NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 3

Two weeks ago,  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, and you can find the second part here

I’ve argued over the last two weeks and austerity and neoliberalism have pushed universities to present themselves fiscally and operationally as market driven enterprises. This follows an assumption that public institutions with state funding become, over time, morally compromised because state funding insulates them from the purifying fire of market competition. As a result, universities have started to privatize core functions in order to demonstrate a willingness to optimize their operations and to promote their operational model as one that rewards competitive, efficient, and socially responsible (at least within a neoliberal model of society that views with a jaundiced eye all state sponsored activities). The efforts to promote the internal working of the university as efficient and competitive creates a situation where the university is more of a billboard for external stakeholders than a factory for knowledge production and education. 

On a superficial level, this is not entirely objectionable. After all, creating a compelling billboard for the activities at a university whether through intercollegiate sports, slick marketing material, or a commitment to external relations, celebrates the impact and significance of faculty, students, and staff, builds a sense of community and pride, and attracts resources to university from a range of sources including alumni, prospective students, and legislators.

At the same time, the view of the university as a billboard can spill over into the internal workings of the university as a factory. On the simplest level, a billboard promotes a product whose manufacturing process is only relevant inasmuch the produce fulfills consumer expectations. Because state university receive funding from a range of sources including state legislators, alumni, students, and granting agencies, there is an interest in the process that creates the well-educated student or faculty research. In other words, the billboard needs to represent both the successful outcome of a university education or faculty work as well as the efficiency of the processes that produced these outcomes. Within a society increasingly dominated by a kind of neoliberal hegemony, the state-funded university almost always presents an essential opportunity for rooting out complacency by subjecting individual, programs, and processes to competition and market forces. The university as billboard, then, extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency.

In this context, a public humanities journal like North Dakota Quarterly must has a sustainable business model or be consigned to the ranks of inefficient and complacent university functions best optimized by forcing the journal to engage in the market by applying fiscal austerity. A sustainable business model that included state funding were mutually exclusive because the latter created conditions that made the former impossible or at least very unlikely. Successful competition within the crucible of the market represented the only way in which a journal like North Dakota Quarterly could be a successful to the university billboard. 

The problem with the university as a billboard is that whatever the advantages of promoting the university are, the message of the billboard too often spills over into the inner workings of the university. While, I’m hesitant to suggest that universities currently function at optimal efficiency – any complex institution has areas where optimization is possible and desirable and areas where it is not, promoting competition across campus is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline university functions. For example, the long-standing model of higher education that models student learning an assembly line where each program, department, and class imparts a particular set of concepts, methods, and content requires coordination and collaboration across campus. It may be possible to imagine an optimized process where each class contributes the exactly the same energy into the educational process, but such Taylorist fantasies are probably misguided, if not delusional. Students aren’t uniform blanks when they arrive at the university, previous education, aptitude, and commitment levels vary widely and, whether we will admit it or not, certain subjects have higher threshold levels than others in our current educational environment and require a greater investment of energy from both students and faculty. In other words, the assembly line approach to higher education rewards cooperation among various parts of the process and accepting that some parts of the system are less efficient than others.

As faculty, administrators, and staff internalize the message of the billboard on campus, the spirit of competition is as likely to produce inefficiencies as to streamline processes. Competition for students tends to lead to duplication of marketing and outreach efforts. Funding models that seek to recognize research or teaching excellence or even rein in wasteful competition between programs or departments become systems to be gamed. The long-standing and historical divisions on campus, whether colleges or departments that serve to protect academic and intellectual freedom and distinct disciplinary traditions become barriers to cooperation and collaboration rather than efficient incubators of distinctive methods, practices, and approaches to problems. As a number of recent commentators have noticed, by projecting the billboard internally and promoting the appearance of competition, we distill the dynamism and diversity of higher education (or as David Labaree calls it the “perfect mess”) down to two closely related metrics: dollars and enrollments (which are really just another measure of dollars). As Gary Hall has recently considered in his work on the “uberficiation” of the university, the growing ability to trace precisely the flow of capital – whether its student tuition or faculty labor – has created a system that is pennywise and pound foolish. Our ability to use dollars and enrollments to recognize efficiencies at the individual and department level has superceeded the messier project of attempting to understand the product of the higher education factory whether that be new ideas or high quality students and graduates. 

In short, the billboard approach to higher education promotes efficiency and competition at the expense of learning and discovery. And, as much as competition evokes long-standing fantasies of the academic meritocracy and satisfies the hegemonic attitudes that equate all waste with indolence and sloth, it rarely corresponds neatly with the actual work of students and faculty at a university. For many stakeholders, however, the product of the university as factory is only as important as the revenue it can generate.

For others, however, the promotion of the university as the product of market competition offers both a useful cover and a historical model to justify the expansion of certain programs and the contraction of others. The disconnect between the external promotion of evident efficiency fortified by competition and the difficulties associated with judging the final product of higher education, student learning and discovery, provides a space for administrators and faculty to advance values closely tied to reinforcing the dominance of the market in wider society. This means articulating the value of higher education in economic terms which tends to be most crudely presented as “workforce development.” Despite persistent efforts to calculate the economic value of a degree in the humanities, in most cases such efforts are incompatible with the goals of a humanities education. Whether this correlates to the efficiency of teaching and research the humanities within the university or even its non-market value to society at large is irrelevant. The billboard that promotes the work of the university to its stakeholders must be made to represent outcomes consistent with the neoliberal expectation that structure the billboard itself.  

If efficiencies resulting from competition optimize the structure the university in the age of austerity, then graduates and research at the university should likewise feed this world view as well. 

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