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.