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USC Disorientation Guide 2011/12, Issue #6

August 28, 2011


Table of Contents

August 28, 2011

1. Dedication

2. Activism at USC: Introductory Points

3. Whose University?: Corporate Governance and Democracy at USC, by Max

4. Fight on for Darfur, org profile, by Ann

5. Free Speech at USC

6. Ugly Outtakes from USC’s History

7. Activist Organizations at USC

8. The Daily Trojan, Free Expression, and What It Means to Be a “Student” Newspaper, by Max

9. Women at USC, by Sherry and Max

10. Activism at USC: Further Points

11. So … Who are we? + The Undercurrent’s Statement of Principles + Upcoming events

12. Back Cover

Cover by Gus

Design and Formatting by Julia


August 28, 2011

This guide is dedicated to all those who have been mistreated by USC.

To the workers who keep our school clean, keep us fed, and keep us healthy while struggling for decent wages and working conditions.

This guide is dedicated to the students whose parents aren’t wealthy and whose financial aid doesn’t cover the cost of living and going to school at USC, who have to work long hours between classes to afford food and rent.

This guide is dedicated to the families that live in the neighborhood that USC has forced itself on. The families who are evicted for not being able to afford rising rents.

This guide is dedicated to the professors who have been told to keep quiet, whose voices have been ignored, whose research has been dismissed, whose teaching has gone unrecognized.

This guide is dedicated to the alumni with tens of thousands of dollars in debt who are left without the means to pay it off.

The list goes on, but you know who you are.

In short, this guide is dedicated to all of us except the administration.

May we one day learn, teach, and work freely beside one another.

Activism at USC: Introductory Points

August 28, 2011

As USC students, we’re constantly inundated with rosy images of USC’s present and past. While we don’t deny that USC does some good things, we think there is a lot to be critical of that gets swept under the rug. The purpose of this zine is to lift up the rug, shake it, and examine the dirt that comes out.


What we mean when we say USC is doing harmful things


We’re gonna say some bad things about USC and we want to take a second to clarify what we mean. We understand that most of you, especially first-year and transfer college students, are pretty ecstatic about attending an elite school like USC, and we don’t intend to kill any of that buzz. Getting to USC is a formidable accomplishment in itself and something to be proud of. Also, USC has a ton of great professors and opportunities and you’ll likely leave college with an expanded view of the world, deeper capacities for critical thought, and new creative energies. We wouldn’t still be here if we didn’t love the people who are a part of USC.


What we mean when we say that USC is a bad institution is that many of the roles it plays in society have negative effects on people’s well-being and capacity to control their own lives. To take one instance, USC has used eminent domain and other unsavory practices to expand its campus that are destructive to local families’ abilities and rights to live in their own neighborhood. In its role as an educational institution, USC may serve a good purpose in giving you a good education, but as a real estate developer, USC has privileged its own expansion over neighborhood concerns of community self-determination and affordable housing.


We think USC plays similarly harmful roles in its capacity in researching war technology, as an employer that disrespects and underpays workers, as an institution that has few channels for internal democracy, as a huge consumer of energy that doesn’t value sustainability, as a seller of clothing that takes few precautions against sweatshop labor, and as an endowment that invests its money in destructive companies around the world.


There’s nothing particular about being an elite university that makes any of this inevitable. Rather, all of these negative roles could be radically remolded, and USC could be an institution that promotes social well-being and freedom beyond merely its students.


Use USC’s great people and resources for all it’s worth, but we think it’s equally important to be critical of its wider societal impacts and to work to mold the university of our dreams.



Stereotypes of political activism


Political activism has a lot of stereotypical baggage attached to it. At the mention of activism, one’s mind inevitably wanders back to the 1960s and a bunch of long-haired, dirty, and drugged hippies shouting at rallies about this, that, and the other thing. One can get the impression that activism is just about yelling and holding up political signs. These reductive images do a tremendous disservice to what political engagement on campus can be like.


In the end, political activism comes down to caring about other people and wanting peoples’ lives to be better. To want this not just for yourself and those you know personally, but also for people you don’t know and never will. It’s this attitude and the work of our predecessors that have paved the way for every freedom gained, including the noteworthy opportunity of people who are not white, male, and from the economic elite to attend college. There are numerous organizations and campaigns later profiled in this zine that represent these very ideals, so take a look and hopefully you will find a few that you’re interested in.


