Abolishing the Academy

By Caroline Cheung

As an activist-scholar, I have dedicated my research, pedagogy and praxes to dismantling the prison-industrial complex (PIC) and the discourses that normalize, sustain and even celebrate it. I am a prison abolitionist, which means my work and worldviews are inherently and necessarily about imagining and manifesting liberated futures, or futures without cages. Prison abolitionism emphasizes creative forms of revolutions that re-make the world and re-envision what justice means for marginalized (especially criminalized) communities.

I walk with one foot in “the academy” and one foot in queer and people of color communities. To me, “public scholarship” means that whatever I do in the former category of academia should serve those in the latter category of community – not the other way around. Simply put, I study and learn theory so I can better serve people. I study so I can responsibly work in community with others to abolish the PIC and its concomitant structures of policing, surveillance, isolation and abuse. I refuse to let the “ivory tower” of academia train me so well that I start caring about publications more than I care about people. And when university administrators are actively disposing of people for profit – a key feature of the PIC – I must seriously think about the need to abolish academia, too.  

COVID-19 has made the need for prison abolition increasingly urgent. Pandemics are a death sentence for people who are imprisoned. Prisons are overcrowded, lack basic sanitation supplies, have low to no amounts of testing equipment and have no way to practice social distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, prison staff, DOC, wardens, and other state officials purposely exploit prisoners for the sake of profit and power. The prison I teach at forced prisoners to clean the belongings of other prisoners who tested positive for COVID. No one gave them proper PPE to do so.

The purposes of the PIC are exploitation, disposal, dehumanization, and disempowerment – all of which are racialized and gendered. Yet, these oppressive ideologies, behaviors and policies also operate within universities (to different degrees) and schools (e.g. the school-to-prison pipeline). Universities police people too. They make a business out of exploitation and disposal too. Universities have always been sites of colonialist, white supremacist and capitalist violence. It is undeniable that universities both uphold and reproduce systemic oppression – that they are unsafe spaces for Black, Indigenous and people of color (or people of the Global Majority).

How abolitionist frameworks address academic institutions has been a prominent consideration for many prison abolitionists. The way universities have responded to COVID-19 makes this question of abolishing the academy more critical than ever. While I wholeheartedly embrace the synergetic relationship between scholarship and activism, the academy’s hierarchies and inequities are designed to threaten that relationship. What power could our theories and practices have when we don’t have to navigate academic violence too? What possibilities for revolutionary study, mutual aid and liberation could we create if we did abolish the academy? I’m excited for those possibilities and futures.


5 responses to “Abolishing the Academy”

  1. Trisha Remetir says:

    Hi Caroline, Thanks so much for this clear and urgent need to address how prisons work in tandem with academia. I am reminded by your blog post that academia is not separate from the PIC, but working between the gaps and fissures we might find some new ways to organize, if only temporary. I feel for your students in prison, who are facing the pandemic head-on, and who are *students* yet do not have the support of the higher educational systems they’re taking classes from.

    I hope we get to talk about this more as a group together this year, and trade strategies and experiences. It’s been so lovely to read how you (and also everyone in this group!) have navigated this very weird relationship to the academy and to scholarship, while maintaining our values and commitments to the communities we’re answerable to. Do we let the academy die on its own (or, I guess, continue to privatize), or abolish it ourselves? I’m right there with you! 🙂

  2. Hi Caroline, thank you for this post. I am very interested in your alignment of PIC with the academy and am looking forward to learn more about your work. I was encouraged to read your stance: “Simply put, I study and learn theory so I can better serve people.” I’ve jumped between schooling and working-only over the past years because of my interest in learning along with interest of doing work where I can more immediately gauge and labor towards results with assisting people I have worked with and for. Between these two spaces, there has not really been a space of rest there for me. As I am studying transatlantic slavery, becoming more aware of overarching and/or underlying capitalism, industrialism, and social structures created and sustained for few to gain via the subjugation and violence of many –while-in-academia– has been a lot to realize, digest, and navigate. I returned to school because I saw it as a space to learn more deeply about the interests I have, to hopefully add to society — something more intangible, more valuable than regurgitated industry-focused things, ideals and energy — something that better sustains me as well as those around me. What will my degree mean in 5–10 years from now? Really… what does it mean right now? I think about these questions and your post has given me an additional angle to consider when trying to understand (and honestly validate) my restlessness in school, as a student, as a researcher. I’ll stop here – but thank you again!

    • Víctor Manuel Rubio Carrillo says:

      Prisons as both the industrial complex and as a metaphor for what many institutions have become (schools, homes, states). I share with you the notion of helping the other… What does a publication matter if it did not help people? So many in academia still think that the way to help is by publishing… that somehow does publications will help the world… Yet, in their actions, they do not even live by what they publish.

      I am hesitant though, that abolishment of the academy might be an option… perhaps it is too powerful, confronting that much power might lead to self-destructive resistance. I think our mission relies on creating new possibilities, new alternatives. We might not need to destroy what we inherited to show there are better alternatives, we might need to transcend it by creating new possibilities, the more we create, the more traditions morph and adapt…

  3. Ionah Scully says:

    I love this call and think of it often; institutions of higher education (IHEs) are land grab institutions founded on both the removal of my people from these lands and the exploitation of Black labor, bodies, and lives. As an education scholar focusing on Inidge-queer land pedagogy, I always seek to ask what education can (and has) look(ed) like outside of institutions and this is something I see fundamentally as a component of abolitionism; to (re)imagine alternative and justice-oriented (and decolonial) worlds. Cannot wait to work with you and get to know you more during this fellowship year!

  4. Judy Pryor-Ramirez says:

    Caroline,
    Thank you for this piece! As an IA Board Member, the question of the future of higher education comes up a lot in our discussions. As an outsider-insider to academia, I’m interested in education and learning that happens in living rooms, kitchen tables, community gardens, and church basements (and as you know, prison yards) as sites for power building, transformation, change, resistance, resilience and belonging. I think many of these spaces are already around us and wonder what it would look like to begin to galvanize activist-scholars to write these spaces into the literature. Onward! Pa’lante!

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