Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

The "American University": Provincializing and Pluralizing the University

I have pluralized September 11 in order to draw a wider temporal arc within which to place changes taking place in universities in the United States after September 11, 2001. I now want to take as my second emblematic sign not a date, but a name: the "American university." The paper's subtitle is "National Universities and Global Publics." Yet, in fact, the only national universities considered in the paper are universities located in the United States, which are referred to as the "American university." Just as I sought to pluralize September 11, I think it is necessary to pluralize the notion of "national universities" so as to include the universities of other nations. At the same time, I think it is necessary to provincialize U.S. universities: they are not the "American university," but a large number of very different U.S. universities. If U.S. universities as a whole are indeed playing a global role today, it is necessary to examine why this is the case. Certainly, their centrality offers positive opportunities that never before existed, but also reveals profound inequalities in the structure of global education that we must address.

I share Elizabeth Jelin's discomfort with what she has identified as a paradox of the paper: while the U.S. university is represented in the paper as a university of the world, it is not adequately situated in the world, that is, in a terrain of reciprocities, but also of asymmetries. As she says, "there is no singlePage  118 reference to any 'other' being IN the world. Thus, what pervades the paper is a very self-focused notion of 'OF the world,' from a center that becomes identified with the whole, i.e., an imperial center."

Familiar with the view from imperial eyes, Latin Americans are particularly sensitive to the operations through which some places in the world are presented as its center, and we are turned into lower "others" or marginalized from history. From a Latin American perspective, the very notion of the "American university" to refer to U.S. universities is deeply problematical. Since I also share Elizabeth Jelin's discomfort with the use of this term, I quote again from her reaction to the paper: "The 'national' in the title and the permanent references to the 'American' university, provoke in me a strong reaction. The Americas include much more than the U.S., and there are multiple 'national' universities in the world—as there are nations." As Jelin says, this is not just narrowly semantic issue: "The problems with the way 'American' and "national' are used is not, in my view, only a choice that may not sound politically correct. I think it reflects deeper misunderstandings of the relationship between U.S. institutions and others, in other parts of the world."

This misunderstanding has multiple dimensions; redressing it requires hard work. I would like for us to pluralize "national universities," and also both to pluralize and to provincialize the "American university"—to treat it not just as the "U.S. university," but as many U.S. universities. U.S. universities are indeed plural, and allow for a plurality of positions within them. Universities in the U.S. have complex relations with transnational corporations, with the local and global market, with the U.S. government, with U.S. intelligence, with the military, with what once was called "the military-industrial complex." Their relationship with other national universities in the South (and in other parts of the world) has also been plural, ranging from exchanges based on equality and respect to those based on inequality and subjection. While there have been exemplary reciprocal exchanges between universities and scholars from the United States and the South, there have also been disturbing uses of universities and scholars in projects of surveillance, intelligence and destabilization. The ideal of respect for diversity and free scholarly exchanges has often been subverted by the imposition of political agendas and intellectual paradigms.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of really existing socialism, and the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, helped consolidate the global hegemony ofPage  119 U.S. universities. It is true that before September 11, 2001, U.S. universities—some U.S. universities, some programs within them—took advantage of this situation to promote more reciprocal and democratic relations in the world. But it is also true, as September 11, 1973 shows, that before and after September 11, 1973, and therefore before September 11, 2001, U.S. universities—some U.S. universities, some programs within them—were also implicated in sustaining a hierarchical and unequal world order. Knowledge is produced and circulates in fields of power. If we wish to produce what Edward Said has called "non-dominative" forms of knowledge, we must attend to the conditions under which knowledge is produced and distributed, as well as to their impact in countering or intensifying global inequality and inequity.

September 11, 2001 has indeed changed the national and global context within which U.S. universities function. Under these new conditions it is imperative to preserve the role of the university as a space of reflection about the nature and uses of knowledge. One can take better advantage of the liberating and democratizing possibilities offered by the global reach of U.S. universities if one understands the conditions of possibility that have made these universities so disturbingly central today.

Although it may seem paradoxical, in my view, a central task of a global university is to undo itself as a privileged center of knowledge, and promote instead a more democratic global structure of knowledge production. Universities may be seen as sacred spaces to the extent that fundamental questions about knowledge are not separated from questions about ethics, critical spaces where we ask not only about the facts of knowledge, but about their value. I hope that we may continue to ask, from this not so-sacred place, such basic questions as: What knowledge? For what ends? By whom? And for whom? And I also hope that when we ask these questions, we do not assume an imperial "we," but seek instead to create conditions that include as the subject asking the questions the same subject that is their object: humanity at large. The construction of a university as a sacred space of the world, in the world, must recognize its mundane position, its role in the world, and its responsibility to undo the privileges and inequalities that divide humanity against itself.