Education as a Battlefield: The Autonomous University of Mexico City in the National and International Contexts

Every human being, whether child or adult, has the right to become educated in all fields of knowledge – ancient and modern, practical and theoretical, concrete and speculative, literary, artistic, scientific, and technological.
Raoul Vaneigem, “A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings,” Article 4.

The Autonomous University of Mexico City (Spanish initials UACM), the country’s newest institution of public higher education, is at war. It is a foolish war provoked by the university’s own rector, Esther Orozco Orozco, who declared in April 2011, a few months after taking office, that we are “an academic fraud” and “a swamp without rules.”1 At first, a large swath of academia, most newspapers, and the major radio stations portrayed her as a brave administrator fighting against shadowy interest groups, mindless students, and idle professors.

A year later, this perception has drastically changed. A vigorous movement to defend the university has emerged, managing to win the backing of a section of public opinion. Meanwhile, Esther Orozco’s administration is facing serious criticism over corruption, harassment of employees, human rights violations, and violations of the collective bargaining agreement.

Some observers see the conflict as a contest between different interest groups or a fight between factions of the Partido de la Revolución Democrático (PRD) for control of the university. It is true that the war against UACM is connected to repeated interventions by Marcelo Ebrard, head of government of Mexico’s Distrito Federal (in effect, mayor of Mexico City). However, our struggle is independent of political parties, did not begin with Orozco, and will not end when she departs. Rather, it is part of the wave of resistance to the expropriation of knowledge taking place at the global level.

We should recognize one positive accomplishment of our controversial rector. Her arrival produced a crisis which put real problems on the table. The gravest of these is the distance between the original mission of creating a university exempt from corporate values, and that mission’s practical implementation – the distance between autonomy as a central value and a subordination to levels of government that represent the negation of that autonomy.

The university as a conflict factory

A glance at recent history will show that education in general and universities in particular have been politically sensitive areas since the student struggles of 1968.2 Since the final decade of the past century, the commercialization, expropriation, and privatization of knowledge has become part of economic restructuring and has generated conflict throughout the world.3 What has emerged is what some authors call the “global university,” managed as if it were a factory. Corporate executives participate actively on governing boards, while private consultants develop university strategies, liquidate “unaffordable” programs, and measure the productivity of professors and students.

Just before the World Trade Organization  ministerial meeting of December, 1999, in Seattle, US representative Charlene Barshefsky openly stated that her country would fight for free trade not only in the movement of capital and merchandise, but also in health and education services.4 Although the meeting failed, the proposal was successful. Today, the majority of governments of the right, the center, and also the left act on the assumption that education is a form of “capital” and that the “clients” – the students – must pay for it.

In response, social movements have emerged to fight against privatization of education and for a kind of knowledge production based on the principles of free access, cooperation, and mutual aid. Their actions have included strikes, occupations of public space, and occupations of educational institutions. These movements have spread from country to country, with students as their main protagonists but also including professors and contingent employees.5 In 2006, for example, France saw a massive rebellion against the First Employment Contract (French initials PCE), which legalized unprotected employment status. In 2009, students took to the streets again to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy’s educational reforms. In Italy in 2008 a war over education was provoked by drastic cuts in school funding (totaling eight billion Euros) decreed by then-Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, with concomitant cuts in teaching staff; this struggle is still going on.

Sometimes the protests have become threats to national stability. Cases included Chile, where students have forced the administration of Sebastián Piñera to its knees, and Greece, where protests against the killing of a young man in December 2008 unleashed a vast social rebellion with serious repercussions throughout the European Union. On May 22, 2012, Spain experienced its historic first general strike by the public education sector, involving elementary, junior high, and high schools as well as universities. Hundreds of thousands of students marched against budget cuts of ten billion Euros and tuition increases of up to 100% planned by the rightist government of Mariano Rajoy.

In North America, the movement for the abolition of student debt stands out. Like many other institutions, the University of California at Berkeley was shaken by a wave of protests against tuition and fee increases, funding cuts for critical studies, layoffs, reduction of student rights, and many more such measures. In October 2010, students from the economics department (the same department that has produced a string of    Nobel Prize winners aligned with neoliberal orthodoxy) issued a manifesto in favor of a “new economics,” one free of neoliberal dogmas.6

The most recent wave of demonstrations has broken out in Quebec, where hundreds of thousands of students have carried out strikes, street blockades, and bridge occupations against an unprecedented 75% hike in university tuition costs ordered by provincial Prime Minister Jean Charest. The student struggle has joined with demands put forward by other social sectors for defense of health care and against mining and hydroelectric mega-projects, showing how the government is putting its funds at the service of corporations rather than investing in social programs.7

These and many more such struggles reflect a key conflict of our era, between those preaching the gospel of profits and those defending the common goods (or “commons”), which include land, water, and forests but also information and knowledge. The Indignados or Occupy movement which erupted in the summer of 2011 once more highlighted the issue of education, both in Europe and in the United States.

Mexico is no different. Eduardo Ibarra Collado of the Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of the Mexican University System (Spanish initials LAISUM) reports that a large share of the country’s forty-five public universities are going through conflicts of varying degrees of intensity. Many of these conflicts have to do with budget cuts, state government interference in internal university affairs, abuses by authorities, and the processes by which these authorities are chosen.

From the traditional academy to the corporate university

Universities have always been institutions tied to the centers of power and, at the same time, institutions critical of those powers – instruments of class domination and spaces in which to question it. In the West, the university’s oldest precursor was the Academy, the school founded by Plato in Athens in 387 B.C. It imparted a style of aristocratic life in which education was the main path to realizing the Platonic ideal of the polis: government by philosophers (which we would now call government by technocrats). Similar institutions existed in the Islamic world, in some parts of Asia with the Buddhist universities and their venerable libraries, and in Mesoamerica with the calmécatl (schools for members of the Aztec elite).

