May 22, 2003

"Monastery or Market"

Most academics shudder at the specter of the marketplace, and blame 'corporatization' for all the ills that afflict universities and colleges. I think it is not nearly so clear-cut. It’s possible that universities and colleges aren’t corporatized enough, and in any event, most of the academics who decry the intrusions of the market into academic life are totally unwilling to embrace an alternative return to the university as a sacred, artisanal institution whose legitimacy derives from its relationship to the democratic public sphere and ideals of citizenship.

-- Timothy Burke, "Monastery or the Market?"

For me, one of the advantages of blogging is the chance to encounter ideas and arguments that challenge my assumptions and presuppositions about the world and those who inhabit it. A while ago, Timothy Burke made an intriguing suggestion at Gary Sauer-Thompson's (scroll to comments):

Regarding 'demedievalizing' the academy, one could make the argument that the problem with contemporary academia is not too much marketplace, but too little, that the 'corporate university' is inimical because it introduces a half-assed, faint-hearted market logic into what is valued and not valued within the academy and that this interacts exceptionally poorly with the sacred, artisanal, guild character of the academy.

So maybe it should be fish or cut bait, that 'valuable knowledge' should either 'knowledge that people will pay for.' OR it should be 'knowledge that is sacred.' But if it's the latter, then the entrepreneurial expansion of knowledge and disciplines in the academy is totally untenable: we need to go back to core curricula, 'tight' disciplines, and stronger filtering systems for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable knowledge. I don't think that can happen, even if you wanted it to. So maybe we should ask what would happen if value in the academy was even more market-driven than it is now, if we had a true 'marketplace of ideas.'

I've been thinking about this comment ever since. I am highly critical of the corporatization of the university on this blog, and clearly among those who "blame 'corporatization' for all the ills that afflict universities and colleges." I tend to see the adjunctification of teaching, for example, as a function of the imposition of marketplace logic. And yet, I do have to wonder: what if the university went corporate all the way? Would this just lead to the adjuntification of all faculty? Or would it be possible to create a new kind of career path that more nearly approximates the kind of careers that professionals outside the academy typically follow? -- one that included, for example, a far greater degree of mobility (including geographical mobility)?

Burke now follows through on his earlier comment with a new entry entiteld "Monastery or the Market?" which takes off from Michele Tepper's "Doctor Outsider", but which then moves in a couple of other interesting directions as well.

What I find particularly insightful is his argument that

anyone who has ever accepted either a Foucauldian or Gramscian understanding of what the university does—who either sees it as part of a ‘truth regime’ deeply connected to dispersed forms of bio-power or who sees intellectuals as engaged in a ‘war of position’ with the aim of revolutionary transformation of civil society—has more or less opened the door to the corporatization of the university.

That sounds like a perverse claim, but the direct consequences of abandoning a vision of intellectual life as involving a progressive accumulation of knowledge whose purpose is open-ended, non-ideologically fixed critical thought for an informed citizenry in a liberal democratic society is that it leaves academics no basis for articulating a privileged place for higher education in terms of the general logics of 21st Century global society.

If the university is nothing more than another power/knowledge factory or a subversive redoubt for the production of opposition to late capitalism, then there is no intelligible argument for its continuance in a non-market form that can be made within the terms of the larger public sphere.

Here Burke says something that I have been struggling to articulate for some time. As a lefty-liberal-progressive type, I am increasingly uncomfortable with a certain lefty-liberal-progressive critique of corporatization which links a concern with the problems of the academic labor system with the necessity of, in Burke's phrase, "the production of opposition to late capitalism." As if the commitment to resolve some of the problems that beset the university necessarily commits one to an oppositional stance toward the broader culture and society of which the university is a part. Though I happen to share some of these "oppositional" positions, I'm bothered by the idea that critical thought (including critical thought about the academy) must be "ideologically fixed" in this way. Anyway, in more pragmatic terms, it's just not going to fly. The way I see it: either the university is supported by a broader civil society to which the university lends some sort of support (not uncritical or unthinking, of course, but some sort of support), or civil society will cease to support the university.

More on this later. Meanwhile, if you're interested in the corporatization of the university, you should read Burke's latest entry.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 22, 2003 01:55 AM

You can absorb a Foucauldian understanding of power-relations and still work toward an academia that's engaged with civil society. Alisdair MacIntyre does exactly that. All Foucault does is deprivilege various power-knowledge regimes. Deprivileging academia's "encyclopedic project" (as MacIntyre calls it) is not a relativist surrender to the Market, nor an abandonment of civil society.

There is a big difference between regarding academia as "power/knowledge factory" and regarding it as "nothing more than another power/knowledge factory." It seems like the burden goes to Burke to show why a (nonsimplistic) reading of Foucault necessitates an acceptance of relativism or nihilism.

Posted by: chutney at May 22, 2003 03:07 AM

"strongly instrumentalizes knowledge production" doesn't mean the same thing here it does at home, Dorothy. I don't think so, anyway.