Most importantly, we hope to break the negative connotations attached to political and social activism, and instead turn it into something in which we can all take pride.



Activism as another education


In college you’re always setting and working towards goals, consciously or unconsciously. Acquiring increasingly complex mental tools and strategies to overcome problems and reach these goals are perhaps the most fundamental skill-set you will develop in college. Another important function of higher education is the exposure to new ideas and perspectives.


In these aims and any others one can imagine, student activism can be just as educational as your in-class experience. In any political campaign, you have to collaborate with lots of other people. You have to analyze the problem that you’re dealing with. You have to lay out a plan with strategies and tactics. You have to learn to communicate well with allies, to be persuasive in talking with people you’re reaching out to, and to negotiate with those who you are struggling against. These are all the kinds of “real life” skills that aren’t often taught in classrooms but are part of the daily experience of working for social change.



Good and bad kinds of student activism


There are many kinds of activism and political student organizations around and we think some are (much) better or worse than others. If you’re not constantly being challenged and creative and your role is merely to create facebook event pages, have people sign petitions, and fundraise for your organization, you’re in the wrong org. If decisions about the political stance, the goals, and the strategies are made by a small group of people that head the org while the majority mostly just carry out the former’s ideas, you’re in the wrong org. If your involvement isn’t fulfilling your desire to be creative, helpful, and productive, you’re in the wrong org.


This isn’t to say that there is that one perfect student activist group out there for you. Every group has its own problems and internal conflicts, but some groups are always looking to better themselves through self-examination and inclusion of new members and ideas while others are rigid in their structure and practices.


We hope you find some organization on campus of value to you and there’s a number of them discussed later in this guide. But if nothing in the current field appeals to you or there’s some issue you’re passionate about that’s not being addressed, we encourage you to start your own group and we’re happy to assist you in any way we can. If you do start your own group, feel free to contact us ( with any questions you might have.


Whose University?: Corporate Governance and Democracy at USC, by Max

August 28, 2011

You think you can do whatever you want just because your corporation is a university?” -Cartman from South Park

At USC there’s a disconnect between the democracy as publicly enshrined in the values of our administration and the democracy which is to be studiously avoided in practice. The structure of USC more closely resembles the top-down organization of corporations where a CEO and board of directors make all important decisions while the thousands of other employees and stakeholders have very limited official channels of influence. The prestige of being an elite university does a lot to mask what might otherwise be considered unjust and anti-democratic.

One way the value of democracy is held as a virtue at USC is in the pronounced values of our highest administrators. President Max Nikias’s official bio on USC’s website (1) proclaims “he enjoys teaching freshmen about ancient Athenian democracy …” USC Provost and law Professor Elizabeth Garret’s scholarly interests include “direct democracy” and “democratic institutions,” according to her official USC profile (2). Despite this wealth of knowledge of democracy bunched up among the top officials at USC, I think a closer analysis of USC will show that the idea of a general “power of the people”—from the Greek demos meaning people and Kratos meaning power—is scarce.

In order to understand—and be able to ultimately change—any institution, it’s necessary to look at the structures of governance, decision-making, and political power. In examining USC’s official policies and rules, I hope to show how USC’s governing structure is administered purely from the top down.

The Board of Trustees

USC’s Board of Trustees is a body that is rarely mentioned or discussed but whose influence at our school is vast. USC’s “University Governance” section within its SCampus booklet states that:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Trustees, acting through its officers, has both the right and responsibility to and hereby does affirm its final authority over the on-going institution, and nothing in the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities or any other policy pertaining to any subject promulgated by this board shall be construed as in any way abridging the basic powers, rights and responsibilities of this board” (3).

It appears USC is governed in an absolute manner from above, starting from the Board of Trustees, which “is a self-perpetuating body, electing one-fifth of its members each year for a five-year term of office” (6). The University Governance packet goes on for two and a half pages describing all the rights that students have, but as the excerpt claims, these rights can’t “abridge” what Board chooses to do.

I recommend every USC student look over the full list of the roughly 55 Trustees online to learn about who makes the final decisions at our school (4). They are nearly all CEOs or other executive officers of large corporations. The corporations represented include weapons manufacturers that have won billions in defense contracts from US wars abroad (Northrop Grumman), oil companies with atrocious human rights records (Occidental Petroleum), and banks that have helped devastate the global economy (Goldman Sachs) (see later articles in this guide for more in-depth articles on each of these and others). The make-up of the board and the history of its members makes it hard to imagine that it has much respect for human well-being and dignity when governing USC.

