Towards a Teacher-Owned, Decentralized University

Pop-up classrooms, no administrators, and full teacher-ownership

A humanities workshop being held in a Berkeley home as part of Villagecraft. (photo by author)

It is time for a new model of university: one that is cooperatively owned by its workers and decentralized. This university would be committed to social, economic, and environmental justice, with a curriculum that gives students practical experience remaking the world.

Decentralized education is both a plausible and preferable, as I learned during during my time with Villagecraft, a decentralized education network I co-facilitated in the San Francisco Bay Area from 2013–15.

Learning from the Villagecraft Model

For Villagecraft, we used bespoke communications software to coordinate a decentralized network of educational activities happening throughout the Bay Area. At its height, Villagecraft grew to include over 50 educators, 30 spaces, and 1500 students, with dozens of educational events happening each month.

All Villagecraft activities happened in-person, and the software was used only to support the occurrence of in-person events. These activities often took place in non-traditional venues like homes, backyards, small businesses, and activist spaces. A majority of the events were free or low-cost, thanks in part to the reduction in overhead from using these non-traditional venues.

A diagram of the Villagecraft model. “Hosts” are instructors. “Attendees” are students. “Spacekeepers” are people with access to a venue. And “Community Builders” are network facilitators. This image is missing a vital player: the software engineers who created the bespoke communications software tailored to the needs of this type of community-building.

There were three network facilitators of Villagecraft, myself included, and it was our duty was to coordinate between instructors, venues, and attendees to make sure the educational events came together. We also actively scouted for new educators and helped them prepare for, publicize, and coordinate their events. We likewise built alliances with “spacekeepers,” or people who were willing to let us use a venue they controlled, and we worked hard to make sure the events we brought their way were a good match for their space’s mission and their taste. Villagecraft facilitators weren’t leaders, but rather we were supporters: we were building and nurturing the infrastructure of a decentralized network.

A villagecraft event being held after hours at a cafe in South Berkeley in 2014. (photo by author)

Soon enough, homeowners and renters were opening their living rooms and backyards for things like poetry workshops and tailoring skillshares. Cafe owners were letting us into their businesses after hours for storytelling nights and art-making marathons. The organizers of ecovillages and hacker spaces were letting us bring in sustainable farming teach-ins and comic book writing meet-ups. Within a few months, we had been trusted with the keys to nearly a dozen spaces in the region.

The Villagecraft ethos was very much about craft, and the bulk of the activities we helped organize were hands-on skillshares, but we also sometimes helped coordinate literary events, environmental and social justice organizing, and workshops on health and well-being.

A screenshot of the Villagecraft website in 2014.

As part of the Villagecraft software, we developed a website that allowed instructors to create “sign up only” events, meaning students had to RSVP in order to attend, allowing instructors to get a roster for each event.

We also built a series of carefully crafted auto-reminders and text-message alerts that students would receive leading up to a workshop. We found that these auto-reminders significantly reduced the “flake factor” and increased the rate of sign-ups who showed up.

A Villagecraft fire-starting workshop in 2014. (photo by author)

As facilitators, one of the roles we played was helping educators build Villagecraft-style curriculum, making sure that their activities centered making and hands-on experience, and also that instructors provided lots of chances for participants to interact with each other. We also meticulously curated any pre-existing events that we added to the online calendar to make sure these “external events” were good matches for the community we were building.

People began to know what to expect from a Villagecraft event, and many folks became Villagecraft regulars, showing up for workshops in subjects as far-ranging as shoemaking, poetry writing, yoga and parkour. Soon, you could count on seeing familiar faces at Villagecraft craft events, and newcomers were enthusiastically welcomed into what had become a community.

Spacekeepers were excited about the energy that Villagecraft events brought to their venues, and educators enjoyed the benefits of making connections with an enthusiastic community of lifelong learners. One workshop often led to another, as people dynamically inspired each other to share their skills and offer a Villagecraft workshop of their own.

A zine-making workshop being held after hours at a cafe in Berkeley in 2014. (photo by author)

It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when a group of regulars turns into a community. This seemed to happen naturally with Villagecraft, but in reality there was a great deal of organizer thought and planning put into developing tools and best practices that laid the groundwork to allow a decentralized community to “naturally” arise.