European medieval universities such as those of Bologna, Paris, Salamanca and Oxford had the goal of preserving and transmitting the Greco-Roman tradition with a Christian interpretation. For a long time, they fulfilled three very important functions, though of course limited to the dominant minorities: teaching the practice of the liberal arts, cultivating knowledge beyond its practical uses, and opening “windows on the world.”

With the coming of modernity, this model entered a crisis period. The great scientific and intellectual revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries took place largely outside the universities, which themselves remained subordinated to the Church. That situation changed with the Enlightenment and, above all, the French Revolution, when the spirit of laicism and scientific observation had devastating effects on traditional wisdom. The modern university came into being, incorporated into the great processes of social transformation in the realm of the nation-state. The divorce between philosophy and science became final, while the university was reinvented as the site of production of humanist knowledge, useful for bourgeois society.

Knowledge now became democratized, though at the price of subordination to the imperatives of emergent capitalism. With characteristic clear-sightedness, Friedrich Nietzsche showed how the university had become a center for the banalization of culture. In spite of his aristocratic elitism – or perhaps, thanks to it – Nietzsche saw that the function of bourgeois schools was to allow each individual to progress only to the degree that this individual could become “ordinary.” What mattered was not one’s formation as a human being, but rather acquisition of the portion of knowledge needed to quickly amass the most income.8

In the twentieth century, higher education underwent two other important transitions. The bourgeois university, oriented toward the production of officials and managers for capital accumulation, gave way to what some have called the mass university, in the context of a protector state. The mass university was a mechanism of social mobility, a product of the social struggles of the mass worker – that is, the generation of workers who struggled against capitalism in its Fordist stage – and, simultaneously, an attempt from above to seal off the creativity and transformational potential of those struggles. In Mexico, this university developed particular traits closely tied to the events of 1968, the struggle for democracy, and the regime’s huge capacity to corrupt.

The next period – the one we are living through now – has to do with the latest incarnation of capitalism: neoliberal globalization. It begins toward the end of the twentieth century when, with the new technological revolution (that “total revolution which is continuously carried out and repeated,” forecast by Marx in his most accurate prophecy), production of knowledge acquires unprecedented characteristics, directly linked to the creation of surplus value and, therefore, of conflict. Knowledge is no longer part of the realm of “superstructures,” but rather is incorporated into work itself, in its contradictions and struggles.

Information technology not only reduces the number of workers directly involved in material production, but also brings about a radical change in the nature of work, deepening the subordination of human beings to capital. If the enclosure movement of the industrial revolution suppressed collective property rights to communal lands, today capitalism is extending its borders by invading our imagination, disciplining our creativity, and establishing a close relationship between production of merchandise and production of knowledge.

Just as Marx defined “living work” in contrast to “dead work” (work accumulated in the system of machines that challenges workers’ subjectivities), so Gigi Roggero suggests the category of “living knowledge” to indicate the terrain of class struggle in the phase which he and others call “cognitive capitalism.” Living knowledge denotes the potentials, ambivalences, and contradictions of the labor force involved in production of non-material goods.9

Other writers question the supposedly “cognitive” character of this kind of capitalism, pointing out that non-material work, although strategic, is always combined with archaic and predatory forms of exploitation.10 Without digressing into the details of this debate, it is clear that the field of production has expanded to take in all areas of human experience. Really existing capitalism sweeps away everything: health, education, housing, collective rights, particular knowledge, ancestral cultures, cities, energy resources, seas, forests, public spaces . . . To employ Marx’s well known metaphor, the man of iron dominates the man of flesh and blood.

In such conditions, the old humanist education does not meet the new needs of capitalist domination. Since the 1980s, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and so-called international cooperation bodies have demanded an end to the educational system of the protector state – dismembering it, segmenting it, and subordinating it to capital. At the same time, so-called “corporate universities” have gained strength: educational Frankensteins, centers of production, innovation, and diffusion of knowledge that are directly linked to transnational firms (e.g., Motorola, Dell, General Electric, Disney), with the task of developing, processing, and disseminating knowledge that serves their interests.11

To the extent that, with the crisis, traditional sources of financing dependent on waning national governments have stagnated, the corporate spirit has invaded public institutions and given birth to a monster: the corporate university, a malign synthesis of different forms of educational alienation. The dialectic of public as opposed to private universities is vanishing, and mercantile vocabulary – the vocabulary of alienation – invades all levels of public institutions. In the realm of theoretical reflection – or, better put, ideological reflection – the so-called theory of human capital has triumphed. According to its tenets, the possession of “educational goods” becomes equivalent to the usufruct of any other sort of investment. However, a form of education that is evaluated by purely quantitative or similar criteria – ranking, total quality, terminal efficiency, academic excellence, human capital – serves only to educate to conformity. As Theodor W. Adorno, the great critic of the culture industry, predicted half a century ago, “the commensurability of knowledge and experience is purchased at the cost of the insufficiency of that knowledge.”12

What is the source of this urgency about measuring, evaluating, and certifying everything? Evaluation, according to Pablo González Casanova, is not a simple, technical procedure – and, above all, it is not neutral. It is used to promote a particular model of education and is directly linked to the mission one wants that model to pursue.13 The verdict of the great and always rebellious Spanish scholar Agustín García Calvo is even more severe: “Universities have been reduced to a single real requirement: to give exams. Examination is all, and everything else is just fairy tales. They must give exams so as to produce future officials of Capital, or of the State, or of the University itself, which is also part of those tools.”14

Obsession with evaluation and academic capitalism

All of the above indicates a great transformation. Amidst a multiplicity of metaphors about risk society, the rise of uncertainty, and the eclipse of collective rights (to health care, employment, education, housing. . .), public universities are losing the monopoly on the production of knowledge that they enjoyed for two centuries, acquiring instead the status of commercial businesses, subject to the same processes of rationalization, flexibilization, and globalization. Today, they are merely sites of production, organization, and hierarchical structuring of the labor force, alongside a number of networks of social cooperation that are conflicted combinations of autonomy and capitalist direction, of social struggle and control from above. That is, universities persist as strategic spaces only to the extent that they respond to corporate needs and, simultaneously, give up their role as means of social mobility to become reflections of injustice.

