Back to School: More Notes from the Academic Underground

There is always a buzz in the air when university students return to campuses to begin their spring semester courses.  In these troubled times, what can they expect from our institutions of higher education?  Will new programs, systems, and plans improve the quality of academic life?

Wither the American University? Photo by Paul Stoller

As many scholars have argued, public higher education has become more and more politicized, which means that officials—some elected, many appointed—have starved academic budgets, and eliminated courses of study (music, philosophy, foreign languages, literature) that they consider marginal to the pursuit of a “good job.”  These same experts, many of whom know little about the dynamics of face-to-face teaching, employ business models to streamline the university.  Students become consumers who are supposed evaluate a product—their education—the way a buyer evaluates something he or she has bought at a store.  In this “brave new world” administrators busy themselves with five-year plans, structural re-organizations, course outcomes, mission statements, and never-ending assessment exercises, all of which mire faculty in time-consuming busy work that does little to improve scholarly expertise, intellectual innovation or teaching. 

What are the results of these “pragmatic” moves?  Public universities now have larger and larger classes, fewer full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty, more “efficient” budgets, and an ever-growing cadre of administrators and staff who design more and more programs that have little to do with the intellectual mission of higher education—to safeguard the future by teaching our students how to think and how to write so they might become creative, inventive and engaged citizens of the world.

The spread of university corporatization is by no means unique to American higher education. In the United Kingdom, scholars have to adjust their scholarship to the redesign plans and the “ratings” competition of “audit culture,” which has transformed—not for the better—higher education in England.  In Norway, the venerable and excellent Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo is being merged with Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, two scholarly units that have little in common.  In an important blog Professors Keir Martin and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, both of whom teach anthropology at the University of Oslo, recently wrote:

“A university is not a car factory.  And our students are not components to be assembled and processed on a production line in the most technocratically efficient manner without a thought for the culture or working environment in which they learn and develop. What we produce is unique, not standardized. This is a point so obvious that one could imagine or hope that it wouldn’t need pointing out.  Unfortunately, on occasion it does, such as on those occasions when a tendency to view the world as a problem to be fixed with spreadsheets leads to the prioritisation of hitting the numbers over the nurturance and development of the human environments that those numbers were intended to measure. It is a tendency that if left unchecked can cause immense problems.  As the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett observes, this – often unquestioned – logic was one of the major factors behind the Great Financial Crisis that threatened to collapse the world economy ten years ago. Banks, which had become increasingly distant from their customers, trusted instead in numerical data and engaged in a race to repackage their customers’ in ever more profitable, yet ultimately unsustainable forms.

Despite such repeated disasters, the habit of pushing a bean counting managerial style too far at the expense of the original purpose of the institutions that it is supposed to curate is a hard one to break.  Our public services, including universities, are increasingly the victims of an obsessive managerial focus on hitting targets or numerically driven reorganisations that cause great disruption, often lead to increasingly tense and inharmonious work environments and ultimately threaten the very provision of the services that we are supposed to provide.  It might appear obvious that closing down or merging successful units in order to make marginal short-term savings is the very definition of a false economy, but once the reorganisation fever takes hold it is easily forgotten. History tells us that such reorganisations rarely work.  The balance sheet-savings that they provide are almost always more than offset by the damage to morale and productivity that ensue.”

The university is neither a car factory nor a corporation. Professors are not corporate employees. Students are not consumers buying a product. Despite professorial objection and student dissatisfaction, university corporatization persists.

Working in the depths of the academic underground, what can scholars to do to preserve the integrity of higher education?  It would be foolish to turn our backs on technology and social media, ignore the persistent wrongheadedness of assessment exercises or the Deja-vu of yet another system redesign.  But we can remember that despite the bureaucratic obstacles placed on our path, our primary mission is to teach our students how to think, create, and invent.   That mission is stronger than any assessment program, big data analysis, or five-year plan. That mission defines the “future of us all.”

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