It is a lot like mushroom plugging. You drill the holes in your log, put the spores in, seal things up and wait. The rest happens effortlessly, thanks to natural processes that the mushrooms are able to do on their own once the right conditions are in place.

Our goal with Villagecraft was to set up the right conditions to make participating in community as effortless as watching TV. As a media form, Villagecraft presented an alternative to the toxic, isolating psudo-communities produced by social media. We were building the support structures for a radical new type of lifestyle, for a type of routine that allowed people to easily, casually spend their afternoons and evenings doing things in seemingly random physical spaces with totally new people. In terms of what kind of media form Villagecraft was, perhaps it might best be thought of as a nonfiction ARG.

Villagecraft was a recipe for holding community together, and what we saw was a village emerge within the grid. Ours was a village of educators and lifelong learners, justice workers and healers. There were no leaders, only people playing different roles to keep the spirit of what we were doing alive through practice.

A Villagecraft sewing workshop in 2015. (photo by author)

What the Academy can Learn from Villagecraft

The more I worked as a Villagecraft facilitator, the more I began to think we had struck upon a model that could be adopted amazingly by the academy. Several academics who were part of the Villagecraft community agreed, and we soon began having conversations about what that might look like.

Based on these conversations, in summer of 2015 I wrote a call-to-action to create a decentralized university that would utilize many of Villagecraft’s logistical tactics, while also incorporating strategies and values from the Villagecraft community such as worker ownership, social and environmental justice, craft-based education, and post-hierarchal decision-making.

A Villagecraft mushroom plugging workshop in Oakland. (photo by author)

I shared the call-to-action with dozens of email lists and on social media platforms, and was amazed by the outpouring of enthusiastic response. Academics and activists from across the country began contacting me, excited about this new model.

Many of those who contacted me expressed how they had grown discouraged with the current state of the university. They were upset about things like ever-increasing tuition costs (due in large part to a bloat of administrators), the disempowerment of academic workers, particularly adjunct professors, documented cases of corruption within university leadership, and university privatization that had led to the encroach of multinational corporations into university departments and programs, such as the encroachment of BP Oil upon the UC Berkeley campus and Monsanto at Harvard and UC Davis. Folks also expressed concern over institutional racism and sexism, and were generally upset about the way higher education replicates social inequity and ecocide.

Among those who responded, there was a lot of excitement about the idea of building a new model of university that would go beyond merely protesting these things, but rather would factor them out through good design.

Soon, a core group of educators and activists began meeting at an urban ecovillage in Oakland to build a vision for this new model of university that would be teacher-owned, decentralized and grounded in social, economic, and environmental care. Below are a few notes summarizing visions discussed during and between these meetings.

Decentralization & the Pop-up Classroom

Perhaps the most important feature of this re-imagining of the university is that it should be decentralized. This means letting go of the real estate fetish that has caused universities to exist in single, centralized locations often isolated from the greater community.

A South Berkeley cafe becomes a classroom as part of a Villagecraft event. (photo by author)

Instead of holding real estate, this university would follow the Villagecraft model and offer courses in coffee shops, community centers, homes, hacker spaces, and open laboratories spread throughout a region. I’ve seen with my own eyes how effective this model can be in creating a focused, energetic atmosphere for teaching and learning.

What we’re talking about is the rise of the “pop-up classroom,” a type of classroom that can exist anywhere, bringing academia into new and unexpected places. We draw inspiration from the great salons of Paris and from ancient thinkers like Cicero and Socrates who offered lively lectures and seminars in public places and out of doors.

By discarding the idea that the university needs a campus, we can drastically reduce the overhead cost of obtaining, running, and developing real estate, while allowing higher education to spread out through a region, better reaching marginalized neighborhoods and building a firmer connection between academics and the community.

Additionally, hosting university classes may become a way to bring financial support to selected community spaces, meaning the decentralized university may become a new way to fortify and stabilize spaces that are held in common.