Some researchers speak, in this vein, of “academic capitalism,” a suggestive term originally dedicated only to higher education but which could be extended to the global educational system, while taking different forms in each country.15 In the European Union we can observe the Bologna Plan, a process of restructuring public education begun in 1999 which is described, aseptically, as a necessary response to the challenges of the so-called “knowledge society,” a curious phrase which masks the advance of ignorance. What it introduces, in truth, is a package of reforms devoted to limiting the humanities while making room for content that serves the needs of corporations and transforms learning, basic knowledge, and research into arms of the market. For instance, the reform proposes eliminating philosophy from the subjects taught in secondary schools – a tendency also evident in Mexico, which clearly demonstrates that this is part of a generalized offensive on the part of the OECD. It is worth noting that in Europe, those who criticize the Bologna Plan are condemned as violent, irresponsible, and backward-looking, the same charges leveled at the dissidents of UACM.

In Latin America, capitalist accumulation has traditionally linked development with underdevelopment, submission to transnational organizations with internal colonialism, cutting-edge technology with archaic forms of exploitation, and salaried work with neo-slavery. Here, educational modernization proceeds alongside old group and party loyalties, electronic education develops alongside cardboard-roofed shacks, and the corporate university feeds off the most old-fashioned practices of political bosses. We can observe regressive processes similar to those underway in Europe and the United States, which are generally implemented in four phases.

Phase one is so-called decentralization (sometimes clothed in the rhetoric of autonomy) – that is, a policy of taking financial resources out of the hands of local governments so as to later blame them for educational disasters. Next comes a broader strategy of dismantling the welfare state, which further reduces education budgets. Then comes standardized testing of students, with the goal of blaming failures on the teachers, and finally come changes in content, shrinkage of humanistic subjects, and emphasis on “technical” knowledge.

The most paradigmatic case is that of Chile, where the state began to retreat from all sectors of public services, but especially from education, during the time of the Pinochet dictatorship. Almost forty years later, the result is a segregated system in which private education plays an ever-greater role, leading to a mixed formula of state and family funding in which public officials are also the owners of private schools. According to OECD figures cited in the online magazine Desinformémonos, 73% of the cost of university education is paid by students’ families, while the average for OECD members is 16%.16 In response, a broad student movement emerged. The first important explosion took place in 2006, when thousands of secondary school students carried out the protests known as the “Revolution of the Penguins” (referring to their traditional black and white uniforms). In 2011 and up to this point in 2012, the movement has erupted into Chilean society, becoming more radical and turning toward the goal of free education.

The educational counterrevolution served up in Mexican sauce

In Mexico, education has been held hostage since the Miguel de la Madrid administration (1982-88) when, in a time of economic crisis, state financing dropped by 30% and salaries depreciated by 50%-60%. The first important turning point came with the so-called educational decentralization of 1992, which, under the pretexts of “quality” and “accountability,” promoted a reform based on corporate criteria. The slogan was rationalization, which was to say cutting budgets while increasing class sizes and teachers’ workloads.

Among the undeclared goals of that reform was to do away with teachers’ historical role in social struggles. How? By denigrating them and holding them responsible for the educational disaster. The plan was carried out through close collaboration between the government and the teachers’ union SNTE (National Union of Education Workers), led by Elba Esther Gordillo, who became its secretary general during the Salinas presidential administration (1988-94). Gordillo, known as La Maestra, is the paradigmatic figure of a political boss in the education sphere. With her influence on union members’ voting, every president of the republic has had to come to terms with her. Hence the peculiar form of academic capitalism in Mexican sauce: the union (or, better put, the union higher-ups) is openly in bed with the federal government in the definition, approval, and implementation of education policy.

Founded in 1949, the SNTE traces its roots to the old social project of the Mexican revolution, in which teachers – especially in rural areas – carried out essential tasks. With its 1.2 million members, it is today the largest teachers’ union in Latin America, and although its early mystique is now a thing of the past, it continues to have heavy influence among its members. Its enormous political influence is not limited to the PAN (National Action Party) or PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), but reaches into all parties, including the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) and, of course, the Panal (New Alliance Party), whose founder and leader is Elba Esther Gordillo herself.

In spite of lively dissidence coming from the CNTE (National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers, with a strong presences in the states of Oaxaca, Michoacán, and the Federal District), the national union accepted the counter-reforms proposed by the government: decentralization (a euphemism for budget cuts); changes in work rules, policies, and programs; restructuring; and new curricula, programs, and incentives. In 2000, the SNTE agreed to enter the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA, for its English title), a testing regimen carried out every three years by OECD member countries to measure reading, math, and science knowledge of 15-year-old students. During the Felipe Calderón administration, the symbiosis between union leaders and government took the form of the Alliance for Educational Quality (ACE), a plan which, among other things, extended the culture of certification to new extremes, reinforcing the idea – characteristic of academic capitalism – that educational processes are “products” which must be measured, accounted, classified, and quantified on the basis of exams, questionnaires, and universal standardized tests.

Under the slogan, “evaluate to improve,” the SNTE and the federal government imposed the Prueba Enlace (“linked test,” formally the National Evaluation of Academic Achievement in Schools), a Mexican version of the PISA which (yet again) sought to blame teachers for educational failures. They also imposed the so-called “universal evaluation,” a test applied to teachers themselves, with the real objective of reducing payrolls by 30%.17 And the universities? Does the SNTE have anything to do with them? It could be argued that the trade union of primary and secondary school teachers has nothing to do with the affairs of higher education. That would be wrong. La Maestra also has influence, at least in part, over budget decisions in the public universities. Controlling (via affiliates and allies) seven of the twelve secretaries of the Education Commission of the nation’s Congress, and 36.6% of the Commission’s total members, the SNTE affects the fate of many higher education institutions – and not generally for the better.

