Confronting HE’s historical complicity in colonial violence

Although the subtitle of Unsettling the University, “Confronting the colonial foundations of US higher education”, announces that the book’s focus is the “nation currently known as the United States”, the bulk of the introduction is a masterful deconstruction of Professor Sharon Stein’s own university: the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada.

She shows that UBC’s main campus at Point Grey Peninsula, on the southwestern shore of Vancouver harbour, is on land dispossessed from the Musqueam Nation (as, indeed, most of Vancouver is).

UBC’s origin story, beginning as a western outpost of McGill University (Montreal), includes men like Francis Lovett Carter-Cotton, UBC’s first chancellor (1912-18), whose words could have come from Rudyard Kipling’s pen just after he coined the term ‘the white man’s burden’: “[British Columbia’s] sense of unity with other parts of the Dominion and with the Empire as a whole, and of possession of common ideals of citizenship and culture, has been deepened” by the establishment of UBC.

It goes without saying, of course, that neither Carter-Cotton, nor Canada as a whole, included the people of what are now called ‘First Nations’ as partaking in this common citizenship – and wouldn’t be until 1956.

Taking a leaf from the state universities established after the passage in 1862 of the Morrill Land Grant College Act in the United States, in 1907 the government of British Columbia (BC) transferred title of the land where the campus at Point Grey is, and other parcels meant to be sold off to pay for the building of the university, to UBC.

At each step in the story, Stein reminds us that the land BC gifted had never been ceded by the Musqueam to BC; in other words, it should not have been within the powers of the BC government to ‘gift’ the land. It was, however, because the settlement of BC was deemed by Canadian law to have extinguished the Musqueam’s claim to the land.

Later in the book Stein points to the importance of the Doctrine of Discovery in the dispossession of Indigenous lands. First promulgated by Pope Nicholas V in 1455, the Doctrine granted the Portuguese (and later all Europeans) the right to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans”.

Two centuries later John Locke stripped out the religious parts of the Doctrine when he wrote that unimproved land (ie, in the state of nature) does not demonstrate title. In 1832, the Supreme Court of the United States was surprisingly honest: “Conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny.”

The building of the campus at Point Grey started in 1914 and included blowing up forests with dynamite and giving UBC more land to sell. But things moved slowly and in 1922, UBC students marched from the university’s temporary location to Point Grey.

Called the ‘Great Trek’, UBC had long been eulogised by the university. Fittingly, Stein notes sardonically, the students acted under the university’s motto: Tuum Est – “It’s yours”.

More recently, UBC has acknowledged that it is built upon stolen land and partakes in what is a ritual performed by almost every institution supported by a Canadian government: acknowledgement that the institution sits on ‘unceded land’.

UBC even has a webpage explaining how to properly acknowledge that “the Vancouver campus is located on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam people”.

There is no mention, however, of restoring these lands or financial restitution for the value of the land, part of which is a chichi housing development owned by UBC.

Pointing to the billions of dollars in what had formerly been his people’s land, that UBC now owns, Larry Grant, a Musqueam elder, asks: “You know who the biggest benefactor of UBC is?” After running down the list of institutional donors, he says: “It’s Musqueam!”

Once Stein turns her attention to the US, she adds another group that suffered from settler violence: the men, women and children kidnapped from Africa and forced to labour in the American colonies, between 1776 and 1865 as slaves (and for a century thereafter under Jim Crow laws).

Their labour, quite literally, built some of the stately buildings that still survive at universities like Georgetown University in Washington DC, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In 1783, the president of Yale University, Ezra Stiles, celebrated the fact that the growth of ‘whites’ in America demonstrates that the Lord smiles on the ‘children of Europe’ and that, as education historian CS Wilder summarises, “any remaining social injustices would disappear with Native Americans and Africans, whose decline seemed inevitable”.

Stein deftly shows the paradox of the epistemological assumptions ingrained in universities that denigrated Indigenous ways of knowing while at the same time extracting from Indigenous people’s information and culture but not granting them the status of ‘knowledge’ – the paradigmatic example of this being the way anthropologists looted Indigenous burial sites, displayed bones and sacred objects; mutatis mutandis for enslaved Africans.

The violence at the heart of American higher education is cloaked, Stein shows several times, in rhetorical flourishes that sometimes admit bad things happened once upon a time but not now.

Ironically for institutions that celebrate their origins and contain history and classics departments, Stein argues, colleges and universities divide the past, with its ‘mistakes’, from the present, without ever admitting that those mistakes determine the institution’s present structure.

Perhaps the paradigmatic example of this historical amnesia in American higher education occurs when people marvel at Harvard University’s endowment of US$53 billion and forget that many of Harvard’s early benefactors owed their wealth to slavery.

Perhaps Stein’s most audacious argument is that the violence against Indigenous peoples and African Americans perpetrated by American society over the course of hundreds of years and aided and abetted by universities (which have profited from it) is directly linked to the ecological crisis now gripping the world.

Indeed, following historians Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, Stein argues that we can date the Anthropocene (the geological age we live in, when human activity and not natural forces alter the Earth) to about the time Harvard University was founded in 1636.

