Unruly Subjects: On Student Activism, the Neoliberal University, and Infiltration

José Manuel Santillana Blanco

On June 10, 2016, the Differences Organized Coalition (DO) comprising of over 15 student activist groups on campus entered and occupied the University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting held at the McNamara Alumni Center. The action came as a response to the university’s poor record in providing sufficient resources for marginalized students, increased tuition hikes, numerous college sports and research scandals, unaddressed gentrification in the areas surrounding the campus and the university’s ties to Blackrock—a multi-billion investment firm that manages and funnels university money into the prison industrial complex. As such, students found it necessary to unapologetically take up space; to be heard. Protestors carried signs that read “debt is killing us,” “don’t sell us out,” and “tuition hikes have got to go.” As they gathered momentum, a core group of six students (predominantly queer and students of color) took center stage carrying a banner that read “nothing about us, without us, is for us.” Each student spoke and recited DO’s list of demands that called for the university to treat education like a public good, provide immediate free tuition for American Indian students, divest from Blackrock investment portfolios, and push for the resignation of President Eric Kaler. 

Consequently, university officials asked students to sit down, be silent or leave the meeting. While others complied, the core group of six students refused to obey, were arrested, and escorted out of the building. After one hour of sitting in police cars, officers released the students to a crowd of chanting supporters. Although the physical detainment was short, the prosecution continued as all students were charged on two levels via the university and the state, and through processes of harassment and intimidation that spanned over nine months. During this timeframe, arrested students were forced to commit their time and efforts on fundraising money for lawyers, attend countless strategizing meetings and court hearings, and prohibited from being in close proximity to the McNamara building where they had staged their protest. Beyond this, they had to contend with the everyday stresses of teaching, taking courses, and studying. As a matter of aggression, they faced layers of multi-institutional contempt through the office of student conduct that effectively sought to repress and discipline their voices and actions. Many of the student activists including myself fell into a cycle of depression and anxiety. In essence, students were criminalized and disciplined for dissent. This is no surprise as the University of Minnesota has had a long history of student social unrest including the 1969 takeover of Morrill Hall,[1]The Morrill Hall takeover of 1968 was an event by which African American students in the University of Minnesota entered and refused to leave the student records office in Morrill Hall on Jan. 14, … Continue reading  the 1971 Chicano Student Occupation [2]In 1970, Chicanx students in Minnesota organized a week-long summer institute to discuss the possibility of establishing a Chicano studies department in the Midwest that eventually led them to occupy … Continue reading and the Whose Diversity sit-in of 2015[3]The Whose Diversity sit-in of 2015 was the takeover of President Eric Kaler’s office by student coalition group Whose Diversity. The group was made up of both undergraduate and graduate students … Continue reading. Students from minoritized communities have been at the forefront of critiquing and disrupting institutions of higher education. And by the same soundness, they have been the bodies which the University has utilized to reconfigure its power.[4]I capitalize University to signify its historical power and dominance over black, indigenous and communities of color.  So, how do we make sense of the ways Black, Brown, and Indigenous students have attempted to critique, disrupt, and resist the violences of the University? And how has their placement within it, as well as historical and material realities, shaped the (im)possibilities of resisting the university? 

As a first-generation student and son of Mexican immigrant parents, I grew up knowing of the precarious positions we occupied within this country. By default, those of us who grew up in migrant farmworking enclaves profoundly understand the false promises of the education system, and it is by this virtue that we come to gain the language to fully understand that it was never created for our communities. These are the lessons that are so integral to our experiences as indigenous people and people of color: the University will not save us. I find power in knowing that I am a reflection of my mother’s six grade education and my father’s high school diploma. The strength and resilience of their life’s teaching informs my work, surpassing the rigidity of Western education systems and infrastructures.[5]I use the phrase Western education systems and infrastructures as being informed by the long history of white supremacy in the United States. See Deborah M. Keisch and Tim Scott (2015) U.S. Education … Continue reading  My parents were my first literary teachers whose tongue, language, and oral tradition I carry with me to this day. This however means that I am often illegible to the University to the degree that it refuses to see me and find value in my work; may that be through my physical presence or community vernacular. And, when seen, my ideas are often valued on a spectrum of profitability. Working-class people of color and indigenous people are often only successful to the degree that they uphold, engage, and value the University status quo. [6]As I have suggested in other places, I identify the University status quo as one rooted in the violent history of colonialism which takes Europeanism as the standardization for all students in the … Continue reading And yet, their commitment to it does not save them from the violences of the academy.

In this essay, I too, like several critical scholars, maintain that the functionality of the Neoliberal University operates as an institution of power and knowledge production predicated on white supremacy, settler colonialism, and global capitalism in ways that criminalize, punish, and discipline already marginalized students (Ferguson, 2012; Wilder, 2014; Hong; 2015; Chatterjee and Maira, 2014; Mohanty, 2003; King, 2017). In this process, students are racialized, gendered, sexualized, classed, and minoritized on two counts in what I call the University Impasse—the paradox of having to be grateful for being granted the opportunity and privilege to attend the University, a space that was created off their backs and denial of humanity. Students of color and indigenous students are often concurrently being disciplined and punished for existing and/or resisting its power. In essence, indigenous and students of color occupy a space of impossibility for having to always be situated within the very parameters that negate their positionalities. As Gutiérrez y Muhs, Flores Niemann, González and Harris remind us in Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012), the University’s establishment has been predicated on routinely reminding women and people of color of their illegitimacy and otherness. In this context, the process of othering is so effective that students begin to internalize what has been termed as ‘Imposter Syndrome’—the belief that they are not worthy and intelligent enough to produce knowledge and obtain a place in the University. They believe themselves to be frauds. Constantly made to feel as though they are inadequate no matter how hard they try; yet unconsciously, sometimes consciously knowing the depth of their oppressed position and need for liberation. 