As a result, universities find themselves observed, monitored, analyzed, and supervised by an enormous quantity of (expensive) specialists in evaluation and union bureaucrats – all completely divorced from the “serious knowledge of things” evoked by Adorno, but much inclined toward control and budgeting. They began by measuring “productivity,” then unveiled a system of carrots and sticks for students and professors in line with strategies based on buying and selling educational services, competition among different institutions for scarce funding, and competition among researchers within the same institution. Today, these sorts of stimuli can make up a greater share of university teachers’ incomes than their actual salaries, with palpable results. Accumulating points becomes more important than teaching and research.18

Meanwhile, academic capitalism is advancing on all fronts. Calderón’s National Program for Financing Higher Education, launched in 2012, favors financing of private institutions on the premise that private higher education is “better” than the public variety. Inspired by such dubious models as those of Chile and the United States, Calderón is implementing a program of student loans with a term of 15.5 years at an interest rate of 10% – which means that a student who borrows 250,000 pesos will end up paying twice that.19

A university against the grain

The Autonomous University of Mexico City is an attempt – certainly limited, but significant – to counteract academic capitalism on its home ground, that of exclusion. It is said to be the first institution of public higher education founded in the Federal District since the creation of the Metropolitan Autonomous University in 1974. This is true, but UACM is much more: it is the only public university explicitly located outside the corporate model, the only one not penetrated by the various stimuli and systems of evaluation described above. At least, that was its design until the arrival of Rector Orozco in May 2010.

Some pieces of UACM’s history will help to clarify the roots of the conflict. Our university was born on April 26, 2001, as a decentralized public institution within the Federal District, by order of the head of government (mayor) at the time, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. This was not a spontaneous concession, but rather a response to two popular movements that had sprung up in distinct sectors of the city. One was the struggle of the residents of the Santa Martha Acatitla neighborhood, in the Iztapalapa district, to convert the former women’s prison there into a school. The other was the above-mentioned student movement against privatizing reforms in the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) in 1999-2000.

UACM’s founding documents declare that education is a universal right and a necessary and vital condition for making a better world. The objective was and is to offer students professional preparation with emphasis on urban problems, without neglecting critical and humanistic culture, and to open windows from Mexico City on the world of the here and now.

UACM admits any student with a high school diploma. Applicants do not need to take an exam, nor are there requirements as to grade-point averages, years since high school graduation, social status, age, ethnicity, religion, or gender. The only limitation is budgetary: when there is not enough room available, a lottery is carried out under supervision of a notary public, and if an applicant does not win a place, s/he will automatically be admitted in the next year’s process. This is the core issue. Nonetheless, this mechanism has the advantage that it is not an academic judgment and does not blame those denied admission, who are generally excluded by lack of space, not by some supposed lack of ability.

Our curriculum itself does not make use – or should not make use – of the customary devices of coercion, measurement, prizes, and punishments. Instead of facing a time limit for completing their studies (semesters, years, cycles, etc.), students may complete them at their own pace. Most students are not full-time, but working in various types of jobs or as single mothers. The culture centers on free exchange of knowledge and creative experimentation.

The atmosphere for the teachers is similar. Unlike other public universities, which tend to have large salary disparities among professors doing the same work, at UACM there are no privileges – or there were none. In the early years, the only permitted disparity was between full-time professors (nine class-hours a week, divided among three groups and two subjects) and half-time ones (six hours, two groups). The counter-reforms pushed by Orozco undermined this republican egalitarianism, re-introducing the norms of academic capitalism, though in more or less disguised form.

The charge that UACM staff do not work hard is false. Besides being researchers, professors must be permanently available to meet with students, since a large part of their commitment is fulfilled outside the classroom in advising and tutorials. Thus our faculty accompany their students through their academic careers in a way that does not occur in other universities where, in general, the teacher walks into the classroom, gives his or her class, and leaves. Our model also stresses the importance of collegial work and the need to overcome the rigid relationship between those who “know” and those who “don’t know,” seeking to go beyond the “banking model” of education criticized by Paulo Freire.

Educational practice cannot be reduced to teaching, because giving a lecture is a completely vertical act. Instead of “imparting a subject,” the practice at UACM is to work on a topic in such a way that everyone involved takes on the role of scholar. The teacher’s true task is not – or should not be – to “enlighten” the student with his or her science, but to accompany the student in the adventure of self-creation. Experience shows that a teacher can even teach what he or she doesn’t know, if the goal is to free the student – that is, to stimulate students to use their own intelligence.20

The goal is to construct collective knowledge that involves both the student and the teacher, subject to the fraternal evaluation of the community. This is not always achieved, of course, but many have noted a significant fact: unlike what happens in other institutions, at UACM it is very common for students, workers, and academics to hug as a form of greeting, in spite of the difficult conflict through which we are living.

In opposition to the precepts of the corporate university, the UACM vision stresses formation of free human beings, a goal to which we can all aspire through self-cultivation. “Formation” implies, among other things, that all ideas should be discussed. Criteria and mechanisms of decision-making must guarantee respect and room to act, even for those who, without being the majority, are carrying out alternative teaching or research projects.

