University, Inc.: Striking fear into the heart of academics

by Erin B Taylor on 18/01/2013

in Commentary

Anthropologies Issue 16: The Neoliberalized, Debt-plagued, Low Wage, Corporatized University

Where will the corporatization of universities lead us, and what can be done about it? These questions are discussed in Issue 16 of Anthropologies, The Neoliberalized, Debt-plagued, Low Wage, Corporatized University. Published yesterday, it includes eight short articles, beginning with an introduction by editor Ryan Anderson questioning what happens to higher education when it’s driven by profit.

Following on from a high-impact post on Analog / Digital last November, Francine Barone discusses the often personal – and nasty – environments within universities in her contribution, Fear and Loathing in Academia, stating that “Such problems within academia are repairable if enough people demand it. The power-holders can start by adjusting their own behavior.”

My own article, Busting Apart the Silos of Knowledge Production, draws from a recent discussion on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. I compare conditions for knowledge production within universities with those in applied fields, arguing that in the main, the conditions for knowledge production within the academy are not all they are cracked up to be; nor is applied anthropology somehow a sell-out. In fact, applied anthropology may be a better place these days to produce knowledge than institutions geared to metrics.

In Some Historical Notes on the Decline of Universities, Keith Hart provides an extremely valuable historical perspective on academia, pointing out that many of the “changes” we are worried about are far from new — in fact, they’re often hundreds of years old. In 1918, Thorstein Veblen observed that the way to get academics to work hard for little pay is to “tell [them] that they belong to the highest social class and pay them the wages of artisans (then in greater supply than now). They then sacrifice all their intellectual and moral principles in order to make up the difference.”

Moving on to how all this is affecting students, Passing with Pills: Redefining Performance in the Pharmaceuticalized University by Tazin Karim gives a worrying report about the increasing use of prescription drugs, especially Adderall, to help students cope with heavy workloads and meet deadlines. Karim warns that we need to “recognize shifting expectations that are placed on college students to take these drugs in order to survive college and move onto the ‘real world.’ As society continues to value performance over learning, we distance ourselves from these individuals when they need our understanding and guidance the most.”

Patrick Bigger and Victor E. Kappeler deal with issues of cost and access in U.S. universities in their piece, Neoliberal Education: From Affordable Education to Expensive Training. The make the powerful opening statement that “If uncontested, the coming decades promise a radical transformation of the basic objectives of the university and the potential destruction of one of the last institutions with acute possibilities for social liberation,” ending by pointing out that we need to pay attention to who is backing the corporatization of universities.

Finally, in Surviving in the Meantime, Greg Downey presents the case of higher education in Australia, whose crisis is less about lack of funding (his institution turned over a surplus in the last two years), but rather the growing pains of fast-expanding institutions. Yet despite this growth, vice-chancellors are worried that the current model is in a state of demise, stating that “Our major competitor in ten years time will be Google… if we’re still alive!”

These articles all point to a mixture of real and imagined fears about the corporatization of universities. The problem with the imagined fears is that they risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecy as academics who are told that funding is running dry may prematurely accept this prognosis and even worse working conditions than they already have. Promises of belonging to the upper class are longer enough: striking fear into the heart of academics is a far more effective way to discipline the workforce in this fast-changing environment of higher education.

Erin B. Taylor

Erin B. Taylor

Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Instituto de Ciências Sociais, University of Lisbon at Research Fellow, Digital Ethnography Research Centre

Erin originally studied fine art, but she defected to anthropology when she realised that she was far better at deploying a pen for writing than for drawing. She is a cultural anthropologist who is currently living in Lisbon, Portugal, where she has a full-time research position at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS).

Erin B. Taylor
Erin B. Taylor

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Gregory Reck January 18, 2013 at 14:38

In the early 70s, Dell Hymes in the introduction to Reinventing Anthropology asked whether the “departmentalization” of anthropology would be its coffin or its chrysalis. Because of the corporatization of academia and anthropology’s implict and explict embrace of such as a survival mechanism, the answer to Hymes’ question is now obvious. The only reamining question is this: has the FINAL nail been hammered into the coffin lid?


Erin Taylor January 18, 2013 at 16:51

Hi Greg, thanks for your comment. That’s a good question. I’d say not – but it does seem to be the case that people who are willing to work across disciplinary and institutional boundaries are leaving academia for friendlier shores. Kind of like a cooperative-brain-drain of the ivory tower. What’s your perspective? Do you see any shift back in the other direction?


Victor KAppeler January 18, 2013 at 17:55

Very nice as was your orginal essay.


Erin Taylor February 14, 2013 at 18:40

Thank you, Victor!


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