Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation

Agnes Martin, Friendship (1963)

We think it’s time to take up an abolitionist approach to the university. We can’t do it without you.1 […]

In what follows, we lay out a conceptual framework through which to approach an abolitionist university studies that is especially attentive to questions of periodization and informed by a historical materialist interest in modes and regimes of accumulation. We begin with a discussion of the most dominant periodization in contemporary work on the university, represented by work in Critical University Studies, which focuses largely on the eras following World War II (and sometimes the 1890s). We then propose an alternative periodization by highlighting how the university’s dominant modes of accumulation have changed across history along with shifts in broader regimes of accumulation. In this framing, we argue for the importance of understanding the “post-slavery university.” By centering this new concept, we aim to emphasize the unfinished work of the abolitionist movement by situating US universities after the Civil War as continuous with a broader terrain of struggles pitting what Du Bois called the “counter-revolution” of capital and property against abolitionism and Reconstruction. In other words, with the formal end of slavery, capital aspired to use the post-slavery university for accumulation by other means. Bringing our periodization up to the present, we analyze the university’s dominant modes of accumulation within the broader contemporary accumulation regime: individual accumulation (and individualization itself) through education, institutional accumulation, the circulation of capital, the expropriation of labor, and the non-circulation of wages (i.e., from the perspective of students’ wageless labor). […] By developing a specifically abolitionist approach to the university—its histories, its present, and its futures—and in conversation with you and with others, we want to build an abolition university. We invite you to join us.


Critique is not simply a practice but a mode of institutional reproduction. It allows us to experience ourselves as if we are outside of the institution while remaining firmly ensconced in its liberal narrative of self-valorization.2 Unconvinced of the university’s beneficence, abolitionist university studies makes visible the university’s practices of self-valorization and seeks to short-circuit them. Here we draw a line between our project and much of Critical University Studies (CUS), the decade-or-so-old para-disciplinary formation which has eked out a meaningful institutional footprint and intellectual impact. We break with such work because of the ways CUS is haunted by its allegiance to a “crisis consensus” fueled by nostalgia for the apogee of the postwar public mass university.3 In its oddly non-materialist reliance on a periodization that yearns for a return to the so-called “Golden Era” of the university, CUS conjures the imagined goodness of an expansive and expanding public university system flush with federal and state support. Here, the university exists as a redistributive institution through which the masses can acquire upward social mobility. Almost invariably, however, this story neglects the ways this expansion was underwritten by militarized funding priorities, nationalist agendas, and an incorporative project of counterinsurgency.

As we detail below, the period of rapid midcentury growth may be most effectively understood as part of a larger set of accumulation projects designed to direct and manage the anticipation and actuality of postwar surpluses of capital and population. Through reference to what, in retrospect, was a rather short-lived and tainted period of growth, CUS takes on important contemporary issues ranging from privatization to student debt, financialization to adjunctification. Its periodization can be useful as a mode of staving off right-wing revanchist attacks on public institutions, as a mode of address appealing, in the first instance, towards what we might call “the concerned-dad audience.”4 Yet, in so doing, it simultaneously re-commits the university to the American exceptionalist narrative of U.S. Cold War liberalism, unnecessarily circumscribing our thinking about the university by national borders as it neglects the very exploitative transnational histories and conditions foundational to the university’s existence.

One of our core concerns with the prominence of the “Golden Era” narrative is its failure to recognize, let alone take on, the accumulation projects operating at the heart of midcentury university expansion. While the Golden Era narrative lauds the expansion of public university systems across the country from the 1940s to the early 1960s, both in the size of their enrollments and the scale of their budgets, it often does so without attending to the material motivations, conditions, and implications of these shifts. So, for instance, Jeffrey Williams can excitedly describe the virtues of the post-war “welfare-state university” as it was underwritten by the 1944 GI Bill, without contending with the fact that the bill’s intended purpose was the absorption of the surplus population of returning veterans.5 Williams discusses how the bill’s structure provided funds to students rather than directly to universities and thus “made universities beholden to those who would make use of their services.” He does not, however, consider the material implications of this arrangement in fomenting and inflating a market in higher education, a market notably predicated on the exclusion, or at best limited and conditional inclusion, of people who fall outside of a white, heterosexual, masculine, citizen norm.6 The GI Bill was but one part of a larger apparatus of accumulation projects of the midcentury university. A more fulsome accounting would necessarily include: absorption of surplus populations via institutional expansion, absorption of surpluses of land generated by taking land out of agricultural production and into suburbanization (e.g. U.C. Irvine, among other places), and the consolidation of military-university financial and population flows.

