May 14 2017

Contingent No More: An Academic Manifesto

Category: Contract Faculty,EssaysBob Hanke @ 5:42 pm

Contingent No More: An academic manifesto

by Maximillian Alvarez

(excerpted from The Baffler, May 3, 2017)

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING ACADEMIA—the specter of something that has yet to definitively claim a name for itself, but is rising nonetheless. So many of us have been buried underground, so many breathing through small breaks in the soil that covers our pristine university campuses where guided tours are given and frisbees are thrown, where deep-pocketed donors stroll nostalgically and future debtors gaze longingly. Looking up, we may, each of us, feel like the forgotten seeds moldering beneath these hallowed grounds—but we are, all of us, the tectonic plate holding them together. When we move, the world above will feel it.

Academia is in the midst of an acute, unsustainable crisis. For those working in the higher-education industry, and increasingly for those outside of it, it has become impossible to ignore.

To read the rest of this manifesto, click here.


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Apr 26 2016

The Managed University Gets a Failing Grade

Category: EssaysBob Hanke @ 6:02 pm

The Managerial University: Failed Experiment?

by David West

(excerpted from Demos, April 14, 2016)

Recent decades have seen a protracted attack and painstaking demolition of the traditional or ‘old’ university and an associated purging of academics. The rise of managers and ‘managerial’ doctrines were supposed to make universities more efficient and productive, more lean and transparent, and above all, more modern. In practice, managerial reforms have given rise to a range of pathologies and side effects. Bullying is widespread, many staff are unhappy. But the spread of managerialism is also threatening the university’s role as a centre of committed teaching, disinterested scholarship and critical research. Examination of the actual effects – rather than stated aims – of the managerial experiment is long overdue.

The managerial experiment has been inspired by a few guiding ideas but one basic assumption. Just as economics and political science assume that individuals and elected officials or appointed public servants behave as rational self-interested actors, this campaign assumes that university academics are generally out for themselves. According to this view, the old idea of the university as a community of self-governing scholars dedicated to humanist values of truth and learning was all very well in theory but never entirely realistic. Like many publicly-funded organisations, universities invariably fell short in practice. Scholars with guaranteed tenure became lazy. Teachers neglected their students and researchers rested on their laurels. These failings were allowed to persist, according to this story, because self-interested academics were also self-governing. These assumptions set the scene for root-and-branch reform.

In their enthusiasm for the ‘new managerialism’ and the ‘modern university’, however, politicians, bureaucrats and those academics who have hitched their fortunes to the new model seem wilfully blind to the practical results of their reforms. There is some truth in their criticisms of the old idea of the university, but in practice the management of the modern university also leaves too much to be desired. Some of the problems that beset the new model were anticipated by sceptical academics. Their criticisms were dismissed as the products of antiquated thinking and self-interest. What can you expect from academics defending their own privileges?

The theory of the modern university can be reduced to – and in fact amounts to little more than – a relatively simply set of rubrics. At the heart of the new model is the belief in the need for incentives, both positive and negative. The importance of incentives is at the heart of liberal and neoliberal convictions about the virtues of capitalism. Enterprises and workers within them are spurred to industry and innovation by rewards for success and punishment for failure. So academics must also be rewarded for their achievements and punished for their failures.

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Sep 27 2009

Reading the Public University in Crisis

Category: EssaysBob Hanke @ 11:21 am

Communiqué from an Absent Future

(from the UCSC occupation barricades, excerpted from We Want Everything, September 24, 2009)

Like the society to which it has played the faithful servant, the university is bankrupt.  This bankruptcy is not only financial.  It is the index of a more fundamental insolvency, one both political and economic, which has been a long time in the making.  No one knows what the university is for anymore.  We feel this intuitively.  Gone is the old project of creating a cultured and educated citizenry; gone, too, the special advantage the degree-holder once held on the job market.  These are now fantasies, spectral residues that cling to the poorly maintained halls.

Incongruous architecture, the ghosts of vanished ideals, the vista of a dead future: these are the remains of the university.  Among these remains, most of us are little more than a collection of querulous habits and duties.  We go through the motions of our tests and assignments with a kind of thoughtless and immutable obedience propped up by subvocalized resentments.  Nothing is interesting, nothing can make itself felt.  The world-historical with its pageant of catastrophe is no more real than the windows in which it appears.

For those whose adolescence was poisoned by the nationalist hysteria following September 11th, public speech is nothing but a series of lies and public space a place where things might explode (though they never do).  Afflicted by the vague desire for something to happen—without ever imagining we could make it happen ourselves—we were rescued by the bland homogeneity of the internet, finding refuge among friends we never see, whose entire existence is a series of exclamations and silly pictures, whose only discourse is the gossip of commodities.  Safety, then, and comfort have been our watchwords.  We slide through the flesh world without being touched or moved.  We shepherd our emptiness from place to place.

But we can be grateful for our destitution: demystification is now a condition, not a project.  University life finally appears as just what it has always been: a machine for producing compliant producers and consumers.  Even leisure is a form of job training.  The idiot crew of the frat houses drink themselves into a stupor with all the dedication of lawyers working late at the office.  Kids who smoked weed and cut class in high-school now pop Adderall and get to work.  We power the diploma factory on the treadmills in the gym.  We run tirelessly in elliptical circles.

It makes little sense, then, to think of the university as an ivory tower in Arcadia, as either idyllic or idle.  “Work hard, play hard” has been the over-eager motto of a generation in training for…what?—drawing hearts in cappuccino foam or plugging names and numbers into databases. The gleaming techno-future of American capitalism was long ago packed up and sold to China for a few more years of borrowed junk.  A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in General Motors.

We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow.  And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have.  Close to three quarters of students work while in school, many full-time; for most, the level of employment we obtain while students is the same that awaits after graduation.  Meanwhile, what we acquire isn’t education; it’s debt.  We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has already been sold on the worst market around.  Average student loan debt rose 20 percent in the first five years of the twenty-first century—80-100 percent for students of color.  Student loan volume—a figure inversely proportional to state funding for education—rose by nearly 800 percent from 1977 to 2003.  What our borrowed tuition buys is the privilege of making monthly payments for the rest of our lives.  What we learn is the choreography of credit: you can’t walk to class without being offered another piece of plastic charging 20 percent interest.  Yesterday’s finance majors buy their summer homes with the bleak futures of today’s humanities majors.

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