Beyond the Neoliberal University: Lessons from Mondragón University and 1930s CUNY

GEO blogs are part of our mission to provide a platform for co-op practitioners and solidarity economy organizers to share their thoughts and experiences with a wider audience.  Any views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the GEO Collective.  If you would like to start a blog on GEO, please contact If you would like to make a response to the blog author, we encourage you to do so in the comments section below.



by Alexander Kolokotronis

University governance is approaching a critical juncture. In the United States, universities are tailoring curricula to the needs of capitalist economy. They are leaning down instructional labor and adding administrative staff. One finds an effort to both minimize the amount of tenure positions as well as strenuously maximize the amount of work performed. With the former, one finds greater pressure being placed upon adjuncts. To the latter, one feels the ramped up pressure to publish, as well as facing the command to teach more classes, with more students. Increasingly bureaucratized, the university has equally been a site of neoliberal experimentation and power. Yet, in a little known book titled The Struggle for Academic Democracy (a book that is worthy of reprint) by Abraham Edel, we find a historical example of an alternative.

Democratization of CUNY

A professor of philosophy, Edel was not merely an observer — he was a participant. Edel was chairman of the Educational Policies Committee of the New York College Teachers Union. In the late 1930s this body proved to have significant institutional teeth both internally and externally. Internal to what is now City University of New York (CUNY), it “formulated the central program for the reorganization of governance.” External to CUNY, it impressed the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to the point of the latter, setting up a national Committee on Democracy in Higher Education for the purposes of expanding this program beyond New York City. Yet, what was this program based on and how does it run counter to what typically characterizes the university? How can it run counter to both neoliberalism as simply a university project and neoliberalism as a broader societal project?

The first question can be answered with two words: participatory democracy. In defining participatory democracy we may refer to Dimitrios Roussopoulos and C. George Benello. In the introduction to their book Participatory Democracy: Prospects for Democratizing Democracy, they define participatory democracy as a “decision-making process…whereby people propose, discuss, decide, plan and implement those decisions that affect their lives.” This means that people have direct control over policymaking.

In the case of what is now CUNY, in May 1937 the Educational Policies Committee asserted that “the task of democratizing departments and faculties should be one of the major of endeavors of the College Section next fall since this alone will check many current abuses.” Even before the wider academic “revolution” took place, experiments were proliferating across the university system. Faculties formed committees that were required to report back to departmental assemblies, and the appointment of someone “to an important post…was discussed and voted upon by the whole.” Among the pre-revolutionary experiments was the registrar’s office at City College. According to Edel, “they held regular meetings and set up committees to deal with planning and distribution of work, personnel, adjustment of members.” In short, participatory democratic organization was to be carried out among both instructional and non-instructional offices and groupings.

With the founding of Queens College, the union once again spearheaded an effort to democratize campus organization. Writing to President Paul Klapper on 3 June, 1937, the union insisted that “the faculty be the ultimate source of all authority on matters of policy within the college. That, accordingly, it be empowered to set up and elect any committees it may think best, and that all committees be responsible to it.” Such a proposal did not merely concern participation, but actual governance. At Queens College this meant including “all members of the teaching staff, together with all others on the staff who have educational relations or guidance contact with students.” Departments increasingly moved away from presidential control, as departmental heads were elected directly by faculty.

Not Far Enough

Of course, to those familiar with departmental organization in CUNY much of this does not appear radical. In fact, in some instances, it may come across as incredibly status quo. Many of the elements of faculty democracy — as well as joint student-faculty bodies — are a legacy of this revolution in CUNY, which attempted to almost completely move away from top-down control.

However, present-day CUNY hardly feels participatory in the sense of governance being carried out from the bottom-up. One finds this feeling at both the level of staff and student body. For student government elections voter participation is disconcertingly low. At Queens College it is the rule — and not the exception — for students to run away from campaigners at election time. In fact, most students will joke about running away from those that try to quickly pressure them into voting for them. Typical voter outreach consists of candidates aggressively thrusting laptops in the faces of voting students in hopes of attaining a vote. Most often students will simply sidestep the solicitation by stating “I already voted,” especially if they have no plans on actually doing so. Student voters should not be blamed for this. The cynicism is justified: rarely do student political organizations actually offer a concrete program beyond throwing parties.

