Walter Mignolo, William H. Wannamaker professor of literature, has been the director of the Duke Center for Global Studies and the Humanities since 2000. Mignolo, who has appointments in both the cultural anthropology and romance studies departments, has an honorary degree from the National University of Buenos Aires, in addition to his Ph.D. from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. The Chronicle’s Adam Beyer sat down with Mignolo to talk about the globalization of American universities and American politics.

TC: Recent student organizing on college campuses has centered on fostering a decolonized university. Can you describe what this means and what it would look like in practice?

WM: I am not sure if students organizing a decolonial university is something happening at Duke (of which I am not aware) or in the world. But there is certainly a lot going on in the world around those issues. I mention two: students manifestations, organization, writing, claiming for decolonizing the curriculum and decolonizing the university in South Africa, following “Rhodes Must Fall” and the recent “Let’s do diversity” (of which I was an advisory board member), a report on diversity at the University of Amsterdam heavily shaped by decolonial ideas.

These are two examples among many at this time. But what does it mean in “practice,” as you say? Well, it is already “in practice.” It is already happening. Beyond the grand expressions like “decolonizing the university” and “decolonizing the curriculum” there is a small flame claiming to decolonize education and engage in decolonial education. The university is an institution; the curriculum is a structure of learning within the institution. So "in practice” is already happening because the vision is at work; it is already happening within universities, “occupying” small corners of the university to engage in decolonial education; and it is already happening in new institutions created with the vision of decolonial education. 

TC: What are your thoughts on how the University should engage the world, particularly in light of the approval of the undergraduate program at the Kunshan campus?

WM: This is a larger topic. I have been engaged in conversation and writing about the American-style university at large. Duke in Kunshan is part of this new trend, Harvard in Singapore, Northwestern in Doha, etc. And this was part of my honorary degree lecture.

This is a sort of cyclical return to the 16th century when Spain and Portugal were the imperial countries transplanting universities. Duke in Kunshan is part of this movement.

What I think about the approval of the undergraduate program? It is what it is. The U.S. through their universities intends to provide other nations with U.S. style education. The other nations have their own interests and in the same way that the U.S. “uses” the university to promote Western knowledge, China, Singapore or the Middle East “uses” the U.S. style university to advance their own national interests. The difference with the 16th and 17th century, when the university was only transplanted to the Americas, is that indigenous populations were dismantled and marginalized, and enslaved Africans had no chance to participate in education.

So the transplant was in the hands of people of European descent (Spanish, Portuguese, British, French and Dutch in the Caribbean). Now the situation is different. In the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia, there are memories and knowledge that go further back than the European Middle Age. So, now the question is to re-vamp ancestral knowledge and memories and to appropriate Western knowledge to their purposes and needs. We cannot know what would be the outcome of Duke in Kunshan 20, 30 or 50 years from now. But we do know that while Duke would like to leave its mark in China, China (and Chinese students) would like to take advantage of Duke efforts to provide Chinese students with a component of Western education. And what we could be almost sure about is that Western education would not and cannot erase 3,000 years of memories, knowledge and ways of being in the world.

Furthermore, we should think about the fact that while the U.S. is transplanting its higher education style, there are no countries transplanting their higher education style to the U.S. It should happen in the future if the aim is to live in a multi-polar world order and to have a pluri-versity higher education. 

Although this conversation is not the place to introduce the reorganization of the undergraduate curriculum at Duke, I would like to flag one issue in relation to Kunshan. Among the many problematic issues discussed, one stands out that, curiously enough, was not discussed—that one-year long courses under the heading of “the Duke Experience” shall be taught by “the best professors.” This criterion is detrimental: it creates a “professional discrimination” and instills among the undergraduate population the sense that the rest of professors at Duke are “second-class professors.” Professional discrimination undermines the potential of pluri-versality as it continues to maintain pyramidal structures and the privileges of individuals in the administration and in the faculty body. The consequences for the faculty body and for the undergraduate population are tremendous—it instills “a Duke experience discrimination” in the middle of a conversation about “diversity at Duke.” How this would impinge in Kunshan? We will see if the best professor or the second class professor would be sent to Kunshan. That is, if Kunshan would be a reward or a punishment for faculty.

TC: What do you think will be the implications of the Trump presidency?

WM: Well, this is a complex question to answer in a few words. It is difficult to read every thing that is written in the U.S. and around the world since Donald Trump was elected president. But I outline a few points I was conversing in my undergraduate seminar last night. One, that the nation-state institution has two faces, domestic and international (e.g. the inter-state system). Domestically, Trump already ignited racial conflicts and undermined diversity. On the other hand, it was the advance of the politics of diversity coupled with globalism and out-sourcing, that revamped white nationalism. President Brodhead’s letter is reassuring of the politics that Duke, and hopefully all universities in the country, will stand for. The unanimous vote to make of Duke a sanctuary campus should also help to make foreign students feel safe.

In 2002, Carolyn M. Swain was already calling our attention to the rise of a new type of “white nationalism.” The triumphant belief in globalism ran in the U.S. from the 90s to the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and that presumably would have been followed up by Hillary Clinton and did not pay much attention to it. Trump did. Clinton did not. This is, in my view, the major implication of domestic politics.

But because of the United States' leading role, what happens here impinges on the rest of the world. And here there are two major issues. On the one hand, there are the reactions from other parts of the world. A common line manifested in op-eds and blogs from Venezuela to the Middle East, was a) we do not vote but we are affected and b) this is why we are pleased that Clinton lost. Neither of them endorsed Trump. They expressed their concern with the foreign policy of Bush-Obama and expected to be continued by Clinton. This is the politico-military aspect of Trump’s presidency. What would be Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East and what will be the economic consequences?

The other is economic. Trump framed his campaign “Americanism vs. Globalism," and took advantage of the blind consequences of globalism. The question now, and we have to wait at least for the first year of his presidency, is whether “Americanism” could correct the damages of “Globalism.”

All in all, with Hillary Clinton mostly everyone knew what to expect; with Trump mostly everyone is wondering what to expect. Paradoxically, promising changes (Americanism). Changes are not good or bad by themselves. It depends on what side of the “change” you line up with. Clinton would have continued many aspects already set up by neo-liberal globalism. So, conservatism-like change could be good or bad, depending on with whom you side up with.

This interview was conducted via email. It has been condensed for length and clarity.