The President

In general though, the Board of Trustees is not the face of the university and very few students, faculty, or staff pay any attention to the Board or, sometimes, even know it exists. It’s really the university president and the administration that are the face of the USC and their institutional roles are thus: “The president is the chief administrative officer of USC. He or she carries out policies established by the trustees and, in doing so, has the power to delegate this authority to the officers of the university” (3). In so many words, the president is an adept middle-man that does and tells others to do what the trustees want.

Another point of similarity between for-profit corporate structure and many private universities is that the Board of Trustees often looks upon the head of the institution as deserving immense compensation for his or her work. In the latest statistics available, the USC Board of Trustees gave $1.9 million in total compensation in 2008 to then-president Steven Sample, making him perhaps the most highly paid University official in the country (the Washington Post article listed all the highest salaries and Sample’s was the higher than the rest), which by default probably means the highest-paid university official in the world (5). This might not be as much of a problem if there weren’t thousands of USC students struggling everyday to pay rent and tuition and USC workers weren’t struggling for livable wages.

Private universities are also integrated into the corporate sector not only by having a board composed of corporate executives, but the university presidents themselves also often serve on the board of directors at multi-million and -billion dollar corporations. In a New York Times piece titled “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” President Sample was one of the university executives singled out as being a particularly blatant example of corporation-university intertwining having served on the boards of 12 corporations over the last 30 years, 19 of which he was USC’s president (6). According to the NY Times, this dynamic has started to raise concerns:

Some analysts worry that academics are possibly imperiling or compromising the independence of their universities when they venture onto boards. Others question whether scholars have the time — and financial sophistication — needed to police the country’s biggest corporations while simultaneously juggling the demands of running a large university” (6).

As the article argues, university presidents have a lot of public prestige attached to them that can make a company look good when sitting on its board directors. The university president in turn gets a nice annual payment for doing what amounts to little work as a corporate board member.

And Nikias is not one to fall behind his predecessor’s corporate appeal and savvy. Recently on July 14th, current president Max Nikias was elected to sit on his first board of a large corporation, Synopsys, which chose him because he “will be valuable in helping us shape our corporate strategy for the benefit of our customers, investors, partners and employees” (7). Reflecting his apparent mindset in an interview given in earlier this year Nikias said, “we live in a business world” (8).

I can think of two broad conclusions that this evidence points two: 1) university presidents like Nikias and Sample are respected in the corporate world and chosen to sit on their boards because of the corporate-like nature of running a university and/or 2) these presidents are paid as a public relations ploy to make their company look respectable. In any case, this synergy between the for-profit corporate world and the university further blurs the lines that supposedly distinguish both (more on this below).

Student Government

If the president of our university has relatively limited power in the university, one can’t expect to find much meaningful decision-making influence in a lower-level body like the student government. USC’s “University Governance” section states that:

The Undergraduate Student Government and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate are the official representative student governments of the University of Southern California with power to make studies, reports and recommendations to the President of the university in any and all matters pertaining to the well-being of the student body. The role of the student government within the areas of its jurisdiction shall be reviewed by the university administration only through orderly procedures and channels” (3).

The student government can make studies and reports, but the most it can do in terms of having relevant influence on school policy is to make recommendations to the president. In the face of the trustee’s “final authority” and the president’s subservience to that end, the student government would seem poorly situated to give student voices meaningful and democratic weight in the running of the university.

Student Media

Ideally, the media acts as a sort of watchdog over the actions of sectors of power in society that gives ordinary people a probing perspective of what’s going on. On why this is not the case for the student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, at USC, see the article later in this guide titled “The Daily Trojan, Free Expression, and What It Means to Be a ‘Student’ Newspaper.”

Faculty Department Autonomy

Traditionally, faculty in higher education have had a significant amount of control over their departments at universities. The primary purpose this served was that it gave professors the academic freedom to study what they wanted and do research in areas of their choosing without fear of being reprimanded or fired by a university president with an opposing opinion. This was also seen as fair because the faculty themselves are in a much better position, professionally, to judge the academic work of candidates for jobs in their department than, say, a university administrator with no experience in that particular discipline.

At USC over the last decade and with alarming intensity over the last year, administrators have been systematically intruding on faculty department self-governance. In a number of cases, administration officials and the deans of colleges, who are not a part of the individual faculty departments, have been denying tenure to professors even after the faculty departments democratically voted to give them tenure. And perhaps most alarmingly, this has been happening overwhelmingly to women professors of color whose research could be perceived as politically against the grain.