For, the current ecological crisis is intricately linked, she writes, quoting Davis and Todd, to “a specific ideology defined by proto-capitalist logics based on extraction and accumulation through dispossession”.

Not surprisingly, Stein writes: “[In] most narratives about the early history of US higher education, land is framed almost exclusively and uncritically as an object of accumulation and ownership that was key to the social, political and economic structure of the emerging US nation-state.”

After the European settlers found that Native Americans could not be enticed or coerced to work either on farms or in the nascent industries, the colonists began importing slaves from Africa. The limitless land being made useful, from an economic point of view, by black labour.

Another icon in the American pantheon Stein smashes is the one devoted to the story of American higher education benevolence. The many small (now mostly liberal arts) colleges that dot the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states were, as the towns and farms around them were, placed on dispossessed Native lands.

Stein argues, they had an ideological role, “reproducing the mundane political, economic and epistemological infrastructures that naturalised ongoing settler colonial dispossession”.

In this way they were akin to armouries or forts, Stein notes, citing Wilder, who thinks of them as “part of the colonial garrison with the specific responsibilities to train ministers and missionaries, convert Indigenous peoples and soften cultural resistance, and extend European rule over foreign nations”.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which granted each state 30,000 acres of public land for the endowment and support of universities. States could build on the land or sell it to finance public state universities, including such well known ones as the University of Nebraska, Ohio State University, Michigan State University, the University of California Berkeley, Rutgers University in New Jersey and Cornell University in New York.

The act dispossessed Indigenous Americans from a total of 10.7 million acres of land that had been where 250 tribes lived, valued today at half a trillion dollars.

What is still held up by many historians as a shining example of America’s commitment to democratising education – and we should admit that for white, lower- and middle-class Americans it was – is not just founded by violence, the dispossession led to more violence against Indigenous Americans by the US Army when the dispossessed fought back.

For example, the grant that led to the creation of Colorado State University “was stolen from the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations”.

Stein does not provide a timeline linking dispossessions to the Indian Wars of the 1870s through 1890s. However, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were part of the force that defeated General George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, for example.

What Americans refer to as the ‘Settling of the West’ erases the fact that for thousands of years the Cheyenne, Arapaho and hundreds of other tribes lived across great distances.

The Settling of the West included the near eradication of the Indigenous population and the herding of the remaining populations into reservations that were too small to support their nomadic way of life or were unable to support farming, and dispossession of tens of millions of acres under the Homestead Act of 1862.

The land-grant universities were, Stein argues convincingly, central to this project, for they provided a patina of civilisation that hid their own violent origins and, by extension, the seizure of the West by settlers backed by the US army.

Further, she says that because the universities were (as they remain today) inextricably linked to the capitalist ethos, the knowledge they produced could not help but justify the seizure of the lands they occupied.

“Beyond the material dimensions of this authority, land-grant universities further naturalised dispossession and settlement through their approach to both curriculum and research, which treated the land as property to be ‘developed’ by settlers according to Western notions of extractivism, profit and efficiency,” Stein writes.

When I was in primary school in the late 1960s, the textbooks we used, all of which were written by university-trained historians, celebrated the ‘Winning of the West’,” as Theodore Roosevelt titled the book that made him famous 12 years before he became president of the United States.

Stein’s critique of the efforts of universities like Rutgers to go beyond lip service when discussing reparations is trenchant. Her charge that universities cannot come to terms with their history vis-à-vis African Americans or Indigenous Americans without also admitting and, somehow, altering, the forces generated by higher educations’ epistemological assumptions, is important.

However, what from an international point of view is more immediately relevant is an argument she makes about the land-grant universities and American hegemony.

“If we take the colonisation of North America to be the condition of possibility for US democracy and capitalism, then US public higher education has always unfolded within a globalising horizon premised on a colonial imaginary of inevitable expansion, possession and dominance.

“The land-grant universities make this visible, and this is not just a matter of a distant past … The shape-shifting frontier logics of colonial US state, capital and higher education are re-articulated over time, successively opening up new lands and communities for extraction, yet always requiring ongoing Indigenous dispossession ‘at home’.”

It is, therefore, unsurprising that in more recent times many of the land-grant universities and their faculty were active participants in forming American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Between 1955 and 1962, Michigan State University’ professors and researchers were part of a US State Department-funded anti-communist operation in South Vietnam.

In 1966, the US State Department received the ‘Atcon Report’, which focused on university reforms the US wanted to see in Latin America that would, in the words of historian Gilbert Gonzalez (emeritus professor, University of California, Irvine), “provide a support system for the hemispheric division of labour” desired by the United States.

Stein quotes Gonzalez’s characterisation of the part of the report called, “Basic Plan for Colombian Higher Education”, which was prepared by the University of California, Berkeley, perhaps the most famous land-grant university, as being a form of “imperialist modernisation” – a phrase that had it come from the pen of any number of American college and university founders, presidents or chancellors would have been words of praise and not, as they are, an indictment of almost all of America’s institutions of higher education.