The Golden Era periodization gathers the means for narratively depoliticizing the tension between the university of accumulation and the university of liberal redistribution. Even when the tone or intentions are not explicitly nostalgic, the midcentury university exerts a powerful normative force on virtually all discourse about U.S. universities. The outcome of this has been a formula for criticality that measures the failures and crises of neoliberalism by contrasting them with the ostensible beneficence of the midcentury norm.

Finally, this nostalgia for a bygone era has a worrisome tendency to fetishize criticality as both the object and product of critique itself and as the apparently oppositional, but ultimately complicit, relationship between the practice of critique and the logics of academic capitalism. It valorizes detachment and dialogue with well-meaning liberals where we prioritize the abolition of the existing order through militant organizing.


To invoke the language of abolitionism is to position this project in relationship to and in continuity with the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, which worked not only to abolish slavery but also to establish an abolition democracy. The 19th century story of the university allows us to get to the question of what the university is in a way that starting the story in the 20th century may turn us away from.


One way of historicizing universities is to account for them as modes of accumulation themselves and as the effect of other modes of accumulation. This kind of articulation of different forms of accumulation offers us the term regimes of accumulation, which we use to historicize the multiple moving parts that in sum and in interrelation situate the university itself in a given moment of time. To locate the university within regimes of accumulation, moreover, is to view accumulation in a way that does not reduce it to the accumulation of capital. It is rather to specify the university’s particular function in the disciplining and management of non-capital surpluses, such as population and living labor.7 We think that this perspective on the university as, and as an outcome of, institutional accumulation can also generate a means of discerning productive and surprising continuities between universities and other institutions that do not necessarily share the same social standing or prestige in spite of sharing similar social functions.

Consider specifically some of the important functions shared from the perspective of institutional accumulation, between universities and prisons, which partly animate our framing here. We are inspired here by Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s account, in Golden Gulag, of the four surpluses—finance capital, land, labor, and state capacity—that converged in the process of California’s massive project of prison expansion in the 1980s.8 While Gilmore does not use this term, one way of viewing the form this convergence takes is as an instance of institutional accumulation. Though these kinds of comparisons between universities and prisons are always risky, they can be illuminating and surprising as well. As Amanda Armstrong has shown, prisons inherited from the university a genealogy in the deployment of state technologies of debt-financed construction.9 The perspective offered by the standpoint of institutional accumulation can thus offer a way not simply of comparing—in the sense of rendering equivalent—universities and prisons but rather of grasping the stratification of wageless life, in the sense that Michael Denning has used the term.10 From the perspective of capital, in the abstract, prisons and universities both offer highly scalable state-guaranteed investment opportunities for low-interest, low-risk bonds that stabilize other, riskier investment opportunities. Both universities and prisons are capable of effectively disappearing surplus populations from the labor force and thereby disappearing capitalism’s structural generation of unemployment. Both universities and prisons are capable of taking surplus lands out of agricultural production and repurposing them as large-scale social investments. This perspective also allows us to forego some of the ideological sheen that the university arrogates to itself as a function of its own historical privilege.

By taking up this more capacious understanding of accumulation, the abolitionist university studies we propose can also attend to other kinds of accumulative practices, ones that exist and operate alongside, within, and against the accumulative function of capitalism in the service of imagining and making alternative ways of being and worlds. These forms of accumulation might include the accumulation of debt (financial and otherwise), of suspect and subjugated knowledges, of untoward relationships. For Moten and Harney, for instance, the accumulation of “bad debt,” the debt that cannot or simply will not ever be paid, is the very condition of possibility, the very principle upon which a fugitive public can form.11 That is, if, as they write, “credit is a means of privatization” then debt is “a means of socialization,” it is social and mutual. How might such a counterintuitive approach to the question of accumulation help us scavenge the parts of the university we want to hold on to and make use of? What modes of retaining knowledge of and relationships to past struggles and solidarities, while remaining cognizant of the various ways they condition our present and future, can or must an abolitionist studies approach enable?


