Academic Exceptionalism

I doubt if a man deserves freedom until he can get along without being being cow-herded.

“The art,” says my venerable colleague once Vorticist W. Lewis, “of being ruled”! The art of not being exploited…

(Ezra Pound)

I recently came upon a pointed critique of “neoliberalism” in university administration on Twitter: “Academics aren’t ’employees’ and we don’t work with/for our ‘managers’.” That’s not literally true, of course. Academics do usually collect a paycheck and enjoy a not insignificant package of benefits. They also normally answer to a research director, department head, dean or some sort of president. They are governed by a board, which is responsible to “stakeholders” of some kind, often simply the citizens whose taxes fund the operation. To be an academic is, in that sense, to have an ordinary corporate job.

But the tweet I’m thinking of was trying to suggest a less ordinary picture of the work of an academic. “As an academic, I work with/for students, the international research community, local community and industry partners, [and] the future of humankind.” It was in this sense, it argued, that academics aren’t “employees” as we know it. Presumably, then, we would not say the same about a sales representative working for a major pharmaceutical firm. Presumably, indeed, a sales representative working for a major pharmaceutical firm would not tell neoliberalism to “fuck off” for the same reasons.

But is that presumption true? Suppose we tweak the list of stakeholders a little: “As a pharma rep, I work with/for patients, the international medical community, local community and industry partners, and the future of humankind.” Isn’t there a perfectly good sense in which that is true? Isn’t it entirely legitimate for the employees of Big Pharma to think of themselves in these terms? Is it that much more naive for them to think this way than it is for the (not-)employees of Big Academia?

When people deride “neoliberalism” in the universities they usually mean the increasingly managerial culture that shapes how their work is organized. I agree with Joseph Heath that the term functions mainly to shift the blame onto an abstract entity that can’t defend itself–one that no one is, in fact, prepared to speak in defense of. But where Heath suggests that it might be better to engage in real arguments with libertarians than to “critique” the influence of neoliberalism, I would suggest talking directly about management. I think we too often, and too easily, blame “neoliberalism” for the consequences of what is, at the end of the day, simply bad management. “Managerialism” (which we might define as the ideology that promotes management for its own sake) is certainly at the root of countless bad management decisions; but the solution is not to tell the ideologues to fuck off. To be sure, that’s a pretty good start, but the real revolution will come when the managers smarten up.

What I want to call “academic exceptionalism” is the view academic work is unlike all other kinds of work. I cultivate a version of this attitude myself when I say that universities should be good places, indeed, exceptionally good places, for smart and curious people to thrive. (Let pleasant and ambitious people thrive elsewhere, I say.) But I think it is misapplied when we say that academics are neither “employed” nor “managed”, when we suggest that being managed is somehow beneath the dignity of academics in a way that does not (or should not) humiliate a corporate employee.

The problem in universities, I would say, is mainly that a new managerial culture has been imposed too quickly and is being implemented by people who have limited management skills (they are mainly academics) or limited academic experience (managers “brought in” from the corporate sector). That is, I disagree with the “neoliberalism” diagnosis, though I lament many of the same ills that plague us today. As universities grew, they needed management that looked more like that of a corporation. It was badly implemented and the results are often less than ideal. But rejecting “managerial culture” as such isn’t the solution.

There is managerial excess and it should be challenged. But it’s everywhere and equally bad. And serving our stakeholders directly without the mediation of a manager is more stressful than many academics like to admit. None of their “bosses”–our students, colleagues, collaborators, editors–know what the others are demanding, and what the “future of humankind” demands of us is downright horrifying to consider! A good department head or program director, who reduces our complexities to manageable contingencies, is worthy of respect, and an incompetent one should be returned to the ordinary academic labor they’re more suited for.  When “neoliberalism” is used to cover all the effects of “managerial culture” on the university, it actually ends up providing ideological cover for  bad management. Creeping managerialism becomes an excuse for crappy management.

Wyndham Lewis published The Art of Being Ruled almost a century ago. Two and a half millennia before that, Lao Tzu suggested that “ruling a large state is like cooking a small fish.” (Think on it a bit. I’ll unpack it, or unpick it, in a later post.) Academics should not eschew management; they should learn how to do it well. They should not reject “neoliberalism” but earn the academic freedoms they enjoy. At the end of the day, though they may be under new management, they are employees after all. At the end of the day, like their managers, they go home.

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