Alternatively, I would like us to consider these feelings of being unworthy and frauds as a point of departure from which we can dislocate ourselves as proper university citizens. That is to say, that our fraudulent beingness within a historical and material context has shaped our already deceitful status. For example, racialized and other minority students are often deemed fraudulent through the narrative that they were only granted college admissions through programs that upheld Affirmative Action. Students of color and indigenous students by virtue of colonization have always contended with the fact they have been permanently marked among other things as frauds, backward, ill-equipped, criminal, and feebleminded. To deny these historical realities and how it continues to structure the University is a colonial act. A colonial act that upholds the erasure of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized peoples’ histories cannot be the basis of our relationship to the University. Too often conversations about Imposter Syndrome dwell on the politics of deservingness. Our deservingness becomes a central tenet of belonging to the University. The premise “we deserve to be here” and “we belong here” are adapted by many minoritized students to uphold the idea that others do not deserve to be or belong there. In this way, many begin to find validation in the devaluation of others. Meaning, that if we are solely committed to challenging Imposter Syndrome within the premise of deservingness, in many ways, we become loyalists to the violences of the University. 

As an affective matter, the internal feelings, and emotions of racialized student subjects that underline the conversations about Imposter Syndrome are unmistakably valuable. What I am suggesting is a move towards challenging neoliberalist interpretations of historically oppressed peoples in academia that contend with the way racial and other traumas related to colonialism have historically existed and exist. Therefore, perhaps the internal feelings of fear, anxiety, and disconnection, that serve as trauma responses for historically oppressed and disciplined students in institutions of higher education, reveals itself to be more than mere doubt. Instead, these feelings are complicated convulsions that underscore the profound colonial legacies of violence seen and unseen. Moving through the inconsistencies of Imposter Syndrome might allow us to be better attuned to the ways students of color and indigenous students are deeply connected to an intuition that is intertwined with spirituality and ancestral memory.[7]This is not to say that indigenous people and people of color solely rely on this type of intuition as much as I believe that we must do the work of rethinking the role of memory and ancestral … Continue reading Rather, the feeling of fear that we experience as historically oppressed students within the University is a real physical, spiritual, and ancestral response that attempts to alert and protect us. It ignites what Gloria Anzaldua calls La facultad— “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface, it is an instant ‘sensing,’ a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning” (p. 60). Thus, alongside what we might know of the violences of colonialism in theory, deep within us, our bodies know it in psyche and memory.

This semi-autobiographical paper is firmly situated in a Critical University Studies that centralizes historically colonized communities within the Neoliberal University. I am particularly interested in the ways the spirit of student of color and indigenous student activism continues to move us towards resisting colonial education systems that are historically imbedded in chattel slavery, segregation, lynching, state violence, genocide, and land theft both within and outside the University. Rethinking historical trauma and memory as actively functioning against systematic structures allows for a reimagining of ancestral and multigenerational resistance that moves beyond the stagnant location of visible oppression. In positioning Black, Latinx, Immigrant, and Indigenous histories and experiences simultaneously, my hope is that it collectively allows us to build a politics of relationality predicated on critical solidarity. Rather than conjoining all three as a universal configuration for experiencing cruelty, domination, and oppression, I use Black, Brown, and Indigenous as a political category that can intricately count for the multiple intersections that inform how these different groups’ histories are intertwined in the ever-evolving Neoliberal University. 

It remains that academia continues to be redefined by the parameters of neoliberalism in ways that seek to obfuscate the historical. According to Slaughter and Rhoades (2000), Neoliberalism is a set of economic capitalist policies and practices that place value on “free” markets, “private” enterprise, reducing government regulation, and eliminating concepts of “public goods.” Identifying the university as a neoliberal institution acknowledges the ways public colleges and universities have become exemplars of neoliberalism that present themselves as providing increased upward mobility for underserved populations as they serve corporations’ global competitiveness (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2000, pg.73-74). It has become a corporate entity; unable to be recognized outside the parameters of global capitalism. For example, the university’s central concerns with producing profit informs how indigenous students and students of color are recruited, retained, and treated as well as how others in their communities are (non)existent within and outside the ivory towers through the imbrication of violence; this dualism of corporatization always resting on the existence of racialized death and labor as well as Indigenous genocide and stolen land. This commodification process only rewards those who seek to uphold it and reject those who do not fuel it. Paradoxically, critical indigenous students and students of color like all other marginalized students attending the Neoliberal University must negotiate the space in-between.

While neoliberalism across the confines of market-oriented reform more clearly maps the colonialism to corporatization pipeline, it does not fully demonstrate the ongoing shifts and changes in the United States that lead to discursive punishment against students from historically colonized communities. In this paper, I reckon with the role we as resisting subjects play in replicating violence; sometimes in the university, other times outside. For this, I turn to Grace Kyungwon Hong’s articulation of neoliberalism as “an epistemological structure of disavowal, a means of claiming that racial and gendered violences are things of the past” (2015, p. 7). Hong argues that the rise and move towards a new neoliberal order was predicated on the response of earlier movements against white supremacy and Western civilization in ways that structured “selective protection and proliferation of minoritized life as the very mechanism for the brutal exacerbation of minoritized death” (2015, p. 7).  Therefore, inscribed in neoliberalism is the cooptation of people of color struggles, violent histories, and temporary lived experiences that is imperative to uphold its power. If we are not attuned to the realities that the University is an institution that manipulates power for the project of erasure and ongoing colonialism, then we must be honest in our ignorance and how we take part in the setup of this academe-machinery. In the same way, the equally daunting task of exposing, articulating, and challenging the violences of the University from the past to present, calls on us to always maintain a criminal relationship with the University (Harney & Moten, 2013). I built off the work of Harney and Moten that critically calls Black Studies to “sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refuge colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university” (p. 26). 

