Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy, by Morten Levin and Davydd J. Greenwood

David Wheeler finds reason for hope in a critique of the neoliberal academy that also offers sound ideas for reform

December 15, 2016
Mondragon University campus, Spain
All together: Mondragon University in Spain operates on cooperative principles, a model for moving beyond ‘the blame game’

As the fraud case against the now-defunct Trump University finally closes, and Hillary Clinton’s hopes of eliminating college tuition fees for ordinary American families lie in tatters (along with much else), it is heartening to know that some scholars continue to make the case for universities as exemplars of democratic ideals and social progress.

In Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy, Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood add their voices to the burgeoning catalogue of critiques of the impact of neoliberal policies on the quality of higher education in Europe and the US. But unlike many such contributions, this work draws heavily on the change management literature and offers a cornucopia of compelling and well-grounded ideas for reform of the academy.

Conventional rhetoric is employed in the castigation of the “global elites”, “free market fundamentalists” and, of course, their willing agents – the “neo-Taylorist” hierarchical and over-paid managers who, they assert, run public universities today. And, like many other critics of neoliberal policies, the authors note the impacts on those who struggle to pay for university study and end up with unmanageable debt and low-paid, insecure employment.

However, Levin and Greenwood are careful to make distinctions among diverse forms of higher education and to note that their ideas are focused primarily on how to rescue the social purpose of public universities through the harnessing of a contemporary version of “Bildung” – the concept, first advanced by Alexander von Humboldt, of universities as democratic communities of scholars, students and civil society.

Taking aim at simplistic sloganeering against corporatisation, they note that contemporary best practices in the corporate world are genuinely stakeholder-inclusive and empowering; it is simply that these ideas rarely penetrate institutions of higher learning. They also distinguish between neoliberal and neoclassical economic thinking, observing that a “rational choice” case can be made for increasing public investment in universities because of the public goods that result, citing Walter McMahon’s work in this area with approval.

In describing competing mental models of how organisations work, the authors make the helpful observation that people are often caught between what they espouse and what they actually believe. In the case of publicly funded universities, the result is a “ragtag conjugation” of contradictory beliefs and behaviours that support “authoritarian, hierarchical management, increasingly fordist, segmentary (sic), discipline-dominated academic structures, the disappearance of shared governance, increasing use of contingent faculty, and the use of accountability schemes as the central method of institutional policing”.

Happily, the authors also set out their analysis of what universities might look like if institutional members could move beyond “the blame game” and instead engage in self-reflection and develop a deeper understanding of the organisational subsystems within which they are situated.

Drawing heavily on the principles and practices of socio-technical systems design, originally championed by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, Levin and Greenwood make a strong case for good governance and empowering, relational leadership. They suggest experiments in pragmatic action research to generate the characteristics of “participatory learning organizations” within our public universities. And they conclude with some intriguing thought experiments of their own, including the possible emergence of cooperative universities, trust universities and even employee-owned and -run universities. Perhaps there is hope after all.

David Wheeler is president and vice-chancellor, Cape Breton University, Canada.

Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy
By Morten Levin and Davydd J. Greenwood
Berghahn, 230pp, £56.00
ISBN 9781785333217
Published 30 November 2016

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