Ditching the Administration: Tactical Prototypes

As many academics are aware, a bloat of a certain type of administrator has increased the cost of attending universities, while likewise, these types of administrators impose an unnecessary hierarchy upon academic affairs. The work of many academic administrators could be eliminated by good software, best practices, ands elf-organization on the part of teachers and alliances with other worker co-ops.

Below are a few ideas towards developing tactics to eliminate different types of administrators in the effort to sublimate and replace their roles.

Guerrilla farmers overtaking unused university-held farmland land to grow food as part of Occupy the Farm in 2013. (photo by Brooke Porter)

Replacing Executive Administrators

As for eliminating high-level administrative roles like university president and chancellor, all such hierarchy would be removed and replaced with post-hierarchical decision-making structures such as consensus process, with each university department becoming its own autonomous collective.

Some practical inspirations for how this university-wide self-governance process could function while maintaining departmental autonomy/integrity are the multi-tiered decision-making structures used by the Mondragon Cooperative Federation in Spain, and by Omni Commons, a collective of collectives in Oakland.

Following these models, each university department would be it’s own autonomous collective within the university-wide cooperative. Departments would hold collective meetings to make decisions via consensus, and there would be university-wide decision-making meetings pertaining to changes in the structure and/or operations of the overall university. The academy-wide meetings would have no power over the departments, but rather would be a way to coordinate decision-making between them.

Every academy-wide decision would require full consensus from all departments, which would require full or modified consensus from their members. Departments may choose to refine their decision-making process on a department-to-department basis as long as as they remain within the structure of democratic management. These decision-making structures may ultimately incorporate tactics like topic-specific liquid-democracy proxy voting and/or consensus decision-making software like Loomio. These tools would need to be used with caution, however, and be carefully evaluated for their effectiveness in upholding post-hierarchal praxis.

The annual general meeting of the worker-owners of allied Arizmendi cooperative bakeries in the Bay Area, 2014 (photo by Myleen Hollero)

The academy-wide meetings would be attended by Department Liaisons who would relay propositions back to their department’s collective, which would then make a consensus decision that the liaison would relay back to the academy-wide group, which would not be able to move forward on a proposition until all departments provide either consent or an agree to stand aside. University-wide meetings would also be treated as an opportunity for folks to meet, mingle, and build community between departments, with breaks and refreshments built in.

The Department Liaison to the University would be selected or randomly chosen each year (somewhat like a Department Chair), and would be expected to stay abreast of all university-wide meeting items in order to fulfill the duties of their role. Additional members of a department may choose to attend a university-wide meeting at any time they wish, whether or not they are that year’s designated liaison, so that they may socialize, partake in discussions, or present proposals that their department has selected them to present.

Additionally, the craft-based and farming educators who facilitate the certification programs offered by the Tracks (see below) will need to be incorporated into the decision-making process to ensure they are properly represented as worker-owners. Careful thought will need to be put into how to best incorporate worker-owners within the guilds into the overall decision-making process without forcing them to waste their time on meeting topics that don’t pertain to their work such as accreditation, ranking, and other exclusively academic concerns.

A student of shoemaking in Berkeley in 2014. (photo by author)

The craft collectives will likely follow a guild model rather than an academic department model, and much of the content of their decision-making meetings will relate to maintaining their certification capabilities unique to their craft or farming technique. There will likely need to be regular guild-wide meetings similar to the academy-wide meetings, allowing the guilds coordinate their consensus in making decisions relevant to them.

Perhaps decisions that pertain to both the academic collectives and the guilds, such as finances and general logistics, would only occur once a month or quarterly, at which times the academy-wide and guild-wide meetings would merge in a “university-wide” meeting. So, “university-wide” would refer both to the academic collectives and the guilds, representing a coalition between technê and epistêmê, repairing an institutional rift as old as Plato.

Replacing Departmental Administrators

Some ideas for how to divvy up the roles played by departmental administrators:

— Students could provide work-trade to offset their tuition costs by helping professors prepare for and publicize their courses. These tasks may include printing and picking up course readers, publicizing courses on social media and news outlets, and various odds and ends.