Click the following image to view a larger version

Editor’s Note: The footnotes in the image correspond to the footnotes in the non-excerpted, full version of this document. We have left them as is since they are contained at the bottom of the image for easy reference.


The post-slavery university developed in step with the land policy advocated by the Free Soil Party of the 1840s and 1850s, which insisted that the territorial settlement of the West should be preserved for white workers. Acknowledging this allows us to nuance an important point: anti-slavery ideology, including some that took up the label of “abolitionist,” resided quite comfortably with anti-black sentiment. Prior to the Civil War, this anti-black form of anti-slavery ideology extended settler colonialist logics of elimination of indigenous peoples across the continent to the west and across the Atlantic to Europe and elsewhere. In New England, administrators and faculty at institutions such as Wesleyan and Yale supported the work of the American Colonization Society, which advocated the “repatriation” of free black people from the United States to Liberia. In the west, the founding of public institutions such as the University of California was made possible by similar processes. For anti-slavery legislators like Vermont Senator Justin Morrill, the rebellion of states in the South presented a cluster of economic concerns and opportunities. The legislative push for what we now refer to as the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act stemmed directly from the opportunities presented by the rebellion of Southern states against the Union, and from anxieties about the potential economic consequences of abolishing slavery. Hence the Morrill Act, which offered to each state not currently in rebellion access to tens of thousands of acres of federally claimed lands. The congressional support of the Morrill Act was driven by much more than their commitment to the democratizing power of public education. Rather, as Manu Karuka shows, the strategy employed by the U.S. state—allocating massive tracts of land—was already by the time of the Morrill Act’s passing a strategy for securing for industrial capitalists the infrastructural basis for building massive railroad projects. Karuka helps us to think, then, of the land grant as a technology of imperial consolidation, as a means of courting and crafting public-private investment in securing national infrastructure by way of the displacement and elimination of Native peoples.12

The federally-backed urgency for the establishment of institutions of higher learning followed on the heels of the Homestead Act, passed less than two months prior. Combined, the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act represented two pieces of legislation that would have been impossible if not for Southern secession, because of the Southern states’ persistent efforts to block all federal land-allocation legislation that might open Western lands to large-scale settlement by non-slaveholding populations, which would have diluted their concentration of legislative power by adding representatives in Congress from non-slave states. Allocating capital in the form of lands that states could claim or sell for the construction or enhancement of universities, the Morrill Act anticipated the rising value of research especially in the fields of “scientific” agriculture and mining technology but also in the expansion of statistical thinking and the categorization of human differences in a prospective post-slavery union. Without the ability to intensify production under the coercive power of the lash, the notion of scientific agriculture promised to assuage the anxiety about lost agricultural productivity through the promise of the enhanced value of applied intellectual labor, while the development of new sciences of racial and gender difference rationalized modern modes of exclusion and exploitation. Indeed, one way of tracing this genealogy of the land-grant university would be to say that the latter was a definitively post-slavery institution, but with “post” signifying here not a simple chronological “after,” and not the ideological “after” of slavery that consists in a transparent liberal freedom. More specifically, “post” here constitutes a settler-colonial project to valorize and exploit free white labor, using the knowledge form to recoup lost extractive capacities.

The educative function and knowledge production work of the universities concretized in the post-slavery moment in ways that sedimented, enshrined, and insured racial and settler logics previously maintained. Black people faced discrimination in the northern land-grant universities, and Black southerners were excluded from the initial land-grant universities altogether, at least until the second Morrill Act in 1890 created Black land-grant institutions, which were themselves funded far less than the historically white universities.13 The kind of education provided in the earlier white-dominated universities tended to be for training “an expanding middle class: professionals, white-collar businesspeople, and sole proprietors.”14 The other side of this racial-colonial capitalist education system was seen in the forms of education given to Black and Native American people, such as at Hampton University, a historically Black university founded in 1868. Hampton trained Black teachers, including Booker T. Washington who later created a model for rural Black schools based on the educational model that he had learned at Hampton: education for civilizing and assimilating Black people into capitalism, seeking progress through education and entrepreneurship rather than organizing to confront and dismantle the Jim Crow system.