The acts of producing criminal subjects in the University often mimic and are an extension of systems of carcerality that use mechanisms of discipline and punishment for social control and containment. The objective of the university to this end has always been to punish students whose voices and bodies engage in behavior deemed criminal. For indigenous students and students of color, criminality is inevitable in any disruption of power as their existence in and of itself is already a disruption. However, the act of disrupting physically and epistemologically at the university has different consequences. For example, punishing student activists for civil disobedience is often seen as a suitable response to students engaging in action. While punishing the student-activist-critic discursively by giving them a “bad” grade is seen as suitable for a student who is not up to par with academic standards set by the department or university. Both however, seek to uphold systems of domination by reinforcing the rubrics and foundation of Western-White Supremacist-Capitalist-Heteropatriarchal knowledge.[8]I utilize the term Western-White Supremacist-Capitalist-Heteropatriarchy as an extension of bell hooks critique and term “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” that takes into consideration … Continue reading In other words, criminality is the central tenet for either type of student as they are engaging in the breaking of rubrics, guidelines, and laws that are bonded to the disciplining mechanism of both the University and the state. A mechanism that implicitly and overtly relies on colonial notions of education where students of color and indigenous students’ home knowledges, languages, vernaculars, and behaviors are repressed.

The Neoliberal University’s toxicity, that is, its range in producing and inflicting harm and violence, is not restricted to any particular field, department, or canon. Instead, it morphs according to context, manifesting itself in different forms, space, time, and place. While several interdisciplinary departments were born out of moments of disruption, they are not void of the violences attached to these structures. While ethnic studies and feminist studies departments can hold more potential than their traditional counterparts to be critical and counter these neoliberal violences, they too often uphold and replicate oppressive power structures, even in contestation. These particularities and contradictions are predicated on the grounds that so many critical indigenous scholars and scholars of color have now deep investments in the neoliberal structure. Too often we hear stories of professors of color and indigenous professors who punish their students for not complying with the Neoliberal University. Congruently, (Queer)Women of Color Feminisms have coined, outlined, and resisted their precarious locations in the university that is often contingent on respectability politics (Hugginbotham, 1993; Hill Collins, 2000; Lorde, 2007; Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1983; Moraga, 1993). My work is in collaboration with Women of Color Feminisms’ repudiation of remaining respectable citizens. In doing so, I urge us to push back against elitist logics that conform to professionalism even as professionalism is so central to being in and of the University. 

This work is interested in the continued unmasking of the multi-layered violences in the Neoliberal University as well as exploring the (im)possibilities of resisting it. In line with a Women of Color Feminist praxis, my structural critique is contingent on my own situated knowledge as a first-generation migrant and working-class queer person of color. Additionally, I interweave interpersonal and intercommunal antidotes to unveil the intricacies and configurations of power-structures.[9]I use the term intercommunal as an attempt to unwrap how the interpersonal is informed by community history, situations, and circumstances. This is to say that presenting an intercommunal antidote … Continue reading I argue for a move towards a politic of infiltration that 1. operates to counteract both the colonial and neoliberal violences of the University, 2. utilizes and redefines trespassing, disorderly conduct, and unruly assembly as modes of actively resisting power, and 3. embraces different worlds of knowing, thinking, feeling, and being. It is a politic of resistance built on a commitment to obtaining knowledge for the process of disrupting the neoliberal University. I do not seek to reclaim, reproduce, or rescue our understanding of infiltration as associated with the varied contraptions that the United States has historically used to suppress political movements. Instead, I look to the insurgent moves used and employed by revolutionaries across time and geographies to manipulate state forces in the direction of liberation. For example, the Black Liberation Army’s (BLA) ability to break fellow BLA member Assata Shakur out of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, New Jersey, as well as the Black, Brown, Indigenous and other political prisoners of Leavenworth Penitentiary turn to form a radical school of thought at the height of their confinement. By revolutionaries, I do not solely mean to point to the social and political leaders who have been iconized. We must be keenly aware that quotidian infiltration has remained fundamental to the survival and livelihoods of oppressed communities. Put more firmly, historically oppressed communities have always had to be more knowledgeable and strategic of state logics to survive and stay afloat. 

I have structured this essay into three parts that reflect the charges filed against the six student activists during the board of regent occupation: Trespassing, Disorderly Conduct, and Unruly Assembly. All of which I believe are illustrative of the punishing and disciplining practices used against students within the Neoliberal University. Particularly serving as convergent codes that link academia and modes of carcerality. Such codes are not limited to but illustrative of the legacies of slavery and black codes in the South, xenophobic violence and restriction in the Southwest, and Native American genocide and containment across the United States. Thereby, I position these codes as transitory apparatuses that dilute the University visions and rescue the precarious location of those deemed criminal. 


engage in any of the following conduct in a public or private place, including on a school bus, knowing, or having reasonable grounds to know, that it would, or would tend to, alarm, anger  or disturb others, or provoke an assault or breach of the peace: disturbs an assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character intentionally trespass on the premises of another and, without claim of right, refuse to depart from the premises on demand of the lawful possessor. [10] State of Minnesota v. Jose Manuel Santillana, 27VB16172155, Stat. 609.605.1(b)(3) (4th D. Minn. 2016).

Dominant narratives of higher education would have us believe that the University is a place where all, including historically oppressed people, thrive. This is evident in its investment and packaging of meritocracy and social mobility through the rhetorics of hard work and self-sacrifice (Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., 2012). Educational attainment above all else has been integral in defining American Exceptionalism; promoting the idea that equal access and opportunity trample any struggles people may have. Nevertheless, institutions of higher education remain silent in the ways that acknowledge the violent public-school infrastructure’s on-going establishment. As such, moments and movements of resistance led by indigenous students and student of color activists across the United States signify a refusal to depart without unsettling power and truth; exposing the state’s contradictory predisposition as a settler-colonial nation and the University’s role in perpetuating its logics. 

Fundamentally, a politic of infiltration is deeply rooted in rejecting the social, political, and economic values that uphold the University as a place of ultimate transformation. Yes, even as we inhabit the premises. It is through this demarcation that students can begin to make new claims within the University that decline full acceptance, complacency, and assimilation. Drawing on Harney and Moten’s (2013) strategies to seek refuge, plan, and study, a politic of infiltration moves us beyond simply being in the University to actively doing. By doing, I mean to underscore the ways Black, Brown, and Indigenous student resistors act against the violences of the University. The act of doing relates to moving. We act, we do, we move. In principle, infiltration necessitates both the “undercommons” collectivity of studying and planning as well as the ability to disrupt the University—even in the contradiction; entering and gaining access to become intruders. Solely seeking refuge does not suffice. Those of us who infiltrate do so with conscious reasoning that considers both the historical and ongoing violences committed onto Black, Immigrant, Indigenous, and other historically colonized communities. Since its inception, the United States has consistently used physical and psychological violence against Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities across the United States. Thus, as we move against these violences, awareness is made more tangible about our localities and that of the University. While we should honor and contend with our differences, let us too build movements of relationality that unmap the intertwined legacies of colonialism that led to the present-day Neoliberal University. We must know who we are and what we are fighting for. Moving towards a politics of infiltration is an intentional move towards community liberation that takes place in and outside University grounds. As agitators, we have the ability to rework our position for our communities across geographies. Among many others, let us pay attention to the 2016 student movement at the University of Minnesota that drew attention to the institution’s ties with immigration detention centers, and the 2017 student-led efforts at the University of Michigan to successfully pass a resolution to investigate companies who support the violent occupation of Palestine. 

Through a critical interrogation of carceral vocabularies, we have the ability to unveil and transform the state’s weaponization of language against indigenous students, students of color, and others. Trespassing, as a code of conduct in the United States, relies on settler colonialism. It at once describes the disciplining mechanisms of colonial subjects in our society and its own placement in a history convoluted in colonial violence. Trespassing as utilized by state institutions is a neoliberal code that is used to replicate violence. For example, the University of Minnesota is one of many land-grant institutions that obtained land through the Morrill land-grant acts that forcibly removed indigenous peoples from their territories. Moving towards a politics of infiltration, students including student activists must fully acknowledge the violent displacement of indigenous people to build these colleges and universities. As Dakota scholar Angela Wilson “Waziyatawin” (2008) recounts, “The hunger for indigenous lands by the swelling American population cannot be overstated. In fact, as Minnesota history demonstrates, Europeans and Euro-Americans would commit some of the most heinous crimes in history to obtain Indigenous lands” (Waziyatawin, 2008, p. 28). In Minnesota, genocide, the Pipestone Indian Schools, and Fort Snelling concentration camps allowed white settlers to imagine further structures of containment for its non-white inhabitants. As in most of the Americas, the foundations of all sectors of life are informed by the colonial vestiges of the conquest. The University of Minnesota’s formation on stolen Indian land cannot be separated from the fact that today Native peoples are treated as foreigners on their own lands both through denial of entrance/admission to the University and the blatant violence they face in the city that surrounds it.

As students and scholars within the University, we are implicitly and actively connected to the intricate histories that formed our institutions. For us to acknowledge its dark and violent past, forces us to be present in ways that recognize our own placement within it. As historian Christopher Lehman urges, we must do the work of uncovering the stories that have been erased in history; we must excavate. In recent years, Lehman has unmasked the connections between slavery, education, and the state of Minnesota. He argues that during its early financially troubled years in the late 1850s, the University of Minnesota leaned heavily on the wealth of South Carolina slave owner of 878 slaves Governor William Aiken Jr, who donated approximately $28, 000 to the university which would be worth about $750, 000 today (Brown, 2016). Lehman asserts that Aiken’s contributions were covered up for nearly 150 years through the jurisdiction of Minnesota’s eighth Governor John Sargent Pillsbury (Brown, 2016). These incidents of funneling slave trade money into institutions of higher education did not happen in isolation. Rather, slave owner Aiken’s financial contributions to the University and Governor Pillsbury’s attempt to erase it from public memory reflects one of many ways that black chattel slavery is integral to the foundation of many universities and colleges across the country. Black slave labor must be understood as still maintaining and propelling the walls of the ivory towers. A politic of infiltration is firmly situated in acknowledging the ways anti-blackness is fundamental to the creation of institutions of higher education in the United States. It is through these acknowledgments of historical colonial violences that have the potential to move our consciousness to act. Trespassing, as an infiltrator, is a conscious mode of resistance that moves against ongoing historical erasure.

