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‘Visualizing abolition studies’ program launches at UC Santa Cruz

‘The idea is to expose students to an interdisciplinary framework that centers art and visuality, helping to destabilize our relationship to a future with incarceration imagined inside of it,’ professor says

The University of California Santa Cruz plans to launch a certificate program next semester that advocates for prison abolition.

The program — called “Visualizing Abolition Studies” or VAST — will try to shift what its organizers see as the view that prison policy needs to be reformed as opposed to abolished entirely, according to organizers.

“As long as prisons have existed, people have been talking about reform versus abolition,” Gina Dent, a professor of feminist studies and organizer for the program, stated in the university news release. “Just giving people more and more information about the harms caused by incarceration has never actually led to rethinking them systematically.”

The organizers say art is an underused medium that can be used to accomplish their aims. “The roles that art and visual culture take in normalizing or destabilizing our carceral society are often overlooked,” the description page for the certificate says.

“The idea is to expose students to an interdisciplinary framework that centers art and visuality, helping to destabilize our relationship to a future with incarceration imagined inside of it,” Dent also said.

The College Fix contacted Dent for comment and asked what the demand is for the program. She has not responded in the past several weeks. Dent worked alongside Professor Angela Davis to create the “Critical Resistance Movement” which called for the abolition of the police.

Davis is a former Black Panther who supports reparations but also found out earlier this year her grandfather was a white slave owner. She is a professor emerita of history of consciousness and feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz.

A former UC-Santa Cruz professor criticized the program in comments to The Fix.

John Ellis, a professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, called the program a continuation of the Defund the Police movement in an email to The Fix. “This is the sequel,” Ellis said. “If it were ever tried, the result would be the same.”

Ellis said the idea for the program is a result of “completely one-party” college campuses.

“When all political opposition is removed, as it has been over the last 50 years, the one party that is left is no longer kept within the bounds of reason and sanity by opposing voices, and because now unchecked it begins to slide into fantasy—as here,” Ellis said. “There are no adults left in the room.”

To receive the certificate, students must earn 15 credits in approved courses, including the mandatory “Introduction to Visualizing Abolition.”

A summer 2024 course (erroneously labeled on the news release as summer 2023) will allow students to study “prison narratives.”

Liberal foundation backs scholarship that opposes ‘mass incarceration’

Dent, the director of the program, runs the Visualizing Abolition program at UC Santa Cruz with the help of nearly $2 million from the liberal Mellon Foundation. The certificate is a result of that initiative.

Some professors at the university see the program as setting the stage for taking on what they call “mass incarceration.”

“After decades of the era of mass incarceration, the United States and other nations are poised to make fundamental, paradigm-altering change,” Professor of Psychology Craig Haney, a VAST-affiliated faculty member, said in the university news release.

“VAST will contribute intellectual momentum and passion to this movement, and our students will have opportunities to be a central part of all of it,” he said.

Other affiliated faculty include Sophia Azeb, a professor of critical race and ethnic studies, Caitlin Keliiaa, a feminist studies professor, and Savannah Shange, an anthropology/critical race and ethnic studies scholar. Other professors of art, film, and digital media will teach courses.

MORE: University rejects student vote to defund police of $2 million

IMAGE: Alex Sarkissian/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Brendan McDonald is a student at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.