Some of these principles are laid out in the UACM Law which grants our university legal status, property, and autonomy within the terms of Article 3 of the Constitution. The law declares that UACM was created with the goals of: 1) increasing access to higher education; 2) creating an autonomous academic space; 3) creating a public university; 4) carrying out an innovative educational mission; 5) constituting an academic community; 6) guaranteeing academic freedom and plurality of ideas; 7) contributing to students’ cultural, professional, and personal development; 8) assuring that its academic activities are of high quality and that all certificates and degrees awarded are worthy of trust; 9) establishing a responsible relationship with the wider society.21

One of the central points of our struggle is autonomy. As Ricardo Vega Ruiz, a young sociologist alumnus of UACM points out, “Unlike other laws establishing universities, this founding document does not restrict the way in which self-government may be carried out. On the contrary, it grants to the institution itself, made up of teachers and students, responsibility for defining everything about the organization of its internal governance.”22

We remember that a verdict of the nation’s Supreme Court raised university autonomy to the level of a constitutional guarantee, which implies that autonomous universities enjoy legal protection and that the only authorities able to modify their internal life are their own organs of self-government.23 Thus, capital city authorities are violating Article 3 of the Constitution when they define UACM as “a higher education institution of the government of the Federal District,” as does the UACM administration when it applies the Public Servants Law to academic and administrative workers.24

Beyond such legalistic arguments, the UACM Law offers us a valuable tool for self-defense because it includes the principles of cooperation and mutual aid among the guiding standards of our educational mission, instead of competition and market orientation. That explains why our university is the object of constant suspicion by the educational establishment and by politicians of all stripes. It is a university going against the grain, an anomaly, a thorn in the side of academic capitalism and even a threat to the current system of making lucrative businesses out of education. But despite being an anomaly, it works. Over our ten years we have shaped two generations of students who had nowhere else to turn and whose lives changed thanks to their passage through UCSM. This is not easy to measure, but it is real.

Another important step in UACM’s institutionalization occurred in 2007, when the first University Council (CU, this one serving from 2007-10) was constituted. According to the UACM Law, this body is the highest organ of governance, above the office of the rector. It is made up in equal measure by representatives of students and teachers, as well as the rector and (without voting rights) campus and personnel coordinators and representatives of administrative staff. In early 2010, the first Council issued a General Constitutional Statute (Estatuto General Orgánico, EGO) which reaffirmed the emphasis on egalitarian principles and communitarian structure, something quite uncommon in university governance standards inside or outside Mexico. Unfortunately, a proposal to eliminate the position of rector, formulated by some council members most committed to the UACM mission, did not pass.

At the time, UACM had five campuses, located mostly in marginal areas of the Federal District: Centro Histórico, Casa Libertad, Del Valle, San Lorenzo Tezonco, and Cuautepec. It granted bachelors’ degrees in twelve subjects, masters’ in six, a postgraduate certificate in Human Rights, and two kinds of doctorates. Academic offerings sought to relate to concrete needs of Mexico City, in a critical manner with attention to social issues. Besides majors in humanities such as literary creation, philosophy and history of ideas, communication and culture, and contemporary history and society, we offered scientific majors including engineering of urban transport systems, engineering of energy systems, and health promotion.

Other programs included: PESCER (Higher Education Program for Social Readaptation Centers), serving inmates of the capital’s jails; Enlace Communitario (Community Ties), whose job was to build bridges with the communities surrounding the campuses, by way of cooperation, dialogues of complementary knowledge, and reciprocity; and Letras Habladas (Spoken Words), a project created by a group of young people with visual impairment who contributed their experience, professional knowledge, and daily work to produce teaching materials in audio and Braille for visually impaired degree-seeking students. Also, the copious output of the university press included 180 titles reflecting a solid research base.

UACM delenda est

The crucial issue of the university’s budget has been a controversial one since Marcelo Ebrard took office at the head of the capital city’s government. According to the law, the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District (ALDF) “will annually assign, as a minimum for the institution’s operating budget, 3.4 annual minimum-wage Federal District salaries per regular student.” This money is to be supplied by the Finance Secretary of the city government, but the amounts actually supplied have always been below the stated level, which has impeded UACM’s growth and even the completion of construction of the existing campuses.

In the April 2010 elections to choose a new rector, three candidates were vying for the post: Esther Orozco, founder of our university’s postgraduate program in genomic sciences, member of the Advisory Council, and director of the Federal District Institute of Science and Technology (ICyT); Hugo Aboites, professor-researcher at the UAM-Xochimilco and specialist in education; and Enrique González Ruiz, coordinator of UACM’s postgraduate program in human rights. At the time, some of us pointed out that Orozco’s professional background and political responsibilities were not a good match for the UACM mission.

An expert in molecular biology, Dr. Orozco put forward very idiosyncratic positions about science. She held, for example, that “there is nothing ill-intentioned about GMOs” and “cloning human beings is going to happen sooner than later.”25 Thanks to research done by the historian Ángeles Magdaleno, we now know that during her administration the ICyT paid 6.79 million pesos to the Rand Corporation (the famous ultra-conservative think tank that worked for the US Armed Forces) and, in the best Lombrosian tradition, financed research into “the identification of genes linked to criminal conduct,” at a cost of 1.25 million pesos.26

Meanwhile, what is the interest of “the world’s best mayor” in our university? The answer requires us to ask, who is Marcelo Ebrard? Some see him as the repressive force who tolerated torture in the dungeons of the capital’s police.27 Workers will remember him as the big business mayor, the official who tried (unsuccessfully) to sell a street, the bosses’ ally who won the city government the dubious distinction of figuring in the list of local entities facing the greatest number of formal grievances about unjustified firings, behind only Wal-Mart and Comercial Mexicana.28 Others accuse him of having promoted megaprojects that weaken the social fabric and put the Valle de México’s ecological equilibrium at risk: the Supervía Ponente, new hotel complexes in communal ejido lands, Ciudad Progresiva, the Arena México, and Metro Line #12.

Within the area of education specifically, Ebrard founded the Federal District School of Public Administration (EAPDF, whose academic council includes Dr. Orozco herself), modeled after the National School of Administration in Paris, which turns out members of the French political elite. With Orozco’s cooperation, he put forward the “City of Knowledge,” a project that, under the questionable concept of the “knowledge society,” includes the creation of four “educational poles” in the metropolitan area that would explicitly link private industry with academics and researchers in the style of academic capitalism.

