Why Middlesex Matters

By John Protevi for Inside Higher Ed

May 17, 2010

The past three weeks have seen an international outcry at the decision by the administration of Middlesex University in London to close its small but very highly regarded philosophy programme. Why were so many American academics, many of them besieged by budget crises at their own universities, so upset at this decision made so far away? Why did Middlesex matter to those thousands who so quickly became involved, and why should it matter to all American academics, even those who are only just now hearing of it?

First, it matters because the administration’s decision wasn’t just meekly accepted. The resistance to it by faculty and students at Middlesex is remarkable, and their courage and organising skill serve as an inspiring model to academics here suffering from years of the "death by a thousand cuts" of reduced hiring and operating budgets, larger classes, increased teaching loads, and more use of precarious adjunct labour – all delivered with top-down administrative arrogance more or less fig-leafed with talk of "shared governance".

Let me sketch the outline of events at Middlesex. The decision was communicated by email to the philosophy faculty on Monday 26 April. Early reports of the decision quoted the dean of arts and education, Ed Esche, as saying that the decision was "simply financial". The Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign (website: http://savemdxphil.com/) was launched the next day. A meeting between students and university officials was scheduled for Tuesday 4 May, but when the students showed up for the meeting, the officials were nowhere to be found; the meeting had been postponed. The students, many of whom had not heard of the postponement, then occupied the building and stayed until a court ordered them out this weekend. The students created a "Transversal Space" in the occupied building, in which they studied, read papers, invited speakers, discussed film and poetry, and in general went about educating themselves despite the administration. Any academic who has dreamed of having self-motivated students was green with envy and realised that whatever the Middlesex philosophers had been doing to attract and develop this kind of student – well, that deserves support!

Word of the decision and subsequent occupation spread quickly. By Monday 10 May, two weeks after the decision, over 14,000 people had signed an online protest petition. Letters of protest and supportive web posts came pouring in from national and specialist philosophical associations: a joint letter from the British Philosophical Association (BPA), the American Philosophical Association (APA), and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP); the Société Française de Philosophie; the Canadian Philosophical Association; and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). The Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP) circulated a link to the petition to all member societies. (A remarkable point about the national associations’ support is that Middlesex is known for specialising in modern European or "continental" philosophy, which we can safely say is not exactly at the centre of the APA’s concern. But I think we should be heartened by this show of solidarity: philosophers may be notorious for squabbling about philosophical method and aims, but one thing that can unite us is resistance to administrative overreach!) Many individual and group letters were sent and/or published, including a notable one in Times Higher Education, signed by some 30 prominent intellectual figures, among them Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Gayatri Spivak, and Slavoj Zizek. The blogosphere sprang into action, with Brian Leiter’s influential philosophy blog Leiter Reports helping spread the word and taking a strong stance against the decision; Facebook networks fired rapidly, with the Save Middlesex Philosophy group page quickly soaring to over 10,000 members.

But is there any real content to this response? Is it just boomer nostalgia (hey, a student occupation, cool!), the power of memes gone viral (once it gets on Facebook, there’s no resisting the wave!)? No. It’s not just bandwagon jumping, nor is it just admiration for the students and staff who are resisting. It’s also disgust at the venality and short-sightedness of the administration.

Philosophy at Middlesex received the highest rating of any programme in the university in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, a periodic exercise conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which determines disbursement of government funds for research. Middlesex Philosophy had 65 per cent of its research activity rated "world-leading" or "internationally renowned". This put Middlesex philosophy 13th of 41 programmes in the UK, at the top of all the other ex-polytechnics or "post-1992 universities", and ahead of established heavyweights such as Sussex, Warwick, York, Durham, and Glasgow. To cut such a programme, while bragging on its website about its commitment to research excellence – that was just too much administrative hypocrisy for even many hardened American academics to bear.

When word got out that at Middlesex from 2008 to 2009 academic staff has fallen from 748 to 733, while administration has risen from 888 to 890; that the number of senior staff with total compensation above £100,000 increased from 7 to 13; and that total compensation for the VC increased from £223,000 to £246,000 – all these facts rang an all-too-familiar note with American academics as well. And it certainly didn’t help the administration’s image when people learned that consultant fees increased from £2,321,000 to £3,122,000 in that time period. (Details on these figures may be found here, in the university's financial statement.)

