Universities and Imperialism

Sept 5, 2021

By Sheen Kim


What is the American university? We here, in the words of Dartmouth’s landing page, “gain a deeper understanding of humanity and a broader view of what’s at stake for societies and throughout the world.” And this may be true—but you then see how a peer is left alone in their sexual assault process, you read of your university’s origins, you read of the struggles around apartheid, you see the continued struggle around divestment from warmaking companies, from fossil fuels, from companies committing atrocities against Palestinians—your mouth sours, and you realize that this “deeper understanding” must come from a place that is not the shine of your admissions brochure. But amid all of this, the college provides a certain view of the world that renders invisible some of its hand-holding with empire. 

The university funnels. It funnels collaborators of empire, wealth from the masses, a certain reactionary, capitalist view of the world to students. Historically, it has collaborated with some of the most violent and militarist forces in the world; has been the birthplace of some of the most brutal military technology in the world; was/is funded by capital from stolen land, whether it be the land that it stands on or colonies halfway across the world. 

From their roots, universities, and the Ivy League schools especially, were meant to uphold the logics of empire, either through royal charters or missionary presence (and this does not just mean universities rooted on American soil—about the entirety of the Republic of Korea’s higher education system can be attributed to Christian missionaries). Dartmouth College, at one point, had more slaves than its white students; Elihu Yale of the eponymous university was one of the largest slave traders of his time. The Ivy Leagues, and Harvard especially, were built on funds from the opium trade and thus the mass addictions of Chinese people. And the very existence of these universities, and Dartmouth especially, are contingent on years of theft from Indigenous peoples and the erasure of their culture in colonial fashion—which is not to conclude that land grabbing has stopped if only continued through more “legal” (read: self-justifying) forms, if Columbia’s aggressive claiming of Manhattanville for development is any suggestion

If the 18th and 19th century colleges required, consumed, propagated ever-increasing amounts of capital through slave trade, the 20th century colleges did so through its support of apartheid and industrial corporations operating in occupied land, and the 21th century colleges do so through increasing interconnectedness with the venture capital firms and corporations of the world. Its financial and territorial links are not as evident as firings or demotions (such as of slave abolitionist Charles Follen at Harvard, or Bruce Duthu at Dartmouth upon speaking in support of Palestinians), but hinges on a vast network of interdependent funding and strict pedagogy—and that is how the university allows us to accept whatever happens as normal and justified.  

 For example, it is funding from the Department of Defense that has built some of the most powerful technological institutions in the world, ranging from MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Caltech, and many more. Universities have worked on post-9/11 manuals exoticizing and trying to understand “the Arab mind” or manuals used to train U.S. military interrogators and FBI agents, to dangerous effects all over the world and to the unthinkable abuse of those within U.S. camps. 

Further, at various universities such as UCLA, students have called for the divestment of companies opposed to humanity—including, but not limited to, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, BlackRock, and General Dynamics (weapons corporations), Caterpillar, Cement Roadstone Holdings, Cemex, General Electric, and Hewlett-Packard (which have all provided manufacturing, engineering, and technological tools to Israel to use in its apartheid regime). Whether a specific college, such as Dartmouth, invests specifically in these corporations matters little, as undoubtedly they will be connected. For example, take Dartmouth’s close relationship with asset managers/investment companies such as Morgan Stanley (a chief sits on the Board of Trustees), Apollo Management LP (see previous note), Goldman Sachs, or Bain—all of which do business with each other or otherwise hold close contact. (And where the school does not invent, it provides capital to its students to do so—for example, Dartmouth’s Office of Investment claims it does not actually directly invest in fossil fuel companies, but provides money to the Dartmouth Investment and Philanthropy Program and the Tuck Investment Club to do so.) 

But this is not a matter of “where the university invests,” but all that it does to contribute to a number of things ranging from war to climate disaster, regardless of how invisible. And one such method is through education that replicates (is replicated) by the people within. For example, universities’ area studies departments (Russian, Latin America, Middle Eastern Studies etc.) are all Cold War-era inventions intended to increase western capital and global positioning; products of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, and as shown by Project Camelot, a project initiated by the Special Operations Research Office in 1964 aimed to “devise procedures for assessing the potential for internal wars within national societies” in Latin America. Of course, many of these departments (such as LALACS or ASCL, or even Geography) at Dartmouth and other colleges provide to be some of the most liberal and/or leftist departments today and recognize their conflicted history, and can be some sites of the revelation of this history, but in no way does this eliminate the broader functioning of the university. 

Here, the Economics and Government departments also have a tendency to funnel into the corporations, if not the government institutions that support them, as well as serving an ideological function (genocide and health become something to be pingponged around in a class discussion, current events become calls for brutal U.S. intervention). However, it would be false to say that all departments, in some way, do not lead to consulting or corporation work or the like in some form. Further, the Dickey Center and its host of programs such as the War & Peace Fellows regularly host and platform those who support war and otherwise continue characteristic brutality, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, CIA director James Clapper, and Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, among many others. 

None of this is to erase the work and struggle that happens within the university—which is simply to say, the work and struggle in question happens not alongside the predominant ideologies of exploitation, but against it, in the metaphorical belly of the beast. Universities, in more recent years, have taken on a tone of reconciliation: they are listening to the students, they care about diversity, they care about student well-being. An analysis of why those who are the best-intentioned from within cannot do the work requires another 20 pages—but fundamentally, these claims are hollow at best and diversionary at worst when university capital and ideology speaks otherwise, as it always does. What is required of individuals is not simply vigilance, but a constant building and rebuilding, a communal learning, a recognition of the material realities. 

The Dartmouth Radical