Free University Teaches Revolution at the Right Price

via The Bay Citizen

By: Rayhan Harmanci

The newest university to open its doors in San Francisco has no official curriculum, no accredited course work, no grades and no paid teachers.

In an age of escalating college costs, however, the Free University of San Francisco — which resides in the basement of Viracocha, a store in the Mission District — has one very large thing going for it: no tuition fees.

Conceived by Alan Kaufman, 59, a poet and former instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, the Free University is an oh-so-San Francisco experiment in divorcing education from commerce.

“We don’t need walls, we don’t need desks to impart knowledge,” Kaufman said. “The idea of a free university is that it’s monetarily free, free of constraints, free of any kind of administration.”

The Free University kicked off Feb. 5 with a weekend of lectures. It was billed as a teach-in, where local luminaries like Diane di Prima, the Beat poet, and Matt Gonzalez, the former San Francisco mayoral candidate, held forth on a number of subjects. Class titles like “Abolishing Corporate Personhood to Create Authentic Democracy” and “Restoring San Francisco’s Urban Wildlands” drew hundreds of students.

On March 6, the university will begin a cycle of seven five-week classes. After that, Kaufman said, students can expect both 5- and 10-week courses. Another teach-in is scheduled for June.

Kaufman, who has long bridled against traditional education, came up with the idea for a free university in December. With the encouragement of Gonzalez, who is best known nationally as Ralph Nader’s Green Party vice-presidential running mate, the project was born.

A loose collective of about 50 people is the institution’s sole decision-making body.

Kaufman is working on a plan that would expand the concept even further. Nine colleges within the university — including a law school with Gonzalez as dean and an art school headed by Chuck Sperry, a printmaker — will be put to the collective for approval. Each school will have one female dean and one male dean to achieve gender parity.

“Call us crazies, San Francisco crazies, but we’re doing it anyways,” said Kaufman, his Brooklyn accent apparent even after 20 years of Bay Area residence. “We believe that we are a system-changing revolution.”

The makeshift school may be unusual but is hardly unique. “There’s a long history of free universities in this country, and the Bay Area in particular,” said John Hurst, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

But today’s rising cost of higher education makes the project newly relevant. According to the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research organization, the average California student holds about $17,000 in debt; student debt totals nearly $1 trillion nationwide. College tuition has increased 400 percent since the 1980s, a faster rate than that of escalating health care costs.

Robert Cohen, a professor of history and education at New York University, compared the Free University to the Freedom Schools established in the South during the civil rights movement of the 1960s — although then the issue was access more than cost.

“This is a kind of response to commodification of knowledge,” he said. “There’s no free public higher education in California anymore.”

The big question, of course, is how long the Free University can remain in session with volunteer teachers. Hurst wasn’t hopeful about Free University’s long-term survival without any financial exchange.

“The model has to be built on sustainability,” he said. “None of the ones that have been free-free have served for very long. Would that they could. Sooner or later, people have to live.”

Still, students and teachers — often interchangeable roles at the Free University — are hopeful.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” admitted Evan Karp, a writer and website founder. Along with Andrew Paul Nelson, Karp taught a class on Friedrich Nietzsche. “Everyone was passionate,” Karp said of his students. “Certainly, that was what I wanted out of a university experience that I didn’t get.”

Even if the Free University doesn’t last, its concept could spread. “Once you show that there’s a hunger for these kind of courses, maybe other institutions will pick up on it,” Cohen said, “Lawyers do pro bono work. Why can’t universities?”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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