Neoliberalism and the University

Parallel institutions, notions and models are thrusted into the body academic, displacing old established ones to the fringe along with the faculty body.

Source: NewStatesman

As an academic in a higher education institution, the last few years have offered me the chance to participate in a good deal of protests centered on issues pertaining to the welfare of fellow faculty members, albeit more in a supporting than frontline capacity. This has afforded me the privilege to witness first-hand the unfolding of fierce confrontations between vocal segments of the faculty body and the university’s upper administration. The experience offered me a window to look closely at the workings of power in academe, and to reflect on the meaning of the neoliberal onslaught on faculty rights that has become a global trend in higher education in recent decades.

More often than not, this activism has elicited some remarkable feats of bravery and resourcefulness on the part of faculty leaders in all matters tactical and strategic. Yet one thing I found wanting throughout these episodes of protest was the will to reflect on the nature of the “enemy” being protested. In the heat of the battle, this enemy would be declared to be, somehow hastily, one of the following ingredients or some inarticulate mix of them: “corporatization of higher education,” “rampant corruption,” “lack of  shared governance,” “bloated administration,” and the list goes on.

Not that any of these headlines are wrong or misleading in themselves. The issue, rather, is that little rigorous attempts have been made to articulate them into a coherent narrative that problematizes the enemy in the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of it and informing better strategies for its confrontation. Primacy has almost invariably been given to the “optimism of the will,” to borrow Gramsci’s aphorism, leaving little time and effort for the “pessimism of the intellect.” I would speculate that this divorce of will from intellect is the reason why academic protest has often alternated between flows of euphoria and mobilization fueled by swift, if ultimately limited and symbolic, gains at first, followed by protracted ebbs of demobilization and resignation following the upper administration’s ability to regain initiative and launch effective counter-offensives.

What then is the nature of the beast at hand? We have been told time and again that it is the corporatization of higher education in an age of neoliberal hegemony. But what does this entail exactly? My proposition is this: in the last few decades, the neoliberalization of higher education meant the gradual erosion of the university campus as a semi-autonomous and safe abode for a community of scholars to pursue knowledge largely in and for itself and in relative insulation from the fluctuations of the capitalist economy.

This proposition is purposefully exaggerated.  It expresses elements of a utopia that obtained to varying degrees in various places and times prior to the ascent of neoliberalism to the commanding heights of the world economy and its eventual colonization of the University campus. The semi in semi-autonomy concedes the fact that capitalist and moneyed interests have always attempted to exert undue influence on the university, and managed to do so with varying degrees of success. Yet this influence was mostly exogenous to the university campus before the rise of neoliberalism. Running a university was mostly an academic affair, and academics were trusted to know best the needs of their trade. Any non-academic administrative resources, human or otherwise, would have been mobilized mostly to serve academic life in a supporting capacity.

The innovation in the age of neoliberalism is that capitalist and moneyed interests have torn down the walls of the university campus, eroded its semi-autonomy, and become internal to the institutional logic of the University.The University has thus become an attractive locus of pecuniary enrichment for an ever-expanding administrative layer that has little if any concern for the scholarly mission of the university, except to pay it lip service so as to salvage for itself a fig leaf of legitimacy.

Meanwhile, the faculty body, supposedly the constituency that the University has been built to serve and protect, has been insidiously pushed to the margins of this institution not only in terms of power relations, but also discursive practice, which to me seems to be the more malicious outcome. Either way, academics from all complexions have found themselves taken off guard, often left wondering what is worse: the creeping precarization of their livelihoods? Or the reduction of their mandate from one given to scholarly enquiry to one condemned to the commodified production of bland research publications, quantified by means of h-indices and subject to the discipline of the market?

Yet rarely do such sweeping transformations happen without friction. Indeed the faculty is marginalized, but the predicament that the new administrative  layers soon find themselves in is that they cannot eliminate the faculty body and its academic mission altogether. Pecuniary enrichment for the new administrative layers may have emerged as a new raison d’être for the university, yet only a covert one at that; commitment to the academic and scholarly mission needs to be rhetorically maintained to ensure a hint of legitimacy. Meanwhile, academics who are now consigned to the margins of the University persevere in harking back to the pre-neoliberal educational and scholarly “core values” of their academic institution. Contradictions then arise that often come to a head when organized faculty protest battles the vested interests of the neoliberalized administration.

