Posts Tagged ‘Academic managerialism’

Another note on academic decline.

datePosted on 15:48, February 2nd, 2021 by Pablo

Recently my partner and I were discussing the absence of collegiality in many contemporary academic departments. She is an academic and knowing my experience with a certain NZ university, she mentioned that it was perhaps best that I had left that profession, however under duress. Her point was that academic Taylorism (of which I have written about before on these pages) has now well and truly been entrenched in the halls of higher education, and that an old school professor like me would simply not survive in an atmosphere were students are “clients” with many rights and few responsibilities, pass/fail standards are dictated by managers rather than merit (e.g. a certain percentage–as high as 80 percent–of students must pass a course if it is to continue on the books), in-class discipline is non-existent (for example, with regard to use of cell phones and attendance), and even bibliographies and test questions are monitored and often dumbed down by bureaucrats who do not have degrees, much less higher degrees in the subjects in question (this actually happened to me before I departed the hallowed halls).

The precipitant for our discussion was two-fold: the breaking up of the Political Studies Department in my former employer and its dilution into a larger school that included dispersing political scientists throughout the campus. This removed any collegial centre of gravity, even a common room, for people who study politics and left them atomised and isolated in their far-flung offices. Sure, they can still communicate by phone and email or arrange to meet at a campus cafe, but the days of casually and spontaneously congregating for morning and afternoon tea is gone, which in turn removes the direct interpersonal discussions that often serve as catalysts for an exchange of ideas, intellectual collaboration and which underpin the very notion of “collegial” behaviour.

My partner’s employer chose to solve that problem, or perhaps did not even think of the situation at all, when it renovated the physical space in which she works into an open plan arrangement where people conduct their business in assigned small cubicles in a large airtight room. Although intellectual labour can be done anywhere (for me the best time to mull over ideas and plan classes was while running), the employer expects the academic staff to be on campus as much as possible and requires people to take annual leave if working from elsewhere (beyond the mandatory holiday leave already on the books). That forces people onto campus even if they do not have classes, meetings or student office hours. The problem is that office time in academia is a mix of bureaucratic paper-shuffling and make-work for managers, some writing or reading, some grading and marking, lots of emailing, some supervision meetings with students, regular administrative meetings of various sorts (also known as gab fests), and way too much student counselling by people who have no training in mental health or any other sort of counselling (i.e., since when is a Ph.D. in Political Science a license to counsel students on personal matters? And yet that is an expected part of the job).

That makes the open-plan arrangement a bit fraught because there is little privacy afforded by the scheme and the ambient noise levels generated by 30 or more people conducting business at the same time makes it very difficult to actually get any constructive work done. But since the managers who order the renovations conduct their business from the privacy of individual offices and do little if any face to face counselling of younger people or intellectual work, that is not their problem. I have a feeling that it will be after the new look is put into practice.

As I said before, I have previously written on KP about the pernicious affects of academic Fordism and Taylorism, so there is no point in beating that dead horse. But the discussion with my partner brought up what is one of the most embarrassing professional memories of my days in academia, which upon reflection points to a long-term downward trend in the quality of political science education in this country.

Let me explain. When I arrived in NZ in 1997 I was sold a bill of goods that my new employer was akin to “the Harvard of the South Pacific” or some such nonsense. As a University of Chicago alumni that was familiar with Australian universities, that claim did not impress me but I knew what the recruiters were trying to convey. And indeed, in those days most of the political science staff had degrees from elite, first tier institutions in Europe, North America and Australia. This led to a proliferation of older white male academics trained at such places, although by the time I arrived women had been successfully incorporated into the department and much of the post-colonial mindset was removed from it. During the 1990s Asians and Maori were brought in as well, a trend that continued while I was there.

The university was ranked about 100 positions above what it is today and the Political Studies department was actually ranked in the top 50 Political Science departments world-wide. I was hired to teach and research on civil-military relations and interest groups (in my case, labour unions) as well as Latin American Studies as part of a proposed expansion of area studies and political science offerings. For a brief while, that seemed to be a viable plan.

But academic managerialism soon struck in the form of a new VC. From then on it was a slippery slope or rush to the bottom to put “bums in seats” in order to secure EFT (Equivalent Full Time) funding. Managers began to interfere with what used to be purely departmental and classroom decisions. Research funding contacted and was subject to generic competitive models that did not account for disciplinary specificity. The union-busting project against the house collective bargaining agent for staff began in earnest and accelerated thereafter. People with research and teaching talent began to leave and boot-licking academic driftwood began to pile up. Promotion and tenure decisions were revised so that quantity rather than quality of research output and publication became key criteria for advancement.