— Bespoke software would take care of course scheduling, displaying course offerings, keeping track of rosters and grades, and cataloging private departmental records, syllabuses and other data. Teachers and students would be prompted by the software to easily enter the necessary values, and the software would do the work to properly generate, distribute, and catalogue materials. As we learned with Villagecraft, this can be done in a way to significantly reduce certain types of labor.

— Another important role is booking venues to ensure that spaces are lined up to hold classes. Perhaps someone from each department would be selected each year (much like being a Department Chair) to become the Community Liaison, and would work to build and maintain alliances with community spaces where the department’s courses could be held. Whenever possible, community spaces would be selected that are aligned with the values of the Teacher-Owned U. This means selecting spaces that are collectively owned and operated, related to the department’s discipline, and/or that facilitate environmental and social justice organizing. Likewise, in regions lacking such spaces, a Teacher-Owned U may take part in helping organize them. Depending on the department’s proposed use of the space, strong financial alliances may need to be in order. This may mean that members of the department would become a member of a community space, and/or the department’s community liaison would attend the space’s meetings. The goal is to build an expansive reciprocity between the communities that offer spaces and the academy.

Admissions Administrators

One tactic to eliminate the role of admissions officers would be for all students to start out as auditors. So, lower-devision courses would have a large number of slots available for non-enrolled students. After a student has completed perhaps five lower-devision courses, that student then has the opportunity to apply for admission. Their former instructors would engage in a brief decision-making process supported by the software, and decide whether the student could be admitted at that time. Our software would make it easy for professors to evaluate the student by giving fast access to things like the student’s attendance records, coursework, SAT scores, and evaluative notes that the professors will have been prompted to write regarding the student’s performance in the classroom.

A worker-owner meeting of the Alchemy Cafe Worker Co-op in Berkeley in 2014 (photo by author)

Contracting with worker coops

Additional administrative roles may be replaced using various tactics, including building relationships with other worker cooperatives such as janitorial cooperatives, media and publicity cooperatives, etc. We may also contract with freelance grant writers and fundraisers.

Additionally, the development of the university’s software will require an strong relationship with a software engineering cooperative that matches the university’s values.

Finances

An initial steering committee would work to refine a financial plan. Questions for them to discuss would include:

— Would teachers be paid based on a profit-sharing model in which their share increases with each year that they are part of the co-op? Or would there need to be different models at play as well to allow for competitive salaries?

— All professors and teachers would need to have access to the full budget and spending records to allow them to make informed decisions as owners, but to what degree should an open financial model be used? Should the use of all funds also be visible to enrolled students, allied community members, and other stakeholders?

Worker-owners from the finance committees of different co-op bakeries meet to share tactics at the annual Arizmendi coalition-wide meeting in 2014. (photo by Myleen Hollero)

— Since admitting a new professor to a department would mean admitting a new worker-owner to the university-wide co-op, a university-wide hiring policy would need to be established. In that regard, it will be important to ask: what type of probationary measures would exist? What will be expected of a professor between the time they are hired and the time they are offered a worker-ownership share? Likewise, how do we ensure that we are properly staffed without relying on exploitative adjunct practices? Similar questions should be addressed in regard to teachers brought in for the craft and farming tracks.

— Likewise, how can departmental budgets be properly allocated to fit the needs of a discipline? And how can budgetary decision-making be refined and streamlined without robbing any teacher-owners of their decision-making power?

— Could a consumer coop model also be integrated to allow students to buy shares and gain decision-making power as well as profit-sharing? Perhaps each student would need to buy a share in the university upon admission, allowing them to be invested during their time of attendance. How many shares would be available to students if this model were employed? Likewise, should they be allied to retain their shares as alumni, and perhaps even buy more? If so, how could this occur while preserving do-ocratic values and ensuring that those who use the academy are the ones who control it?

— How would these models play out in the permaculture and craftsperson guilds that would be responsible for bestowing certification as part of the Craft Track and the Ecology & Agriculture Track?

