University Spiralists and Aca-Zombies

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As in many places where the ideology of neoliberalism holds sway, universities have been contaminated with the self-invented business imperatives of neoliberalism. For the better part of the last forty years, the conversion of universities from places where academics and students wanted to go to learn because knowledge was good to have into places to be endured for the sake of qualifications, connections and authority has been on the march.

Today, universities are endured by academics until retirement and by students until securing a job. For both, the university quite literally means being prepared to accept and experience considerable discomfort. This discomfort is created by managers who have replaced scholarly officials Managerialism. While neoliberalism works mostly outside of companies, corporations and universities, inside them it takes on the form of managerialism—managing for the sake of managing..

University Managerialism means a constant and above all consistent adherence to an all-defining performance culture euphemistically camouflaged as organisational culture. This organisational culture which is more often than not a managerially imposed culture is shaped by performance management, performance measures, performance assessments – mostly by done non-academics and orchestrated against academics – and by key performance indicators invented by university apparatchiks. In all this, performance means play-acting, pretending to be scholars but without any scholarship, and outright deceit. These university managers (or perhaps better university apparatchiks to use an old Stalinist term) take on two forms:

1) The first group are the instigators of Managerialism. These are the top-echelons. Increasingly, they behave like CEOs, have chauffeur-driven cars with personalized licence plates, fly business or first class, demand astronomical salaries, CEO-like salaries, occupy luxurious residences, dine in expensive restaurants, have en suite offices and usually walk around with an entourage of willing executors. Their desks are empty of clutter that marks serious scholarship, as they only send out jargon-filled memos, and they have no academic articles or vetted books on their CVs.

2) What defines the second group are university administrators and lower ranking line-managers willing to carry out the wishes of their masters. They do so even when this leads to a complete perversion of academic and scholarly activities and achievements.PODpathological organisational dysfunction. Somewhere between both are departmental or faculty deans who are increasingly defined as entrepreneurs and being paid like corporate managers.

There was once an emergency, when the fire department and bomb-squad were called in to the administration block of a famous university to check if there were any ideas on the loose. After a few hours, the all-clear was sounded. The only things found were a few empty clichés – everyone could safely return to their offices and relax.

Working under Managerialism

For Neoliberals and their academic lackeys Managerialism, it is almost self-evident that monetary resource should not be wasted on teaching and research. What we see is a stratospheric ascendancy of PR (e.g. corporate propaganda) and marketing. Both are symptomatic of the pathology of university Managerialism. This is where expenditure is lavished, not only on marketing but also on campus landscaping, while scholarly research and academic teaching are starved and tormented with citation fetishism. The belief is that successful marketing is good for a university’s ranking and public image.

This reinforces the status of university apparatchiks. Expensive university landscaping delivers nice pictures for advertising brochures to lure full-fee paying students, or rather their rich parents. students. In some places up to 70% of teaching staff are on short- and part-time contracts, making them casual employees without long-term benefits. They also have little opportunity to engage in high-powered academic research and so lack the publication list to seek promotion or better positions elsewhere. As for the remaining 30% of permanent academics. For them being at an university means six things:

1) Hoop-jumping, box-ticking, form-filling, and bean-counting, as though they were seeking favours from the King of Lilliput in the First Voyage of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

2) Precariousness and audit-induced competition introduced by university apparatchiks throughout the organisation. Instead of learning being considered a cumulative and complementary enterprise, it becomes competitive and fosters inter-school and –departmental rivalry.

3) Legitimacy and prestige for apparatchiks, enabling them to engage in an even stronger push towards an authoritarian command and control of academia. To get ahead you have to become a manager or administrator; teaching and research get you nowhere.

4) An anxiety inducing apparatus is set up based on grant income targets for academics. This is built into workload formulas that are made part of the all important performance management process.

5) Workloads for academics are never finished. Management moves goalposts continually so that academics never arrive at a definitive end to their work. The goal is more bums on seats, not ideas in heads.

6) Academic work is no longer about the production and dissemination of scientific or humanistic knowledge but is made part of an – always unquestioned and accepted – macro-economic process of ensuring institutional survival and international competiveness even when none of these things actually exists. Subversive reading on this: Alexander Pope’s Dunciad.

Working under the conditions of university Managerialism means work is hell or, as one academic put it, “My heart sinks every time I have to go there. It drains away your spirit.” Another would be scholar expressed it in these terms, “I love my job but hate my employer.” Meanwhile, university apparatchiks display an unwavering confidence in Managerialism, even though it is a version of “as-if” Managerialism. These dunces behave “as if” their university were a real corporation, a profit-seeking entity.

For university managerialists, it also means treating people “as if” they were not even human. Hence the terminology of human resources: tool, chattel, and implement, material. It translates into empty verbiage, double-talk and twittering nonsense. Menschenmaterial – a Nazi term, according to Stephen Poole’s chef-d’oeuvre, Unspeak.

