Book of the week: Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University

An indictment of today's academy strikes a chord with Susan Bassnett

October 29, 2009

Once in a blue moon I find myself reading a book I wish I had written. Gaye Tuchman's Wannabe U is just such a book: tough, honest, highly entertaining - and also a serious examination of what is happening in one typical US state university with aspirations to a greater role on the international academic stage.

I couldn't have written it, of course, because I do not have Tuchman's sociological background, nor have I undertaken the detailed, wide-ranging research that underpins her book. What I do have, though, is more than ten years' experience as a member of a university's senior-management team. Having served as pro vice-chancellor - the UK equivalent, roughly speaking, of the US provost - I find that a lot of what Tuchman has to say about changes in the university system and how it is perceived by wider society strikes a powerful chord.

This book is based on the American university system, but the patterns of behaviour that it outlines will be all too familiar to administrators and academics in universities all over the world.

Wannabe U crosses genre boundaries: it is a solid sociological study of higher education, well researched and theorised, yet it also owes a debt to the satirical campus novel genre. It raises serious questions about the desirability of the shifts in policy and practice that have changed the landscape of the academy, yet it manages at the same time to be funny and entertaining.

We make the acquaintance of James Whitmore, the president of "Wannabe", on the very first page as he hosts a retirement party for one of the university's lawyers (lawyers having an increasingly important role to play in the academy). He is immaculately, though not too expensively, dressed with wispy grey-brown hair falling gently over his forehead. The president proclaims his "Points of Pride" agenda, announces that Wannabe is going to become one of the top 25 research universities in the US, and declares that it is "a university in transformation". Tuchman notes that in making this declaration, the president never bothered to mention why the university needed to change - he simply assumed that everybody from politicians to students knew why change was necessary.

Tuchman has a beady eye for detail. She can size up the importance of a reception's recipient by the quality of food and drink on offer; she notes what people wear and how a promotion can change their appearance. She cites a humanities professor who became associate dean and "spent her raise" on suits and dresses. She interviews students with piercings and tattoos, and comes to the conclusion that "by engaging in the fashionable practice of getting extensive individualised tattoos in known styles, each had conformed".

Conformity seems to be built in to the new corporate university at all levels and in all kinds of ways, and Tuchman acerbically draws an analogy between piercings, tattoos and research universities, in that "all three involve imitation, individualisation and conformity". She also shows how the culture of conformity has not been achieved without carefully constructed campaign plans and a good deal of conflict.

In her introductory chapter, she points out that conflict is inherent in the university system: between administrators and academics; between academic disciplines; between high and low grant-receiving academics and their fields; between internally promoted administrators and those coming in from outside; between teaching and research; and, perhaps most notably, between generations.

By the end of the book, Tuchman implies that the rearguard battle for the old-style higher education model has been lost. With the retirement of the generation that holds the institutional memory of what went before, the younger generation of academics no longer knows that decisions were once reached democratically by departments, rather than by a central administration.

In her chapter on "The politics of centralisation", Tuchman remarks that provost Wesley, the president's hatchet man, follows the procedure he had outlined at his job interview: "I will consult others, but then I will do what I think best. I have the responsibility to decide what to do."

Only the trustees are impressed by his assurance that he had taken part in 75 meetings about restructuring; Tuchman notes that none of them bothers to ask about the content of those meetings or their participants. From the academics' viewpoint, consultation was cursory.

Tuchman is highly sceptical of what she calls an "accountability regime", arguing that it resembles Michel Foucault's panopticon, the surveillance machine so constructed that a jailer can see all his prisoners but none can see him. Her premise is that the profound changes in higher education since the Second World War mark a shift away from seeking to improve the public good and towards a model based on economic rationality. "Knowledge", she declares, is "now subordinated to the needs of universities for profit and recognition."

The process of centralisation that encourages the growth of an audit culture, which in turn fosters a politics of surveillance and increases the areas of conflict within an institution, involves "a gradual institutionalisation of legitimacy".

Tuchman borrows a phrase from a poem by Carl Sandburg: centralisation "comes on little cat feet". What is being legitimised is a change of educational philosophy and, consequently, a transformation of educational management and practice.

Universities today are "not to educate, but to train". Teaching practice is subordinated to the task of preparing students for work. Universities are not there to "lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music and other forms of culture; and to work towards both enlightened politics and public service". This is the old model.

In her final chapter, "The logics of compliance", Tuchman argues that contradictory logics can coexist and interact in uneasy tension - hence Wannabe's university plan claims to want to work in partnership with the state and the private sector, while at the same time stressing the importance of public service and intellectual enrichment. She is scathing about those academics who focus on their research at the expense of trying to understand how their own institutions work.

These academics, she writes, are the first to point the finger at overmanagement and too much accountability, yet are so focused on building their careers in their own fields that they fail to gain even a minimal understanding of how their institutions work. In consequence, the gradual little cat feet of measurement, league tables, internal and external audits have trodden paths so well worn that they have become widely accepted. Goodness, I thought, I recognise a few dozen people there.

This book raises important questions about what kind of higher education we want. Tuchman is passionately engaged, but never loses her sense of humour and leaves us with much to think about. In the chapter "Plans and priorities", she suddenly remarks that back in the 1960s and 1970s, "speaking one's mind was (the) norm", a welcome change after centuries of caution. Today, though, with universities entering wholeheartedly into the corporate culture, "many professors do not say what they think", and those who do "are making news". The age of academic freedom, she suggests, is not only at an end but may only ever have been a small window that was open for just a few years. Wow!

THE AUTHOR

Gaye Tuchman, professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, claims to be a "firm believer" in Georg Simmel's dictum that almost anything can be transformed into an interesting sociological problem.

Her main areas of interest are the sociologies of culture (including media), gender and higher education. She calls herself an ethnographer, although she has also published work on historical methods.

Tuchman has served her discipline as president of the Eastern Sociological Society, vice-president (and a co-founder) of Sociologists for Women in Society, and a member of the council of the American Sociological Association, in addition to many other roles. She has also been on editorial boards of key journals including the American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review and Discourse and Society.

Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University

By Gaye Tuchman

University of Chicago Press 2pp, £17.50

ISBN 9780226815299

Published 1 November 2009

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