For instance, this happened when last year the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity the Department of Religious Studies both recommended Prof. Jane Iwamura for tenure because of her outstanding contribution to these fields (9). The dean of the College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences then vetoed this recommendation and in doing so, robbed the faculty of their long-respected right to choose their professional colleagues.

Another part of this department autonomy has been democratic control over who the chair of their department. Last year, the Department of American Studies nominated Prof. Laura Pulido and Prof. Judith (Jack) Halberstam to chair the department. Again, the dean of the College denied both nominations, which constitutes a virtually unprecedented intrusion on the formerly robust self-determination of academic departments at USC.

As a consequence of these actions as well as general harassment of professors who are critical of the USC administration, many of USC’s most highly respected and most-loved professors are leaving for jobs at other universities. As professors spend their lives studying and teaching, doing so in a hostile environment can seriously inhibit their ability and duty to do their jobs well.

USC as a Non-Profit

Although technically USC is a non-profit, the policies it pursues and how it uses its money make it in many ways indistinguishable from a typical, large for-profit corporation. One advantage to this status is that USC is exempt from paying almost any taxes and therefore can accrue wealth at a faster rate (and give more money to its top administrators).

In many areas, USC seems to be acting identically to those notorious for-profit companies like Wal-Mart who seek to maximize profits for shareholders. For instance, USC’s actions against unions are particularly harsh. To mention one recent conflict (though the full history is long and troubling) in 2009, USC bought the USC University Hospital from the Tenet Corporation, a private, for profit company. Under their contract with Tenet, the union at the hospital had a generally workable relationship with the hospital administration. Despite being legally bound to respect the existing union contract upon purchase, after USC acquired the hospital, management and administration—with the hired help of The Weissman Group, an expensive union-busting consulting firm based in Ohio—waged an aggressive campaign to oust the union. USC engaged in illegal activities like firing workers without just cause because of their vocal support for the union and arresting union organizers without signing, and thus not taking legal responsibility for, necessary arrest forms. The healthcare workers’ initial excitement over being able to work for a famous school like USC quickly subsided as it became clear that the supposedly “not-for-profit” USC sought to vastly reduce union rights and subcontract their jobs to cheaper outside companies to cut costs.

A glance at USC’s Board of Trustees gives the impression that they collectively are very skilled at making profits for private corporations, but their credentials mostly have little to do with higher educational and non-profit institutions. It seems likely that such a board would act as its members are accustomed to act (to make money for shareholders), not in manner to which they are inexperienced and unqualified for (running a university to ensure quality education).


USC’s concentration of decision-making at the top and the resulting policies that disempower students, workers, and professors gives USC no incentive to be transparent. Likewise, how and where USC spends student tuition money is virtually unknowable beyond the extremely vague financial reports that are released each year and which consist of aggregates of general expenditures and revenues (10). Pertinent questions, like how much does USC spend on security? On executive and board member salaries? How much profit does USC make off of the mandatory freshman meal plan, where every breakfast, lunch, and dinner at EVK costs more than $10? Where does USC invest its $2.9 billion endowment? If it’s in oil companies, weapons manufactures, and hedge funds, like the companies whose CEOs sit on our board of trustees, is that cause for concern? These questions are central to understanding our role in our education as well as USC’s role in society at large. Yet no amount of asking USC officials or pouring over official USC documents will give more than hint as to where our money goes.

All of these factors coalesce to make USC a profoundly undemocratic place for students, faculty, and staff and an excessively democratic place for wealthy CEOs of private corporations who sit on our Board of Trustees. Although few major universities come close to a democratic ideal of higher education governance, USC, on all of the above-mentioned issues, ranks among the worst. As universities increase their enrollments, tuition, and global influence, it’s worth reflecting on what kinds of governments they most resemble as top-down structures. More importantly, it’s worth imagining what a democratic school could be like and working to realize it.

Sources Cited











Fight on for Darfur

August 28, 2011

We are USC’s chapter of STAND, the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network. While we were organized originally as a coalition to act against the conflict in Darfur, now our aim is to address and fight against all instances of genocide and mass violence through education, fundraising, and advocacy.

