The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars, and Neoliberal Ideology, by John Smyth

Book of the week: A cancerous, consumer-driven capitalism has weakened higher education, says David Wheeler

August 10, 2017
Zombies
Source: Reuters

In the recent UK general election more than 60 per cent of the 18- to 24-year-olds who voted supported Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. It seems safe to assume that his post-austerity platform, which included a signature commitment to abolishing university tuition fees, now forms a credible alternative to the economic assumptions that have dominated British politics for nearly four decades.

Neatly bookending this momentous political development were two other events. In early May, the University of Manchester announced 171 job cuts, of which 140 were to be academic posts. Meanwhile, less than a month after the election, the apparently rehabilitated and irrepressible Michael Gove weighed in to defend tuition fees by saying “It’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find that they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do.”

It is doubtful whether John Smyth could have hoped for a more auspicious political context to illustrate the salience of the arguments contained in his latest polemic.

The central thesis of this well-constructed and well-referenced book is that in recent decades higher education policy – in common with much else that matters in human existence – has come to be shaped by neoliberalism’s blind and evidence-free prescriptions. As many commentators now assert, the real economy – which depends on cohesive social relations, humanism and respect for ecological integrity – has been usurped by a form of speculative, consumer-driven financial capitalism that may be divorced from reality but that nevertheless continues to dominate political discourse and, by extension, the governance of our institutions, including universities.

Apparently even the International Monetary Fund now believes that the virtues of neo-liberalism have been oversold because of the manifest social and economic failings of austerity. And yet such is the hold that even effete economic theories have on our collective mind-share, we seem unable to shake off their assumptions, attendant coercive rules and required behaviours, however negative and obviously damaging their effects.

Smyth describes the pernicious effect of fears peddled by politicians, policy elites and of course the eponymous “zombie leaders” of our universities, whom he accuses of slavishly adopting consumerist systems of rankings, metrics and reporting systems in order to demonstrate global competitiveness and thereby achieve reputational gain.

The price to be paid by individual academics for this institutionalised management by fear is significant. Smyth refers to the phenomenon of Pathological Organisational Dysfunction in our institutions of higher learning – a development others have described as “evil” (John Gatto) and “entering the mouth of hell” (Heather Höpfl).

He asserts that the emergence of non-ethical university leadership can be explained by an intrinsic logic framed by neoliberal assumptions. The same reasoning that allows the University of Manchester to try to prematurely terminate 140 academic careers also allowed the emergence of informal performance criteria at Imperial College London that were implicated in the suicide of toxicologist Stefan Grimm in 2014 – a tragic story retold in some detail in this book. It is the same amoral logic that has encouraged the emergence of an underclass of university teachers with no job security and no prospect of embarking on a research career.

A recurring and troubling theme in The Toxic University is Smyth’s observation that many in the academy are colluding in the new order that has overtaken our universities: “the enemy is within and we have all become complicit in managing our own decline”. He describes the resignation and sometimes schizophrenic behaviour of academics who go along with spurious systems of measurement and ranking in the forlorn hope of minor preferment or simply to be left alone to pursue their passions in the dwindling time left to them when they are not teaching or involved in administration.

Smyth seeks to explain the apparent collusion of academics by advancing a theory of class relations within universities, noting that there is a “growing separation between those who do the work, and those who lay claim to its outcomes or products”. But in this case the resulting class system is not based on traditional notions of ownership, but on who controls knowledge and its dissemination. Senior administrators and their public relations departments, “academic rock stars” and those in the academic administrative ranks tend to dominate those who do the work, whether as regular research-active academics or members of the aforementioned underclass that does half the teaching in most of the English-speaking world.

Rather than applying a classical Marxist analysis, Smyth prefers definitions of class based on John Holloway’s notion of dignity or at least the “negation of humiliation”, which then leads to a debate around insubordination and struggle. As a self-identifying critical social theorist, he anchors his perspective in the tradition of the Frankfurt School of Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and others. Among several more contemporary theorists he references the work of French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot in arguing for the critical importance of reflection and the emergence of a social realisation that “something is going wrong” before effective resistance can occur.

Fleeting thoughts are offered about what forms insubordination and resistance might take: “The starting point for contesting the neoliberal university resides in disavowal – that is to say, we need to stop deluding ourselves into believing that we need to continue endorsing stupid ideas.”

Some helpful biological analogies are offered for those who enjoy mental models as a context for change: John McMurtry’s concept of “cancerous capitalism” and Michael Hudson’s “financial parasites” both seem to invite surgical responses. Clearly, Smyth is advocating resistance, and he provides examples of a number of tactics that may be deployed in this regard, based on his knowledge of organisational theory, the work of Karl Weick and others. Academics are encouraged to be courageous and to challenge authority – although it is noted that the price of perceived disloyalty to an institution can be severe. Reclaiming the notion of academic citizenship and replacing competition with collegiality would help. But there is not much in this book that would act as a blueprint for fundamental reform, revolutionary or incremental.

