Universities should be working for the greater good

Friendly competition can push us all to do better. But when the competitiveness that fuels excellence and prestige becomes based in the logic of the market, universities lose sight of their true purpose, writes Kathleen Fitzpatrick

April 11, 2019
Bleeding stack of paper
Source: Getty

I have this story that I often tell as a way of illustrating the roadblocks facing real transformation within even the most forward-thinking institutions of higher education. The story originates in a US context, but I think it applies to other national contexts as well. It goes like this.

A couple of years ago, I spent a day as an observer at a workshop for directors of university presses and university librarians designed to get them to think together about a new, open future for scholarly communication. The workshop was keynoted by the provost of a very large, highly visible, doctorate-granting public university. His address described the ways that his campus had recently recommitted itself to public service as the centrepiece of its mission, and was exploring how greater accessibility around the work done on his campus could transform the realisation of that aspiration. It was inspiring.

Or it was right up until the moment when someone raised the question of promotion and tenure, and how new modes of open scholarly communication might be appropriately evaluated.

The answer he gave had to do with the need to continue to ensure high standards through conventionally recognised modes of assessing research excellence, including publishing in the most highly rated venues. The room deflated. It was as if all of his previous comments suddenly evaporated. After all of the talk about mission and service, we were right back in the systems that keep researchers and administrators alike chasing metrics of “excellence”, generated not by the impact they wish to have but by black-box calculations that serve bureaucratic measurement more than they do advancing knowledge or serving the public.

So I asked him: What might happen if the provost of a highly visible research university that had recently reconfirmed its public-facing mission gathered the entire campus together – deans, department chairs and faculty – in rethinking the university’s promotion and tenure standards from top to bottom? What might become possible if that provost were to say that our definitions of “excellence” in research, teaching and service must have that public-facing mission at their heart? What might be possible if that public mission really became Job One?

The provost paused. Then he gave his answer: “Any institution that did that would immediately lose competitiveness within its cohort.”

That’s it; that’s the story.

The point of my retelling it is not that the provost was wrong. He wasn’t at all. In fact, the point is that he was correct. It’s that fulfilling the public-facing mission that our universities espouse runs headlong into those institutions’ actual mission: competitiveness.

The pursuit of prestige is not the problem in and of itself, and excellence is, of course, something to strive for. In fact, friendly competition can push us all to do better. But excellence and prestige and the competitiveness that fuels their pursuit are too often based in marketing – indeed, in the logic of the market – rather than in the actual purposes of higher education. It’s a diversion from the on-the-ground work of producing and sharing knowledge that can result in misplaced investments and misaligned priorities.

Worse may be the damage that competitiveness causes within the academic community when it’s adopted as our primary if unspoken ethos. Competition pits us against one another in a race for what the American economist Thorstein Veblen referred to as “invidious distinction”: faculty member against faculty member for a greater share of salary increases and research time; department against department for limited space and resources; institution against institution for acclaim, for attention, for funding.

So many mechanisms in higher education today reinforce that sense of never-ending competition. They include research analytics dashboards, institutional rankings and the “responsibility-centred management” that makes individual departments responsible for their own revenue and expenses, setting up competition to get student tuition dollars recognised as “theirs”. Success is transformed into a zero-sum game: your achievement means less for me.

But what if we were to take a step back from those assumptions, as well as a step inward to consider what we truly value, what we actually want higher education to be for? If we’re really pitted against anything in today’s culture, it’s a marketplace that understands our institutions solely as credential-producing machines; it’s a technology sector determined to revolutionise our work without providing anything that looks like long-term planning or a social good; it’s a state that fosters this instrumentalist and innovationist approach as part of an ongoing process of displacing public responsibilities on to private shoulders. In other words, it’s an interlocking set of structures that too often requires all of us within higher education to serve someone else’s values rather than our own.

So while the provost’s answer to my question was correct, it is not all there is to be said on the matter. What might become possible if we re-embraced our own values, from the ground up? What if we were to begin to understand ourselves in the collective, rather than in the singular: as a faculty, rather than as individual faculty members; as a university, rather than as a cluster of departments; as a higher education sector, rather than as endlessly competing, endlessly ranked institutions? What might such an understanding require of us? And what might it allow us to accomplish?

Microscope

Let’s start with the faculty. The very adoption of this term already surfaces a difficult set of negotiations, because the range of appointment types under which faculty members work today highlights the extent to which the success of some rides upon the poor treatment of others. In the US, within the tenure stream, individual faculty members negotiate deals that relieve them of parts of their teaching or service burden – which, of necessity, devolves on to other, less privileged faculty members. Tenure-eligible faculty members are similarly able to shift some parts of their workload on to instructors, contingent faculty and graduate assistants. And the faculty also depends on some aspects of its collective work being taken up by members of the university’s professional and administrative staff. Each of these relationships is structured through hierarchy: who has the privilege of saying no. And success, of course, is measured by ability to claw one’s way up the hierarchy.

