Slaves to the factory rhythm

June 11, 2004

By turning universities into a production line, the US is killing innovation, says Lindsay Waters

While we were sleeping, the American university has been corporatised, turned into a version of a Ford Motor factory with the professors as assembly-line workers doing more and more mindless activities to the point of exhaustion. It is a development that has lessons for universities elsewhere.

It has been the genius of Americans to be able to mechanise every human activity, from harvesting wheat to butchering beef, but automation is hurting the heart of the academic process - publication. Winning tenure in the US is the most serious goal for the academic. Over the past 50 years, the emphasis on publication has increased. As the administrators know, it is a dog-eat-dog world for those in charge of universities as they seek to prove to funders and taxpayers that they run an efficient operation with high productivity that is empirically verifiable.

Sociologist Talcott Parsons predicted in 1973 that governing the university with an unchecked bureaucratic mentality would wreak havoc, pitching social scientists and scientists against humanists. What he failed to predict was that the humanists would conform with the emerging emphasis on the empirical sciences. Universities have come under increasing assault as the US has turned politically more conservative. The result has been that the radical ideas from 1960s France turned out to be very easy to turn into a professionalised discourse in need of endless refashioning in print.

From the 1970s, administrators and administrated learnt to collude in the production of the appearance of productivity: there has been much great scholarship, sure, but it all risks sinking under the mass of dross. Fear of arcane theorising and the encouragement to speed the process led some departments to develop the practice of not reading the writings of tenure candidates but depending on the fact of publication and the perceived prestige of a publisher's name to guarantee the value of the product.

Numbers became king. The tragedy is that the semblance of innovation became the poison to kill innovation. When tenure review is done right - with university colleagues in command - the process inspires innovation by opening those colleagues up to new ideas. When the tenure decision is outsourced to people in university presses and hastened by deans concerned only with numbers, the chance to develop new ideas does not occur. This is Chernobyl for the life of the mind.

For the humanities, especially, the effect is devastating because the humanities are first of all about judgement. When publications cease being complex media and become, rather, objects to quantify, then all the other media that humanities study lose value.

The corporatist demand for increased productivity has drained publication of any significance other than as numbers. The US university has been one of the greatest institutions America has wrought, taking the European university and transforming it into a place where an experimental attitude has prevailed in the arts and sciences and the doors have been open to all.

The Bush government has sought to close the doors of the university, but the long-term problem has been the way those in the university have closed their minds by setting in place procedures that hamper innovation.

The solution is for departments to take back self-governance. This will mean giving up lazy ways of granting tenure by numbers. Giving that up will necessitate more debate inside departments about whose work and service merits tenure. I write from China, where the government hopes to develop several world-class universities by following the US model of hyperproductivity. It is time we examine that model and revise it before more harm is done.

Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press. His book Enemies of Promise is published in the UKnext week by Prickly Paradigm Press.

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