In 1878 Hampton began educating Native Americans, an initiative propelled and led by Richard Henry Pratt, who later founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a model for dozens of Indian Boarding Schools around the country. Universities such as Dartmouth, Harvard, and William and Mary were chartered in part as institutions “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land.”15 Where they failed to fulfill this founding mission, post-slavery institutions succeeded. Education served as a key element of “primitive accumulation,” that is, creating the pre-conditions for capitalist relations, which centrally include new separations between individualized producers and the means of production. This process is not a stage prior to capitalism but rather an ongoing, continual process necessary for capitalism’s persistence and expansion.16 A foundational aspect of this primitive accumulation has been the dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ land.17 Universities participated in this both directly through using land to build campuses and indirectly through relying on profits from industries, such as cotton, tobacco, and sugar, which were based on stolen land and often on enslaved labor as well. In order for Natives to be assimilated into capitalism, those not eliminated outright needed to be separated from their land so that the land could be transformed into a “means of production” for these labor-intensive industries and its inhabitants could be turned into individualized producers. Building on the Hampton Institute’s model of education for assimilation, the Indian boarding schools aimed to turn “tribal Indians” into “civilized individuals,” to make them stop seeing themselves as members of a Native tribe and, instead, see themselves as independent individuals, instilled with possessive desires to accumulate property and capital.18 In a complementary effort, white students in schools, colleges, and universities were instructed to see themselves more as “individuals” in contrast with the degraded identity of “Indian” students. This education could make Natives accept “allotment,” an individualized form of land ownership in opposition to Native peoples’ collective modes of interrelating with the land.19

Universities, in turn, helped to organize and consolidate the westward movement of U.S. empire, or what the U.S. Senator from California John Weller called, in 1852, the expectation that Indigenous peoples “will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man.”20 The University of California at Berkeley, sited on the stolen land of the Ohlone people, established a military science department in 1870, keeping with the Morrill Act’s mandate to institute military training through the curriculum. Berkeley’s move to admit women starting in 1871, often taken as evidence of the university’s progressive history, also corresponded to the material and discursive architecture of genocide. By the 1880s, roughly eighty percent of women enrolled at Berkeley did so to become teachers.21 The increasing number of teachers in the West was a sign of both the shift in the mode of social reproduction of settler society and, with many of them teaching in Indian schools, their key role in the carceral techniques of settler colonialism. As Benjamin Madley notes, “education” in 19th-century California was a central mechanism of Indigenous dispossession.22 California’s 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians gave effective sanction to white settlers’ kidnapping, abduction, and effective enslavement (via laws allowing for indenture) of Indigenous children. Settlers’ arrogation to themselves of the right to accumulate and govern Native lands was inseparable from their expression of the right to educate Native children. Education, in this way, was both a concrete expression of the accumulation imperative and a means of imperial disavowal by rewriting violence as a project of amelioration and uplift.

But with the counter-revolution in response to the Reconstruction period, a new abolitionism was revived by those in the Black freedom movement, as exemplified by Du Bois’s “abolition democracy.” These new abolitionists realized that celebrations over formal emancipation obscured the continuation of the racial-colonial capitalist world that had necessitated slavery, enabling the mutation of slavery into new forms, with a system of domination built around institutions of white supremacist policing, incarceration, convict leasing, sharecropping, and Jim Crow laws. Abolitionists appropriated resources from universities, such as Du Bois at Atlanta University, to study with and for organizing toward the dismantling of these racial-capitalist institutions. The long Black freedom movement picked up these aims through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, which student movements tactically shifted onto universities through the Black campus movement.23 This periodization can allow us to rewrite and more deeply contextualize some of the more canonical critical work in University Studies. The reach of the post-slavery university as a historical formation and analytical heuristic transforms how we understand the stakes and history of universities’ becoming-corporate. For instance, in his 1990 book Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education 1894-1928,24 Clyde W. Barrow historicizes what he calls “the institution of a corporate ideal in the university,” an apotheosis of “the corporate ideal of administrative rationality” which was “reconciled with demands for educational democracy through an expressive myth of universal equal opportunity.” In such a way, he chronicles a moment of corporatization some seven decades before much of the contemporary discourse on “the corporate university” situates the origins of such a phenomenon. Barrow sees the close of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth as the stage for a concerted attempt by capital and the state to construct an ideological state apparatus centered on universities. The central motor of this capital-state-university convergence was the recomposition of universities’ boards of trustees to include increasing numbers of local and national representatives of the capitalist class. This, in turn, produced a foundational struggle over the metrics and standards of university teaching and research. This struggle marked what Barrow calls the “proletarianization of intellectual labor”, as both universities and the American Association of University Professors itself became sites of contestation over the limits and meaning of academic freedom, a struggle in which the class politics of faculty labor is, for Barrow, of paramount importance. This conflict was resolved in the 1920s by the defeat of left-insurgent forces — in the AAUP, in the nascent American Federation of Teachers, and on campus — who had an expansive vision of labor solidarity, sidelined in favor of a much more depoliticized and circumscribed understanding of academic freedom. For us, this defeat suggests another moment at which something like an abolition university might have emerged, and holds important lessons for the project of making one now.


