Post-“Compton Cookout” UCSD: Jorge Mariscal reflects on what has (not) changed

The following is reproduced from the UCSD Guardian:

Two Years Later, UCSD Still Has Much to Learn from Student Struggles

By Jorge Mariscal
Department of Literature

“No great victories are won in a war for transformation…without total participation. Less than this will not create a new society; it will only evoke more sophisticated token amelioration,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said.

Two years ago this Sunday on February 26, 2010, a noose was found hanging in Geisel Library.  The incident followed hard upon demonstrations in which UCSD students demanded a radical alteration of existing campus structures and a total renewal of the hostile climate those structures had produced.

Who made the noose and who decided to place it at the edge of a bookshelf matters little now.  The noose was really nothing more than a symbolic reminder of two seemingly unrelated historical facts — the brutal history of terror waged against communities of color in the United States and 50 years of exclusionary policies at the University of California, San Diego, and the resultant establishment of an unsympathetic environment for historically underrepresented groups.

From the “Cookout” to the noose and everything in between, it was clear that administrators were not equipped to respond.  To be fair, many of them were appalled as the various incidents unfolded.  From within their self-enclosed bubble, others asked why students were so angry or worried about the negative publicity. Student activists themselves were forced to outline needed reforms.

On March 4, an agreement was signed with students but it appeared that too many administrators had mistaken the paper agreement itself as the realization of meaningful institutional change. The moment the heat of the struggle subsided it was back to business as usual. Follow-up was weak and a handful of students and their faculty allies had to pick up the slack.  Do-nothing councils and task forces were established.  Administrators were uneasy with student discontent “but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” Structural and cultural change “at the deepest level had but few stalwart champions.”

A few days ago, the UCSD public relations machine spun out a sophisticated repackaging of the events that marked Winter 2010.  With the self-congratulatory title “Commemoration of Activism that Transformed UC San Diego,” the photo essay celebrates the many “successes” of the last two years and claims that the campus is on a new path.  Smiling faces all around erase the real pain students felt at the time, appropriate the labor they expended to convert that pain into action, and in the end misrepresent the history of that brief period in order to enhance the university brand.

In the midst of the happy talk, lethal doses of Triton spirit, the debate about Division-I sports, and other distractions, the campus community must take seriously the epigraph from Dr. King and ask the following question: “Have we witnessed a fundamental rethinking of governing structures and policies or have we been presented with little more than sophisticated token amelioration?” “Loose and easy language” about transformation “falls pleasantly on the ear,” but for students, staff and faculty who are awake “there is a credibility gap” that has yet to be overcome.

Two years gone and the implementation of key reforms has been marred by false starts, delays and a lack of coherent planning.  Turnover in the Chancellor’s office and bureaucratic indolence have slowed the process further.  Meanwhile, rising costs and questionable decisions on the admissions front in the near future will jeopardize recent (minimal) increases in the number of African-American and Chicano/Latino students on campus.  The only “transformation” underway is the conversion of a California public university into a semi-private corporation committed to the commercialization of knowledge from behind a Disneyland-like facade.

The student activists who fought back two years ago left us a legacy of commitment out of which “monuments of dignity were shaped, courage was forged and hope took concrete form.”  Despite what some assert today, the struggle those students inherited and chose to carry on is far from over.