Universities are not like companies and corporations. Yet university CEOs – still calling themselves presidents, chancellors, vice-chancellor, principals, High Lords – and university apparatchiks behave “as if” colleges and universities were private commercial corporations. Since Stalin, a little “as-if” has never bothered a true apparatchik since reality is not something that features in their self-enclosed ideological orbit. As German philosopher Theodor Adorno said in this philosophical masterpiece Minima Moralia – Reflections on a Damage Life,

the entire private domain is being engulfed by a mysterious activity that bears all of the features of commercial life without there being any actual business to transact

Since the 1990s to be an academic in the context of “as-if” Managerialism means living the lie inside a “damaged life”. Worse, Managerialism in the tertiary education system doesn’t simply foster bullying – it is a form of structural violence shaped by systematic intimidation based on the importation of neoliberal free market ideologies into the ivied walls of academia.

It marks an aggressive intrusion of the commercial semi-logic or what German philosopher Habermas calls “the colonization of the mind Lifeworld” – the transformation of previously untouched intellectual spheres into mindless spheres of commerce. Undeterred, university apparatchiks foster – and in some cases even enjoy! – strong hand Managerialism that underpins institutionalised bullying. Simultaneously, it weakens the autonomy and agency of academics as well as trade unions. This is a desired goal of authoritarian management, Managerialism and neoliberalism. Simultaneously, we are told, we do this while enjoying the fruits of democracy.

Anti-democratic neoliberalism has assured that universities are forced to cover an increasing proportion of their operating costs from outside, largely through full-fee paying students, industry funding (read: corporations, i.e. capital’s direct access to science) and non-government sources in general. Through that deceitful mechanism, managerial power inside universities has become increasingly concentrated in the hand of non-academic managers, i.e., university apparatchiks.

In The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars and Neoliberal Ideology, John Smyth argues that in some universities up to 60% of resources are consumed by “non-core” activities. The code-word “non-core” means endeavours that aren’t directly connected to teaching and research, i.e., management, marketing, public relations, administration and well-paid university apparatchiks. In the days before Managerialism, many experts saw the university consisting of three groups: students, academic faculty and administrators. Managerialism has changed that. Like any other business, company and corporation, university apparatchiks dedicated to Managerialism see universities divided into four functional categories:

1) finance and accounting,

2) human resource management,

3) marketing and public relations, and

4) operations management.

For apparatchiks, academics are a cost factor of (4) to be outsourced, e.g., Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, casualized and reduced. Academics are seen as being part of operations management, a cost to be reduced as much as possible. One way to achieve this is through the ruthless application of Managerialism’s performative apparatuses consisting of something called assessment (probably with emphasis on the first syllable). This is what the gurus of the new world order American Association of University Professors call Assessment Culture– measuring, calibrating, ranking, rating, comparing, and auditing.

Often ass*essment forces academics to take one of Hirschman’s exit-loyalty-voice options. Academics can leave (exit), can fight university apparatchiks (voice) or can be loyal to management. Yet some may also be able to take a quasi-exit option. This means that in order to end an academic job with some degree of self-worth, academics work for their own satisfaction and largely ignore the false metrics and externally imposed benchmarks. They forgo the jargon-ridden professional trajectory to super-salaries and stay below the radar by doing their academic jobs quietly. So long as they don’t make trouble, the managers don’t mind.

Yet, the imperatives of Managerialism are mirrored by the way in which students see universities. Following the neoliberalism playbook, universities are converted from being a public good in which education benefited society as a whole to a private investment. For students universities are a training facility for the next job. This has let to a dumping down of education directed towards narrow-minded problem-solving. Today, students have internalised the market ideology of neoliberalism. As Adorno once said, “they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.”

Some academics rebel. One of the things against which scientists rebel most strongly is the unwanted interference of unqualified managers into technical research. Such an interference can take the form of a managerialist policy that demands that all studies be routed through a central administrative office for approval. This absurdly called “quality” assurance with an “ethics” committee lurking in the back room. The latter serves the pretence that universities perform for quality and act ethically. In a true Orwellian fashion, the process masks the decline in both integrity and morality. The former is used to domesticate academics.

Refusal and Punishment

Scholars and scientists often find the entire process an unwarranted intrusion. They find it frustrating and irritating. Others see is as humiliation in the extreme. Now, even internationally- recognised scientists have non-researchers holding the power of veto over their projects. This is a nightmare for academics. Refusal to obey the orders of university apparatchiks leads to immediate punishment which can take seven key forms (beyond others):

1) academics and scientists identified as recalcitrant by university apparatchiks are uninvited to important committees like promotions, grants and ethics;

2) university apparatchiks remove such academics from the register of research higher degree supervisors which effectively ends PhD supervision;

3) bureaucratic rules are strictly forced onto academics;

4) bureaucratic hurdles are put in place so that they “willing”(!) refrain from applying for grants;

5) application for sabbaticals are either delayed or denied;

6) recalcitrant academics are removed from a university research committee because their work is deemed unworthy by university apparatchiks; and finally,

7) academics are put on a performance improvement plan (PiP), the first step to dismissal.

When these seven measures are put together, university apparatchiks are given the power in effect to end the careers of a scientist or scholar. Yet many academics willingly submit to the shift towards Managerialism in order to survive. Some live in an often failed or failing hope that good intellectual work can nevertheless go on without or even against university apparatchiks and the monstrous and disciplinary machinery of Managerialism.