When our engagement with contemporary US universities is organized through an understanding of the post-slavery university it becomes all the more apparent that even as the social function of the university is variable across time, space and institutions, the university is consistently embedded in various, intersecting projects of capital, both its accumulation and its (non)circulation. […]

With the caveat that the analysis we present is focused primarily on non-profit, four-year institutions, what follows is a preliminary discussion of four of the primary modes of accumulation that condition the contemporary U.S. university: individualization and accumulation via education, institutional accumulation, the circulation of capital, the expropriation of labor, and the non-circulation of wages:

Individualization and Accumulation via Education

One important commonality that carries over between for-profit and not-for-profit higher education institutions is that both create the pre-conditions for capitalist relations through the construction of the subjectivities of students as “individuals” who desire to accumulate credits. As Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, for-profit colleges sell dreams “of mobility, stability, and status.” Not-for-profit institutions do the same. Colleges and universities play a vital role in the cultivation of proprietary human capital, producing and shaping “individuals” who accumulate “credits” in the form of grades, passing grade levels (K-12, freshman-senior, MA, PhD), diplomas, and social networks that can be commodified for selling one’s self on the labor market. This is equally true, if not truer, for individualized academics who work to make a life through their accumulation of capital in various forms–social capital, financial capital, publications as academic capital. While the benefits of this process of accumulation are not guaranteed, for far too many the only surety is the accumulation of often unpayable debt. As Melinda Cooper’s work cogently illustrates, this process has, by design, had the dual effect of individuation and the consolidation of family wealth and intergenerational dependence.25

Institutional Accumulation

While there is little guarantee that students will actually receive the forms of accumulation they seek from colleges and universities, this is not to suggest that these institutions are not spaces of accumulation. To the contrary, colleges and universities have, since their inception, solicited and manufactured vast amounts of wealth in the form of endowments and land acquisition. If the confluence of the Morrill Land Grant Act and the Homestead Act set the terms by which universities were foundational tools for the dispossession of Native American peoples’ land, many universities have continued these processes of dispossession by accumulating land to expand their campuses in urban areas, contributing to gentrification and “studentification.” This is made possible, in part, by the fact that non-profit institutions, such as universities and many hospitals, are exempt from property taxes. New York University and Columbia are consistently ranked as top landowners in Manhattan. A guaranteed, and oft repeated, laugh line on the academic conference circuit refers to NYU as a real estate company that teaches classes. But it’s worth remembering that NYU’s real estate adventures are financed in part by the labor and debt of its 51,000 students. This was underscored by the scandal which erupted onto the pages of the New York Times and other major news media in 2013. It was widely known amongst NYU faculty and students that the university used New York real estate to lure prospective faculty and administrators, providing loans and at times purchasing properties. What sparked outrage was the revelation that university funds were being used to provide loans, many of which the university eventually forgave outright, to purchase second or third homes and vacation properties for senior administrators. Exemplary here is former NYU President John Sexton’s Fire Island bungalow, which benefited from multiple NYU loans totaling well over $1m in value, even as the university continued to generate the most student debt of any tax-exempt university in the US.26

[…] As the economist Richard D. Wolff has long argued, the tax-exemption of wealthy institutions functions as a form of state-facilitated wealth transfer from the bottom upwards, foisting the costs of social services enjoyed by tax-exempt institutions and their patrons onto cash-strapped cities increasingly dependent on a post-industrial landscape of work dominated by hospitals and universities. 