None of these projects has anything to do with UACM’s objectives. They seem, rather, to be incompatible with these, which explains the head of government’s stubborn conviction that our university is a disaster zone. The arrival of a “friendly” rector opened up the possibility of “recapturing” it and converting it into an institution at the service of the capital city’s bureaucracy. Just as the EAPDF produces political cadre, UACM would engender technicians. For Ebrard and his team, UACM was simply the university of the Federal District government.

There was, however, a problem. The University Council is autonomous and sovereign. Any open intervention would have aroused suspicion, so the maneuvering to promote Orozco’s election was quite discreet. There were phone calls, applications of pressure, and meetings with undecided Council members. In a wave of pro-Orozco enthusiasm, some professors encouraged their students to collect signatures for a full-page ad supporting their candidate in the newspaper La Jornada. Others of us protested, given that the university paid for the ad and, also, that the UACM logo was used in improper fashion. Then came another advertisement, this time signed by personnel of the National Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV), of which Dr. Orozco is a graduate and also a researcher. That is to say, both the spirit and the letter of our governing rules were considerably violated.

On May 7, 2010, the head of government attended the inauguration ceremony for the new rector, amidst student protests.29 Some saw his presence as a good omen: now the resources so necessary for the university’s operation would be forthcoming. Others saw it as a warning of what was in store: intensified pressure by the Federal District government to win control of the institution.

Orozco vs. UACM

“When at peace, make arrows.” Summed up in a phrase she borrowed from the Apaches, that is Dr. Orozco’s pedagogical strategy.30 The new rector arrived with a very clear mandate: take over UACM, or else destroy it. The first phase was an attempt to break the union, because Orozco’s team saw it as an obstacle. It is impossible to understand the current crisis without examining this ominous antecedent, which reveals a lot about methods of Ebrard and his collaborator, Dr. Esther Orozco.31

Hostilities broke out very quickly. During the 2010 salary review, the new rector broke off negotiations and advised the workers to individually request the pay raise offered by the university (2.76%, well under the rate of inflation). Surprisingly, the president of the Federal District’s Local Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JLCyA), Ramón Montaño Cuadra, accepted this request, thus de facto canceling the bilateral negotiations established by the collective bargaining agreement and anticipating the labor law reform of the federal government.

Immediately after this came the rector’s interference in the internal affairs of the union,32 seizing of union dues (which has continued up till now), harassment of those workers deemed “conflictual,” and use of shock troops and provocateurs in meetings of the workers. To what end? To make the union toothless, negotiate “protective contracts,” and leave the workers defenseless so as to carry out the much-desired academic counter-reform. What are protective contracts? They are simulated contracts, presented by the bosses to complacent labor board authorities behind the workers’ backs, and negotiated with corrupt labor leaders. Their existence depends on the group-loyalty control that those labor leaders exercise over the workers. A paradigmatic case in the private sector is that of Wal-Mart, and in the public sector, the SNTE.

Meanwhile, the rector’s office also hatched an “administrative reorganization” above the collegial bodies and evading the established procedures. The leaflet that announced this reorganization included a quote from Darwin – used without ironic intent – that said, “The most successful species are those that best perceive the changes in their environment and reorder their conduct to assure their future development and survival.”33 In the academic sphere, the plan introduced a limit to the length of time students could be enrolled, ended academic flexibility, and required students to take a given number of courses per semester.

Orozco worked hard to destroy our educational project, but not everything went so easily for her. The resources promised by the head of government never arrived – or, better put, arrived only in discretionary form directly to the rector under the rubric of  “expanded liquidity,” a non-transparent mechanism that allowed her to decide when and how to access these, without consulting anyone. We don’t know what, in fact, she used them for, but we know that she closed the Enlace Comunitario and called a halt to the publication program. Not a single new book appeared after her arrival, and distribution of the previously published ones was and is frozen. The journals Cultura Urbana and Mediorama were also shut down, although the former was well regarded in Mexico City and the later was the university’s main digital magazine, with more than 15,000 monthly visits (some even from abroad) which allowed students to disseminate their work just as our mission intended.

By October, 2010, the state of our university was a subject of international discussion. The Spanish web site Rebelión published an article arguing that the new rector was rushing to shut down the best of UACM, and denouncing the harassment of dissident workers. Its conclusion was categorical: “We well know the repercussions of these sorts of measures, which the student movement has always fought against. The effect is to deny the right to higher education to a particular social stratum: those on the bottom.”34

In November, a study of university transparency sponsored by ANUIES placed UACM at the bottom of its list, given that it posted “80% of its line items in its home page, but only 8% are useful data.”35 We must also mention nepotistic measures favoring relatives of the rector; these were detailed in a report published by the UACM Assembly.36 They included: naming to a high administrative post her daughter’s partner, who lacked the normal qualifications; authorizing her sister, who was on the faculty, to take on outside employment above the norm; and the exceptionally expeditious granting of a paid leave of absence to her daughter, who was also on the faculty.

How can the impunity of Her Honor the rector be explained? Commenting on the processes of resistance to the Bologna Plan, Montserrat Galcerán has pointed out, “In spite of their strength, the various student movements, not to speak of the mobilizations by their professors, do not always manage to grasp the complexity of what is underway. This stems not only from how new the changes are, but also from the movements’ need to devote time and effort to uncovering the meaning of the measures being taken. Almost all – or perhaps all – of the public officials involved in higher education begin by denying the importance of these changes, whether out of ignorance or bad faith.”37 This is exactly what happened at UACM. Orozco hid the true direction of her reforms, succeeding for a while in confusing the public and part of the university community itself.