We believe that concrete action against such atrocities only happens once people become informed about what is actually occurring in conflict regions. To this end, we put on events each semester that feature movie documentaries and speakers such as environmental activists, journalists, and USC professors, who provide valuable insights into how to understand these conflicts and the history behind them.

Much of our efforts are also devoted towards raising funds to donate to relief efforts and to help raise public awareness on a larger scale. Each semester, we choose a nonprofit to receive the proceeds of fundraiser parties, donation jars, and other activities we put on, in the hope that our combined resources can do a little bit to help.

Finally, we will be focusing on advocacy in this coming fall semester. There have recently been efforts on other university campuses to encourage campuses to avoid purchasing conflict minerals, or to divest from companies that use conflict minerals. USC, with its large endowment, undoubtedly has some weight to throw around on this matter. We hope to encourage the student body to pressure the university administration to use its considerable influence in the right way.

To get involved, contact

Free Speech at USC

August 28, 2011

Below is a modified version of a petition circulated by the USC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine last spring regarding an unsettling run in with campus security (DPS) and the administration regarding free speech on campus. While signing the petition is no longer useful, it aptly illustrates the problems of free speech at USC.


Dear Michael L. Jackson and University of Southern California Administration,


We have two demands that are intended to benefit the university student body as a whole, not just members of Students for Justice in Palestine. We think both demands are reasonable and easily placable:


1. USC should start immediately to craft a specific and comprehensive policy of what is and what is not free speech on campus. Without such a policy, we are subject to the whims of individual DPS officers or university officials and can never be sure of our rights on campus.


2. We want an assurance from USC that DPS officers or university officials will not intimidate students again for exercising their constitutionally protected free speech.



As members and supporters of Students for Justice in Palestine, we have felt uncomfortable and unsettled by USC’s lack of a clear policy on free speech at the university. When some of us have been on campus exercising our right to free speech and our right to demonstrate, we have been repeatedly told what and where to do things but not according to any specific or concrete set of guidelines or policies.


On multiple occasions, DPS officers and administration officials have barked commands at us for what we strongly believe is our basic right. During one particularly disturbing episode, after our member Marwa Katbi refused to follow orders from DPS officers to move from where she was silently and peacefully holding up a sign, Michael L. Jackson, Vice President of Student Affairs, told her, “when somebody like me tells you to move, you move.” After she and other SJP members continued to insist on her right to protest peacefully, Jackson and DPS left the scene and did not return. Were SJP demonstrators right all along in what they deemed to be their right to free speech? If so, why were DPS officers and a USC official so insistent and disrespectful to them in the first place?


Having heightened our interest in free speech on campus, some of us attended the event “Campus Conversation: Free Speech” on March 8th, 2011 hosted by USC (1). We found, as did the resulting articles in the Daily Trojan (2) and on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education website (3), the event to be extremely insufficient at answering even the most basic questions regarding free speech on campus. During the Q & A after the presentation, speaker and member of USC’s Legal Counsel Steve Yamaguchi repeatedly prefaced each answer with “I can’t speak for the university, but my personal opinion is …” and would give responses that were vague and unhelpful. If students can’t find out about free speech on campus at a USC event explicitly about free speech, it would seem virtually impossible to ever learn concretely what our rights are.


In his article, The Misapplication of Peer Harassment Law on College and University Campuses and the Loss of Student Speech Rights, in The Journal for College and University Law, Azhar Majeed writes that “some colleges and universities have drafted and maintained harassment policies which by their very terms are constitutionally vague, overbroad, or both…. By targeting and punishing students for engaging in constitutionally protected speech, these institutions are ignoring the importance on a college or university campus of allowing for robust speech rights, rigorous debate and discussion, and the unfettered exchange of ideas.” Majeed continues: “Whether such misapplication [of harassment policies] is intentional and stems from a desire to remove certain expression from campus, or rather is the result of misunderstanding the law, the end result is that some administrators are interfering with students’ speech rights.” (4) Throughout the article, Majeed cites numerous examples where the misapplication of university harassment codes have resulted in repeated court rulings in favor of students’ rights and against universities for restricting free speech.


According to USC’s SCampus, “the University of Southern California is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated and for which all its members share responsibility.” We only wish that USC live up to its stated and legally obligated policy to protect free speech on campus in a clear and uniform way.


We look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.



The Undersigned






(4) Majeed, Azhar. The Misapplication of Peer Harassment Law on College and University Campuses and the Loss of Student Speech Rights. The Journal for College and University Law. May 7, 2009.