Circulation of capital

While many nonprofit colleges and universities, such as those discussed above, amass immense fortunes in the form of endowments and land, all such institutions also serve to facilitate the accumulation of capital through its circulation. Because they are formally organized as non-profits and funded by a combination of tuition dollars and, to a greater or lesser extent, philanthropic, state, and federal money, the vast majority of colleges and universities compete for revenue but do not necessarily produce profit in the conventional sense. Instead, revenue is recirculated through wages for administrators, faculty, staff, students, and other campus workers (usually in descending order), as well as the provision of housing, food, healthcare, and infrastructural needs. Such needs can be the construction of dorms, gyms, and labs but also the ongoing management of fire and police departments, sometimes on the scale of a town or small city. To provide such services, universities frequently contract with the same corporations engaged by other large-scale institutions, including prisons and hospitals, such as Aramark, Sodexo, and SMG. These corporations then extract massive profits through exploitative labor and land practices. Through such outsourcing, universities are able to reduce costs while shielding themselves against protestations from labor and student movements. Because of the way university economies are entangled with these broader industries, it is necessary to differentiate between a direct profit-motive on behalf of the college or university, per se, and something more insidious, more networked through individual possessive investments in a financial and social arrangement that clearly fails to make good on education’s promises of distributing access and prestige, let alone something like “knowledge.” While endowments matter a great deal, following the profit-motive in higher education leads to a multi-headed beast – the student loan industry, the college sports complex, the pharmaceutical industry, and corporate service providers to whom campuses redistribute their need for janitorial, food, security and other services. In such a way, the university serves as a space through which a vast amount of capital moves in order to consolidate as profit elsewhere. This is made all the more possible by the supposed benevolence of colleges and universities, which serves to rationalize the exploitation of labor in the name of their educational mission.

Non-circulation of wages

Even as the university circulates wages, conscripting its employees into its operations, as in other sectors of capitalist production, profit is primarily amassed not through such circulation but, instead, through the reduction of wages. Consider this: the university’s relation to capital must be understood from the perspective of the noncirculation of wages. That is, from the perspective of the category of the student, whose wageless labor is, in the U.S. at least, endlessly recast in rose-tinted hues—as self-development, societal improvement, the fulfilment of the promise of citizenship, the propertied acquisition of privilege. The massive flight toward higher education over the past century attests to the university’s increased share in the disciplining and organization of unwaged labor, as well as its increased capacity to absorb and manage population surpluses. Universities, to put it differently, accumulate not only capital, but also labor. And people.

When leftists call for the expansion of “free” and accessible higher education, they must do so with this in mind: the expansion of education in the U.S. has always been an expansion of state capacity to induce wageless labor. Such a framing, admittedly aimed at dulling the progressive patina that education-related ideologies have come to enjoy in U.S. political life, may also “free” education from being yoked to the liberal fetishization of “equality-of-opportunity” discourse. As Elizabeth Tandy Shermer has explored, the twentieth century’s postwar boomtowns and those regions that sought to develop them thus collaborated with industrialists and politicians to develop top-flight educational infrastructure.27 Industrialists and real estate developers in the western United States embraced the capacity of universities to supplement research and development, and to magnetize workers boasting or seeking training in science, economics, and engineering into otherwise unfamiliar parts of the country.

The expansion of low- or no-tuition higher education ultimately became a cornerstone feature of the so-called full employment aspirations of Cold War U.S. economic policy. Because it aimed to reduce the overall quantity of unemployed people in the labor force without a corresponding increase in the quantity of waged laborers, it represented a negative instrument toward the achievement of full employment. Higher education thus promised to decrease unemployment without necessarily further populating the ranks of the waged working class, or the share of the population involved in direct production. Geopolitically, the idea that universities could aid in hiding structural unemployment without increasing the wage—understood here as one of the means of working-class struggle with capital—could be deployed to deflect leftist criticisms about capitalism’s need for unemployment. Domestically, universities offered the upside of enhanced state oversight and involvement with the production of the specific forms of labor power demanded or desired by capital.

