Last week, I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it here.
In short, I make the uncontroversial argument that the most recent round of budget cuts reflects a kind of local level implementation of the neoliberal policy of austerity. Austerity reflects certain moral and economic attitudes that see the state as both morally corrupting, as tending to limit freedom, and as stifling to economic growth which is best achieved by allowing market forces to play out in an unconstrained way. This has negative implications for state universities which are reasonably seen as an extension of the state and as intrinsically inefficient. Moreover, these institutions reproduce a kind of complacency that undermines the competitive function of markets, which are seen as the primary engines for economy growth. Cutting higher education budgets, then, pushes these institutions to exist in a market driven world, should improve efficiency by fostering competition for resources, and ensures that capital doesn’t get bottled up supporting institutions that reflect values that run counter to the market ethos.
The internal response to these policies was dramatic as the University of North Dakota not only implemented a “new budget model” based on the competitive allocation of resources across campus, but also, when faced with the immediate pressures of budget cuts, implemented austerity measures that adversely impacted the humanities and arts. As I noted in the first part of this article, North Dakota Quarterly lost all of its funding after being told that we had not produced a sustainable business model. In the second part of this paper, I want to suggest that most of these changes at UND (and I would suggest nationally) amount to a kind of theater designed to align the appearance of competition and market driven policies with a series of outcomes deemed desirable by local stakeholders.
To be clear, higher education has always cultivated this kind of theater. Whether it was the historical privileging of white, upper and middle class, males, or the tendency to see traditional liberal arts and humanities degrees as superior in content and rigor, the American university system has long attempted to normalize the ascendency of certain groups and outcomes as a kind of natural result of broader social competition. Recently, David Labaree has summarized a particularly obvious expression of this kind of competitive theater in the long-term persistence of the academic hierarchy among colleges and universities in the U.S. A relatively small number of schools and scholars tend to dominate the intellectual landscape of American higher education. Not only do top tier schools hire faculty from other top tier schools, but lower tier schools also tend to hire a disproportionate number of faculty with degrees from traditionally elite institutions. Lower tier schools see this as a way of imitating the practices of more elite institutions and moving up. In reality, it tends to reinforce the difference between the top tier schools and their lower tier numbers as faculty from elite schools tend to privilege their own even over students that they produce at lower tier institutions. This bias toward the traditional centers of higher education in the U.S. reproduces itself in competition for grants, fellowships, and even in peer review despite historical efforts to present these competitions as meritocratic.
More recently, critics of higher education have argued that systemic liberal biases within the American university system has promoted certain political and social agendas and suppressed others. Academics have tended to brush off these critiques and point to the rigor of peer review, the competitive nature of grant and hiring processes, and the pressures of historic and global traditions of academic discourse that tend to complicate the alignment of proximate political positions and scholarly outputs. The long tradition of a kind of theater of competition in higher education produced a culture that is particular susceptible to kinds of dissimulation at the core of neoliberal thinking.
I argue that the conventional theater of competition in academia (if no less problematic) conflates in some ways with what David Harvey recognizes as the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism in contemporary society and particular among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony). The most visible expression of this is “zero sum” thinking that organizes campus priorities into winners and losers. Winners get funding (because they’ve won) and losers lose funding with the result that the winning ways of the winners will, over time, come to dominate the losing ways of the losers.
Of course, as I’ve pointed out, there already were winners and losers in higher education produced by generations of historical forces which are not necessarily unproblematic or somehow ideally suited (by dint of their co-evolution with market, social, and cultural forces) for efficient education, new knowledge production or social good. Neoliberal priorities, at least to those viewing higher education from the perspective of an external stakeholder, require a kind of change that reflects the conspicuous pivoting of higher education toward both market needs and toward the methods of the market. In other words, whatever the processes that were that created the current landscape of higher education, we need to align ourselves more clearly with methods and outcomes that reflect contemporary political and economic priorities and, perhaps more importantly, expectation.
The language of these priorities and expectations are well known. Many in the public sphere view the humanities and arts as inefficient, antiquated, or a luxury, despite the emergence of a somewhat disappointing (and perhaps ineffectual) counter-discourse that argues for the economic importance of the humanities. The argument follows that STEM fields with their sometimes overtly vocational goals represent a more efficient way to address the economic needs of our communities and, as a result, a better use for limited public funds. Moreover, public support for these fields should represents an investment in the future as an emphasis on STEM fields parallels student interest in these economically productive disciplines (and students and tuition dollars will follow), the emphasis on STEM should also attract support from the private sector and federal grants.
A secondary challenge, and on that is of more interest to me, is to make the rise of STEM in higher education appear to be the result of market competition within the institution. This allows administrators to tout and stakeholders to recognize the synchronization between market efficiencies within and outside of these institutions. The rise of STEM fields, for example, allows higher education administrators to point to the efficiency of their institutions because ultimately the same results suggest the same internal mechanisms. This involves a certain, and conspicuous amount of dissimulation, particularly as universities attempt the dual move of shifting to support fields that the public expects to be market driven priorities and demonstrating that market priorities and methods produced these results internally. The former ensures stakeholders – particularly in the legislatures – that universities are responding to external market forces and doing so in a way that also embodies internal market efficiencies.
Elsewhere I’ve called this move replacing the university as a knowledge factory – based on the historical affinities between university curricula and the assembly line (well described by Louis Menand) – to the university as billboard. The university as billboard represents the growing desire to demonstrate to the public that universities are responsive institutions to market forces and have internalized the values of the marketplace. The university as billboard reassures an anxious public (or at least a certain sector of stakeholders) both that the university is an efficient institution deserving of the continued investment of resources and that public resources will attract outside investment through tuition, grants, and private donor contributions.
In this context, there is little room for a public humanities quarterly because it does little to reinforce public view of higher education which expects it to align with their own understanding of market forces shaping public (and private) institutions. If the university is a billboard, then, something like North Dakota Quarterly is a distraction. The priority both internally and externally is to stay on message and on strategy, and if we take the logic of the market to its natural conclusion, the risk of straying from the message is existential.
In my next installment I hope to focus on two further implications of the creation of higher education as billboard. First, the tensions between the university as factory, the university as billboard, and the university as marketplace confounds the efficient operation of a university. This, then, confirms the perception that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector. Next, and perhaps more controversially, the privileging of the market as the model for higher education effectively undermines the potential for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom. The challenge of neoliberalism is not so much that it subjects everyone and every institution to the unrelenting pressures of market competition, but that it projects backward in time, the free play of market forces as the dominant form power in society. As a result, it presupposes the emergence of the neoliberal world order as the victory of market forces against those who sought to suppress them. Those in power now are in power because they won.