Another factor is that part of the scientific community wrote the rector a blank check, probably for reasons of group loyalty. Marcelino Cereijido, a professor emeritus of CINVESTAV, candidly admitted that when he received a request to sign a letter supporting Orozco, he signed it without a glance because, “this was a conflict – not a debate – between a brilliant scientist and two groups of scientific illiterates.”38 Cereijido’s display of arrogance recalls Paul Feyerabend’s thoughts about the myths of scientist “objectivity” that are propagated by the scientists themselves in order to justify the permanence of the privileges they enjoy. According to the author of Against Method, citizens must not leave the democratization of science and other forms of knowledge to the scientists, because that would mean abandoning our responsibilities with respect to one of society’s most powerful and untouchable institutions.39

Orozco was winning, until an unexpected occurrence changed the correlation of forces. On Friday, March 25, 2011, behind the back of the University Council and without any publicity, the ALDF’s Education Commission approved a proposal to modify the UACM Law to allow re-election of a rector and to grant that official special powers to “hire personal de confianza40 as is deemed useful.” This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. What had up till then been a lively dissidence confined to a limited number of academics and workers now became a social movement whose main activists were students. On Tuesday the 29th, some two thousand members of the academic community assembled at the ALDF to demand respect for university autonomy. Their chant became the major slogan of the movement (which, in Spanish, rhymes libertad with ciudad): “Autonomy, Education, and Freedom! Support the City University!” After tense negotiations, a mixed delegation including various sectors of the community and some members of the Council met with the Education Commission and won a commitment that the resolution would not be forwarded to the full Legislative Assembly for approval.

On April 4, under the pressure of this unexpected student movement, the University Council published an ad in La Jornada, endorsed by the rector herself, denouncing the underhanded aggression of the ALDF. Two pages further on, however, appeared another ad in which Orozco, after singing her own praises, retracted what she had expressed in the first ad and leveled serious accusations against UACM. She referred to a so-called Coefficient of Academic Performance (Spanish initials CDA) which she had used to evaluate student performance according to criteria very close to those of Calderón and Gordillo’s “universal evaluation.” Her conclusion, evidently attuned to her own objectives, was that “students perform with an average coefficient of 2.5 on a scale of 10.” Reprinted in another newspaper, Reforma, on April 5 (again, as in La Jornada, at university expense), this ad escalated the conflict. The movement’s response was definitive: to demand her immediate resignation.

The rector continued her invective against UACM, even after the University Council ordered her to submit any public declarations for its consideration. Protected by the Federal District government and emboldened by the sympathy of the mass media and even some Nobel Prize winners who signed an ad supporting her41 (though one might ask what these distinguished scientists know about our educational mission or about their friend’s administrative performance), she repeatedly declared that the university is not fulfilling its goals and therefore must be reinvented.

In May and June we held numerous protests which culminated in a symbolic occupation of the rector’s headquarters. On June 10, members of the University Assembly presented a document of more than three hundred pages that specified all the reasons why Orozco should be dismissed: violation of university autonomy, defamation campaign against UACM, disregard of University Council accords, use of resources for objectives contrary to university interests, nepotism, influence trafficking, harassment and incitement of violence, arbitrary use of resources, and dismantling of areas and programs crucial to the university’s educational and social mission.

A comatose state?          

In early 2012, the predominant climate within UACM was one of academic terrorism, expressed in the persecution of non-conforming students and the abrogation of contracts of dissident employees, among other coercive measures. Meanwhile, jobs, travel allowances, research funding, and other privileges were granted to the administration’s supporters.

The combined actions of the rector, the Federal District government, and a handful of University Council members who followed the rector’s lead, were succeeding in dismantling our educational project. At the same time, what was happening to the UACM was becoming internationally known. In addition to many letters from Europe and the United States supporting professors who had been fired or harassed, the Conference on Struggles Within and Beyond the Neoliberal University (Toronto, April 27-29) published a resolution in our support, as did the Tenth Tri-National Conference in Defense of Public Education (Mexico City, May 17-19).

On May 7, at the end of the current administration’s first two years in office, the UACM trade union, the University Assembly, and the student movement held a Day of Resistance outside the Centro Histórico campus, located on the main artery Avenida Fray Servando. Accompanied by two hundred members of the community, employees fired from UACM blocked traffic for more than ten hours, without allowing themselves to be intimidated by the threatening presence of the riot police. The demonstrators demanded reinstatement of all fired or suspended workers, and defense of university autonomy and the UACM educational mission.

That same day, the left’s candidate for President of the Republic, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and its candidate for Federal District head of government, Miguel Ángel Mancera, presented their national educational policy in Mexico City’s Metropolitan theater. They did not invite Orozco, which in the tacit language of politics meant that the fateful alliance between the capital government authorities and the UACM administration had reached the point of rupture. On May 8, the mass media announced that three social activists and intellectuals with long-established reputations – Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and Héctor Díaz Polanco – had accepted the UACM union’s invitation to serve as mediators between the administration and representatives of the union, the University Assembly, and the student movement.42

Now what? One key issue is the election of a new University Council, possibly the last chance for preserving UACM’s educational mission. The hope is that the third Council could prove more worthy than the second. Council members serve two-year terms, which end in August, 2012. Conscious of this danger, Orozco and her supporters are maneuvering to extend the terms of the current members until they have passed the administration reform and new regulations for academic personnel behind the backs of the community and the University Congress.

In response to the administration’s attempt to impose term of the second University Council beyond its mandate, on May 21 and 22 the University Assembly carried out a referendum with two simple questions: 1) “Do you agree that there should be new elections for all University Council members this coming August, as mandated by our General Constitutional Statute [Estatuto General Orgánico]?” 2) Do you agree that the structures and statutes approved by the University Council should adhere strictly to the accords of the University Congress, as mandated by our General Constitutional Statute? The responses were devastating for the administration: 4396 people responded, with “yes” votes varying from 94% (first question) and 89% (second question), in an exercise of democratic participation which, in numerical terms, far exceeded that in the University Council elections.

As of this writing, the UACM mission of education for all is facing a threefold crisis: economic, from a shortage of resources; political, from the repeated assaults on academic and workforce autonomy that have come from the current administration and the Federal District government; and pedagogical, from the accumulated contradictions in this sphere. How can we push forward with our project without offending anyone or provoking the hatred of the establishment? How can we make the capital city authorities understand that, in truth, we are no “danger to education”? Can we overcome the limits of official education (“deschool” it, in Ivan Illich’s terminology) while working in a state-financed institution? Those, beyond the conflict created by Rector Orozco, are the real challenges we face.

