1. Academia (Inc.)

I recently read Richard Hil’s Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press-NewSouth Books, 2012), which I found both deeply satisfying and deeply distressing.  Deeply satisfying, because it became clear that the sorts of follies and tribulations to which we, at my own institution, have been subject are widespread: most, if not indeed all, academics in Australia appear to suffer from them.  Deeply distressing, for exactly the same reasons — because it became clear that the sorts of follies and tribulations to which we, at my own institution, have been subject are widespread: most, if not indeed all, academics in Australia appear to suffer from them . . .

I fear that, unfortunately, Hil is preaching to the choir: the academics who read his book will probably mostly agree with it, while the administrators and managers of universities, who are those responsible for bringing about what can only be described as a culture of crisis and despondency among academics, will ignore or dismiss the book as the tirade of yet another of those fractious stick-in-the-mud academics who resist innovation and progress.

The effect of this neat rhetorical trick of defining oneself beforehand as innovative and progressive is that any criticism or restiveness aimed at the “innovations” and “progress” introduced by managers and administrators must be, by definition, ipso facto, conservative and regressive, obstinately impeding the inevitable trajectory and triumph of “innovation” and “progress.”

What is much more rarely considered by the administrative bloc of a university is whether indeed the introduction of new policies, systems and the like are in fact innovative and progressive. In my experience, university management is usually at least 5 years, and possibly much, much more than that, behind developments in the world of business and industry; as a consequence many of these “innovations” and new policies and practices are themselves already obsolete, or in the process of becoming so.

There is also the very pertinent question of how administrators and managers came to drive pedagogy and research.  In Australia the rot set in, as Hil observes, with the Dawkins reforms of education in the late 1980s.  While of course it is both clear and true that higher education is costly, by tying education to principles of profit as viability, rather than to other, pedagogical principles, those reforms set the stage for the take-over of universities by those for whom the horizon consisted (and consists) only or chiefly of the profit margin. Hence the constant pressure to renovate and “innovate,” in order to appeal as an up-to-date, cool and with-it institution to the young people, now defined as “customers” or consumers.

Thus, the university as alma mater (nurturing mother) is transformed into the institution as alma meretrix (supporting whore), required to paint her face with “rejuvenating” cosmetics, force her body into irrelevant and not always becoming costumes, and offer her wares on the street both domestically and internationally.  In another age, the profit derived from this would have been described as “immoral earnings”; but today it is vaunted as “good business.”

Chris Lorenz observes, in an excellent article (“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management,” Critical Inquiry 38 (2012): 599-629):

   Although universities have undergone changes since the dawn of their existence, the speed of change started to accelerate remarkably in the 1960s.  Spectacular growth in the number of students and faculty was immediately followed by administrative reforms aimed at managing this growth and managing the demands of the students for democratic reform and societal relevance.  Since the 1980s, however, an entirely different wind has been blowing along the academic corridors.  The fiscal crisis of the welfare states and the neoliberal course of the Reagan and Thatcher governments made the battle against budget deficits and against government spending into a political priority.  Education, together with social security and health care, were targeted directly.  As the eighties went on, the neoliberal agenda became more radical — smaller state and bigger market — attacking the public sector itself through efforts to systematically reduce public expenditure by privatizing public services and introducing market incentives.  At the same time the societal relevance of the universities demanded by critical students was turned on its head to become economic relevance to business and industry in the knowledge society.

   Since then the most conspicuous features of neoliberal policy have been the attachment of price tickets to public services and the pursuit of self-financing.  These policies have been and are being implemented by a new class of managers who justify their approach with reference to free market ideology but who at the same time have introduced an unprecedented network of controls.  (599-600)

Lorenz then goes on to enunciate the four theses that underlie the argument of his article:

My first thesis is that neoliberal policies in the public sector — known as New Public Management (NPM) — are characterized by a combination of free market rhetoric and intensive managerial practices. . . .  My second thesis is that NPM policies employ a discourse that parasitizes the everyday meanings of their concepts — efficiency, accountability, transparency, and (preferably excellent) quality — and simultaneously perverts all their original meanings.  My third thesis is that the economic NPM definition of education ignores the most important aspects of the education process and therefore poses a fundamental threat to education itself.  I will develop the argument that NPM managerialism ironically shows extremely interesting similarities to the type of managerialism found in former Communist states.  My fourth thesis is that the NPM discourse can be termed a bullshit discourse, in the sense ascribed to this concept by Harry G. Frankfurt [On Bullshit, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005].  This can explain the hermetic, self-referential nature of the NPM discourse and the fact that NPM ideology has proved to be completely resistant to all criticism for over thirty years.  (600-01)

What Lorenz then goes on to demonstrate is that the corporatisation and “managerialisation” of the university sector has been achieved at enormous cost not only to academics, but also to the very notion of education itself, as well as to the notion of professionalism and discipline integrity.  Essentially, NPM has brought into existence a self-creating loop in which administration and management seem to hold up mirrors to one another and congratulate one another on their achievements, but without much reference to the actual institution which they manage, and the discourses that matter to it.  The clearest indication of this is the habit of managers to refer to themselves and their Diktats as “the university,” as though the academics were merely the hired help — which is what, more and more, they are becoming, to the detriment of the enterprise of education itself.

It is certainly true that there is an attitude in management toward academics that sees them as, in the words of a colleague, stowaways on the university ship.  Yet, were the academics to be subtracted from the picture, what would be left?  Merely a horde of managers and a bunch of students . . .  Doesn’t sound like much of a university, does it?

Posted on 03/08/2012, in Professor at Large. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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