The place where many of us got our activist legs, learned how to stencil a protest sign, or contemplated the appropriate color paper for leafleting, was on a college campus. Academic institutions have often lead the way on issues of justice and social responsibility, particularly on matters of anti-discrimination and civil/human rights. And it hasn’t been by simply hosting public debates and lectures and opening up the academic space to a marketplace of ideas, i.e., lip service; colleges and universities have often taken a side and walked the walk by instituting affirmative action programs, guaranteeing equal employment opportunities, and by divesting the university’s stock portfolio from countries that are known human rights abusers.
This important role played by universities in a free society has come under threat in the last few years as highlighted recently in a piece by Nafeez Ahmad on Earth Insight, a web-based platform hosted by The Guardian. In the article, Ahmad discusses the Department of Defense program known as the Minerva Initiative. Minerva funds university research on people and how they become involved in political movements and mass mobilizations around the world.
The research projects are largely aimed at examining the ‘digital traces’ of civil society, NGOs and activists to determine the ‘tipping points’ for mass mobilization. This research is unlikely to be limited to understanding uprisings and large-scale protests overseas, in some distant corner of the planet. In a post-9/11 world, the borders and contours of U.S. national security are more fuzzy and fluid. Activists in the US, or those who support progressive change, ought to expect that they will fall under Minerva’s radar whenever they share a Facebook posting on Palestine or tweet a catchy little diddy on Twitter supporting other political activists in Syria, Egypt, or Iraq.
Minerva has handed universities like the University of Washington, the University of Maryland and Arizona State University sizable checks to study and predict the circumstances that enable movements aimed at political and economic change to form, where civil unrest associated with something like climate change is likely, and how to identify and map ‘counter-radical’ Muslim discourse, i.e., they are tooling the US military on how to understand (and control) grassroots movements for political and social change.
With the Edward Snowden revelations and the growth of the surveillance state, it ought to give us pause that US universities have been co-opted for the “study of emotions in stoking or quelling ideologically driven movements,” including how “to counteract grassroots movements” as James Petras, Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University in New York, quoted by Ahmad in The Guardian piece, states. Particularly those of us working for a sane US foreign policy in the Middle East that is consistent with internationally recognized human rights, or an energy and resource management policy that begins to undo the ‘perfect storm’ of natural disasters like the floods, mudslides, tornadoes, and hurricanes produced by a lax or non-existent regulatory environment. Activists on college campuses, as well as those of us alumni who may need to stretch out our activist legs a bit, ought to work together to limit the receipt by our universities of Minerva money. If we keep our collective heads buried in our books, blogs and tweets, then we are likely, instead, to find ourselves as Minerva Initiative case studies.