Here battle bespeaks weapons, and those are as much discursive as they are institutional. Those wielded by the neoliberal university’s upper administration are a lot of things, but transparent is certainly not one of them. For any attempt on the neoliberal administration’s part to candidly remold the university into its own image would be a fraught undertaking that risks no less than sacrificing its aforementioned fig leaf of legitimacy. Rather, its battle is one of mass obfuscation and fragmentation designed to tame and marginalize the faculty body that it systemically distrusts.

One has to admire the neoliberal administration’s genius in its cynically effective innovation of tools that are deployed to meet its ends. Novel institutional forms – “centers of excellence”– are conjured up out of thin air to covet the jurisdictions and mandates of traditional faculties and schools amidst crazed media hype and deafening decibels of self-congratulation. Alien vocabularies are maliciously propagated to displace the notions of intellectual enquiry and scholarship with those of “entrepreneurship,” “leadership,” “innovation” and the like. Elements of research that were hitherto perceived as secondary support resources to be sought as needed (e.g. funding), are now peddled as ends in themselves, putting at a structural disadvantage disciplines pertaining to the humanities and social sciences that are most likely to generate dissent and which incidentally need them the least.

All in all, parallel institutions, notions and models are thrusted into the body academic, displacing old established ones to the fringe along with the faculty body. What is more, this process of marginalization is flanked by another of minoritarianization, the latter seeing the former to successful completion. Faculty members therefore witness their ranks being diluted with the reckless importation of new administrative and docile strata, tasked here with ever more cryptic missions and visions, and there with the replacement of distrusted faculty at the center of gravity of the university. These strata can only be attracted by the promise of enrichment in return for their total compliance and docility, while few ultimately successfully emulate the wealth of the university’s new mandarins. Meanwhile many a faculty member sees himself toiling in inconsequential committees in the spirit of ‘shared governance,’ in addition of course to grade-inflated teaching and irrelevant research, if highly cited in high impact factor journals. This way the hollowing shell of higher education can be preserved, and within it the neoliberal enrichment of upper administrative layers can proceed unabated.

To the extent that such a verdict carries truth, one can hardly overstate the need for the dissenting faculty to keep lucid about the nature of the battles lying ahead, lest it succumb to the severance of the optimism of the will form the pessimism of the intellect. The enemy needs to be constantly problematized and re-problematized, and the terrain on which the battles are fought needs to be properly mapped for fear of falling to the charm of the neoliberal administration’s discursive weaponry. Most importantly, this new ethos of enrichment, which we are being forced to witness as meek spectators as it savages the university campus, needs to be confronted head on, and this is by no means a straightforward task!

Often the academic battles I have witnessed were painted as being at one with those fought by the proletarian classes, or, in the case of Neoliberalism, underclasses. Though an effective rallying call, a caveat here is in order: this notion can be no farther from the truth! Ours is a battle against our own proletarianization, against the subjugation of our intellectual inquiry to Marx’s “dull compulsion of economic forces” and its ultimate transformation into exploited labor. Before the ascent of neoliberalism, our labor, for lack of a better word, was everything proletarian labor was not.

A factory worker on the shop floor spends a lifetime of toil only to make ends meet; they are  likelier than not to dread their labor and desire to spend their lifetime free of it, if it was not for their economic enslavement to a perennial condition of subsistence and want. In contradistinction, intellectual “labor” ought to be tantamount to free play. In the utopian university, not a single shred of necessity or want animates scholarly intellectual pursuits, as these are rather primed by curiosity and desire alone.

How is this economically feasible? By ensuring that intellectual freedom be underwritten by freedom from want; that is, by granting university scholars a safe and unconditional access to the surplus value generated by the capitalist classes. This way scholars can cross from the realm of necessity to that of freedom where they can pursue their intellectual free play unimpeded. I cannot think of any other utopia that would more constructively guide our daily struggles on campus, and it afflicts me to realize that it caters only for an exclusive intellectual guild, its gates slammed shut in the face of the toiling masses. Perhaps, in consolation and by a stretch of imagination, a salutary universalism lies in this utopia showcasing labor as free play to the toiling masses, and reminding them that a better world is possible and worth fighting for? Perhaps herein lies the root cause for neoliberalism’s eagerness to bury this utopia out of existence?