The Cordoba Reform of 1918 and building a student movement in the U.S.


In an era marked by economic collapse, climate catastrophe, and inter-imperial war, higher-education reform might seem like a subject that is not worth thinking about, much less doing something about. That is not the case. Universities are integral parts of society and play a major role in the maintenance of bourgeois domination. But this does not have to be the case: people in higher education can also play an important role in the socialist struggle for the overthrow of capitalism. Socialists in the past have understood this, and in Latin America, they played an important part in the movement that permanently transformed higher education throughout Latin America: The Cordoba Reform Movement of 1918.

The Cordoba Reform of 1918

In 1918 the world found itself at a historical turning point. The Great War of 1914-1918 was coming to an end, having sacrificed tens of millions of workers and peasants in an imperial bloodbath and heavily weakening the European empires, strengthening the United States in the process. The Russian Revolution was in full swing, with the biggest contiguous territorial entity on Earth now under the control of a state of the proletariat and the peasantry for the first time in history. These events had worldwide repercussions. In Latin America, one of them was the University Reform movement.

In June 1918, after growing unrest, occupations, strikes, and demonstrations due to the conditions of their university, students at the University of Córdoba in Argentina issued a now-famed document under the heading of La Juventud Argentina de Córdoba a los hombres libres de Sudamérica (The youth of Argentina to the free men of South America). This document, written in the grandiloquent liberal language of the time, denounced the dogmatic, backward, colonial-era system under which their university operated, where authoritarian and inept professorships were passed down as fiefs and where antiquated methodology was still the norm, suffocating free investigation, all under the tyrannical boot of the administration.[1]

They strove for a university that was adequate to the changing times they were living through. But that was just a start. The propagation of the Manifesto and of the militant actions of the students of Córdoba were the spark of a movement for university—and socio-political—reform that would spread all across Latin America and permanently transform the structure and purpose of the universities in the continent. Sadly, the movement did not then penetrate into the United States then. We can change that now.

The goals of the reform

The Reforma was a student movement, and those students, although heterogeneous in social composition, came primarily from the newly forming middle layers of Latin American society that were emerging thanks to the development of capitalist production in the region. They found themselves floating precariously above the peasantry and the young proletarian classes but being barred from the highest echelons of power by the all-powerful landowning and commercial class. This class composition of the student body would shape the main goals of the reform and keep it from becoming a societal revolution, even though the students did try to reach out to the masses with popular universities and despite the fact that the “social mission” of the university remained a high ideal for many.

The two main conquests of the Reform movement[2] as it spread through Latin America’s university youth were university autonomy and the democratic governance regime that today characterize public institutions in the region—the largest and most prestigious institutions. Reflecting the aim of the movement to connect the universities with society, students at different places articulated different goals, but generally seeking to make the universities more responsive to the social needs and less of an ivory tower.

Universities in Latin America at the time of the Reform were often under the control of the ruling oligarchy. Learning in pedagogically apt manners was difficult to develop, while an authoritarian atmosphere of submission to the university authorities prevailed. Students who organized in the Reforma thought that their institutions were ignoring the dire problems afflicting society.

Alongside the concrete goal of democratic and autonomous universities there was the demand that universities should go from being institutions separated from the mass of the population to being outward-facing. The proposal was that universities should reach out to the people, providing their services, and encouraging the university community to dedicate their energy to resolving the issues that affected the society around them. This came in the form of opening up admissions and striving to make higher education free, and by constructing Popular Universities.

One such university was opened in Cuba during the high years of the reform movement, the Universidad Popular José Martí, founded by Communist Party leader Julio Antonio Mella. The mission of the university stated that it was founded and directed by the proletariat, stood against scientific dogmatism and for social justice, and that its purpose was to build in the workers a new, cultured, and revolutionary, consciousness. As for governance, it was to be run by the students and workers that attended it.[3]

A hundred years have passed since the fire of reform raged through Latin America, but this movement is still alive. A concrete example of the legacy of the Reform Movement and its actuality are public universities throughout the region. Take the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), for instance. With its almost 350,000 students, over 32,000 full-time faculty, and a budget of $700 million, it is one of the best in the entire continent, despite the blows it has suffered after coups d’état in 1966 and 1976 and subsequent austerity measures under various governments. Its autonomous and democratic structure is still in effect. Every two years, constituents in each school elect their own governing councils, deans of schools, and chairs of departments. These councils come together in the University Assembly and a Superior Council that decide on the allocations of budget, the election of the rector, and every single major policy of the institution. All officials thus elected are accountable. Governance is thus tri-partite, made up of representatives of faculty, graduates and students.

