The Alternative University
Lessons from Bolivarian Venezuela
Mariya P. Ivancheva


1 The Political Life of a Higher Education Policy
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 sets the dramatic and lively scene in which the book takes place: the contested public space of Caracas. Instead of locating the higher education reform solely in the university halls, I show the broader political arena of the city, riddled with inequality, where the community of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) engages in educational and political activity. Starting with the involvement of UBV students and faculty in the Referendum campaign for a constitutional amendment to remove term limits for President Chávez, I discuss the ways the cityscape is divided and every document or piece of infrastructure becomes an affective agent in a polarized political battlefield.

2 The Rise and Fall of Academic Autonomy: The University as a Historic Battlefield
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 discusses the open wounds of Venezuela's recent history. I show how the notion of academic autonomy—so central to Latin America's public universities—has remained key to Venezuela's university reform in rather twisted ways. Protected by progressive student movements through Venezuela's liberal democracy, it was first circumvented and then utilized strategically by its main opponents to resist Bolivarian reforms at autonomous public universities. I discuss these developments through a number of turning points in Venezuela's past and present university mobilizations and as expressed in the trajectory of María Egilda Castellano, the mastermind of UBV and massification policy Misión Sucre. The missed opportunities to support university radicals and reform traditional universities early in the process, as well as the frequent changes in the higher education policy and rotation of expert cadres such as Castellano's, are telling of the regime's limitation to create sustainable institutions.

3 Evaluation Matters: Teachers' Training at an Alternative University
chapter abstract

In Chapter 3 I zoom in on the interactions between two groups of Bolivarian academics: the "radical nobility" of former militants from traditional universities who joined the echelons of state power and UBV management, and the new Bolivarian educators. Often first generation into higher education, the latter lacked both the traditional academic and radical credentials of the former radicals, which merged into what I call "revolutionary capital." Meanwhile, rank-and-file faculty had to perform two tasks at once: to challenge academic conventions while also trying to accumulate traditional university credentials to gain accreditation for UBV.

4 The Children of the Revolution and the Matrisociality of the Benevolent State
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Chapter 4 focuses on the power asymmetries in teaching and learning processes at UBV-Caracas. While many faculty were struggling to adopt critical pedagogy, most students held in highest esteem charismatic male academics who used traditional instruction methods. Meanwhile, UBV students' elevated expectations for upward mobility were stifled by Venezuela's unreformed job market. The disappointment with the job market was partly subverted by UBV's "hidden curriculum," according to which students from poor communities were to place highest value on working with their own community for social change. Through the outreach program, central to UBV's curriculum, the state was socialized into poor communities where it was previously absent or violently present. While female community organizers and mature students had a pivotal role in this process as brokers for UBV and other state-led programs in barrios, project-based funding was precarious, so they gained only symbolic recognition.

5 Generation(s) of Protests at a Revolutionary University
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Chapter 5 narrates the emergence of a student movement at UBV. While the contradictions of the Bolivarian process were becoming more apparent, it faced no serious resistance from within. In admiration of the former student militants from the radical nobility, UBV faculty yearned for a student mobilization at the revolutionary university. Yet, when a student movement articulated its critique of UBV's management, it was quickly rejected by the faculty as a legitimate heir of past student movements. Following closely the rise and fall of this movement, I show a problematic mechanism at play in revolutionary processes: the tendency of institutionalized radical movements to position themselves at the top of a "radical hierarchy" and suppress imminent critique. Narrating a parallel episode when a similar dynamic was reproduced between Chávez and members of the radical nobility, I claim radical regimes reach their limits if they fail to challenge revolutionary hierarchies and accommodate critical feedback.

chapter abstract

Drawing together the threads from other chapters, I argue in the Conclusion that while the Bolivarian experiment in higher education is quite specific in its particular history and positionality, and its lessons might not be easily followed or replicated in different contexts, there are still a number of notable lessons that any alternative project for higher education will need to engage in to achieve enduring social change. I recognize the historical and contemporary, global, and national limitations within advanced neoliberal capitalism and its higher education field that have shaped this ambitious egalitarian project. I also discuss some contingent choices of the Bolivarian government that have compromised its efforts. At the end of the chapter, I provide a list of such lessons for the attention of policy makers and practitioners alike.

Epilogue: De(colonial) Silences in the Hierarchy of Global Knowledge Production
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The Epilogue presents reflections of a post-socialist (Bulgarian) scholar working on socialist Latin America (Venezuela). Using (auto-)ethnographic materials from my fieldwork and work since I returned from Venezuela, I show how the studies of past and present socialisms have fallen under distant "area studies" denominators, reflected in mutual silences. Dominant three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, politically biased and historically charged area studies vocabularies hinder research across atavistic Cold War divisions. They limit the opportunities to generate a learning process from past and present egalitarian projects for social change. These categories are also often reproduced within the academic job market, which privileges core locations and languages of knowledge production and discriminates against scholars from peripheral locations who attempt to work across epistemic borderlines.