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Ethical Elisions: Unsettling the Racial-Colonial Entanglements of U.S. Higher Education

  • Author(s): Sabati, Sheeva
  • Advisor(s): Glass, Ronald D
  • et al.
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This dissertation tracks the production of narratives that frame U.S. universities as ethical institutions. It argues that such narratives –in popular imaginaries and scholarly discourse– rely on elisions of the racial-colonial entanglements of higher education. In linguistics, elision refers to the deletion or omission of sound, explaining historical shifts in a language deemed ordinary to “native” speakers. Conceptually then, each chapter of Ethical Elisions considers the erasures of racial-colonial violence that actively produce commonsense ideas of universities as ethical institutions.

To develop this inquiry, this study examines “the university” at various analytical scales and historical periods: the formation of a world-renowned public Land Grant university system, the University of California, in the mid/late 19th century (Chapter 1); the institutionalization of research ethics itself in the 1970s and its 2018 federal policy revisions (Chapter 2); as well as contemporary campus initiatives to address the racial-colonial histories of specific colleges and universities (Chapter 3). Specifically, Manifest Destiny as the Ethical University: The Coloniality of the UC analyzes speeches and essays of founding UC Berkeley leaders and faculty, which envision knowledge production as a rational mechanism to extend U.S. imperialism into the Pacific. This chapter argues that claims to Manifest Destiny legitimized the development of the state’s nascent system of public higher education, relying on the accelerated context of racialized violence in the fledgling state of California. The second chapter, Research Ethics as the Ethical University: Upholding ‘Colonial Unknowing’ through the IRB takes as its object of study the origin stories surrounding the institutionalization of research ethics policy. It argues that institutional review boards (IRBs) are narrated as a response to cases of exceptional racialized violence, most notably the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, within an otherwise neutral history of research and as such, participate in the active unknowing of the racial-colonial entanglements of research. Acknowledging Racial-Colonial Histories as the Ethical University: The Limits of Retrospective Gestures surveys the forms of institutional acknowledgment of campus colonial histories, considering how historical violences are (un)named or narrated through these processes, and how universities recuperate themselves through forms of acknowledgment. The Afterword considers the limits of knowledge production to rupture frames of liberal justice and touches on the affective dimensions of engaging in a decolonial praxis within, against, and beyond the university.

Methodologically, this work draws from anti-colonial feminisms, settler colonial studies, as well as critical ethnic studies scholars who situate how knowledge production and universities themselves are not merely complicit, but formative in cohering processes of racialized capitalism in the United States. This dissertation also contributes to scholarship within the emergent field of Critical University Studies by moving against liberal imaginaries that recuperate (public) higher education as inherently good or ethical.

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This item is under embargo until July 15, 2021.