The colonial history of racialized peoples in the United States was built on denying and restricting education to indigenous children and children of color. For example, Miroslava Chávez-Garcia’s (2012) work draws on the history of California juvenile justice system’s reliance on racist ideologies, and the practices by state institutions to classify youth of color as degenerate between the nineteenth to twentieth century. Chávez-Garcia notes that “scientists identified a disproportionate number of Mexican, Mexican American and African American youths as feebleminded and criminally minded offenders whose genetic or racial stock was the root cause of their deficiencies” (2012, p. 4). Consequently, reformatory schools were “transformed into social laboratories in which to carry out social experiments aimed at dealing with not only juvenile delinquency but also race betterment” (2012, p. 5). Paying particular attention to the creation of reformatory schools permit us to at once see the relational distance of youth of color as innately self-producing criminals in nature and always disciplinable subjects in matter. Distinction becomes fraught between student of color and criminal; being demonized, racialized, and pathologized by the institutions they are forced to or find themselves in. A politic of infiltration disrupts moments in history as places to begin to dislocate ourselves as indigenous students and students of color. By disidentifying with the University’s violent history, students can begin to rupture the neoliberal packaging and promises of institutions of higher education. Educational and penal institutions cannot be seen separately but instead as interlocking structures and systems that construct who is a deserving and undeserving citizen. 

Black Studies scholar Amber Wiley (2015) highlights the role of school architecture within the school-to-prison pipeline to stress the way schools instill conformity, obedience, policing and control of African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color. Such disciplining practices were rooted in the civilizing ideals of early educators to assimilate ethnic minorities in the United States. Highlighting the defining features of education structures in the 1800’s, Wiley states that “School design promoted utilitarian concerns for order, control, and restriction of movement. Tables, chairs, and desks bolted to the floor discouraged lateral communication and other forms of community among students” (Para 7). This legacy of the contemporary biopolitics of schooling extends itself as an ongoing condition that seeks to debilitate historically oppressed students on multiple fronts. Once on campus, students of color and indigenous students especially from poor and working-class backgrounds face challenges such as being presumed incompetent, illiterate, and criminal. Against the rigid culture and structure of present-day academia, a politic of infiltration uplifts movements based on openness that encourages building community and seeking social transformation. Student infiltrators learn to navigate the University’s culture of restriction, and attempt to replace it with new modes of resistance.

It is no easy task to reimagine new ways of existing. The Neoliberal University continues to rest on violence against Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies and minds; assaulting, battering, and murdering those who stand in the way. The confinement of historically oppressed students in the ongoing project of disciplining the student and producing the so-called rigorous scholar is how these violences manifest within the University. Subsequently, why have so many people of color invested their life’s work and livelihoods in this process? I would venture to say that many student activists from historically oppressed communities who ultimately make the commitment to stay in higher education are driven by the belief that their presence will result in transforming the University. Yet, solely being part of the university disregards that the problem is no longer one of access to it but of our placement and location in it. As Robin D.G. Kelly (2016) points out in Black Study, Black Struggle, “We must go to the root—the historical, political, social, cultural, ideological, material, economic root—of oppression in order to understand its negation, the prospect of our liberation. Going to the root illuminates what is hidden from us, largely because most structures of oppression and all of their various entanglements are simply not visible and not felt” (Para 33). To accomplish this we must unsettle power in whichever ways we can. In moving with Moten and Harney, the conversation of being in but not of the university must not stop at seeking refuge. We must consider the violences that happen as a point of departure towards action.

To this end, how do we make sense of those who have died at the hands of the University? I do not mean to be metaphorical. I am speaking to ways the University disregards human life. On both a historical and contemporary level, University funds and resources have been utilized to fund wars and occupations, build private immigrant detention centers, and support other carceral projects of violence. In many ways, the University is often responsible for a culture of slow death that looms over Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples via suicide, inadequate healthcare, overworking employees, and a harsh and disciplining work environment. Those of us within the Neoliberal University are not an exception to the rule. In fact, many graduate students, lecturers, and faculty of color are in a constant precarious position. The pressures and stressors of academic life, as a contemporary colonial condition that manifests within our personal, social, and mental livelihoods and health, reveal a culture of disposability. Through radical grapevines of care, labor, and love for elders in our communities, many have collectively shared and understood the conditions, cautions, and remnants of the violences including the lives and deaths of Black feminist Audre Lorde and Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa as well as my queer Brown brother Jesus Estrada. 

Let us not forget that we have an obligation to disrupt the Neoliberal University. It is not enough to say we come from the communities that colonialism tried to destroy. We cannot claim difference here, if we do not actively become trespassers to the University; identifying ourselves strategically in ways that separates us from its neoliberal politics. A politic of infiltration is a call to intentionally trespass—to refuse to leave the premises.

Disorderly Conduct

engage in any of the following conduct in a public or private place, including on a school bus, knowing, or having reasonable grounds to know, that it would, or would tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others, or provoke an assault or breach of the peace: disturbs an assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character[11]State of Minnesota v. Jose Manuel Santillana, 27VB16172155, Stat. 609.72.1(2) (4th D. Minn. 2016).

“Ay mijo, es que yo soy mensa para estas cosas” my mother often said when she would ask me to translate for her in English. Unlike other kids, many children of immigrant parents grow up cognizant of the many systematic barriers in this country. We serve as negotiators and mediators for our parents who come to this country for a better life—building an awareness around power and difference that uncovers our placement in it. It took many years to understand the significance of these moments my mother and I shared throughout my upbringing. These moments of disruption and translation were underscored by narratives of repression, disorientation, and resistance. I understood my mother’s refusal to speak English after living in this country for twenty years as both a result of classist, racist, and xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants, as well as an act of resistance to assimilate into a country who never saw her as a full human being. She negotiated her livelihood in ways that utilizes what José Esteban Muñoz calls disidentification, “a third mode of dealing with dominant ideology, one that neither opts to assimilate within such a structure nor strictly opposes it; rather, disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominant ideology” (1999, p. 11). As a poor Mexican immigrant, my mothers complicated relationship to this country taught me a politic of refusal that keeps in tension my cultural values. Our language, phonics and storytelling, of poor, working-class, immigrant, and other origins, largely remains an active disruption in many spaces. Disorderly behavior or the refusal to conduct yourself in an orderly fashion, to neither opt in nor out of the options presented to you, signals the internal power to provoke. An infiltrator politic disorients colonial and neoliberal space. 