A group gathers for a permaculture training session at an ecovillage in Oakland, 2014. (photo by author)

The ownership model will need to address the differences between the academic department collectives and the guild collectives, and likewise allow ownership and decision-making to be intertwined. To address this, perhaps all worker-owners would get two types of ownership shares: one in the overall university and one in just the lobe in which they work (academic or guild). So, perhaps, for each year you work, you gain additional ownership shares of the overall university and also shares in your lobe. Additionally, in the interest of developing the autonomy of departments and guilds, perhaps workers would also receive ownership shares of the individual’s department or guild as well, so an English teacher would receive an ownership share of the English Department for each year they work (as well as shares of the academy lobe and the university), and a welding instructor would likewise receive a share of the Welding Instructor’s Guild annually (as well as shares of the guild lobe and the university). Or should shares only be offered on a by-guild or by-department basis? Which is to say: to what degree should the benefits and risks of ownership be pooled between departments & guilds, and to what degree should departments & guilds be thought of as individual self-governing agents? No matter how strong our ideology is, the actual mechanics of our decision-making structure will ultimately be determined by the parsing of ownership shares. A great model for further study, as the the financial logistics are parsed, is the cooperatively owned Mondragon University in Spain.

A backyard classroom in leatherwork. Villagecraft, 2013.

Specialized Curriculum: Tracks

Tracks would allow students to graduate with a specialization. This likely would mean a five-year education rather than four years, and students would interweave the pursuit of their track with their regular courses.

Building the New Economy: Cooperative Business Track

For this track, students would study different economic forms, and also engage in a practicum in their final year. Readings would include seminal works on political-economy, collective economics, and critical theory. For their practicum, either they could become a member of an existing worker co-op, or start a new worker co-op with a group of other students. For the latter option, the group would engage in a worker-coop incubator course similar to the SELC Worker Co-op Academy.

A Villagecraft show-making workshop led by a journeyman cobbler in 2013. (photo by author)

The Revival of American Craft: Craft Track

Craft is a localized mode of producing goods that empowers workers and often reduces the environmental impact of an industry. Interweaving craft with academic work offers students a break from abstract work, and it allows them to acquire an additional practical income source or, at the very least, a lifelong hobby. Neuroscience has recently shown that craft is good for your brain and it may even strengthen broca’s area — so engaging in a craft discipline may actually help students with their academics!

Students who follow the Craft Track would graduate as a journeyman in their chosen craft. Crafts might include, but aren’t limited to welding, shoe-making, culinary arts, lapidary work, tailoring, book-making, carpentry, woodworking, and luthiery.

Caring for the Planet: Ecology & Agriculture Track

For this track, students would spend time in the classroom and the field studying ecological processes and sustainable food production. Their work would include specialized training in habitat preservation and sustainable agriculture techniques, as well as classroom readings in ecoliteracy and food justice. This track would allow students to graduate with at least two Permaculture Certifications preparing them to engage in sustainable food production.

A sustainable gardening skillshare as part of Oakland Spring Rising in 2015.

Specialized Curriculum: Required Courses

Economics & the Ecology (first year)

All newly admitted students would be required to take a course in which they learn about the intricate connections between economic practices and the ecology. This course will include a unit on consent, as the logic of consent violation is the foundation for many types of interpersonal and ecological abuse, and consent is also at the foundation of consensus process and cooperative decision-making. Additionally, during this course students will choose an allied social movement or social organization to become involved with for the duration of their course of study. This course will also include hands-on activities that expose students to worker-ownership, sustainable farming practices, and craft to prepare them to choose their track.

Historical & Contemporary Social Movements (year 3)

This course would happen midway through the degree, and would merge lectures about historical social movements with practical engagement in the contemporary movement that the student chose in their first year, with a final project and presentation in which the student would discuss the movement or organization they became involved with, reflecting upon and sharing their experience and discussing the movement’s historical roots. Members of the movement the student has been working with will be encouraged to attend and participate in their presentation.

The Oakland General Strike, Nov 2, 2011 (photo by author)

Culmination Course (final semester)

This course would provide an opportunity to reflect upon skills and knowledge gained throughout the student’s education, while likewise preparing them to offer their skills to the greater community. Each Culmination Course will include no more than 12 students from all three tracks who will present their work to each other, and each student will orchestrate an appropriate public skillshare or tour in the subject of their track.

