The Free You-niversity: Making Education Public (Again)

By Danica Savonick

Sometimes, when you are so caught up in something and so much a part of it that you experience tunnel vision, it becomes nearly impossible to see the thing in its totality, from the outside.  In such cases, it may be best to step back and let the thing speak for itself.  Such is my experience of the Free University, and so in addition to my observations as a witness to and participant in the project, I hope to give abundant space to the voices and the people power that supported, constituted, and tirelessly re-envisioned this experiment in radical horizontal education that took Madison Square Park by storm (literally—during a thunderstorm and under a tornado watch) from September 18-22.

Materially, the Free University consisted of three pushcarts overflowing with fold-up tables, easels, banners, whiteboards, markers, flyers, schedules, fake flowers, the occasional baked good, and a bag full of tricolored kazoos.  Notably absent were expensive textbooks, fancy equipment, and of course, tuition fees, evidence of the Free University’s deliberate disavowal of a system in which “a university education is systematically becoming a rarefied commodity only available to the few.”  And yet, despite its lack of endowments, oversight, and board of trustees the Free University was able to hold more than 160 classes (and a Really, Really Free Market) that included, among many others, “Hydrofracking and Why it Matters,” yoga, “Feminist Theory,” “1930s Labor Movements,” “Perceiving the City,” and “Fermenting Dissent: Sauerkraut & Quick Pickling.”

The Free University, which hosted its first mega event on May Day in solidarity with the general strike that day, defines itself as “an experiment in radical education and an attempt to create education as it ought to be.”  It is a theory in practice, in which participants are encouraged to shape both the content and form of their education.  Although part of their strategy involves critique of current education practices, the project stands out for its generative power: its creativity and production of education beyond the already established institutions and structures.  The core principles, all of which can be found on the Free University website (, include cooperation, redefining education, a commitment to direct democracy, opposition to injustices, and withdrawing from what organizers see as the “failed capitalist system.”  This most recent event, Free University Week, was strategically planned to begin the day after the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street in order to build upon the momentum generated by S17.

The formula was simple: provide minimal structure and organization beforehand, show up in the park each day, and see what happens.  Unassuming as it was, it deliberately left room for the unexpected and whatever happened to emerge from the felicitous encounters that can only occur when people gather together in spatial proximity.  According to GC student and member of the Free University planning team Zoltán Glück, the idea of a free university grew from the desire to get students and teachers to take to the streets along with other May Day protesters, in a manner that circumvented the restrictive protest laws against teachers. “A bunch of us thought that we could do something wherein they could express solidarity by moving their classes out to the park,” said Glück.  And we thought, hey why don’t we also use this as a movement-building tactic and get other types of community organizations and Occupy groups to participate.” 

Though the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, things did not go off without a hitch.  A week before Free University was scheduled to begin organizers received an email with an urgent subject line that began by asking “Are you sitting down?”  When word got out that President Barack Obama would be hosting a fundraiser on the opening day of the university just one block away from the park, an emergency meeting was held to address the situation (which ultimately had little effect on the university’s operation).  Additionally, participants were repeatedly asked by park staff to move their information table and to have some of their classes disperse since “groups of more than twenty people need a permit to be in the park.”  Despite the students and educators refusal to disperse, the park staff remained generally cooperative throughout the week and became less strict as Free University progressed.

When asked how the most recent Free University compared to May Day’s initial effort, GC student Maggie Galvan reported, “It’s a different experience than May 1. A lot of people were here for May Day and the park was packed; this week has been more of what I like to call ‘slow burn’: it builds throughout the week.” The weeklong model concluded each night with a General Assembly that provided a forum for people’s concerns and input on how the university should be running, so that each day changes were implemented.  Ivonka from Occupy Philadelphia was impressed that the day after someone suggested live tweeters for classes (to incorporate technology and make knowledge accessible to those who couldn’t get to the park) they appeared in many of the classes. “Any suggestions we’ve given have immediately been taken up,” she applauded.  Three working groups met each evening during the assemblies around issues of student unionism, CUNY Pathways, and the future of Free University.  These working groups were an exercise in praxis and a space for sustained conversations of issues that came up throughout the week.  Among university organizers, a commitment to intentionality was a high priority. A community statement of intention was drafted as a way of deliberately highlighting the need for anti-oppression in education and to get participants thinking about ways of creating such an environment in a shared public space.  A notable addition to the Free University Week was the Comfort/Art/Rest/Energy (CARE) station, which met each afternoon to envision how the community could share the space together, making it safe and comfortable.  Highlights included collaborating with a children’s birthday party in the park and the unexpected arrival of a tower of pizzas.

According to SUNY graduate student Gregory Rosenthal, it was the people that gathered each day, including student protest leaders from Puerto Rico and Quebec, that made Free University a success. “It has allowed for lines of communication between people—students, debtors, teachers, Occupiers, folks who can’t afford to go to school but want to be part of that learning community. It has made a space for all those people to come together and talk.”  Though there was a diverse range of conversation topics, education was a priority on many people’s agendas.  Veterans For Peace activist Bob Carpenter was outraged at how much it costs to get a college education these days: “It’s criminal,” he said. “Period . . . The politicians in America, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, they talk about the right to go to college and they want everybody to go to college, well yeah but not everyone can get in debt $250,000 so the system is just no good.”  Against background cries of “Mic Check!” and “if you can hear my voice clap twice,” John Jay undergraduate Maria was able to have her voice heard. “Everybody gets along and there’s a togetherness. Everybody is here for the same reasons, to try to make education accessible to everyone, and each person has their own experience with it.”