Harping still on my one damp string, corporations can be abuzz with the creation and rigorous judgement of knowledge (not usually humanistic, yet; until applied psychohistory works). Maybe the problem is not just that universities are being corporatized but that they're being corporatized badly, by admins who couldn't hack it managing a tight labor market. (And, not to split hairs, but isn't Oxford University a corporation of long standing?)

Posted by: clew at May 22, 2003 04:10 AM

First let me say how much I admire your blog. It's quite wonderful.

Next, I've read Burke's essays for some time and I admire them as well. This latest, which I found thanks to you, is no exception. He zeroes in on what for me constitutes THE issue in academia: marketplace or monastery.

And yet I disagree with Burke that it's impossible even to begin to conceive of how we might return at least some American institutions of higher education to an essentially monastic conception of themselves.

First, you need to make a clear distinction between the four-year college, committed to the great works of the liberal tradition considered in depth and dispassionately, and the essentially vocational graduate divisions that allow you to call yourself a university.

Next you need to think of the college as precisely and unapologetically an escape from the world of the market, a place where one values inquiry into knowledge and virtue and beauty in themselves, and doesn't push toward financial or therapeutic or political applications of this inquiry. Just as we should think of ourselves as offering our students a four-year suspension from the market mentality, so we should offer them a respite from rushing after superficial conclusions about the world. It is Keats's negative capability that we are after here.

Our best colleges - St. John's Annapolis, William and Mary, Swarthmore, the University of Chicago - continue to display varying degrees of commitment to this ideal.

Posted by: Newman at May 22, 2003 06:46 AM

I don't have any problem with the idea that opposition to new forms of bourgeois control of the university requires opposition to those forms of control elsewhere. The university is part of society; always has been, always will be. Never mind the theory, think on a practical level. How are you going to keep the ivory tower spotless if it's standing in a moat of shit?

Sure a liberal division of spheres type theory could be appealing to some (liberals I guess), but it doesn't work out very well in practice. Even if boundary maintenance is effective, that in itself ends up building resentment to the institution, especially from the people getting crapped on 'out there.' No solidarity means no one helps you, either.

hasta la victoria...etc.


p.s. Very broadly speaking all this was at the centre of Mr. Diss. (That is, if that misshapen freak can said to have a centre.)

Posted by: guy yasko at May 22, 2003 10:56 AM

Professional groups defend their autonomy all the time without being 'statist' or adopting 'an oppositional stance toward the broader culture', so why shouldn't academics? There are many intelligible arguments for believing the academy benefits society, and even benefits the market over the long-term. The view of the market presented in Burke's essay comes straight out of ‘Fast Company’ and is a long way from the reality of bureaucratic-infighting, rent-seeking, corporate life as it is truly lived.
This may have been raised elsewhere, but I think the question of job prospects for PhDs is irrelevant to this argument – there are plenty of unemployed programmers right now, but that doesn’t mean we need to shut down Computer Science faculties. People who go to Art school have always faced unfavourable job prospects, but this doesn’t mean we should limit the places to the number who can make a living as fine artists. Surely a lot of people do these things for the intrinsic value of the experience.

Posted by: Gabriel at May 22, 2003 12:43 PM

Perhaps the corporatization of the university is the necessary step for the reconnection of the intelligentsia with the working class? After all, there would be profound changes in hiring and firing - which would influence the kinds of work which could be done in the academy and the kinds of work in which academics could participate outside the gates. Push too far in that direction and the socialist revolution may actually work its way back on the agenda in America. Not that I think this is a good thing...

Posted by: Martial at May 22, 2003 02:43 PM

Bouncing off clew's comment, the point needs to be made that PhDs are horrible administrators, generally speaking. And why shouldn't they be? They have next to no training in administration. If you add in a little narcissism and arrogance, then some of them even believe they're "too smart" to learn how to administrate. The medieval university was set-up to require very little day-to-day administration. Unfortunately, the realities of the modern research university no longer allow that, even if tenured PhDs would prefer to pretend otherwise.

Whether they need to learn to administrate in a Fast Company corporate model is another question entirely. Handing administration over to an HR bureaucracy and ignoring their oversaturation of the market with new PhDs just isn't cutting it.

Posted by: chutney at May 22, 2003 03:07 PM

Speaking of rent-driven behavior, I'm clearly a free rider on Invisible Adjunct's comments section! I get to have comments without having comments on my own blog. Two for one, what a deal.

Anyway, I will chew on a couple of these thoughtful points. I would agree that there is a thoughtful Foucauldian position that escapes my crude characterizations, but then again, I'd say that's generally true of all theoretical positions--there's a thoughtful version that works past the vulgar instatiations that most theorists offer. The core problems may still be there, though. Certainly I've learned a lot from the Foucauldian view of power and of civil institutions, but I think at the end of the day, I choose 19th Century liberalism over Foucault, and see that as a meaningful choice.

I agree that the reality of life in actual corporations is nothing like the representation of "the market" that I offer in my essay. That's a very good point. But if by "corporatization of the academy", we mean "the internal organization and practice of the academy coming to resemble the institutional structure of capitalist corporations", then that too is something that has long since taken place, and taken place with the active collusion of most faculty, particularly those segments of the academic left with a strongly instrumentalist vision of academic recruitment and retrenchment. But I agree that this sense of corporatization and my sense of the ways in which a "market logic" pervades choices about distinctions within the academy are somewhat separable.

