This collection of essays on the condition of universities describes itself as “a clarion call”. It exhorts us to “collective resistances” against all sorts of bad things: managerialism, audit culture, “existing hierarchies and inequitable power structures”, and most of all “neo-liberalism”. There is a lot of talk about neoliberalism.
Spooner and McNinch urge their readers to “go beyond the audited confines of the academy”, encouraging us to resist, exceed, face down the combined ills of sexism, racism, colonialism, heteronormativity and form filling.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton take a bashing, but curiously not Barack Obama, whom the Canada-based editors seem rather nostalgic for, even though I seem to recall that when in power he was considered by the academic “dissident” left as just another neoliberal sell-out. The rhetoric and orientation of the essays will be familiar to long-term observers of this sort of thing.
Can the book be dismissed as just another example of tenured radicals speaking to each other in the aisles of Trader Joe’s before taking their weekly grocery shop back to their subsidised campus accommodation in the Volvo? Probably, but the mess of universities today is not the same as the mess of universities in the 1980s. We should spend a little time unpicking that.
The contributors to this volume identify a number of plagues in contemporary higher education, some of them imagined, some of them parochial to the Canadian context, but others that chime with the wider currents of universities in the globalised West. These include precarious contracts, underrepresentation of black and ethnic minority staff in senior positions, the gender pay gap, graduate debt and the alienation of academic staff from the management structures of the institutions that employ them.
These issues are serious and need to be addressed. It is a pity, then, that such little attention is given to the specifics of each problem, which all have different causes and affect individuals in distinct ways. Instead, the tendency in the book is to blame them all on “neo-liberal managerialism”.
And here is the crux of the problem with this book and the thinking that informs it. Although “thinking” is the wrong word, since it is really a heartfelt, emotional response rather than a considered position.
There is no doubting the commitment of the contributors, but one can question their complacency. It is remarkable how few people who work in higher education have a robust understanding of the policy landscape that defines their industry. It is even more remarkable how few ever try to find out.
It is easy to be a self-styled dissenter if all it requires is to adopt a wounded pose and condemn anything done by people you instinctively mistrust. It is much more difficult to acquire a knowledge of higher education policy and use it to manage real institutions with their complex demands.
Let us take an example from the editors’ own introduction, in which they say that “managerialism is ‘the organizational form of neo-liberalism’”. Chapter after chapter, the arguments of the book are tied to what it repeatedly calls the neoliberal university.
But nowhere does anyone actually explain what they mean by the phrase. It’s just a given for the authors that the contemporary university is neoliberal, as if institutions such as Princeton, Sheffield, Regina, Lincoln and Little Rock were all the same. They obviously are not, and each requires its own specific response and analysis.
What would a neoliberal university look like? If we were to use the term correctly, it would mean a university where each of its functions was put out to tender to private companies that would run them according to the principles of market efficiency, while achieving a profit for their shareholders.
If a given university were actually neoliberal, its Faculty of Science would be run by Virgin, and Serco would have a contract to recruit its students. This is demonstrably not how universities work anywhere, not even in Saskatchewan.
It is not possible to comment on the quality of management decisions at any given university without knowing the context and constraints under which they are made, but I am reasonably confident in saying that few are the result of the organising principles of neoliberalism.
A model of the neoliberal university does pertain to the “alternative provider” sector, where for-profit institutions are run to guarantee returns for investors. Encouraging such providers is the present policy of the UK government. Whether they are a more effective way of providing a low-cost skills base for the UK economy remains an unproven hypothesis.
However, none of the contributors to the book mentions such alternative providers, even though their problems in the US are widely recorded. Rather, the publicly funded universities, where managers are required to account for the money that taxpayers contribute to higher education, receive the book’s most focused disapproval.
One contributor tells the heroic tale of refusing to complete a form asking for the titles of journal articles and conference papers presented, having previously supplied the same data on separate occasions. I am sure that plenty of early career scholars would happily swap the self-congratulation of tenured senior colleagues for a permanent contract.
The book includes an interview with celebrity dissident Noam Chomsky, who does his dissenting from the safety of one of the world’s most privileged universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Like the rest of the contributors, Chomsky demonstrates no real understanding of the statutory and strategic requirements of running a university or what the policy issues might be that would earn him a hearing with an actual government.
He does, however, tell an anecdote about trying to negotiate the recorded messages on a telephone menu as he calls his bank. There is a risk that the one associate professor and 16 full professors (three of them emeriti) who contribute to this book end up looking like grumpy old men and women, or at least as bewildered by the realities of modern life as those they criticise for voting for Donald Trump.
I recall that when Slobodan Milošević expelled real dissident academics from universities in the former Yugoslavia, for refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to his regime, those academics were dismayed when Chomsky declined their request for support and instead backed Milošević’s opposition to the US.
It is not easy to have a perfect record on every progressive cause, but if you cannot recognise a real authoritarian regime actively curtailing academic freedom when it happens under your nose, what is the point of being a dissenter?
If I am harsh on the easy rhetoric of this book it is not for conservative reasons or out of a desire to defend well-remunerated and often failing university management teams. It is because its dissenters share with the managers they criticise a basic assumption that there is a pure core to higher education that can be extracted – if only it can be freed from the flawed people who actually work in universities.
However, the first task of being a grown-up in a university is the recognition that there is no position from which one frees oneself from being implicated in the institution. One can resign oneself to that complicity in more or less knowing ways, but there is no easy escape from it.
Martin McQuillan is director of the Institute for Creative Enterprise at Edge Hill University.
Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education
Edited by Marc Spooner and James McNinch
University of Regina Press, 352pp, £26.99
Published 18 May 2018
Marc Spooner, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Canada, took a first degree in psychology at Carlton University in Ontario and then, at the University of Ottawa, a PhD about “the processes that lead young adults to channel their creativity in various fields and degrees of social acceptance”.
His current research focuses on issues such as homelessness and poverty, social justice, activism and participatory democracy as well as “audit culture” and the impact of corporatisation in higher education. It relies on qualitative and participatory methods to explore the intersections of theory and action on the ground.
Widely recognised as an expert on homelessness, Spooner has been the principal investigator for several research studies funded by federal and municipal governments, including a series of assessments of the ongoing Regina Community Plan, which gave particular attention to the perspectives of homeless service providers and First Nations service users.
James McNinch is professor emeritus and former dean of the Faculty of Education at Regina. His research explored gender and sexual diversity, racism and the social construction of masculinity as well as issues of teaching and learning in higher education.
His collection “I Could Not Speak My Heart”: Education and Social Justice for Gay and Lesbian Youth (edited with Mary Cronin, 2004) set out to address the fact that, while changes in the law and professional life had improved the lives of many gay men and women, “there has been almost no impact on school curricula or practice, particularly in the prairies”. Equally committed to addressing a major injustice within Canadian society was a second collection, I Thought Pocahontas Was a Movie: Perspectives on Race/Culture Binaries in Education and Service Professions (with Carol Schick, 2009).