When asked what it meant to have education outside in a public space, Maggie Galvan and I seemed to be of the shared opinion that it grounds you in reality and makes education a part of life, rather than isolated from it as is often the case when walled up in a classroom with no windows. “You’ll be sitting in the class and a little squirrel comes by and its sort of distracting but I feel like those sorts of distractions … are actually really productive because they break down the programmatic nature that education often becomes.”  Such an experience of outdoor learning would not have been possible without Galvan, one of the unsung heroes of Free University who worked extensively on the project’s website.  Integral to outreach, planning, and implementation, the university’s strong virtual presence included a website with interactive park maps, a Facebook page, a Flickr account, and a Twitter handle.

Though Free University has hosted intellectual and literary celebrities such as David Harvey, Rebecca Solnit, and David Graeber, it was often the smaller discussions that people raved about, like those led by Marimer Berberena, a student protest organizer from Puerto Rico.  Indeed, for many participants, a highlight of the Free University was the international perspective offered throughout the week by student protest organizers from other parts of the world.  Philippe Lapointe, former executive committee member of CLASSE (the student organization behind the successful Quebec strikes) conveyed the importance of different student movements learning from one another. “Even though we may have different realities and experiences, neoliberalism is a mondial [worldwide] threat, and as we are world citizens and all students threatened by the same forces of capitalist oppression we need to share our experience and we need to have some victories and some points to refer to and be able to draw the energy of other movements.”  Especially interested in the idea of a New York City-wide student union that would maximize the collective organizing power of a city full of students, Lapointe offered some inspiration. “They won in Quebec, they won in Puerto Rico, they won in Chile too . . . something can be done.”

There was also significant enthusiasm for courses that took a holistic approach to education by addressing students’ emotional wellbeing and desire for bodily movement through classes on salsa dancing and capoeira.  New School student Aaron Jaffe was especially impressed by the classes he attended on “The Economic Crisis in Basic Language” and “The Meaning of History” which gave him “a new understanding of how I think about my own history and how I construct it.” In going over my notes from the classes I attended at the Free University, they appear full of thought-provoking questions: “how can we think of revolutionary time as pulling the emergency break on a train?”; “how does nostalgia for what never was (America, citizenship) get tied into politics and how do we move beyond this?” and “what could be potential new meanings for debt and indebtedness/what could debt possibly have to do with love?”  These types of questions exemplify the culture of critical inquiry established at the university, which utilized its non-institutional position to challenge students to think in new ways.  The breadth of classes offered would not have been possible without the myriad groups who collaborated with the university. These included Strike Debt (which hosted teach-ins every day), Occupy Wall Street University, and Horizontal Pedagogy, among many others.  Teachers and professors from across the city showed their support for the movement by holding their regularly scheduled classes in the park.  An effort was also made to reach out to community organizations like Take Back the Land and the Center for Secular Space, both of which held workshops during the week.  Graduate Center organizations like the GC CUNY Poetics group and the Marx Reading Group: Capital Volume 1 also participated, and a GC General Assembly was held at the Free University.

As a new participant and organizer of Free University, this project provided me with a much-needed creative outlet and a way to move beyond all the social and critical theory I had studied as an undergraduate.  It now seems clear to me that being an academic is only one half of the equation, and that after this experience my future career will always include a component of activism as a way of materializing the insight generated in the classroom.  Being at the Free University was intoxicating, even during profoundly sobering discussions of debt, poverty, and climate change, because of the sense that everyone involved was in it for the long haul, not afraid to get their hands dirty, and eager to work together for real change over time.  We often discussed metrics, and how we could measure our success, and it seemed to be a general consensus that we needed to proceed by treating things like the Free University as small victories on the path towards less oppression, more equality, and truly public education.

In light of the contagious optimism, vitality, and enthusiasm that took over Madison Square Park during a beautiful week in mid-September, a question lingered in the backs of people’s minds regarding the future of Free University.  This question was brought up in a breakout group at the evenings’ General Assemblies, with everyone proffering visions for the future that ranged from institutionalization and accreditation to a less structured, improvised, and borough-traversing gathering of people interested in education.  Free University participant Qween hopes “that it would expand, meeting weekly in the park” while Galvan remains interested in the university’s digital potential, in “building the digital out and developing it as a space for collaboration that is happening all the time.”  Jaffe reminds us of the university’s mission in his ideas about the future. “I don’t know what the Free University will be in the future,” he said, “but I know it will be a form of public engagement, a form of making education more accessible to all kinds of people.”  And finally, Lapointe encourages us to think beyond international capitalism by returning to our base within local communities, “I am truly a grassroots organizer, I think small is beautiful and people should think of their own community before thinking of world movements.  The world movements will connect to one another naturally.”  Though a consensus may not yet exist as to what the future of this movement will look like, perhaps Bob Carpenter summarized the project most concisely. “A free university?  Oh man, it’s wonderful.”

To get involved with the future of Free University visit

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