These encounters have made me well aware that I can never be fully legible to Western academia; always provoking some type of disorder, as with the case of my presence in graduate school. Many constantly reminded me of my illegitimacy through my writing, speaking, and actual physical presence on University grounds. Other well-intentioned allies assured me that such experiences were temporary, and suggested that things would change in my favor. However, it doesn’t matter how much I have written or how many years of experience I have, the work often feels depleting. The University’s disciplining mechanisms have ensured that we feel this way.

During my first year of graduate school, I took a course titled Feminist Genealogies, a core class all first year students took in my department at the University of Minnesota. Given that I came from an ethnic studies background, I was unsure of the classroom and writing expectations, but remained optimistic about the semester. Several weeks into the course, the professor had finally provided written feedback on our proposals. Before handing them out, she professed that she was very disappointed with the lack of coherence of many projects, indicating that she would post four examples of exceptional proposals via our online class site to help us in our writing. To my dismay, all four proposals were written by white students outside of our department. Additionally, most of her feedback to students of color in the course displayed language specifying that we were not up to par with graduate level thinking and writing. To treat and assume that someone’s writing is not up to par with graduate level writing is to commit to a universal rubric of knowledge production. As it usually is, those professors’ commitment to Western academic legibility ensures that stories about our families are not read as real theory, that research about our own communities are not considered rigorous enough, and that our code-switching is not thought of as sophisticated. Dismissing and diminishing the work of students of color while simultaneously highlighting the intellectual work of white students, demonstrates the racialized objective of disciplining writers. The act of disciplining entails the whitening of the writer; forcing indigenous scholars and scholars of color to write like a white man. 

Towards the end of the semester, the professor declined to meet with me as she proclaimed that she no longer had time to address my concerns. While this can easily be excused as interpersonal conflict, in which the professor simply disregards an individual’s feelings, it is representative of an array of elitist practices neatly nestled in internal spaces of intellectual academic engagement; the classroom. The place where dehumanizing pedagogical practices become more difficult to delineate especially if they are in an interdisciplinary department like feminist studies and ethnic studies where emphasis is placed on its critical and social justice roots; where the professor can assign Audre Lorde at the same time they repudiate students who write like her. Paradoxically, such departments founded on the backs of student activism neglect that which made it a powerful force to be reckoned with in the institution. I have seen departments and professors fall victim to paying lip service to the very things they critique. Feminist and ethnic studies departments across the United States often pride themselves on challenging the traditional disciplines and their methodologies, upholding anti-racist and feminist pedagogies, and decolonizing pursuits. Part of the interrogation of critically rethinking the work on feminist and ethnic studies departments involves a reevaluation of its foundations. Fundamentally, it would mean an ongoing commitment and investment in disrupting the order of things; not necessarily confined solely to the University.

A politic of infiltration accepts your personhood outside the confines of Western knowledge subject making; finding comfort in knowing that you can never fully be legible, recognizable, desired, and validated by the University. Both legibility and illegibility matter to the way you hold and work power in the benefit of liberation. Value is placed on disturbing order, that is when you inflict or (un)intentionally call onto the disorder of things, you are actively challenging and resisting systematic power. This happens in multiple ways; when you refuse to speak and engage in class as a practice of self-preservation; when you attend a planning meeting to occupy administrative spaces you are not welcomed in; when you push back against dressing like a “respectable” graduate student; when you use non-English language and non-white vernaculars in your papers as a proactive gesture to being unapologetically you; when you leave University grounds not as a means for giving up but because it is killing you. For student activists, the willingness to trespass and disturb public spaces is a direct counteraction to the Neoliberal University. For example, the act of collective protest on campus is the part of infiltration that names and exposes structural power. These students—the organizers admitted to colleges and universities who are deemed deserving and legible—have the ability to seep into its infrastructures to push for a redistribution of power and wealth. 

Unruly Assembly

assemble in a group of three or more persons and the assembly is held without unlawful purpose, but the participants so conduct themselves in a disorderly manner as to disturb or threaten the public peace.[12] State of Minnesota v. Jose Manuel Santillana, 27VB16172155, Stat. 609.72.1(2) (4th D. Minn. 2016).

The growing emphasis of diversity and inclusion within university policies as a response to decades of criticism and activism against the colonial foundation of higher education has given rise to a new set of rhetoric, practices, and policies—that have created the perception that students from all racial, ethnic, economic, gender, and sexual orientations are welcomed. However, once successfully enrolled in the university, minoritized students are confronted and forced to deal with the fact that they are only valued to the degree that they are invested in its hegemonic power structure. Moreover, the popular ideological phrasing of diversity and inclusion currently used by campuses across the country has resulted in the University’s appropriation of earlier student movements who envisioned a different future; one in which the language of their movements did not further facilitate the silencing and marginalizing of students of color and indigenous students. Indisputably, the University has been effective in reinventing itself to fit the needs of the time by consistently manipulating its power for racial capitalist investments. Student activists, above all other agitators in the University, have shown more promise in disrupting its power. For many, it’s not about one ultimate end, it’s about the process, the act of always disrupting. While radical student activists most often get reduced as troublemakers by the University and its loyalists, they have literally laid their bodies on the line for the pursuit of social, political, and economic justice.

