a college student in two lms (Knute Rockne, All
American [1940], Santa Fe Trail [1940]) and a professor in two more (Bedtime for Bonzo [1951], Shes
Working Her Way through College [1952]) before becoming governor of California, clamping down on
student antiwar protests at UC Berkeley, ring Angela Davis from UCLA, and dramatically raising
tuition. Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a college professor (Junior [1994]) before becoming
California governor and attacking labor studies in the UC system and presiding over massive cuts in
state spending for education.
6. 9 (accessed January 1,
7. Curtis Marez, The University of California in Popular Media, Critical Commons, www.criticalcom- (accessed January 1, 2014).
8. RPM (dir. Stanley Kramer, 1970) (Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2011), DVD.
9. More Movie Memories, Pacic Review,
(accessed January 1, 2014).
10. Jeffrey J. Williams, Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical University Studies, Chronicle
of Higher Education, February 19, 2012,
11. Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York:
New York University Press, 2008); Michele A. Mass and Katie J. Hogan, Over Ten Million Served:
Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces (Albany: State University of New York, 2010);
Christopher Neweld, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Williams, Debt Education, and Student Debt
and the Spirit of Indenture, Dissent, Fall 2008,
12. Noliwe Rooks, White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the
Crisis of Race and Higher Education (Boston: Beacon, 2006); Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of
Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2012); Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study
(New York: Minor Compositions, 2013); Grace Hong, The Future of Our Worlds: Black Feminism
and the Politics of Knowledge in the University under Globalization, Meridians 8.2 (2008): 42545;
Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Gabriella Gutirrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen
G. Gonzlez, and Angela P. Harris, eds., Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for
Women in Academia (Salt Lake City: Utah State University Press, 2012); Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina
Maira, eds., The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2014).
13. Salt of the Earth (dir. Herbert J. Biberman, 1954) (New York: Organa LLC, 1999), DVD.
14. As Amanda Armstrong, a Berkeley graduate student and antiprivatization activist, writes, Debt carries
a gravitational force, which draws students on into futures subordinated to its imperatives. . . . giving
them less time for organizing strikes, and other uneconomic activities. Universities initiate students,
she claims, into years of future indebtedness, thus closing them off from the temporal substance of
their present and future lives (Debt and the Student Strike: Antagonisms in the Sphere of Social
| 280 American Quarterly
Reproduction, Reclamations Blog, June 4, 2012,
15. Sleep Dealer (dir. Alex Rivera, 2008) (Los Angeles: Maya Entertainment, 2009), DVD. The plot of
Homeland (2013), Corey Doctorows popular young adult hacker novel, begins when its protagonist is
forced to drop out of college to avoid greater and greater levels of debt, while the inuential technol-
ogy and culture blog that Doctorow coedits, Boing Boing, regularly reports on student debt. The plot
of the novella Lunar Braceros 21252148 (2009) by Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita also focuses
on university students in debt. Transnational corporations rule the future world represented in Lunar
Braceros, and Californias San Joaquin Valley has been turned into a giant work camp warehousing
the homeless and the unemployed. Corporations recruit work-camp students with aptitudes in math
and science for their universities, and the novella focuses on a Chicana student from the camp who
is compelled to accept a dangerous, low-wage waste disposal job in space to pay her family members
debts and free them from the camp.
16. Alex Rivera, The Reeler, January 23, 2008,
17. Alex Rivera, e-mail to the author, September 9, 2013.
18. Brandon A. Jackson and John R. Reynolds, The Price of Opportunity: Race, Student Loan Debt,
and College Achievement, Sociological Inquiry 83.3 (2013): 356. The consequences of student debt
for Black students and parents is compounded by the subprime housing crisis, which resulted in a
doubling of the gap between Black and white wealth such that, in 2009, Black families possessed
only $1 of wealth for every $19 owned by white families. Keeping in mind that wealth is calculated
by subtracting debt from total assets, we can see how student debt further expands already extreme
disparities in wealth, and even more tightly ties the life chances of Black people to ongoing histories
of US racism (Jeannette Wicks-Lim, The Great Recession in Black Wealth, January 19, 2012, www. ).
19. In the words of the lawsuit, through its concealed relationships with (for prot) colleges having high
minority populations and its discriminatory underwriting policies and practices, Sallie Mae steered
Plaintiffs into substandard private student loans because of their race (Sasha Rodriguez and Cathelyn
Gregoire vs. Sallie Mae Corporation, US District Court of Connecticut, December 17, 2007, www. ).
20. Stephen Burd, The Subprime Student Loan Racket, Washington Monthly, NovemberDecember 2009,; Mandi Woodruff, For-Prot Colleges
Are Looking Sketchier Than Ever, Business Insider, August 20, 2013,
A.G. Schneiderman Announces Groundbreaking $10.25 Million Dollar Settlement with For-Prot
Education Company That Inated Job Placement Rates to Attract Students, Ofce of New York
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman,
groundbreaking-1025-million-dollar-settlement-prot (accessed January 30, 2014).
21. Armstrong, Debt and the Student Strike. See also a recent American Association of University Women
study, Graduating to a Pay Gap: The Earnings of Women and Men One Year after Graduation,
after-college-graduation.pdf (accessed January 24, 2014).
22. Bousquet, How the University Works, 27.
23. Ibid., 6.
24. Ibid., 86.
25. Gauri Viswanathan, The Naming of Yale College: British Imperialism and American Higher Edu-
cation, in Cultures of US Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1993), 90, 92.
26. In Fenton, Missouri, for example, a two-hour drive east of the University of Missouri in Columbia
(which is itself named for Christopher Columbus), Walmart leveled two ancient burial mounds, expos-
ing human remains to looters, to build a new superstore. See Sacred Lands: Walmarts Relationship
with Native Americans,
cans_fact_sheet.pdf (accessed October 13, 2013). See also Sue Sturgis, Wal-Marts History of De-
stroying Sacred Sites, Facing South, Institute for Southern Studies,
wal-marts-history-of-destroying-sacred-sites.html (accessed January 23, 2014).
| 281 Looking at Student Debt
27. John Stossel, Big Cheats on Campus, ABC News, November 19, 2004,
28. Quoted in Stossel, Big Cheats on Campus.
29. Dan Glaister, University Uproar over Heiress Who Cheated, Guardian, November 30, 2004, www.
30. Ibid.
31. Woman Meets with USC Ofcials to Discuss College Cheating Scandal Involving Paige Laurie, KSDK
News, Los Angeles, December 4, 2004,
32. Elena Martinez Talks about Paige Laurie Cheating Scandal, KSDK News, Los Angeles, November
23, 2004,
Scandal. Martinez experienced her work for Laurie as disciplinary and coercive. I thought about
quitting a lot of times, but I didnt know how, she told 20/20. I was dealing with someone really
powerful (quoted in Stossel, Big Cheats on Campus). As she explained to a local TV reporter,
when youre dealing with such an entity, as big as what Im dealing with, I denitely feel like Ive got
to be cautious. So when she resolved to come forward and reveal her work for Laurie, she decided
she needed to discuss it with her family for their own safety (Elena Martinez Talks about Paige
Laurie Cheating Scandal, KSDK News). It remains unclear whether the big entity she feared is the
Walmart family, the USC Trojan family, or both.
33. Melamed, Represent and Destroy, 145.
34. See Marc Bousquet, Students Are Already Workers, in How the University Works, 12556.
35. Ferguson, Reorder of Things, 8. Similarly, Neweld suggests that while hunger strikes at UC Santa
Barbara and UCLA in the early 1990s by students demanding more resources for Chicano studies
briey focused attention on questions of inequality, in the same years the institutionalization of
multiculturalism and norms of abstract formal inclusion coincided with the largely successful culture
war attacks on teaching and research about race that supported student demands for redistribution
(Unmaking the Public University, 12).
36. Ferguson, Reorder of Things, 9.
37. Higher Learning (dir. John Singleton, 1995) (Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment,
2001), DVD.
38. Miguel Carmona and Nicols Slachevsky, The Double Crisis of the Chilean University, Edufac-
tory Web Journal, Zero Issue, January 2010, 91. Examples of military and government ofcials with
university posts include Janet Napolitano, who was recently appointed president of the University
of California but who presided over a record number of deportations while director of Homeland
Security; former director of the CIA General David Petraeus, who has lectured at CUNY and USC;
former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has taught courses on faith and globalization at Yale
University; former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, currently Business School Faculty and
director of Center for Global Business and the Economy at Stanford University; and torture apologist
Alberto Gonzales, who has taught a political science course and served as a diversity recruiter at Texas
Tech University and who currently holds the Doyle Rogers Distinguished Chair of Law at Belmont
University, in Nashville, Tennessee.
39. Edufactory Collective, The Double Crisis: Living on the Borders, Edufactory Web Journal, Zero Issue,
January 2010, 45.
40. Sunaina Maira and Piya Chatterjee, eds., The Imperial University: Race, War, and the Nation-State
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
41. Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of Americas Universities
(New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).