But if we look around, we might note that this model of success is beginning to fall apart. Our pursuit of hierarchy is resulting not in the greater glory of the professoriate but in greater contingency for all. Tenure is being undermined across the US by the diminution of everyone’s basic academic freedom to teach and research as they see fit. If we recognised that the floor of what we’ll accept for others among us gradually becomes the baseline for what we’ll all be offered and replaced invidious distinction with solidarity, we might demand that teaching and service requirements be distributed more equitably, and that all positions provide appropriate research support and a living salary.

We might decide – as Ghent University did last December – not to “participate in the ranking of people”. This would create an environment in which talent of all varieties can flourish, instead of being assessed according to bureaucratic metrics that not only depersonalise and disenfranchise but that too often stifle the real innovation that we hope to foster. Critics of such transformations in assessment practices – nearly always those who have benefited from existing modes of measurement – argue that a change like this would represent an inevitable lowering of standards. They seem convinced that, in walking away from the ostensibly objective metrics we have deployed for determining “excellence”, we are giving up on excellence entirely.

But what if we were instead to “measure excellence by the degree to which we measure up to our values” – as suggested on Twitter by my colleague Christopher Long, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University? Such a humane process would require, first, a careful articulation of what our values are and why they represent success for us. These values might include equity, or openness, or public engagement. We would then undertake a narrative-driven process that would begin with periodic self-assessment, thinking through the extent to which our work for our fields, for our students and for our institutions is enabling us to live out the values that we espouse. It would then proceed through conversations with our review committees, chairs and deans about the quality of our goals and how well we’re meeting them. Academic careers would thus be evaluated not based on quantitative, standardised metrics of “impact” but, instead, through qualitative assessments of the extent to which the work achieves the kind of impact we as a faculty understand ourselves to be seeking.

A process like this would enable us to understand that the things that count most for us might exist outside the countable. And a process like this, rather than require us to be ranked against one another, would ask us to think about how our work contributes to our collective goals as a department, a college and an institution.

The potential of this shift in emphasis from the competitive to the collective applies not just at the level of the individual member of the university community but at the departmental and even the institutional level. Right now, collaboration across units within a single institution is often hamstrung by the ways that budgets are managed, responsibilities are assessed and credit is apportioned. And collaborations between institutions face all of those obstacles and more. All of our institutions have the same needs, and things like publishing and learning management systems are too large for individual universities to adequately design, build and support on their own. Yet their habit of competition drives them to attempt to do so anyway, rather than work together and share the results. Or, worse, they opt for commercial solutions that lock in campus information and financial resources without ever quite serving our needs.

There may be a part of you thinking that there is fat chance of getting your institution to stop competing with its cohort – and you have good reason to think that. Every aspect of the ways that we and our institutions work functions to keep us on the path we’re on. Creating viable, sustainable, cross-institutional collaborations, for instance, would require each participating institution to be willing to let go of some of its own local priorities in favour of the common good – and to support those who contribute to those collective projects. That is going to take the right leadership.

There will be resistance generated by those who insist that the latest venture capital-funded solution has the potential to disrupt our outmoded ways of working: sales reps who promise systems that can increase efficiency and give us an edge on our cohort institutions; lobbyists from the likes of commercial publishers and tech firms working to convince policymakers to keep our institutions locked into market-driven rather than educational priorities.

But the longer we remain locked into quantitative metrics of faculty excellence and hierarchical rankings of institutional excellence, the longer will we be diverted from articulating our own definitions of “excellence” more in keeping with the deeper, collective values of higher education.

So who will be brave enough not only to join Ghent University in refusing to rank people but also to opt out of the ranking of institutions? We have nothing to lose but the metrics by which we are chained.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is director of digital humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University. Her latest book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, is published this month by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Print headline: For the greater good

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Reader's comments (3)

Protagoras has been revised. We are no longer the measure of things "we are the measured"
I agree wholeheartedly with many of the sentiments expressed here, though I think that simply hoping universities "opt out of the ranking of institutions" will be nothing like enough. Better would be changing the ranking systems themselves (though whatever pressures necessary) so that what was being reflected in rankings was, in fact, all those attributes contributing to "advancing knowledge or serving the public" (however that might be defined) instead of the "black-box calculations that serve bureaucratic measurement". I'm sure that's an uphill battle too .... But as long as universities are ranked, and rankings drive enrollment and funding and All That, I think few will "opt out". But rank them on "public mission", and we will see them falling over each other to change course and comply. I'm not sure we can escape the metrics; but maybe we can rig them in our, and the public's, favour.
There is nothing wrong with competitiveness amongst proper academics. But in recent years the #CultOfManagerialism has burrowed into universities. This means academic dullard bean counting and league table ranking obsessives are now deprofessionalizing those they despise in order to control them. It's the project that invaded out health services first.

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