“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change …” — Audre Lorde
Yet here we are, watching the walls crumble from the inside. This self-imposed crisis derives from not only COVID-19 but also the neoliberal practices of hegemonic collegiality derived from the colonial matrix of racism and heteropatriarchy. Higher education is being brought to its knees, financially and structurally, in ways we have never seen.
For decades, student activists have demanded that the Euro-centric financial and governing models be altered, yet it took a global pandemic to weaken the master’s collegiate house. Ironically, many campuses have acted with a swiftness and urgency that students of color have been told for decades was not feasible. This is a hard lesson that those universities are learning now, one that students of color have known since day one: that your willingness to adapt and change drastically increases when your very survival is at stake.
Students of color have been demanding systemic change to help them survive on Euro-centric campuses, and now Euro-centric campuses are rapidly adapting their strategies to survive a global pandemic. Gen Z students are using their own radical imagination, tapping into Afrofuturistic visions of what the post-COVID university could look like. White supremacy culture and corporate systems could be discarded and new racial-, class- and gender-equitable systems of fundraising, organizational design, pedagogy and power sharing could be embraced. Afrofuturism may be the engine for revising the antiracist university, one where systemic racism, sexism and classism are dismantled and more equitable systems are bolstered.
Afrofuturism is a combination of imagination, liberation and dreams of what is possible in a future that is not dominated by Black cultural death and slavery. If, through a Black cultural lens, one can reimagine a technologically savvy sci-fi Wakanda, where power is shared and society thrives, then why can’t we envision a liberated and inclusive college campus with drastically different power structures?
Students have been fighting for and imagining a more liberated college campus for decades. Anti-Vietnam War and Free Speech Movement protesters in the 1960s revolutionized political speech policies on campus and eventually ushered in an end to the draft in America. Student movements in the 1980s and early 1990s pressured institutions to divest from South Africa’s apartheid, making the United States think differently about its role in South Africa’s liberation from neocolonial powers. Most recently, student-led Black Lives Matter movements have resulted in the rethinking of campus policing and the reallocation of funds to diversity centers and race/ethnic studies departments.
But the foundations of the master’s house have never been shaken as much as in this COVID-19 moment. University governance, authority and decision making have not been altered as drastically since colonial inceptions — dating back to the mid-1600s, when the first corporation/board of trustees, more commonly known as the President and Fellows (Harvard Corporation), was created in the Western Hemisphere.
The ubiquitous financial model of the university operates from a hypercorporate framework, with customers — students — often at the bottom of the pyramid and university owners — upper administrators and board members — at the top, with little built-in shared governance opportunities between these constituents and owners. These upper administrators usually practice a corporate status quo supremacy culture, which creates toxic environments for many students, staff and faculty.
A new house must be created, and what better time to rebuild than after a collapse of the traditional university model? If students of color want to thrive and colleges want to stay alive, this is a perfect moment for interest convergence to take place and old structures to be abolished. Angela Davis writes extensively on the abolition of prison systems and replacing them with more humane drug rehabilitation centers and more human-centric rehabilitation facilities like ones in Scandinavia. We want our readers to consider what collective action and student activism through an Afrofuturistic lens could look like in creating a campus that is less hierarchical, more antiracist, more LGBTQ+ affirming, less Euro-centric, less money-driven and more human-centric.
Below we offer some prescriptive suggestions to reimagine what a post-COVID future university could be like, partly inspired by Afrofuturistic imaginations.
- Students should vote on various issues, as California does with propositions, to change campus power structures.
- Boards of trustees should give philanthropically and support fundraising efforts but should not make decisions regarding the operation of the institution.
- Presidents should be abolished, and instead communal and evenly distributed forms of leadership such as a board of faculty, administrators and upper-division students could help create antiracist policy.
- Board members should be voted on by alumni, serving two-year terms. Younger alumni should run for election to provide diversity of age, race, gender and class of those serving on the board.
- Exorbitant salaries of upper administrators should be reduced. These funds could be redistributed to students in the form of tuition remission and scholarships.
- Institutions should fund racial justice centers on and off campus at a higher rate.
- Student-led courses, where students earn credit for teaching, should be more ubiquitous, in order to champion cultural community wealth models.
- Antiracist trainings that address individual and systemic racism should be required, just like Title IX antiharassment trainings are.
- Affirmative action and holistic admissions approaches should be implemented, and financial need should take precedence in these admissions processes.
- Students’ coursework should be tied to local opportunities for internships, jobs, social activism and improving individuals’ lives in the surrounding community of the campus.
- Tenure should be abolished. Faculty should serve seven-year terms to support recruiting and retaining new Black and brown faculty, who are often relegated to adjunct status or treated unfairly in the tenure process.
- More Black and brown faculty and administrators should be hired and promoted.
- Interested students should be able to participate, for free, in Black birthright trips that take students to Washington, D.C.’s African American museum and Ghana, to learn about the influences of colonialism, slavery, culture, race, economics and Blackness in a global context.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of an Afrofuturistic vision of the antiracist university. But we must begin to dream and act anew. Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther offer us progressive and empowering visions of what an antiracist Afrofuturistic tomorrow could look like. But let’s not make this vision just a sci-fi dream. At this pivotal and painful moment in American history, we need to collectively dismantle this troubling house and build something stronger and more inclusive for all of us to survive and thrive.