The Pigeon Tower — by Karim in Egypt

The Ivory Tower, or its literal counterpart the modern/colonial university, is terminally ill. Perhaps now with COVID-19 – an equally pervasive illness – it’s time to do away with it and call upon a new figure to guide our efforts to re-image higher education. As an educator and scholar-activist based in Cairo, Egypt, I’ve taken inspiration from pigeons as learners and have proposed the Pigeon Tower to become that new figure.. 

In a way pigeon flocks are reminiscent of the pre-modern university. 12th-century Bologna was a center of intellectual and cultural life. Students came to Bologna from all over Europe to study with prominent scholars. At the time, these scholars were not organized into a university; each one operated freelance, offering courses on his own and charging whatever fees students were willing to pay. If a professor was a lousy teacher or charged too much, his students would switch to a different professor; professors had to compete for students, and would get paid only if students found their courses worth taking..

Bologna soon became crowded with foreign students. But being a foreigner in Bologna had its disadvantages; aliens were subject to various sorts of legal disabilities. For example, aliens were held responsible for the debts of their fellow countrymen; that is, if John, an English merchant, owed money to Giovanni, a Bolognese native, and John skipped town, then innocent bystander James from England could be required by Bolognese law to pay to Giovanni the money owed by John.. 

The foreign students therefore began to band together, for mutual insurance and protection, into associations called “nations,” according to their various nationalities; one “nation” would be composed of all English students, another of all French students, and so on. If any student needed, the other members of his “nation” would chip in to help. Each was willing to pledge a contribution to the group for this purpose, in exchange for the assurance that he would himself be able to draw on these pooled resources in time of need..

In time the different “nations” found it useful to spread the risk still more widely by combining together into a larger organisation called a universitas. This was not yet a university in the modern sense. The universitas was essentially a cooperative venture by students; the professors were not part of the universitas. The universitas was democratically governed; regular business was conducted by a representative council consisting of two members from each “nation,” while important matters were decided by the majority vote of an assembly consisting of the entire membership the universitas..

Once the universitas had been formed, the students now had available to them a means of effective collective bargaining with the city government. The students were able to exercise considerable leverage in their disputes with the city because if the students decided to go on “strike” by leaving the city, the professors would follow their paying clients and the city would lose an important source of revenue. So the city gave in, recognized the rights of foreign students, and granted the universitas civil and criminal jurisdiction over its own members.. 

After all, this new means of effective bargaining with the city could also be used as a means of effective collective bargaining with the professors. The students, organized into a universitas, could control professors by boycotting classes and withholding fees. This gave the universitas the power to determine the length and subject-matter of courses, and the fees of professors. Soon professors found themselves being hired and fired by the universitas as a whole, rather than by its individual members acting independently. At this point we can finally translate universitas as “University”..

This historical account of the creation of the university is instructive in this moment of conjunctural crisis. The neo-liberal assault on higher education over the past two decades has turned universities into cash cows. It has exacerbated the adjuntification of faculty on the one hand and the exploitation of students on the other, enriching university administrations. The collective bargaining power and the inclusion of Bologna’s foreign students in the formation of the universitas of the 12th century has been overshadowed by corporate greed and turned the guiding metaphor of the Ivory Tower obsolete and unsustainable..

Perhaps the Pigeon Tower which houses pigeon flocks, or as in the historical account of the city of Bologna different nations, serves as a reminder of a more self-organised approach to higher education, as exemplified by the pre-modern University of Bologna. The Pigeon Tower helps us recall a more situated and place-based approach to higher education, one that is in conversation with the city it is embedded in. As opposed to the Ivory Tower, it encourages engagement with its surrounding and the everyday lives that constitute it. Aren’t bird droppings believed to be both highly fertile to the land and a blessing to the people, after all?

Karim, Egypt