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Money, managerialism and the university

Marina Warner, in an essay titled “Learning My Lesson” in the current issue of the London Review of Books, writes of a letter she received from an academic who felt he had been driven to resign from his post as a result of demands placed on him which he felt to be unreasonable. He wrote:

Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain – from people who don’t teach or do research at all, or if they ever did, think humanities departments should work like science departments …
The incessant emphasis was on cash: write grant applications rather than books and articles in order to fund one’s research … accept anyone for study who could pay, unethical as that was especially at postgraduate level, where foreign applicants with very poor English were being invited to spend large sums on degrees … Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later. We had to spend hours filling in time-and-motion forms to prove we weren’t bunking off when we were supposed to be doing our research and writing during the summer ‘vacation’ … It was like working for a cross between IBM, with vertiginous hierarchies of command, and McDonald’s.

One academic who had secured a financial settlement from a university which wished to dispense with her services was asked to sign a document which read:

You agree that you have not and undertake that you will not (either directly or indirectly) make, publish or otherwise communicate any disparaging or derogatory comments whether in writing or otherwise and whether or not they are considered by you to be true, concerning the University or any Associated Entity, or any of its or their present or former officers or employees.

What Warner and many others are complaining of is the suborning of a traditional institution of learning by money and management, a process which they see as likely to end in the privatisation of the university. Already, very high salaries, based no doubt on “results”, which means profits, are being paid to senior administrators. Just how high no one really knows as the beneficiaries are not telling. Warner writes:

As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, so language is suborned to its ends. We have all heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated a digitally generated voice. Like Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university – through ‘targets’, ‘benchmarks’, time-charts, league tables, ‘vision statements’, ‘content providers’. We may laugh or groan, depending on the state of our mental health at the thickets of TLAs – three-letter acronyms, in the coinage of the writer Richard Hamblyn – that accumulate like dental plaque.

Prof Thomas Docherty, a leading critic of managerialism in the university who will give a talk at Maynooth University next Wednesday (March 25th) entitled “On free speech and academic freedom: responsibilities and complicities”, wrote in an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement last year that

academic freedom thrives on scepticism, on disagreement ... In our times ... the absolutes of God or of presidents have become subject to questioning. Consequently, both theological and military fundamentalisms have been dislodged in enlightened thinking; but we now have to negotiate a new and subtler force – “managerial fundamentalism” – which is the latest threat to free expression, or disagreement, in the university and beyond.

Docherty cites the case of the University of Saskatchewan’s dean of the public health faculty, Robert Buckingham, who

was summarily dismissed and escorted from campus by security in a bizarre parody of a third-rate TV police drama. His crime? He wrote “The Silence of the Deans”, a paper critical of Saskatchewan management’s planning, a crime aggravated when he published it locally – against management strictures committing him to silence. Management’s plan was motivated by money, pecuniary profit: ‘reallocating resources for future success” – which means cuts and job losses in hopes of eventually enhancing league-table reputation. Although Buckingham was later reinstated, the controversy revealed the limits to which management would go to enforce conformity by the managerial silencing of disagreement.

Prof Buckingham’s case is not a million miles away from Prof Docherty’s own. Last year he was suspended for nine months (before being fully reinstated) for allegedly undermining the authority of his head of department at the University of Warwick. The case against him bizarrely included charges of “inappropriate sighing”, “making ironic comments” and “projecting negative body language”.

By what right, he asked in his THES essay, does a university management claim jurisdiction over civility? Indeed “[w]hat is more uncivilised than modern management-speak, whose plethora of linguistic abstractions and acronyms are designed to protect management from scrutiny, ensuring that it acts with impunity at all times, safe within its own codes and protocols? ‘Strategic planning’, for example, often means ‘restructuring’, which in turn means ‘lots of you are fired’. This is rude, barbaric incivility: the speaker, through the ostensibly courteous euphemism, evades his responsibility for destroying careers and livelihoods, in the service of money.”

Thomas Docherty has taught at University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Kent at Canterbury, and at the University of Warwick, where he is now professor of English and Comparative Literature. He is the author of many books on modern literature, philosophy and cultural theory, and on the institutions of literature and literary study. Most recently, in books such as Aesthetic Democracy (2006), For the University (2011) and Universities at War (2014), he has emerged as the pre-eminent analyst and critic of change in the British university system. Andrew Gibson has hailed him as, along with Stefan Collini, “a major contemporary heir to Newman, a defender of a sober, principled, honourable, sophisticated, demanding and by no means idealized concept of the university”.

His Maynooth talk will take place at JHL6, on the second floor of the John Hume Building, North Campus at 4pm on March 25th, 2015. All are welcome.

Thomas Doherty's THES article is here:

Marina Warner's LRB article is here: http://bit.ly/18AnQdP