Cold War university expansion presupposed and pivoted on gendered divisions of labor. The educational benefits of the G.I. Bill were directed primarily to white, heterosexual male heads of households, whom it positioned as “the most deserving citizens.”28 Far from promising gender equality, the postwar expansion of coeducational universities helped to supplement this vision, which turned on the idea that a university’s function was to produce and accumulate for capital pools of scientifically trained men. Such men could have their education and career aspirations supported by unwaged labor in the home, or they could be attracted to universities or to university-adjacent areas by the availability of a large pool of eligible “co-eds.” Industry, too, would benefit from access to women with professional training.29


With universities acting as sites of accumulation and circulation, capitalism has displaced its recurrent crises of overaccumulation onto them. For example, in the 1950s with recessions leading to unemployment and domestic migration to cities, the liberal-capitalist establishment narrated an “urban crisis” with a solution of reinvestment in higher education as a means to retrain the workforce. Capital’s attempt to displace its overaccumulation of surplus populations onto the universities backfired in the 1960s due to the failure of the universities’ mechanisms of stratification to withstand the forces of student struggles. Despite suffering backlash, repression, and cooptation, the Black campus movement appropriated space and resources from universities for abolitionist studying and organizing that was intertwined with other movements within and beyond their campuses.30

This appropriation is the relation of “theft” which Moten and Harney have memorably described as “the only possible relationship to the university today”: “To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony… to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.”31 […]


Critique isn’t a substitute for organizing. “No solidarity before critique,” Edward Said’s famous injunction, pitted against essentialized and nationalist invocations of collectivity, remains useful today, though for different reasons than he may have intended it. The problem is not only that solidarity consists in belonging in “an obediently filiative manner to one’s given or ‘born’ constituency,” as R. Radhakrishnan glosses Said’s thinking on the question.32 It’s rather that critique is itself the name of an unthought mode of solidarity. It’s not that critique isn’t useful, it’s that an instrumentalist understanding of critique cannot account for the ways in which critique organizes us within a larger institutional framework of valuation. The problem, in part, is that critique itself has an organizational imaginary that is a means of university reproduction, and that we need to learn to historicize. The expectation that critique is a sufficient vehicle for the enactment of our politics needs to be counterbalanced with a historical understanding of critique as institutional embeddedness, as a useful expression and inhabitation of complicity with the university. Looking to various examples of universities absorbing and thus containing interventions made by interdisciplinary fields and student activists, claiming their work as simply part of the natural progressive telos of the institution bares out this point.33

If critique is to be useful for us, in other words, it will be in a constant confrontation with its limits, not because it is an expression of our exteriority to the institution.

The account we’ve offered here, with its emphasis on shifting regimes of accumulation, offers in the most abstract sense an account of how we ended up where we’re at. But it offers neither a blueprint for what to do nor a horizon for understanding what an abolitionist relation to the university might look like in practice and execution. The latter, we think, is something that we need. We’re fighting accumulation regimes but we want a sense of what our work is supposed to add up to. […]

The abolition university recognizes that abstract oppositionality and critique, left to their own devices, may in fact unwittingly reproduce accumulation regimes by offering their practitioners the sense of moral supremacy and social exteriority necessary to imagine knowledge production as a form of change in itself. Instead, we imagine the abolition university as a relation, a network, and an ethos with various potentials for transforming what and whom the university can be for.