Oh, and a last point: education is free and open to all in the UBA, even to foreigners.

Universities in the United States

The Reform Movement did not reach the United States. This is the reason autonomous and democratic universities are not the norm in this country. Private and public colleges and universities here are governed by boards, administrators, and executives who neither represent nor are accountable to any constituency in their institutions. In state institutions, regents are appointed by governors from among their more powerful political allies, while in the most prestigious private institutions trustees are often simultaneously officials in for-profit corporations. As in the Catholic Church, the priority of the governing boards is twofold: to preserve and grow the endowments, and to further the institutional “mission” as they define it, all within the context of the capitalist system they all invariably serve as institutions.

This priority explains why trustees, regents, presidents, chancellors, and other top officials make academic, personnel, fiscal, and budgetary decisions in a scarcely transparent fashion, and why there are no mechanisms for constituents to recall them. Faculty have participation in some decisions, but the committees or “senates” to which they are either appointed to—or less frequently, elected to—also function opaquely.

Starved of resources by the government, undemocratic governance bodies at public universities and county colleges respond to perpetual austerity by turning education into a scarce commodity. Instead of open admissions, they uphold restricted entry under the guise of “rigor”; instead of free tuition, they offer loans and limited grants which are, perversely, financed by the regressive taxation system of the country.

Private universities are even more antidemocratic. In this country, the public, and most especially working people, have been subsidizing private higher education while rarely receiving anything in return, since most working-class youth do not benefit from free university access. How does this subsidy of the working class for private universities work? First, through the process by which all of the private fortunes that endowed our major private colleges and universities were formed—through the appropriation of surplus value in the labor process. Second, through the combination of the regressive tax system with the tax exemption of all these institutions, whose fortunes grow without contributing to the public treasury, and hence to services for working people. And thirdly, through direct funding from the federal government, to which we must all religiously contribute every year. This we must change.

The university that we want to build

Importing the traditions of the Reform Movement into higher education in the United States would mean organizing across constituencies (students, faculty, staff, recent alumni) and fighting together for the democratization of university governance. That is, for the replacement of boards of trustees or regents with councils elected by these constituencies with authority over all policy, including financial and personnel decisions. This would make our institutions more socially responsive, providing accountable and effective means for the resolution of conflicts, from harassment and discrimination cases to crisis response. Democratic governance would demolish the Ivory Tower, giving meaning to learning and service by immersing higher education in society and joining the struggle for free, open, and democratic higher education, to fight for reforms across the board, for free public healthcare, nationalized pharma, guaranteed sick and parental leave, and a proper social safety net.

If this is what we want, then we must fight to build a movement that is powerful and independent enough to conquer for ourselves what our Latin American neighbors have. Such a movement would also be able to achieve the expropriation of the Ivy Leagues. Instead of serving the interest of capital and empire while paying discursive and symbolic respects to social needs, their largely tax-exempt billions in endowments and resources could be injected into the mass expansion of state and county colleges nationally so they can properly serve minority, immigrant, and working-class youth with open admissions and free education. That’s what the true diversification and democratization of higher education look like: full of Black people, immigrants, and people of color at every echelon of the institution who are truly represented and powerful through self-governance.

[1] Federación Universitaria de Córdoba. (1918). La juventud argentina de Córdoba a los hombres libres de Sudamérica (Manifesto del 21 de junio de 1918). Córdoba, Argentina. Accessed at:

[2] A historian of the movement, Carlos Tünnermann, enumerates the following as the ideals the reform movement was fighting for:

  1. Autonomous universities –in their political, teaching, administrative, and economic aspects– and financial autarky;
  2. Election of the directive bodies and the university authorities by the university community and the participation of its constitutive elements, professors, students, and graduates, in the composition of the organs of government;
  3. Competition for the selection of teaching staff and periodicity of the chairs;
  4. Free teaching;
  5. Free assistance;
  6. Free education;
  7. Academic reorganization, creation of new schools and modernization of the methods of teaching. Active teaching and betterment of the cultural formation of professionals;
  8. Social assistance to students and democratization of acceptance to the university;
  9. Link-up with the national education system;
  10. University extension. Strengthening of the social function of the university. Projection to the people of university culture and preoccupation for national problems;
  11. American unity, struggle against dictatorships and imperialism.

— Tünnermann Bernheim, C. (2008). Noventa años de la Reforma Universitaria de Córdoba: 1918-2008, 84.

[3] Accessed at: Julio Antonio Mella. Vidas Rebeldes, (Compilación y prólogo de Julio César Guanche), Ocean Sur, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-921438-31-8

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