The Parallel University

A Review of Jonathon Feldman's New Book: Universities in the Business of Repression

By Charley MacMartin
November 1989; page 10; Volume 1, No. 2
Universities in the Business of Repression

Framing the Issue

In 1985, US campuses erupted in demonstrations against university investments supporting the apartheid regime of South Africa. Over the next three years, scores of universities divested from, or partially removed from their investment portfolios, companies which do business in South Africa. Students pressed for more responsible investment of university funds, education about apartheid expanded and international pressure against the Pretoria regime mounted.

Or so the logic goes. What lessons do student activists take away from the divestment struggle? Can divestment be a useful strategy to end US support for repressive governments and mercenary armies in Central America? What role do universities play in supporting the current US war in Central America?

War and Profits

These are the questions which Feldman's book address. In three parts, Feldman attempts to draw the following political analysis of the war in Central America. First, the United States is conducting its largest military operation since Indochina against the people of Central America. This war has cost hundreds of thousands of Central Americans their lives and has created an obstacle to self-determination in the region for which the United States is directly responsible.

Second, transnational corporations (TNCs) benefit economically from both the social inequality and the escalation in conflict. Companies which produce agro-chemicals reap enormous profits from Central American economies based on export crops (e.g., cotton and coffee). For example, Shell Oil of Houston produces the toxic chemical pesticides aldrin and axodrin-5 in El Salvador and distributes them throughout Central America.

The concentration of land ownership that makes such production possible requires military hardware to keep peasant and labor movements sufficiently cowed. This latter necessity provides an export market for companies such as Texas' favorite, Bell Helicopter, which sells helicopters to the armies of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. E-Systems of Dallas, Texas (which has on its board of directors former CIA director William F. Raborn) sells aircraft to the government of El Salvador.

UT Falls in Line

Third, the complicity in profiting from bloodshed includes not only the traditional partners - business and military - but involves the structure of university education. University complicity takes two forms: research and investments. The Pentagon and the university are inextricably linked as Department of Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE) funding increasingly flood the university.

Amid a generalized fiscal crisis, universities have turned to the area where funds are available to develop programs and increase university prestige. The University of Texas System ranks third - behind only MIT and Johns Hopkins - for the magnitude of university contracts for research, development, test and evaluation with DOD (FY 1987).

Before the defense community funds an university research program, the university must prove itself fiscally sound. University investment portfolios stand as a critical part of transforming universities from centers of higher education into big business. As such, the traditional liberal pursuits of free thinking and social critique wither beside the "parallel university" of military engagement and corporate interlocks.

These connections become positively incestuous. Exxon Corporation, historically a stable investment, lists on its board Jess Hay, also found among the UT System Board of Regents. Not surprisingly, combined UT System investments in Exxon make UT the fourth largest educational investor in this corporate criminal. The UT System also places heavy investments in General Electric, a major provider of arms to the goverment of El Salvador. Shell Oil, mentioned above, shares a corporate board member, John F. Bookout, Jr., with the chancellors council at the University of Texas.

Is $14.00 Worth It?

The examples above reveal two important features of Feldman's book. Not only does the University of Texas figure prominently in the continuation of war in Central America, but in addition, the information about Texas's role is easy to glean from the reams of information that the book holds. The multitudinous tables as well as a healthy appendix are worth the cost of the book alone for student organizers and anyone else who's interested in how their university is being bastardized in the name of profits and national security.

Feldman argues for "selective divestment" as a strategy to turn the tide on the US war in Central America. A divestment movement focussing on Central America could mobilize against the repressive role of TNCs in the region.

According to Feldman, "divestment actions can represent a form of countervailing power on behalf of workers' struggles against the TNC as employer and as ally of the repressive state." Further, divestment could provide a context for joint actions by North American activists and opposition movements in Central America. Finally, the success of South African divestment earlier this decade, Feldman claims, proved the strategy as an effective one for mobilizing students and the university community. But to mobilize for what?

A Critique of Selective Divestment

Doug Calvin, the national student coordinator of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), suggests caution in applying divestment as a "strategy to win" in Central America.

"Divestment," Calvin contends, "in part deflected the student movement away from concern for liberating South Africa and towards struggling against a very real sense of powerlessness in the university." Moreover, many campuses can tell of resources and energy being poured into exasperating meetings with trustees and into endless trials after the many arrests.

Feldman admits that divestment has its shortcomings in Central America organizing. In particular, the South African labor movement pronounced itself solidly behind a divestment campaign that could potentially, for the short term, take away jobs from South Africa. In Central America, the labor movement has not given such a clear, unequivocal signal.

Divestment can be an important tactic, but only a tactic. Earlier divestment campaigns were no longer just vehicles to mobilize students to support South Africa, but rather grew to be the goal. Once thwarted, or ironically enough, once successful, the movements collapsed. Divestment is best used as a tactic for organizing within a larger strategy for liberation.

Finally, past work on Central America has given the movement here links to popular orgainzations in the countries of the region that the South Africa movement of 1985 (let alone earlier attempts at divestment in the late 1970s) did not enjoy. As such, divestment is not the only potential tactic which brings the two movements together for simultaneous actions. Previous work stoppages by California longshoremen to coincide with political events in El Salvador provide examples of how the two movements can work to strengthen one another.

Feldman has taken an important step in both exposing the degradation of education under monopoly capitalism as well as opening dialogue on Central America strategizing. For this, the book is worth supporting. The next step will be to take the different themes begun in the book - university autonomy, divestment, and a military economy - and develop them both thematically and in terms of praxis.

Universities in the Business of Repression by Jonathan Feldman. South End Press, 1989. May be ordered through Bookwoman at 324 East 6th St., Austin.

Other recent titles on Central America include:

Power in the Isthmus by James Dunkerley. Verso Books, 1988. For sale at Garner and Smith Bookstore on Guadalupe in Austin.

A Dream Compels Us: Voices of Salvadoran Women with a preface by Grace Paley. Compiled by New Americas Press. South End Press, 1989. For sale at Bookwoman.