Despite the absence of a roadmap for change, one of the strengths of The Toxic University is the inclusion of a comprehensive and yet mercifully brief review of critiques of the contemporary university. Smyth offers a helpful synthesis of more than a hundred works describing one or more of the following phenomena: “damage, despair, violence, and sense of loss”; “the rising tide of the marketised, corporate, managed, entrepreneurial, adaptive administrative, or neoliberal university”; “rampant confusion and loss of way”; and finally “attempts at reclamation, reinvention, reimagination, and recovery from this ill-conceived experiment”.

A fully developed theory and practice of reinvention remains to be written, but this is a helpful, if somewhat expensive, primer.

David Wheeler is chairman of the International Higher Education Group and former vice-chancellor of Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia.


The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars, and Neoliberal Ideology
By John Smyth
Palgrave Macmillan 235pp, £66.99 and £52.99 (e-book)

ISBN 9781137549761 and 9781137549686 (e-book)
Published 6 July 2017


The author

John Smyth

Where did you grow up and how has this influenced you?

I grew up in a regional town in Australia in the 1950s. My parents, even though they did not admit it, were working class, and had always impressed upon me the importance of education as a way to a better life. I took their advice seriously. Unfortunately, it was not that simple. In about Year 10 at high school, on the basis of aptitude tests, I was told to leave school and get job in a factory. In those days, secondary school and beyond was only for elites, and I certainly did not fit that… By a quirk of accident, I revisited my old school during the vacation and spoke with my English teacher, who convinced me to return to school and repeat the year, this time studying social science subjects.

The rest is history. I attained first-class honours in economics and history that year, and was admitted to study economics at Melbourne University. I went on, after a short career as a high-school teacher, to complete six degrees, including a PhD, ending up as a research professor of education, having held a full professorial position for 25 years in three or four countries. The moral behind my story is that things don’t have to be taken at face value – there is a need to look beneath the surface for the other forces at work. 

What was your own university experience like?

In a word, my initial university experience was “horrendous”. Being a working-class kid from a country town, I did not know how I was going to survive the first week! I was like a fish out of water with the elite private-school types, and had the feeling that universities, such as the one I was in, were not for people like me.

My second university, where I did teacher training, was more user-friendly, and it was a good experience. This initial experience profoundly shaped the rest of my career trajectory – I strenuously avoided elite universities, even to the point of later rejecting a job offer from Melbourne University, instead spending the whole of my career working in less prestigious universities. The work was always more interesting, there were more spaces to do innovative things – and, besides, I developed a philosophy that said in effect “If I have any intellect at all, why would I want to use it to further advantage the already advantaged?” What this has meant is that the whole of my 43-year university career as a sociologist has been around making sense of the lives of young people who have been “put at” a disadvantage by the forces of what we now call globalisation.

What were the core events that first made you think universities are becoming “toxic”?

Let me come at this question somewhat obliquely. My first university post-PhD was the Australian equivalent of the UK Open University – a place that believed quite passionately that intelligent people who had hitherto been excluded from the opportunity to study at university deserved a place.

Interestingly, what came with this was also a unique way of working within this university. Knowledge creation was not seen as a private or individual process, but rather a collective, collaborative, and collegial undertaking. Nobody did anything on their own - teaching, research, administration, service work. About the only thing done privately was going to the bathroom! Those who held leadership positions, myself included for a decade, were elected by our peers. Academic work was not seen as a privatised, individual, invisible, competitive and shrouded activity. On the contrary, we practised our academic work publicly, and that was how we all learned from one another.

This idea started to come unhinged somewhere around the mid-1980s when we were assailed by politicians and policy makers who were telling us that the way of the future was to be competitive, more private, and to do this more assiduously in the interests of our universities. This was the beginning of what we now call the neoliberal turn in universities, in which everything is measured and calibrated to tabulate, compare and rank universities. This was the new age of the supremacy of the consumer, with students (and the fees they pay) being the vanguard of the new “user pays” approach.

The new era of “generic management” meant that nobody needed to know anything about the real work of universities – any fool could do it! This separation of decision-making and management from any profound understanding embedded in and emerging from academic work destroyed the collegial basis of universities with a single blow and ushered in what I consider to have become the sinister and toxic culture we now have.

Do you see any positive signs that activism might be redressing some of the trends that you point to?

In short, sadly, no, not in any concerted way. I am however heartened by the level of public discourse and discord around universities as they have been reconfigured, and the demonstrable evidence that universities are not working, with plummeting morale, and that we desperately need alternatives. I am also heartened by the existence of bodies such as the Council for the Defence of British Universities and its Australian equivalent. There are also other groups such as the Cooperative Universities movement, and the increasing publicity being given to the University of Mandragon in the Basque area of Spain.

I must confess to having little faith in politicians, policy makers or university “managers” having the political will or imagination to do anything about the current situation of universities. Rather, they will have to be forced into seeing the failed nature of their grotesque experiment. As I describe in The Toxic University, action will need to come from within the daily work of academics who in effect say to their “managers”, “Sorry, but enough is enough of this failed experiment.” 

Matthew Reisz

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Print headline: Shiny veneer, rotten within

Reader's comments (1)

'if somewhat expensive,' - indeed - another deleterious aspect: the price of academic publications.

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