Black, Brown, and Indigenous radical student activists along with women, trans, queers, and all others who find themselves on the margins still threaten and intimidate the University. They may have opened the doors for us, but they can never offer our communities full freedom. Our presence, convoluted in criminality, has always assured them of their mission, to stay vigilant and maintain control. They allow us to move within the premises as long as we do not cause disturbance. It is for this reason that we plan our congregations; taking note of those who have come before us but also those who are not here. As Chicana feminist scholar Edén Torres signals, we must be aware that “The establishment of theoretical domains and reinventing ideas take time and energy that could be focused on making revolution. While we can critique certain concepts, or point out the limitations of various claims, our enemy is not ‘essentialism’ or ‘cultural nationalism’ or identity politics…Our enemy is the global expansion of capitalism and consumer culture” (2003, p.71). We radicalize ourselves, we organize, we agitate, we repeat. But this comes at a cost—student activists run the risk of more obstacles and ostracism in their efforts to organize—their grades take a toll as they make bigger commitments to their movements; they become even less legible as student subjects to those with money and power; they often do not get the prestigious scholarships and fellowships. 

A politic of infiltration heavily relies on rethinking the spatiality of unruly assembly. It rejects the idea that the University functions independently, autonomously, and separately from the neoliberal violences of United States and the world. The University is in many ways the apparatus and mechanism that links knowledge, power, and violence across geographies. As I have previously mentioned, one cannot simply be within the University without understanding its horrific establishment and ongoing investments in the detainment, confinement, and murder of Black, Brown, immigrant, and Indigenous people globally. By which I mean, the more contemporary catastrophic outcomes of United States interventionism across the global south. As student activists, we need more innovative ways of insurgency; of knowing, being and acting. An insurgency that collectively moves us to act against authority. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study highlights the inseparability of the University to professionalization, elitism, scientific efficiency, respectability, and violence. The politics of infiltration that I call for here draws inspiration from their call to students:

Students must come to see themselves as the problem, which, counter to the complaints of restorationist critics of the university, is precisely what it means to be a customer, to take on the burden of realisation and always necessarily be inadequate to it. Later, these students will be able to see themselves properly as obstacles to society, or perhaps, with lifelong learning, students will return having successfully diagnosed themselves as the problem. (2013, p. 29)

Harney and Moten are arguing for a refuge in the undercommons that pushes us “To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university” (2013, p. 26). Most valuably, it is calling for an emphases and commitment to collectivity.

A politic of infiltration is the constant call to act and organize against the material, epistemic, and spiritual violences of academia. It is the difficult call to build networks of critical solidarity across all struggles. To utilize public and private university grounds for building revolutionary alliances. Fundamentally creating a community of co-conspirators. It is a project of motion, always in flux, converging the knowing and being of multiple sites of (im)possibilities. Working and navigating the system for a more just world. Its foundation must simultaneously work against antiblackness, settler colonialism, xenophobia, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, homophobia, and all other systems rooted in colonial violence. Aside from seeking refuge—the radical move towards a relational politic of infiltration—is the intentionality of actively and collectively forming movements of resistance that embrace action-oriented possibilities of liberation. Student activism and protest are at the heart of these unruly matters. 

On the (Im)possibilities

The nine months following the University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting of 2016 was particularly challenging for the six-student activists. After deliberately calling the police and charging us with six preliminary misdemeanors, University officials denied any responsibilities in repressing and criminalizing student dissent even as the University’s Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity (OSCAI) now the Office of Community Standards, actively sought to punish and discipline students. According to OSCAI, we were in violation of three codes: Subd. 4 Refusal to Identify and Comply, Subd. 16 Disruptive Behavior, and Subd. 20 Violation of Local, State, or Federal Laws or Ordinances. On an individual level, the complex and layered prosecution took a toll on my already depleting physical and emotional health. I woke up one week unable to move my body without feeling excruciating pain. My teaching as well as my grades suffered, and at the end of the academic year much of our demands remained ignored. So, why, you might ask, do we continue the work of disruption? Why not leave academia? Some of us have. Some of us are always halfway out the door. 

The contradiction—both in the possibilities and impossibilities of resisting the Neoliberal University—lies in the negotiations that we must all make for ourselves individually and sometimes collectively. As students, student activists, agitators and organizers committed to social, political, cultural, spiritual, and economic justice and liberation—especially indigenous people and people of color—there are often no easy answers to why we choose to stay or leave. A politic of infiltration refuses any one formula of being against the violences in the Neoliberal University. Instead, it brings to the fore the radical right to grapple with our own realities as we see best fit. Always encouraging us to gradually move through the University in ways that acknowledges our presence as both a negation and negotiation; Establishing ourselves strategically when needed but ultimately committed to obtaining knowledge for the process of disrupting the Neoliberal University. 


Anzaldúa, G. (2007). Borderlands: The new mestiza: La frontera (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Brown, C. (2016). Minnesota history: Southern slave owner helped revive University of Minnesota. Retrieved from Star Tribune http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-history-southern-slave-owner-helped-revive-university-of-minnesota/383521411/

Cacho, L. (2012). Social death: Racialized rightlessness and the criminalization of the unprotected (Nation of newcomers). New York: New York University Press.

Chatterjee, P. & Maira, S. (2014). The imperial university: Academic repression and scholarly dissent. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Chávez-Garcia, M. (2012). States of delinquency: Race and science in the making of California’s juvenile justice system. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. 

