5 – Resisting the neoliberal university & their unethical investments


Once I realized that I did not truly need to be at the university to learn, thinking through what it means to be a student became complicated. I grew up in a privileged situation where attending university was something I always assumed I would do. The way I saw it, the university would facilitate my learning and be a time where I could connect with others to think through ways to make changes for a more equitable society. Looking back, it’s hard not to see this as merely naive, yet lovely, aspirations of a 17-year-old.

I’m sure many of my community members and peers can relate to this feeling of “once I go to ___ or do ___, I can change ___.” Capitalism’s focus on hyper-specialization has shaped an economics-focused society that socializes us to compartmentalize our lives in this manner. We are told that first we will study and learn in our academic “career” to build those “skills” that can equip us to best “market ourselves” to future employer — the neoliberal hyper-focus on productivity and individualism at its peak. Then, we are expected to use those skills in our careers to influence our community, or for some, to just get paid. Note how “academic” is absent in this later “career” section. Apparently, any learning we do in this stage falls under our jobs. Even for those of us who work during our time in university, work is often seen as merely a financial end to fund our education. Spelling it out in this manner clarifies just how wrong this idea is: the fact that this is something many of us have had to question and collectively unlearn is important. The notion that students learn now in order to act later ignores the fact that we are constantly learning and acting throughout every moment of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. Inaction remains an active choice. 

While long days of classes, ceaseless assignments and exams, and the ever-looming question of the future post-graduation keeps us tied to the rat race, we are in a powerful (and very privileged) position to make demands as students and contributors to the university. Funded by our tuition, and all the university’s other forms of revenue, the university invests in maintaining inequality and war, locally and globally. I will focus here on the University of California (UC) system, but this analysis of university investments can be applied to many higher education institutions. 

The UC Investments touts its portfolio of $169 billion in investments. It’s an unfathomable amount of money that is used to keep violent systems in power. 

The UC gives billions and entrusts portfolio management to BlackRock, one of the largest weapons and war investors. They fund the genocide in Palestine, the violence in the Philippines, and the prison-industrial complex in the United States. While actively teaching about the social and political impact of global violence and the issue of corporations profiting off of exploited labor in prisons, the university continues to invest in these problems. 

The UC funds the housing crisis through its $7+ billion investments in Blackstone, one of the largest corporate landlords and the largest student housing owner in the United States. Rather than providing its students with housing relief, the UC invests in and profits off of corporate housing consolidation and raises rent for both students near the university and communities nationwide. Meanwhile, UC Berkeley has spent over $6.6 million (as of March 2024) on violently occupying People’s Park and maintaining constant police watch under the claim of “solving the student housing crisis,” despite having many other land options to build student housing on. It’s clear the UC has no interest in solving the housing affordability crisis they financially maintain and benefit from. 

UC Berkeley’s pursuit of profits continues to triumph over its ethical codes of conduct. In July 2023, UC Berkeley signed on to a licensing contract with Nike amidst their international labor violation of $800,000 in wage theft at their factories that produce university apparel. Students are the university’s branded reason for existence, yet if we stay silent and inactive in the face of its immoral actions, the university will continue to pursue profits unrestricted and reinforce structures of violence. 

It’s in the interest of the university, and other similarly financialized institutions, that we view our lives through a consumer lens. Students pay high tuition and housing costs because we believe that our investment in an academic education will have a high return — it’s what keeps the university business running. Neoliberalism’s key feature is the way it views people as individual economic actors, or consumers, whose identities are tied to and shaped by our consumption. As students, we are regarded as consumers of the university system: the lectured information and the belief in a degree’s importance. When people ask us about ourselves, we often respond by referencing our position as students and the specialized major that we have selected. If so much of our time and identity is tied to our university, we must demand that it reflects community values. If we are going to be treated as mere consumers, then at least be an informed one and use your position to demand the university’s funds be allocated ethically, non-violently, and in promotion of an equitable society. 

Currently, our community is succeeding in cutting corporate profits in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement to cease our financial support to Israel. The Sather Gate Blockade has disrupted the general flow of students into campus, reminding them of the ongoing genocide in Palestine and the University’s complicity. Students continue to maintain the Berkeley Student Food Collective in active opposition to corporate food chains on campus. Campus and community members have resisted the UC occupation of People’s Park, setting up The People’s Free Store. Berkeley housing co-ops persist to offer community alternatives to corporate landlords’ high rental prices. Campus members continue to come together to demand ethical university spending.

Students uniting against the neoliberal university is not a new phenomenon. It succeeded in 1986 when students kept sustained pressure on the UC to divest $3.1 billion from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. It succeeded from 1969 until this year as students and community members united against the university and its police and National Guard backing to maintain People’s Park as a sacred space for mutual aid and community-building. It succeeded with the United Students Against Sweatshop movements that forced hundreds of universities to cut contracts with apparel companies that ran sweatshops and violently suppressed unions abroad. This, in turn, forced companies to make major structural changes along their supply chains to regain university business. All of these movements could not have happened without essential community support and students realizing and acting upon their power as students.

The university is a business, investor, and economic powerhouse that funds wars and genocide and maintains the housing crisis and international labor divide. There’s a reason why “people over profit” has been the longstanding rallying cry across the nation. When learning about global systematic inequality at the university, do not isolate yourself in a cozy student bubble. Resistance should feel uncomfortable, and you are in the perfect position to act against the violent systems the university funds to maintain. Resistance can take many forms. It can begin with raising awareness about the university’s global role and responsibility, but it does not end there. Show up to the many protests that continue throughout the semester, send the Chancellor letters demanding divestment, and organize and disrupt the normal school day. Students have made changes historically, and we can act to make necessary changes right now.