Translated by Dick Cluster


1. See the ads in La Jornada, April 4, 2011, and in Reforma, April 5, reproduced on Esther Orozco’s web-page,

2. [Ed. Note:] Between July and October 1968 students across the country staged massive protests against the authoritarian and repressive policies of the Mexican government. These protests mark a key moment in the emergence of the country’s “new left” and a broader democratic movement.

3. Edu-Factory and Universidad Nómada, eds., La Universidad en conflicto: Capturas y fugas en el mercado global del saber, Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2010,

4. Marjorie Griffin Cohen, “The World Trade Organization and Post-Secondary Education: Implications for the Public System,”

5. Montserrat Galcerán, “La educación universitaria en el centro del conflicto,” in La Universidad en conflicto (note 3), 13-39; George Caffentzis, “University struggles at the end of the Edu-deal,” Mute, vol. 2, no. 16, April 2010,

7. Juan Andrés Gallardo, “Canada: 12-week student strike in Quebec,” La Haine, May 7, 2012,

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (1872),

9. Gigi Roggero, The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001, 2-3, 26, 87-111.

10. George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici, “Notes on the Edu–factory and Cognitive Capitalism,”

11. Jeanne C. Meister, Corporate Universities: Lessons in Building a World-Class Work Force, rev. ed., New York: McGraw Hill, 1998.

12. Theodor W. Adorno, Prismas, Barcelona: Ediciones Ariel, 1962, 93.

13. Pablo González Casanova, La universidad necesaria en el siglo XXI, México: Ediciones ERA, 2001, 66.

14. Agustín García Calvo, speech to the indignados of Puerta del Sol, May 19, 2011,

15. Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie, Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

16. Claudia Villagrán, “¡Educación pública, gratuita y de calidad! El grito legítimo de la sociedad chilena,”

17. “Podrían despedir a 30% de los maestros de primaria,” La Jornada, March 15, 2012. [All citations from La Jornada can be found online at]

18. Eduardo Ibarra Collado, “Capitalismo académico y globalización: la universidad reinventada,”

19. “Calderón lanza en México programa de becas que en Chile y EU provoca revueltas sociales,” Sin embargo, January 10, 2002,

20. Jacques Rancière, El maestro ignorante: Cinco lecciones sobre la emancipación intelectual, Buenos Aires: Editorial Tierra del Sur, 2006, 18.

21. Ley de la Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México, 3-16.

22. Ricardo Vega Ruiz, “La defensa de la Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México frente a la contrarreforma neoliberal,” Revista OSAL no. 31, May 2012,

23. José Ramón Cossío Díaz, “La autonomía universitaria como garantía constitucional,” Perfiles Educativos, vol. XXXII, special issue, 2010, IISUE-UNAM.

24. Given UACM’s status as an autonomous university, labor relations are governed by Section A of the Constitution’s Article 123, not Section B which applies to public servants.

25. Ángel Vargas, “Los transgénicos no son asunto malévolo, afirma Esther Orozco,” La Jornada, May 29, 2009; “Científicos hablan sobre clonación humana,”

27. [Ed. Note:] During his tenure as Secretary of Public Security for center-left Mayor Manuel López Obrador between 2002 and 2004, Ebrard was criticized on several occasions for his repressive measures against street demonstrations; see e.g. the news-story by Maria Rivera in La Jornada, April 14, 2003.

28. Lizbeth Padilla, “GDF, a la cabeza por despidos injustificados,” El Economista, June 7, 2010; Enrique Sánchez, Jessica Castillejos and Gabriela Rivera, “El GDF anulará la venta de una calle a Comercial Mexicana” Excélsior, April 27, 2011.

29. Gabriela Romero Sánchez, “Entre abucheos, exigen a Ebrard más presupuesto para la UACM,” La Jornada, May 8, 2010.

31. Ángel Bolaños Sánchez, “Por lío gremial, rectoría retiene cuotas. Sindicato de la UACM entregará pliego petitorio,” La Jornada, December 4, 2010.

32. The union referred to here is the Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores de la UACM (SUTUACM).

33. Cited in the document “Propuesta de reorganización administrative,” UACM, n.d.

34. Los Brigadistas-UNAM, “¿Qué está pasando en la Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México?”

35. Ernesto Villanueva, “Transparencia y opacidad universitaria,” Proceso, no. 1776, November 14, 2010 (ANUIES is the National Association of Universities and Institutions of Higher Education). In reply, Orozco stated that Mexico City’s Instituto de Acceso a la Información Pública gave her a “transparency” rating of 93.7; however, she never responded to the ANUIES charges.

36. Asamblea Universitaria, UACM. Expediente de la revocación de mandato de Maria Esther Orozco Orozco. Mexico City: UACM, June 2011, section VI (“Nepotismo”), 17-19. See also Humberto Musacchio, “UACM: la rectora que crea problemas,” Excélsior, June 23, 2011,

37. Galcerán, “La educación universitaria en el centro del conflicto” (note 5), 26.

38. Marcelino Cereijido, “Carta a Martha Pérez Armendáriz,” posted publicly at UACM.

39. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 3rd ed., London: Verso, 1993.

40. [Translator’s note:] Personal de confianza are management employees who serve as consultants responsible only to their superior, not subject to regular hiring processes or other forms of accountability.

41. “Proyecto de Rectora UACM respaldado por ganadores Premios Nobel,” Radiofórmula, June 21, 2011,

42. Bertha Teresa Ramírez, “Ofrecen intelectuales mediar en crisis de la UACM,” La Jornada, May 8, 2012; idem, “Evade rectora de la UACM propuesta de mediación,” La Jornada, May 24, 2012.

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