Ferguson, R. (2012). The Reorder of Things The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Difference Incorporated). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gutiérrez y Muhs, G., Flores Niemann, Y., Gonzalez, C.G., & Harris A.P. (2012). Presumed incompetent: The intersections of race and class for women in academia. Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado: Utah State University Press.

Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning & black study. Wivenhoe; New York; Port Watson: Minor Compositions.

Heatherton, C. (2014). University of Radicalism: Ricardo Flores Magón and Leavenworth Penitentiary. American Quarterly, 66(3), 557-581.

Higginbotham, E. (1993). Righteous discontent: The women’s movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (Rev. 10th anniversary ed.). New York: Routledge.

Hong, G.K. (2015). Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Keisch, D.M. & Scott, T. (2015). U.S. education reform and the Maintenance of White Supremacy through structural violence. Education and Violence, 3(3), 1-44.

Kelly, R.D.G. (2016). Black study black struggle. The Boston Review. Retrieved from http://bostonreview.net/forum/robin-d-g-kelley-black-study-black-struggle

King, T.L. (2017). Humans Involved: Lurking in the Lines of Posthumanist Flight. Critical Ethnic Studies Journal, 3(1), 162-185.

Lorde, A. (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches (Revised ed.). Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Mohanty, C.T. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Moraga, C. (1993). The last generation (Latino literature). Boston, Mass.: South End Press.

Moraga, C., & Anzaldúa, G. (1983). This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color (2nd ed.). New York: Kitchen table: Women of color press.

Muñoz, J. (1999). Disidentifications: Queers of color and the performance of politics (Cultural studies of the Americas; v. 2). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pérez, E. (1999). The decolonial imaginary: Writing Chicanas into history. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Slaughter, S. & Rhoades. (2000). The neo-liberal university. New Labor Forum, 6, 73-77. 

Thompson, H.R.  (2011). Criminalizing kids: The overload reason for failing schools. Dissent, 23-27.

Torres, E. (2003). Chicana without apology: The new Chicana cultural studies. New York: Routledge.

Wilder, C.S. (2014). Ebony & ivy: Race, slavery, and the troubled history of America’s university. New York: NY: Bloomsbury

Wilson, A. (2008). What does justice look like?: The struggle for liberation in Dakota homeland (1st ed.). St. Paul, Minn.: Living Justice Press.

Wily, A. (2015). Schools and Prisons. Retrieved from Aggregate: http://we-aggregate.org/piece/schools-and-prisons.

Yosso, T.J & Solórzano, D.G. (2006). Leaks in the Chicana and Chicano educational pipeline. Latino Policy and Issues Brief. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. 

Yosso,T.J. (2006). Critical race counterstories along the Chicana/Chicano educational pipeline.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Suggested citation:

Santillana Blanco, J.M. 2024. “Unruly Subjects: On Student Activism, the Neoliberal University, and Infiltration.” In eds. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Kidiocus King-Carroll, Naimah Zulmadelle Pétigny, and Kong Pheng Pha in collaboration with AGITATE! Editorial Collective. Seditious Acts: AGITATE! Special Volume with CRES: https://agitatejournal.org/article/unruly-subjects-on-student-activism-the-neoliberal-university-and-infiltration/


1 The Morrill Hall takeover of 1968 was an event by which African American students in the University of Minnesota entered and refused to leave the student records office in Morrill Hall on Jan. 14, 1969 as a response to the treatment and low enrollment of black students at the University.
2 In 1970, Chicanx students in Minnesota organized a week-long summer institute to discuss the possibility of establishing a Chicano studies department in the Midwest that eventually led them to occupy Morrill Hall in October 26, 1971.
3 The Whose Diversity sit-in of 2015 was the takeover of President Eric Kaler’s office by student coalition group Whose Diversity. The group was made up of both undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented and marginalized communities within the University. 
4 I capitalize University to signify its historical power and dominance over black, indigenous and communities of color.
5 I use the phrase Western education systems and infrastructures as being informed by the long history of white supremacy in the United States. See Deborah M. Keisch and Tim Scott (2015) U.S. Education Reform and the Maintenance of White Supremacy through Structural Violence.
6 As I have suggested in other places, I identify the University status quo as one rooted in the violent history of colonialism which takes Europeanism as the standardization for all students in the United States.
7 This is not to say that indigenous people and people of color solely rely on this type of intuition as much as I believe that we must do the work of rethinking the role of memory and ancestral knowledge as integral to the way historically oppressed populations counteract the spiritual and historical harms of violence. 
8 I utilize the term Western-White Supremacist-Capitalist-Heteropatriarchy as an extension of bell hooks critique and term “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” that takes into consideration how these differently labeled systems operate together. Adding the terms Western and heteropatriarchy allows us to consider the ways Western knowledge/white heterosexual men have dominated foundations of society as a whole.
9 I use the term intercommunal as an attempt to unwrap how the interpersonal is informed by community history, situations, and circumstances. This is to say that presenting an intercommunal antidote directly relates to the ways an event is presented and interpreted via personal relationships to any particular community.
10  State of Minnesota v. Jose Manuel Santillana, 27VB16172155, Stat. 609.605.1(b)(3) (4th D. Minn. 2016).
11 State of Minnesota v. Jose Manuel Santillana, 27VB16172155, Stat. 609.72.1(2) (4th D. Minn. 2016).
12  State of Minnesota v. Jose Manuel Santillana, 27VB16172155, Stat. 609.72.1(2) (4th D. Minn. 2016).

Article by: