In early 2016 a new activist student group took hold at the University of Copenhagen. The group was short-lived and failed to turn the tide of cut-downs.
By Daniel Marslew
Planting the seeds of activism
At the start of last year’s spring semester (2016), the second lecture in an interdisciplinary course, Science Studies, presented a breakdown of the history of the university itself. Our lecturer expanded on the theories of Wilhelm von Humboldt and, as a contemporary perspective, the English academic Stefan Collini. I had a lucid moment during this class, and so did a couple others, as it turned out. I had read and rather liked the text we’d been assigned, an excerpt of Collini’s essay-book “What are universities for?”, but it took on a greater significance once its content was placed into the context of our own situation.
That situation is the downsizing of the educational sector across Denmark. At the time, state funding was being reduced on several levels of education. Staff were cut, research funds withdrawn and entire departments debilitated or shut down altogether. This was, and is, exceedingly true of the Faculty of Humanities, where I study.
What Collini provided in light of this predicament was an informed position on the nature of university education and an opposition to the position that our government appeared to take on the same issue. As a way of resetting the debate, Collini lays down a basic definition of the university he considers to best sustain Humboldt’s ideals of holistic education while retaining relevance in modern (Western-style) societies. Following Clark Kerr, Collini speaks of a multiversity: An institution that serves to broaden the field of science and to cultivate the dissolution of knowledge into other, hitherto unchartered perspectives on human existence; as opposed to it serving to channel all resources into the employment sector. Collini stresses that this multiversity is not a formal training for joining the workforce; it is, essentially, a place where knowledge is crafted and recrafted on the basic assumption that this is a genuine and empowering feature of any society.
The principles of free, accessible and ambitious education certainly hold great value. However, having been brought up within a school system that is free, reasonably accessible and ambitious, you are prone to obviate these structural ideas as well as the prospect of your education not being exempt from political interference.
Now that such interference was causing good people to lose their jobs, and even causing the fields of study they were occupying to vanish, the chips were apparently down. The manner in which a handful of students (myself included) convened right after class and started discussing the issue was remarkable to me; spontaneous exchanges of opinion on a school-related thing like this was, in my experience, not a familiar sight. We then set up a meeting for the next day, with the intention of assembling a group of people willing to participate in an activist agenda.
From mass meetings to failing attendance
The meeting took place on February 13th, not more than 24 hours after we disbanded. The turnout was in excess of a hundred people – we had booked one of the larger classrooms for good measure and with little ambition of genuinely filling it, but in the event we had been well advised.
None of us had any substantial experience in activism. I myself subscribed to the notion that Facebook events were obsolete as a means of mobilizing, and now I felt accordingly confounded. It seemed clear that this would actually yield something, progress in some form. At this point it really was an exciting enterprise. Vincent, one of yesterday’s instigators and a classmate of mine, assumed – by default – the role of introductory speaker; briefly and in personal terms, he explained the initial motivations for doing what we were doing and why, as the current cutbacks were being implemented, now was indeed the time to act – and to do so collectively.
Having presented the general idea, we ran an extensive round of questions that became basically a floor discussion. We had a moderator maintaining a level of order, but opinions were allowed to play out into a broader argument. I think we were aiming for two things: Establishing an open, flat structure where involvement would be as immediate as possible, and finding out what kind of action people were willing to take.
The discussion itself was a useful exercise, although it probably would have been wise to divide a crowd of that size into smaller groups for an initial round of debate, before declaring a free format. After 45 minutes we proceeded to what was ostensibly the purpose of the meeting: To enlist students and create workgroups with specific tasks. We ended up with about four or five different groups, averaging some seven or eight people for each unit, who then would take it upon themselves to meet within the next few days. Each group assigned a coordinator. As the meeting dissolved, we invited everyone present to join the Facebook group and urged them to show up at our next gathering.
We did have other larger meetings at the university throughout February, but we never reached the number of participants our first one had attracted. What transpired between February 13th and March 4th was roughly this: We got to actually know each other within the designated groups, we approached other student organizations both internal and external to our particular faculty, we began arranging a demonstration to coincide with one that students at Roskilde University had initiated, and we made plans for what would serve as the essential event so far, a happening taking place on the faculty premises.
While doing these things, we made a continuing effort to engage with as many students as possible. We wanted to maintain some level of interest and we also wanted to maintain an open enterprise. Going by the increasing involvement of teachers and of educational groups outside of the university, it was succeeding on both points; going by the number of students who wanted to actively participate in organizing and administrative work, less so.
24 hour sit in: The culmination
The planned event on March 4th became, in the end, a 24-hour sit-in. From the beginning, we were eager to translate our ideas into tangible action, and to do it sooner rather than later. The danger of a sudden, infectious bout of indifference seemed always present. Based on the broader sentiments at our first general meeting as well as the sentiment among the dozen or so people effectively running the organization, what we felt we could realistically do at this point was either to occupy and block one or several of the administrative offices on the faculty – and so to begin a strike – or to occupy the common area not by force but through a prior arrangement with the dean’s office. We opted for the latter.
That choice was, I think, partly a matter of practicality. If we were to protest by blocking a part of the university, it would have to be in numbers, and a wide range of students would have to be convinced that they were better off not attending class through a certain period; shifts would have to be arranged, and, it was generally agreed, student lectures and workshops would have to be initiated in place of common school activities. This was certainly not impossible, but it was a somewhat tall order – not least considering our difficulties in getting more people to take on practical responsibilities.
At a more fundamental level, an occupation by force was never perceived to be the preference of the majority – not among the “public” that attended our general meetings, nor really among the inner circuits of active students. The will to go ahead and do something like this did not seem to exist. There were several participants who did make the argument and convincingly so; some had experience from earlier occupations at Aarhus University. But the prevailing reasoning was, as I understood it, that deliberately upsetting the basic functions of the university would come across as self-defeating, or even as hypocrisy.
The sit-in took place in the large entrance hall at the Faculty of Humanities. We had asked permission from the authorities and we were granted it in a strange spirit of detached solidarity. We were allowed to set up a small stage, hosting speeches and (downbeat) music. From one o’clock that afternoon through to the next day, speeches and small workshops were held, as further attempts to mobilize for the long run. Of these part-events, one was especially memorable: A speech by a recently-fired professor of ethnology, Thomas Højrup, detailing the obscure mechanisms employed by the university itself in adjusting to the cutbacks. That felt like half an hour’s worth of genuine counteraction. The rest of the programme was entertaining and enlightening, as regular school activities should strive to be, but it was, finally, a very conditional form of resistance.
A couple of us spent the night on the premises, as was the literal point of a sit-in, with others returning for the morning activities. It was difficult to gauge how many people were actually there for the event at any point during those 24 hours; at a guess, it was never more than 60 and an average would likely be around 30.
In the final hours on the next morning, we – the usual accomplices – sat down to summarize and to delegate tasks in anticipation of our next meeting. A weariness had descended by that time and, collectively, we went through the motions and then we departed, with a slight idea of a general lesson but with a lack either of concentration or conviction.
Structure, commitment and values in terms of organisation
All of the students authentically involved with our short-lived organization were great people, enthusiastic and inspiring to be around. They were eloquent and they seemed to grasp both the negative and the positive aspects – the failings of the current educational policies and the case we could make for an alternative vision. But they – we – were constantly short on help from without the core organization, and, in the end, short on resources to keep the whole thing moving.
I think there are a few reasons for this failure, and I’ll try to account for them. First, the structure: The attempt at a horizontal, open and fluid organization, led in principle by those who showed up at the meetings and asked to be involved in any given task. The leadership model we aimed for was one of rotation, of taking turns to organize and settle on decisions. We wanted to have a regular influx of people who would then be free to assume various degrees of responsibility. But that simply never happened. Participants at events and meetings as a rule did not become participants in the operation itself. They were partial to the concept of activism but they weren’t activists for that reason, and we couldn’t manage to convert them into committed activists over the course of two-and-a-half weeks.
This aversion to commitment is, I fear, a common fault of students at our university – whatever the burden of attending school itself may amount to – but it was also a failure on our part. We made several attempts at writing a manifesto that would serve as a clear, concise message, hoping this would in turn make recruitment easier. But that project in itself was muddled by our sense of proportion. We thought we would have to effectively produce a complete policy alternative, whereas we really just needed a provisional set of beliefs and propositions for change. So we overextended ourselves in that regard and remained vague on our collective message.
That was one regrettable decision and it was not our only one, which was another problem. Having only de facto leaders and then having this dozen people work primarily in five different groups, focusing on fragments of an agenda and meeting only occasionally with the other groups for broader discussion, even a relatively small organization managed to become needlessly disoriented. We were too isolated in those groups and we didn’t meet, all of us, often enough.
I personally think the sit-in was a half-cooked idea. It was a convenient arrangement for us, which is all right, but it was convenient for the institution as well, which is just daft. Here, obviously, there was never any real consensus, and we went for the least demanding and the least risky option.
It didn’t work out – which is to say, nothing really came of it. It didn’t convince that many people and it didn’t provide an incentive to move forward. What we specifically hoped to achieve with it, apart from a kind of publicity, was not clear to others and it was not even that clear to us.
The concept of organized disobedience, of refusing to comply with the rules that maintain order in an institution by actively and physically going against them, is understood by some in our universities and schools, but it is alien to most. I hesitate to call our small revolt of last year a movement; at the time, I was convinced that it was or at least would be capable of redrawing the landscape to some extent, but even if it did that, it also reverted into oblivion and any change we might have affected during that month, I was not able to recognize afterwards.
It was a moribund revolt and, I hope, a cautionary tale. I’ve accentuated the errors and misjudgements we made because disorganisation and hesitancy can take hold so easily. The University of Copenhagen was and is subject to cuts on a large scale; the logic being that we must operate at least as effectively with a tighter budget, that we must overhaul our academical tradition and submit to the needs of the employment sector, and that we as students must get it over with. So the university is no longer a place to linger and reflect on the predicament of the world and ourselves – it is a fast-track, a meatgrinder, a vehicle that will get you and your future employer the results you both need to sustain your lives at the highest possible speed. I disagree on all points, and I know for a fact that many other students feel the same way. But we disagree on our own behalf – we’re reluctant to have the argument collectively. Our situation individually speaking is not that bad; we live and study in a country that is, in the grand scheme of things, extremely accommodating. Even so, education as a whole is deteriorating, because the governing forces have little or no belief in an independent, free-thinking institution. If we ourselves do, we have got to realize that we’re gonna lose it if we don’t organize, if we don’t commit to obstructing the negative education policies, and if we won’t dare to tell them that we know something they don’t.
Illustration by Emma von Skov, photographies by Kristian Jensen
About the author
“My name is Daniel, I’m a former student of Religion at the University of Copenhagen and currently a musician and writer. I’ve had the fortune of a virtually cost-free education, but if politicians or even students fail to lend it value, it will lose its purpose.”