I think I agree with Newman that the 4-year liberal arts college--and perhaps also the idea of "adult extension" courses at a variety of institutions--may be precisely the vehicle where a more sanctified sense of higher education can and does reside. Maybe the research university, on the other hand, is the institutional form that needs to be much *more* expressly open to a "market" conception of itself. I actually think MIT provides a pretty wholesome model for possible imitation, as one example. The MIT Media Lab, for example, embraces a market sense of its mission in that it is looking to disseminate its work along the lines of its economic and creative utility, but at the same time, it's a nice institutional opposite to the closed and selfish regimes of value and intellectual property that many corporations hold to.

I think Clew is also right that one thing you could say against the corporatization of the academy might be not that it is happening, but that it is happening so ineptly. (Of course, you can say this about many corporations themselves as well, as we've all had reason to note in the past five years).

Posted by: Timothy Burke at May 22, 2003 03:40 PM

I'm not sure any of this can be solved until we deal with the critical issue of the division of labor in this country. On the one side, you have jobs that require college degrees or some sort of post-high-school credentials. On the other side, you have a wide swath of service industry, low-skilled labor that does not pay a living wage. People are flowing into the university, not to expand their minds, but to SURVIVE. What if people don't like college? Too bad. The message is loud and clear. You have to go to college to make a living wage (and even that isn't a guarantee). It used to be you could still find decent work at a factory that paid a good wage with benefits and retirement. Not anymore. This polarization of the job market has created what we see happening in colleges today. Until we address the issue of a living wage and how underpaying people is leading to pressures on the university to churn out degrees, then none of this can be solved any time soon.

Posted by: Cat at May 22, 2003 05:47 PM

Cat's on to something there, I think.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 22, 2003 06:11 PM

Two cents:

"Corporatization" means a lot of different things today: outsourcing of non-core functions, the use of economies of scale, preference for flexible labor arrangements, etc..

I think what we've seen in the university several overlapping kinds of corporatization. Some of them, like the contracting of bookstores out to Barnes and Noble and Follets, or the contracting of food services to whoever is big in the food service industry, are merely obnoxious money-saving measures, but ARE defensible through pretty straightforward economic analysis.

What's happened with the academic job market, it seems to me, is something different. Look at the kinds of courses that are taught by adjuncts: introductory lecture courses, surveys, service-intensive courses like English comp. This isn't because administrators or department heads have tried to create a more rational market, or to match teaching supply and course demand more effectively, but one driven more by convenience and hierarchy: it's a way for administrators to cut costs, and for senior faculty to reduce their pedagogical workloads (or, more charitably, to focus greater love and attention on their graduate students, enrich the collective intellectual life of their institutions, etc.).

If you looked at the structure of the market, you'd conclude that universities believed that it was impossible to know, semester to semester, whether there would be enough demand for Western Civ or differential calculus to have anyone permanently hired to teach it; but that it absolutely essential to have lifetime 24/7 access to specialists in [insert favorite absurd example of something].

That's not "corporatization," or at least not a version of it that any corporation could get away with for long. It's a bad outcome of a conspiracy of narrow interests.

Posted by: askpang at May 22, 2003 07:25 PM

It's probably some kind of self-plagiarism, but I've expanded the above comment into an entry on my own blog.

If journalism is the first draft of history, are comments the first draft of blog entries?

Posted by: askpang at May 22, 2003 07:42 PM

Not a bad thought -- I made the leap to blogdom myself because I felt I was hijacking too many of others' comments lists with my own concerns!

(Gotta have the give and take in the comments...)

I too like what Cat brings up about how students view (and society) the role of college in their lives. Don't other countries emphasize trade schools as legitimate alternatives to university education? If we did that here, would this help filter out the students who come in asking "so, how's this history class going to get me an engineering job?" And if it did, would this be a good or a bad thing in the long run? (For faculty, for students, for society...)

Posted by: Rana at May 23, 2003 03:39 PM

"Speaking of rent-driven behavior, I'm clearly a free rider on Invisible Adjunct's comments section! I get to have comments without having comments on my own blog."

But I'm a free rider on your essays, which I put to my own purposes here, so it all evens out. Now how's that for a market?...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 25, 2003 05:09 AM

Rana - I've read that Germany not only has more respectable and respected trade schools, but that in some professions - engineering specifically - there's a recognized path for someone who started on the shop floor to get book knowledge slowly, while working, and eventually be an engineer; and not an entry-level engineer, because the work experience is assumed to be relevant. (From Fukuyama's Trust.) It seems to me that this is not only good for non-academic learners, but probably lets the four-year university stay purer. (Attempting to retrieve digression...)

Posted by: clew at May 28, 2003 05:36 AM

Don't matter if you care, if you don't own what you care about.

Posted by: Schneider Jennifer Lange at March 16, 2004 10:01 PM