This led to a rush towards “crony collaborations” in which academic friends produce edited collections in local or profit-oriented publication outlets and publish articles in journals edited by each other, without the scrutiny normally undergone by the peer-review process required by internationally-recognised publishers (say, in my discipline, World Politics, International Security or the International Political Science Review or Cambridge or Princeton University Presses). What used to be the norm when it came to research output rapidly became the exception to the “quantity over quality” rule ( I got a taste of this when I was advised to list my editorials and media appearances on the contrived and biased PBRF reviews required to justify departmental funding).

Towards the end of my tenure and afterwards, newer hires were increasingly recruited from non-elite graduate programs and paid at comparatively lower levels than during my first years in residence. Their PR and self-marketing skills became as or more important as their contributions to original research in the discipline. The employer demanded that courses generate a profit and, once the STEM disease set in, that they prove relevant to the Science, Technology, Economics and Management priorities of the tertiary funding model. “Non-profitable” departments like Classics or Indonesian Studies were soon eliminated.

Fees-paying foreign student enrolments increased under diminished admission standards. Existing degree requirements were lowered and “certificate,” “diploma” and other types of shallow qualification study programs proliferated. Flash buildings were built and more acquired (including a former brewery and a mansion for the VC), non-academic middle managers (many in PR) were hired by the bucketful and academic staff were told to limit photocopying, ration A4 paper and assume more administrative duties previously done by secretaries. Besides turning Ph.D.’s into clerical workers, among other things this move to “corporatise” academia along profit-oriented lines prompted PR flak-inspired suggestions in my former department that the Introduction to International Relations course for first year students be re-named “War and Peace” and that my course on Revolutions be renamed to have “9/11” in the title.

The larger point is that academic managerialism has destroyed the very concept of the academy, which if anything should be one of the last refuges from the profit motive because it rewards discipline and merit as it imparts knowledge, both conformative and transgressive, for knowledge’s or humanity’s sake rather than for money.

As the Taylorist pathogen took hold, more of the good people in the department left or retired. I was asked why I stayed and in my naivety I simply answered that it was about lifestyle and personal relationships. My partner and I had met in the late 1990s and were getting more serious, and my lifestyle out on the west flank of the Waitakere Ranges was ideal for my purposes at the time. Under an pre-existing research leave policy that was covered by my original contract I did take a couple of semester-long research leaves during those first ten years, once to the University of California San Diego and the other to the Portuguese Institute of International and Strategic Studies. Then the old research leave policy was terminated, and shortly after that, I was as well.

Before that happened, this did: In 2006 I was contacted by Guillermo O’Donnell, arguably the most famous Latin American political scientist of his generation, if not of all time. Don Guillermo, as I called him our of formal respect, was a mentor of mine from my Ph.D. days at Chicago. Along with Adam Przeworski, Philippe Schmitter and Lloyd Rudolph, he sat as an ex officio member of my Ph.D. dissertation committee. He took an interest in me because I was raised in Argentina, had participated in some political action and done human rights work there and was writing a dissertation on the Argentine State. He found it intriguing that an American guy was “so Argentine” down to my Buenos Aires accent and attitude. Later on, when he was Director of the Kellogg Institute of International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, I was awarded a residential research fellowship there in order to help finish a book I was writing at the time. Although he remained as a mentor, we became friends.

Many years later my future spouse got her Ph.D. in Political Science from Notre Dame and herself was a student of Don Guillermo even though her speciality is in European Politics and Political Economy. But like so many people trained at elite institutions, she well knew back then that exposure to a wide array of ideas and views is what makes for a good scholar, so she gravitated to him while studying there.

I mention this because in 2006 he and his wife–a sociologist who had been a colleague of mine at the Centre for the Study of State and Society in Buenos Aires in the early 1980s and later at Notre Dame in the late 1980s–were on a Ford Foundation-sponsored world tour that included lectures at several Australian universities. They contacted me to say that they would love to visit my partner and I in NZ and that all they needed was an invitation from an academic institution to do so. The Ford Foundation would pay all costs. They were particularly keen to come because Don Guillermo was an avid rugby fan and lifelong supporter of the Pumas and an admirer of the All Blacks.