Designing for Diversity, Safety & Accessibility

A basic tenet of our university will be to employ and constantly re-evaluate strategies to ensure that our institution is accessible to students of many backgrounds and walks of life. This will include implementing and expanding upon strategies currently used in many institutions and activist communities that have been shown to boost the enrollment and retention of minorities, and that contribute to the sense of safety and autonomy of people of marginalized groups.

Many communities of color are sorely underserved by the academy in its present state. Thanks to our university’s model of decentralization, we may employ and develop dynamic tactics to recruit and serve students of color. This may include recruitment tactics that strategically address these communities such as working with appropriate spiritual and movement leaders and organizations as part of focused outreach campaigns, and likewise holding courses in spaces that are frequented by and oriented towards people of color. This will mean learning from and listening to community members, while employing and expanding upon existing policies that incentivize maintaining a satisfactory ratio of people from diverse ethnic, cultural, and geographic backgrounds.

A medicine wheel at the Creating Commons Festival in Oakland, 2014 (photo by Benji Friedman)

To make attendance easy and accessible for parents, one goal is to build childcare into the structure of the university, guaranteeing that students who are parents will not be burdened by access to or cost of childcare. This could include providing vouchers to pay for babysitters, or hiring childcare professionals to host pop-up daycare hours in a room adjacent to a room where a course is being taught. The burden of childcare should not be on parents, but rather funded by the university as part of our collective efforts to keep parents as a dynamic and vibrant part of our educational community.

Disability accessibility is also a must, with venues needing to meet ADA standards, to be fragrance-free and, and the degree possible, allergen-free. The software will prompt students to list disability requirements, requests, and accommodations, allowing efforts to be made to accommodate them whenever possible to ensure that folks with disabilities remain a vital part of our classrooms.

It is important that we acknowledge and anticipate that acts of sexual violence will happen within our community, as all of us are exposed to a pervasive culture that has long conditioned people to disregard the sexual autonomy of others. Because of this reality, it will be vital to develop and implement a strong institutional policy anticipating sexual harassment and violence, a policy that far surpasses Title 9 in order to ensure, to the degree possible, that the victims of sexual violence are believed and are not exposed to their perpetrators. A similar policy will need to be developed for violence in general, and also a victim-centered restorative justice process will need to be developed and applied in instances in which the victim explicitly requests reparations. Additionally, in the spirit of preventative care, a consent training will be provided within the required with the first-year Economics & the Ecology course.

Worker-owners from the conflict resolution committees of different worker co-ops meet to share tactics at the annual Arizmendi coalition-wide meeting in 2014. (photo by Myleen Hollero)

Whenever possible, restorative justice models of conflict resolution will be employed so to build community accountability and trust. Efforts will be taken to avoid the socially damaging model of punitive discipline found in pervasive society by creating an implementing community-based models of resolving conflict.

Cost of Attendance

Cost of attendance would be greatly reduced compared to standard universities thanks to the elimination of administrators and real estate. Additionally, to ensure that everyone has access, one possibility is to offer tuition at a sliding scale based on a student’s income & holdings. Also, each course may have a required number of no-cost slots that low-income people could apply for.

Students would also need to pay minimal student fees to cover things like venue use, childcare, and course materials. Perhaps low-income students could apply for wavers or scholarships to cover the cost of their fees.

A sustainable gardening skillshare as part of Oakland Spring Rising in 2015.

Additionally, housing will be a key topic. Currently around 10% of California State University’s students are homeless, and many university students nation-wide experience food and housing precarity while in school. It will be vital to develop dynamic strategies that go beyond the overpriced, privatized dorms favored by centralized universities. One likely strategy would be the creation and support of housing cooperatives for enrolled students.

Making this Vision a Reality

A small group of Bay Area activists and educators (many of whom had been involved in Villagecraft) met a few times in 2015 to discuss the vision that is laid out above. This vision could be adopted by any group, and the energy to make a project like this happen has never been so high!

One step at a time, we, collectively are moving towards a new type of university that better empowers teachers, serves students, and helps make the world into a better place for all of its inhabitants.

Advanced Research Affiliate with the Humanities & Critical Code Studies Lab at USC | MFA in Creative Writing, Portland State University