Another outrage was learning that philosophy produced a yearly revenue of some £173,260 for the university from its excellent results in the 2008 RAE. Incredibly, the university will continue to receive that sum yearly until the research excellence framework, to be held in 2014 or perhaps even 2016, even if it has closed the philosophy programme! This was an all too blatant case of ripping off the labour of the philosophers. Then it came out that the "subject group" composed of philosophy (six faculty members) and religious studies (one member) contributed 53 per cent of its revenue to central administration in 2009-10 and was projected to contribute 59 per cent in 2010-11. The central administration requires 55 per cent, so it is willing to cut its most highly rated research programme for a temporary 2 percentage point shortfall. Veterans of penny-pinching, short-sighted, and arbitrary administrations winced with sympathetic familiarity at this sort of "reasoning".

Those are the immediately resonating factors for American academics. There are some differences, of course, the lack of an American version of the RAE being the most important. But that just made the situation all the more galling. After all, Middlesex philosophy was not just teaching the full-time equivalent (FTE) in 2009-10 of 112.5 undergraduate and graduate students, it was also bringing in the holy grail of "outside funding" – besides the RAE money, another grant, from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, had brought in £230,000 in 2006-09. In light of these figures, the administration’s position came to seem more like extortion than anything else: “[more of] your money or your programme.” Here American academics had a clear case of what we had been complaining about for years. For all the talk about how humanities programmes cost money, the reality is that through teaching so many tuition-paying students (and/or providing cheap labour teaching assistants in the form of graduate students), humanities programmes contribute significantly to the overall financial well-being of their institutions. Not just breaking even, but sending money to the central administration – just not enough for the Middlesex administration’s acquired taste for spending millions in consulting fees! When a philosophy programme that not only generates tuition but also brings in considerable outside funding – something that is like unto a dream for many American humanities scholars – can be pushed over the edge like this, then here we had a case of administrative greed that even the most blinkered academic couldn’t ignore.

Having laid out these immediately resonating factors, let’s pull back a little and consider the less immediate, but no doubt influential, factors that have led the Middlesex situation to be a "perfect storm" of academic resistance.

Adapting some of the points that the University of Southern Maine's Jason Read makes in his well-argued commentary, we can see that underlying the reaction to Middlesex are three fundamental factors.

First, for some there is frustration that administrators seem stubbornly not to accept (well-documented) evidence that humanities study in general and philosophy study in particular really does make economic sense, that it does contribute to producing the “ideas” people of the future that business, government, and nonprofits do in fact want, that philosophy grads get good-paying jobs and become good taxpayers, etc. A 2008 New York Times piece about the popularity of the philosophy major and the employability of philosophy graduates enjoyed wide publicity in American academe; why didn’t administrations seem to know it was a whole new ballgame when it came to the “real world” applicability of philosophy study?

Not everyone shares this “accommodationist” viewpoint though. Among the traditionalists, then, we find the second aspect, anger that administrators want to have their cake and to eat it too when it comes to the name "university". They are happy to use the centuries of association, dating to the 13th century founding of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, of philosophy study and the name "university", but it seems they only want the prestige of the title, and not the content of the course of study. They want access to the market niche, but are happy to cut the philosophers loose once their "brand name" is assured. In the face of this rank hypocrisy many protest letters to Middlesex officials proclaimed that "a university without philosophy study isn’t worthy of the name".

Third, among the more radicalised faculty, there’s awareness that more is at stake in the Middlesex struggle than meets the eye. We've been told for many years – by administrators in fact more so than by leftists – that we have to tear down the ivory tower, that we have to acknowledge the integration of the university into the economy. "Accountability" to taxpayers demands no less. Well then, Read argues, let’s take them at their word: "[I]f we are living through a knowledge economy then there is no separation between the struggle over knowledge, who gets to learn, who benefits, etc., and the general struggle for the economy, for the production and circulation of wealth. To put it briefly the contemporary university is an object lesson in the inseparability of the economic and the political."

So part of the reason for the international resistance is that Middlesex has come to symbolise a high stakes battle over not "merely" education, but over the very real world of political economy. With Middlesex, we have seen to the heart of the present university – fat cat administrators, who, ironically enough, embody a top-heavy 1950s corporate structure while using 21st century slogans of "flexibility" and "relevance" to gut the humanities – and we won’t accept it. Another university, another future is there for us to build, not outside political economy, but at the centre, where we find ourselves whether we like it or even realise it. Read’s piece is entitled “De te fabula narratur”: “the story is about you, my friend.” I like the demotic version: "You might say you’re not interested in politics, but you can be damn sure politics is interested in you."

Taking that to heart, let us work together so that the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign and its superb "Transversal Space" is only the beginning of a new university, a new university we can build when faculty and students strongly resist and imaginatively organise on an international scale and in full awareness of all the stakes involved. Let’s make “Middlesex” be the name for the end of the corporate university and the beginning of the democratic university.

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