In spite being given O’Donnell’s resume and biography, my department Head at the time (specifically appointed by the managerialist regime over better-qualified people)) refused to write the invitation letter. He claimed to not even recognise who O’Donnell was and did not care that the department would not have to put any money into inviting him (this Head was appointed by a very recently departed VC and his then political science minion/Dean of the Arts Faculty, who remains in a high managerial position to this day). By that time the managerial stamp had been imposed on the department, including shoulder-tapping recruitment attempts and mid-level bureaucrats from the Arts faculty sitting in on staff meetings as monitors of what was being said and done.

Chastened by the lack of collegiality and professional courtesy, I arranged to invite them as guests of the Latin American Studies Centre because even though the Latin Americanists at the Centre were not social scientists, they knew who he was (the O’Donnell family in Argentina are prominent in the arts and politics so it is a well-recognised name).

O’Donnell and his wife arrived and enjoyed their stay with us. As part of that stay, I organised an informal talk and meet-and-greet between him and my Political Studies colleagues in the then-departmental staff room. Nothing major, but a chance for the academic staff and students to interact with an actual luminary in political science (among other things, O’Donnell coined the phrase “bureaucratic authoritarianism” to describe a specific form of late 20th century capitalist dictatorship). I publicised the event across campus in student and university publications and email networks. I put up posters and spread the news by word of mouth.

When the day came, it was a debacle. I paid for the sandwiches, wine, cheese and crackers out of pocket and figured on 30 people attending. Instead, about six of my students, two of my Latin American Studies colleagues and just a single Political Studies academic staff member attended. Just one. With my partner, I and the O’Donnells, there were around a dozen people there at 4PM on a mid-week afternoon.

Maybe the time was not right and people needed to rush home or were in class. Perhaps the academics were working on Nobel Prize-level research projects. But I think not because when I asked several of them over the next days the majority stated that they did not know who he was, or he did not do what they are interested in (that from political theorists), or they were simply busy. Neither the Head or Deputy Head, both of whom ostensibly worked in the field of comparative politics, deigned to attend.

O’Donnell was gracious but perplexed by the slight. In Australia his lectures had hundreds of people in attendance. In Europe and Latin America large halls needed to be used to handle the SRO crowds. In North America his university appearances were sold-out celebrity events. In NZ, he was a nobody. He found that to be oddly ingratiating mostly because although provincial in the extreme it allowed him to relax when in the public space in measure that he was not used to. He got to visit the NZRU officess as a walk-in after getting out of a taxi.

I relate this anecdote because it shows that the decline in academic quality, at least in Political Studies at one university, began when academic managerialism took root in that university. Although there are always exceptions to this trend, the rot has now spread to other universities and runs deep into the academic fabric throughout the country. Entire “academic” programs are built around the Taylorist money-making model (I mean really, how many terrorism and/or conflict studies programs does one small country need and what the heck are non-disciplinary “autoethnographic”-based graduate degrees?). What was then, is now even more so.

It is time to call things for that they are in NZ today: the profit-driven managerial destruction of academic institutions as independent bastions of impartial truth and objective and subjective knowledge dissemination. Under the current tertiary sector leadership and mindset, I doubt that the impact of the pandemic will make things better.

In fact, it could make things worse because the push towards so-called “E-Learning” (video conference lectures and seminars) while continuing to charge the same fees will lead (as it already has) to further reductions in the physical infrastructures required for in-person teaching and promote bigger enrolments in Zoom-like settings (rather than actual classrooms or lecture theatres) where the spontaneous inter-personal dynamic between instructor and students is all but nullified. Although small group seminars can be accommodated by video (“webinars”), I know of no academic who enjoys video conferencing big class lectures, other than those who hate students anyway. Most students do not bother to attend these type of sessions and instead look for on-line power point and lecture notes with an eye towards exams rather than understanding of the subject. Of those who do attend, few engage with the lecturer. Because marking is increasingly done on-line using standardised forms, teachers reduce the amount of essay writing involved in course assignments and instead offer simplified examination options more akin to those in high school. Adding more and more foreign students with limited English language abilities into that mix compounds the problem (should they return once the pandemic is controlled). And so on.

None of this augurs well for the quality of New Zealand university education in the years to come, especially in the social sciences and arts (which are the red-headed stepchildren in the STEM tertiary education model). It therefore behooves those who are responsible for the tertiary sector to understand that the moment provided by the pandemic is also a moment to pause and reconsider the merits and demerits of Taylorist and Fordist approaches to academic endeavour in light of a very mixed twenty year’s experience with those approaches. Only then can moves me made that allow NZ to regain its prior reputation for offering high quality academic degrees and quality research that are competitive on the world stage.