Land. And the University Is Settler Colonial

Land accumulation as institutional capital is likely the defining trait of a competitive, modern-day research university. Land is not just an early feature in the establishment of universities. Land is a motor in the financing of universities, enabling many of them to grow despite economic crises. In my own university context during the subprime loan bust of 2008, California campuses expanded facilities construction even while classes were closed, staff furloughed, enrollments frozen, and tuition and fees hiked.[1] One common joke is that “UC” means “Under Construction” rather than “University of California”; similar satirical acronyms exist throughout the research university world. The irony of continued property expansion and revenue generation while enrollments are capped and tuitions balloon has characterized the twenty-first-century university. Land is the keystone of the university, yet land is least likely to be discussed in any critical treatment of it.

Universities do not exist in some abstract academic place. They are built on land, and especially in the North American context, upon occupied Indigenous lands. From where I write, the California public university system is a land-grant institution. This means that stolen land was (and is) the literal capital used to buy and build one of the largest university systems in the world; the tripartite of California community colleges, California state universities, and the University of California system constitute the largest such public institution in the world (and, arguably, the largest public institution of any sort).

Land-grant institutions were legally born in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law. The passage of the Morrill Act is often narrated as a quiet, civilian accomplishment during the U.S. Civil War. Nonetheless, it was truly intimate to war and to the production of a Yankee North American empire. In 1862, seven Southern states seceded from the Union and thus removed from Congress the dissenting votes that had previously blocked the Morrill Act from becoming law. The act gave federal public lands to (Union) states, allotting thirty thousand acres of recently appropriated Indigenous lands for each senator and representative to stake out. States were encouraged to sell these “land grants” to raise money for new public universities that would research and educate American settlers in agriculture, science, and mechanical arts. Land is turned into capital for constructing universities for the principal goal of growing industry:[2]

That all moneys derived from the sale of the lands aforesaid by the States to which the lands are apportioned . . . the moneys so invested shall constitute a perpetual fund, the capital of which shall remain forever undiminished, . . . and the interest of which shall be inviolably appropriated, by each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college. (Morrill Act, section 4, para. 7)

Land as capital and not as campuses is an innovation of the land-grant university. That is, states are able to trade, develop, and sell land to fund the construction of public universities. Land as capital incentivized land speculation. For example, New York State acquired its Morrill Act lands in 160-acre denominations, or “scrip,” which could be traded privately, even for lands in other states. Most notably, Ezra Cornell, cofounder of Cornell University and of the Western Union Company, traded 532,000 acres of scrip in New York to acquire timber-rich lands in Wisconsin. The “Western Lands,” as they were appropriately dubbed, fueled Cornell University from 1865 until the last scrip was finally liquidated in 1935.[3] Therefore land-grant universities are built not only on land but also from land.

Morrill Act universities are also charged with the research and development of land, particularly for agribusiness. Thus the university system, especially in the westward-expanding empire of the United States, is intimately underwritten as a project of settler colonialism—the seizing of Native land, the conversion of land into capital, the further domestication of “wilderness” into productive agricultural estates, and the research mandate to procure profitable plants from around the world to colonize North American soil. The public university, with its charge to underwrite industry and agribusiness, literally changed the landscape of the Americas:

The leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, . . . in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes. (Morrill Act, section 4, para. 1)

The prioritization of settler colonial technologies—agricultural and mechanical engineering, not to mention military tactics—reflects how land-grant universities were commissioned as part of the empire-self-making project of the United States.

The year 1862 also saw the passage of the Homestead Act, which allowed for settlers to apply directly for landownership. Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads, distributing more than 270 million acres—10 percent of all land in the United States—into private (settler) ownership. Homesteading was only officially discontinued in 1976 in the mainland United States and in 1986 in Alaska. The year 1862 also saw the establishment of the Department of Agriculture, and one can see the alchemy of capitalism at work: accumulation of land, conversion of land into capital, conversion of capital into institutions, conversion of land into agribusiness.

In my own University of California context, the state legislature established an Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College in 1866,[4] the same year of the Three Knolls Massacre, where settlers killed forty Yahi, including the father of “Ishi, the last Yahi.” Also that year, the College Homestead Association purchased 160 acres of Ohlone land in hopes of selling new homesteads to settlers to fund the private College of California. Those lands, along with the Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College, would become present-day UC Berkeley. Ironically, “Ishi” became a well-known spectacle for Berkeley anthropologists. After his death, his body was autopsied at the University of California medical school. His body was cremated at a cemetery in Colma, while his brain was shipped to and stored at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.—until his remains were finally repatriated back to the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribe in 2000. Such stories of land appropriations built upon Indigenous vanishings directly haunt the histories of all the UC campuses, whose birth dates march right through the twentieth century: UCLA (1927), UC Santa Barbara (1958), UC Davis (1959), UC Riverside (1959), UC San Diego (1960), UC San Francisco (1964), UC Santa Cruz (1965), UC Irvine (1965), and UC Merced (2005). There is nothing ancient about this history.

On its 2012 sesquicentennial, the Morrill Act was heavily commemorated throughout the U.S. university system, but perhaps the single organization with the most reason to cheer was the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), “a research, policy, and advocacy organization representing 219 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems, and related organizations.” On January 4, 2014, the APLU Executive Committee issued a statement to “strongly oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions supported by certain U.S. scholarly organizations,” in direct response to the Association for Asian American Studies’s (AAAS) April 2013 and the American Studies Association’s (ASA) December 2013 resolutions to support the call for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) by Palestinian civil society—although neither the scholarly organizations nor Palestine nor the exact boycott is mentioned in the statement.[5]

BDS is built around three demands, specifically, “1. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall [built around the West Bank and Gaza]; 2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; 3. And respecting . . . the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”[6] According to Palestinian American scholar J. I. Albahri, BDS “is designed to intervene on the specific settler colonial practices of Israel” by exerting international pressure on Israeli institutions.[7]

Shirking the actual words in BDS is the APLU’s refusal to engage public debate—the very cornerstone of free speech. The APLU’s statement nonspecifically refers to “this boycott” as detrimental to equally nonspecific “critical projects that advance humanity, develop new technologies, and improve health and well-being across the globe.”[8] Some of the discourses deployed by the APLU and other academic voices quick to condemn BDS were that “boycotts are bad” because “free speech is good.” Ironically, the very ineffability of Palestine reflects a national policy of boycotting open dialogue about Palestine.

U.S. foreign policy already looks like a boycott of Palestine. The United States has boycotted the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) assembly since November 2011, when Palestine was allowed membership into UNESCO. The United States was by far the largest funder of UNESCO; by withholding dues of $80 million a year—22 percent of UNESCO’s overall budget—it sent UNESCO into budgetary crisis.[9] Unlike the AAAS and ASA resolutions, this boycott—the boycott of Palestine—literally defunds critical projects that “improve health and well-being across the globe.” This boycott is not submitted for vote or discussion but operates at the level of default policy—a policy that includes refusals even to name Palestine, similar to the APLU statement, which would not even name BDS. Unlike the AAAS and ASA resolutions, the APLU’s “boycott of the boycott” was quickly drafted and signed by six people.[10] It did not solicit votes, feedback, or discussion from its member campuses, which, by the APLU’s own claim, “enroll more than 3.8 million undergraduates and 1.2 million graduate students, award over 1 million degrees, employ nearly 1 million faculty and staff, and conduct more than $37 billion in university-based research.”[11] The APLU’s action perfectly captures how the settler colonial university’s investments do not just stem from land seizures of a settler past but are active investments in the very future of settler colonialism.

This chapter cannot deconstruct the complex American desires surrounding Israel and Palestine. However, relevant to this discussion are the similar yet divergent trajectories of the APLU and ASA as university formations—and thus as technological formations that can be repurposed toward decolonizing goals. The APLU was founded in 1887 as a direct consequence of the Morrill Act. The ASA was founded in 1951 as a project of Cold War cultural politics through financial support from the U.S. government—which also endowed multiple professorships in European universities, particularly in Germany and Britain. The dominant origin story of American studies is that it was established as a tool of U.S. jingoism and imperialist apology.[12] From a deterministic view of technology as recapitulating ideology, one might not expect a resolution to support the BDS to emerge from the ASA. That the ASA became a lightning rod for BDS politics was perhaps something never predicted by the Cold War machinery that created it. However, from its inception, American studies arguably has had a decolonial tooth in its gear of empire.[13]

The politics of land-grant institutions directs us to think about the work of school beyond curriculum and pedagogy, beyond knowledge production. Universities are land-grabbing, land-transmogrifying, land-capitalizing machines. Universities are giant machines attached to other machines: war machines, media machines, governmental and nongovernmental policy machines. Therefore the terms of the struggle in the university are also over this machinery—deactivating its colonizing operations and activating its contingent decolonizing possibilities.

A decolonizing university is not just about decolonizing the “representational” work of knowledge production that we associate with universities, nor about “decolonizing” the treatment of currently enrolled students in its courses of study. It is about the steam and pistons, the waterworks, the groundworks, the investments, the emplacements, the institutional–governmental–capitalistic rhizomatics of the university. What can we do with this hulking mass of ruins, conduit, fibroids, workhouses, and research facilities built on Indigenous land? What would it take for universities to rematriate land? What would it take for universities to clean water? What would it mean for universities to counteract war making? What would it mean to hotwire the university for decolonizing work? To these machines of decolonial desire, the desire for a third university, this book now turns.

All rights reserved