1 This is a substantially abridged version of the original Invitation. For the full version, visit https://abolition.university/invitation/#_ftn7.
2 la paperson, A Third University Is Possible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), pp. 41-43.
3 Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell, “Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus.” Feminist Studies,  Vol. 44, No. 2, (2018), pp. 432-463.
4 University writing has a set of generic conceits that have historically functioned to resolve in advance the question of how to relate to and think about the university. From Kant to Daniel Coit Gilman to Charles Eliot to Clark Kerr and Derek Bok, the dominant genre of university writing vacillates between diagnosing the problems that the university itself is enduring and promoting the university as a means of solving social problems. It is overwhelmingly a retrospective genre—many of its masterpieces have served as mass-marketed retirement plaques—crafted almost exclusively by white men of high repute, and it regularly combines memoir with the analytical perspective of popular management literature.  Critical university studies—especially in its international articulations—has meaningfully challenged these generic conceits and the gerontocratic presumptions structuring them. In the U.S. iterations of CUS with which this piece is principally concerned, the normative contours of the imagined public have occasionally continued the tendencies of the older genre, appealing to an already-established and enfranchised public whose access to the levers of political power positions them to a proprietary surplus of representation when it comes to the name of the “public.” We have somewhat snarkily referred to this white, middle-class, and sorta-liberal formation as the “concerned-dad audience.”
5 Jeffrey J. Williams, “The Post-Welfare State University.” American Literary History 18, no. 1 (2006): 190–216.
6 Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005); Margot Canaday, “Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship under the G.I. Bill.” Journal of American History (December 2003), pp. 935-957, 936.
7 Marx uses the concept of “living labor” in the Grundrisse to refer to “labor that is still objectifying itself, labor as subjectivity.” See Marx, Grundrisse. Trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1993): 272. For more on how the theory of human capital destabilizes the capital and non-capital distinction at the level of higher education, see Morgan Adamson, “The Human Capital Strategy.” ephemera 9(4) (2009): 271-284.
8 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
9 Amanda Armstrong, “Securitization, Risk Management, and the New University.” https://reclaimuc.blogspot.com/2015/01/securitization-risk-management-and-new.html.
10 Michael Denning, “Wageless Life.” New Left Review 66 (November-December 2010): 79-97. https://newleftreview.org/issues/II66/articles/michael-denning-wageless-life.
11 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2013), p. 61.
12 Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).
13 Sharon Stein, “Confronting the Racial-Colonial Foundations of US Higher Education” Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education Vol 3, 2018, pp. 85-86.
14 Sorber, N. M., & Geiger, R. L. (2014). “The welding of opposite views: Land-grant historiography at 150 years.” In Higher education: Handbook of theory and research Springer Netherlands (pp. 385–422), 394. Quoted in Sharon Stein, “A colonial history of the higher education present: rethinking land-grant institutions through processes of accumulation and relations of conquest.” Critical Studies in Education. 2017 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17508487.2017.1409646.
15 Wilder, 33-45; Dartmouth College, “The charter of Dartmouth college,” (Dresden, Vt., i.e.,  1779). https://students.dartmouth.edu/nap/about/history.
16 Jason Read, “Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism,” Rethinking Marxism 14, no. 2 (2002). Melamed, “Racial Capitalism.” Critical Ethnic Studies 1(1) (Spring 2015): 76-85.
17 Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
18 Joel Pfister, Individuality Incorporated: Indians and the Multicultural Modern (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
19 David Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (University Press of Kansas, 1995), 17.
20 Quoted in Benjamin Madley, “It’s time to acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indians.” Los Angeles Times, 22 May 2016. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-madley-california-genocide-20160522-snap-story.html.
21 UC Berkeley Division of Equity and Inclusion, “A History of Women at Cal.” https://campusclimate.berkeley.edu/students/centers-educational-justice-community-engagement/gender-equity-resource-center/resources.
22 Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
23 Ibram Kendi, The Black Campus Movement; Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
24 Clyde W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education, 1894-1928 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).
25 Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone Books, 2017).
26 Ariel Kaminer and Alain De La Quierier, “NYU Gives its Stars Loans for Summer Homes,” The New York Times, June 17, 2013.
27 Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
28 Margot Canaday, “Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship under the G.I. Bill.” Journal of American History (December 2003): 935-957, 936.
29 National Manpower Council, Womanpower (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957).
30 Ibram X. Kendi, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave, 2012).
31 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney.  “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses,” Social Text 79 (Volume 22, Number 2), Summer 2004  pp. 101-115.
32 R. Radhakrishnan, A Said Dictionary (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 52.
33 Mark Stern and Kristi Carey, “Good Students and Bad Activists: The Moral Economy of Campus Rest,” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy (Vo. 16) 2019.

Authors of the article

teaches sociology and is affiliated with the feminist, gender and sexuality studies department and the education studies minor at Wesleyan University. She is writing a book tracing a transnational genealogy of US higher education through the figure of the noncitizen student.

works at Duke University as coordinator of the Amazon Lab and Manuscript Migration Lab and is a visiting scholar in the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. He published a book, Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World (Minnesota, 2019), and is on the collective of Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics.

(she & he series pronouns) works in the Departments of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Santa Cruz. As a writer, Mitchell aims to make better sense of university life-worlds by developing scales, vocabularies, and categories to reframe and rethink its rhythms and textures. These research and writing efforts can be found in various essays and in two forthcoming books: “Disciplinary Matters: Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and the (Neo)Liberal University” (under contract with Duke University Press) and “The University, in Theory: Essays on Institutionalized Knowledge.”

is an adjunct based in Albany, NY. He received his doctorate in American Studies from NYU’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and is writing a book about the history of university food service, maintenance, and custodial workers in the second half of the twentieth century.