Mondragón University

The Mondragón model presents an alternative. Based in Basque country in Northern Spain, Mondragón is the largest worker cooperative in the world with over 80,000 worker-owners. In Mondragón, workers have ownership, voice, and a vote. As such,Mondragón’s worker cooperative model constitutes what might otherwise be called “democratic-employee ownership.” Truer to its decentralized nature, Mondragón is a cooperative of cooperatives, inasmuch as it is composed of 110 separate cooperatives.

Mondragón also runs its own university. In a 29 August 2013 article for Times Higher Education, David Matthews notes Mondragón University is “jointly owned by its academic and administrative staff.” In part, the university also serves as “the training arm of a wider network of interlocking cooperatives.” Even the university itself is a cooperative of cooperatives, as each of the branches constitute a cooperative within themselves. Yet, Mondragón University faces its own set of problems as it must contend with issues that are typical of any private university, including cost-management. Nonetheless, students at Mondragón note the familial nature of pedagogical and social life. Others have also explicitly cited Mondragón University as an alternative to the neoliberal university (which encourages the pacification of students and faculty alike).

Is There An Alternative?

While CUNY is far more progressive relative to other universities throughout the United States, this has not prevented the onslaught of neoliberal inroads. Such examples range from “private-public” partnerships (a euphemism for private contracting and subcontracting, and privatization of services) to the marginalization of adjuncts, which compose approximately 65 percent of the staff.

Neither CUNY’s past nor Mondragón’s present may be completely applicable, but they do point to potential policy and programmatic turns. This involves deepening democracy and reorienting what is viewed as progressive and truly socially concerned economic development. For the latter, one may find alternatives here in the United States. This can be found on both the level of curriculum commitments and community partnerships. For example, UMass Amherst houses the “Cooperative Enterprise Collaborative,” wherein students are educated in cooperative economics and theory. The Collaborative also is in partnership with various cooperative organizations, such as The Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives (VAWC). In Ohio, we find the “Cleveland Model.” Here, a nexus of institutions such as (but not limited to) Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, and the municipal government utilize their procurement power to help build worker cooperatives in the local area. The idea is not for residents to become compliant workers, but to exercise their full agency as producers through democratic-employee ownership. Though there are criticisms of the Cleveland Model, the takeaway from this is that workers’ self-management is a constitutive part of building community wealth, or rather, simply building community.

On the student level, we are also finding changes. Student Organization for Democratic Alternatives (SODA) is a fairly new political student group, launching its inaugural chapters at both Queens College and Hunter College. Despite only being formed in April, it is increasingly connecting CUNY students and staff to opportunities for democratic-employee ownership through its expanding partnerships with worker cooperative incubators. In fact, CUNY students themselves have started a marketing worker cooperative called KALUK. Given CUNY’s increasing emphasis on facilitating enterprise and business ownership, members of SODA feel CUNY could better serve its community purpose by facilitating the creation of worker cooperatives, whether by way of education or direct assistance. SODA has other goals on its agenda, and this includes bringing participatory budgeting (PB) to, at minimum, student governance across CUNY. PB is a participatory democratic decision-making process in which constituents directly decide on how to allocate a budget. Rather than representatives or bureaucrats deciding on how and where funds should be allocated, constituents generate their own proposals to address needs in their community. Members of SODA feel PB can be utilized to both enhance students’ power to address immediate needs, as well as serve as an institutional mechanism for building student political organization. PB is not only operating in twenty-four city council districts here in NYC, but is also in place at Brooklyn College.

To return to the issue of cooperatives, why all this talk about collegiate connections to cooperatives? This speaks to the heart of what we mean by the neoliberal model. Should the university filter its funds, capital, intellectual resources, and student body into capitalist enterprises, or should the university help facilitate the rise of workers’ self-management? For many students, college experience involves a confrontation with difference, with heterogeneity. There is no reason universities can’t also serve a role in presenting political and economic alternatives to students as well. Engagement with difference should not be limited to variety of individuals we meet, or the variety of fields we encounter. Engagement with difference should also extend to concrete institutional alternatives and arrangements that we ourselves could play a part in building. Moving beyond the neoliberal university model involves constructing self-governance on campus, and facilitating community self-governance and workers’ self-management off-campus. Yet, these are only pieces to what is likely to be a long struggle for something new.


Alexander Kolokotronis is a BA/MA philosophy student at Queens College, City University of New York. He is the founder of Student Organization for Democratic Alternatives, a Worker Cooperative Development Assistant at Make the Road NY, and the Student Coordinator for NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives.This piece originally appeared in the GC Advocate of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

Institutions & Structures: