The new director of the London School of Economics must put students first

Following the resignation of financial man Howard Davies, the appointment of radical academic Craig Calhoun as director could signal a sea change for the London School of Economics, hopes a Student Union sabbatical officer.
Lukas Slothuus
14 December 2011

The appointment of Craig Calhoun as the new Director of the London School of Economics (LSE) indicates a fundamental shift in the attitudes and values of the university. Calhoun, an American social sciences Professor at New York University and President of the Social Science Research Council, stands in stark contrast to his predecessor Sir Howard Davies, a former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, who was deeply entangled in the world of finance. Calhoun, by contrast, comes from academia and has a track record of radical politics.

The public university system is universally under threat and Calhoun’s resounding criticism of privatising higher education is a welcome change for LSE. He is a signatory to the Manifesto for Higher Education, the corollary of the essays outlining and inveighing against marketisation in The Assault on Universities. Having received his doctorate in the UK and taught across four different continents, he reflects the international nature of LSE. He must resolve LSE’s pressing issues: of sub-standard teaching, high tuition fees and a gradual reorientation away from its founding principles.

It is our hope that Calhoun will reiterate these founding principles as the new head. LSE must reassert itself as a centre of social justice, equality and fairness – three qualities all too absent in recent times at our university. Evident from the Gaddafi scandal this year and the Sheikh Zayed debacle a few years ago, LSE had its priorities wrong.

It is impossible to overstate just how important it is to have an academic as Director of LSE. The appointment of Calhoun signifies the beginning of a new era at LSE, one where the academy once again stands as a source of knowledge and intellectual inquiry, and of radical politics. His track record of bringing social science out of the ivory tower and into the public sphere corresponds to the increasingly important need for universities to re-establish themselves as fundamental social public goods, not bastions of privilege.

His strong criticism of rogue capitalism and deep sympathy for social movements and student protest chimes well with the current political climate. All too often in the struggle against the destruction of higher education, students have been left without support from the senior management of our universities. But Calhoun is an outspoken critic of police violence and at a time when water cannons and blinding lasers are being considered to curb social unrest, the need for high profile figures willing to speak out against brutal repression of protests is perhaps greater than ever. Encouragingly, he has written that 'democracy depends not just on voting and the rule of law but on social movements and public expressions of dissent'.

Calhoun’s social commentary blog contains exactly what vice-chancellors across the country ought to write about: supporting public higher education and social movements, as well as attacking cuts. In an age of austerity, when the government is pitting students and academics against each other (and universities against each other), it is essential for senior management not to betray students and academics but to side with them in the struggle against the privatisation of our universities. LSE students have a history of activism and our Students’ Union is one of the most politically active in the country. Calhoun must allow for this to flourish in many years to come.

But with great power comes great responsibility. As has become increasingly evident in past weeks from universities in California, USA - UC Davis and UC Berkeley - there is always a real threat of senior management turning their backs on students even where formerly strong relationships seemed to exist. The chancellors of UC Davis (Linda Katehi) and Berkeley (Robert Birgeneau) were both were both supported by the Students’ Unions and academics when they were appointed. However, the recent Occupy Davis and Occupy Berkeley scandals where students were pepper-sprayed and beaten by police are the real litmus test of trustworthiness and solidarity with students. Katehi and Birgeneau both failed in putting students first, disgracefully standing by while police attacked students who were peaceful protesting. Calhoun must put students first throughout his term in office.

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