Academics do this not because of the university but “despite” the university and in spite of the university’s insistence on its quality assurance initiatives. This is yet another cover up for a marked decline in the quality of teaching producing ever more disgruntled, frustrated and angry graduates Excellent Sheep to be released into the corporate world.

In any case and following the now out-dated TQM (total quality management) mantra that once was the prima donna’s aria and the hottest fashion on management’s operatic stage, the code-word “quality” has assumed a god-like status. It is closely related to “excellence” – another term out of the bullshit generator of weasel words Managerial Buzzword Generator.

These are what Don Watson calls managerial weasel words or bouquet words that are sprayed around by university apparatchiks like a toilet deodorant to cover up the rotting stench of decay that has fallen on the university since the arrival of Managerialism. And this, dear reader, only sets the scene for worse to come.

Spiralists, Aca-Zombies and Rock Stars

The infiltration of Managerialism into the hallowed halls of academe has led to the idea that the un-dead are running free in the lecture halls, seminar rooms and library carrels. These are the compliant academics, the be-suited apparatchiks, the willing executioners called administrators, and the students, all pretending to be working in the pursuit of knowledge and studying to the drum-beat of Managerialism. Others call such academics shaped by Managerialism’s zombies, the aca-Zombies.

They haunt soulless buildings, hover about standardized food courts, lurk in shopping arcades, creep through eviscerated libraries, float above hi-tech lecture amphitheatres and wander through ugly office blocks sold as “vertical campuses” – a cloud of unknowing and tautological nonsense. Of course, the rise of Managerialism also demands Aca-Zombie-speakers adhere to meaningless compliance procedures.

This is where one meets the infamous quality assurance ideology again. But there are also performance measures, KPIs and accountability for academics. Accountability is for academics, not university apparatchiks. Luckily for university apparatchiks, a considerable number of promising students and aca-zombies have lost any capacity to distinguish between a university as a place of research and learning and a money-making PR machine that churns out degrees. The entire place is covered in mummifying managerialist duct-tape. The suffocating amount of managerialist red tape is camouflaged and, like a red herring, is through the adjacent neoliberal ideology of deregulation and the elimination of excess paper work. Managerialism produces the exact opposite of what the ideology sells.

To smokescreen the creation of aca-zombies, university apparatchiks like to hire rock star academics. These rock star academics are wooed and lionized by university apparatchiks. They often come with their own entourage (a research team). The appointment of a rock star academic is often made without any open or transparent process, let alone debate. University apparatchiks can be very inventive when bypassing their own policies if needs be.

These academic rock stars are brought on campus with the hope that they will elevate the status of the university and lead to higher rankings. For some reason Oxford University often tops the charts on Britain’s London Times Higher Education Supplement University Rankings. Ditto for Harvard University. It ranks No. 1 on the US News’ Global University Rankings rankings – surprise, surprise!

Undeterred by such all too obvious inconsistencies and despite hints of biased nationalism that might render such rankings nonsensical, university apparatchiks believe that academic rock stars will enable their university to climb upward on the league table. But hiring academic rock stars comes at a high – and of course generally undisclosed – financial cost. The poaching of rock stars also leads to a drop in moneys spent on real teaching and scholarship. Yet, the corrosion of academic culture is of no concern to university apparatchiks, who couldn’t care less about teaching, scholarship or research.

Here is an example of how this corrosive system works: someone organises a conference with a so-called keynote speaker, the target. After the presentation, the keynote speaker is approached by university apparatchiks and taken to lunch or dinner in a posh place, while these flunkeys flick their “corporate” credit card and offer a lucrative professorship or titular chair, whether or not the invited scholar’s speciality qualifications are needed in the university or not.

In setting aca-zombies against rock stars, university apparatchiks enjoy waving a staffing budget cut in one hand and head-hunting some prestigious name with the other. It is part of a rather entertaining game played by university apparatchiks. Following the neoliberal ideology of free choice, university apparatchiks even offer “some” academics a choice, you can to be working in marvellous luxury or you can be driven to the wall by overwork and underpay inside an academic sweatshop. Buying rock stars is often done by precisely those who  lack any sense of what they are doing to academic standards and scholarly achievement. Michael Burawoy calls these procurers spiralists.

Spiralists are top level university apparatchiks and high ranking corporate mandarins who spiral into a university from the outside. Once they are inside, they develop what is called a “signature project,” preferably something that provides good propaganda (officially: public relations) for the university rather than historical knowledge or science. Once this is done, they either spiral upwards or onwards. The first case means promotion, a bigger desk and corporate car, more business-class flights, etc. The second case means leaving the university behind to spiral downwards while they spin out to the next project and the next university.

That they are often corporate executives with little commitment and next to no knowledge of academic culture and the inner workings of a university is irrelevant to the university apparatchiks who spiral them in. Much of this operates under the first law of Managerialism: When things go right, take the credit; but when things go bad, blame someone else. Beyond that, university apparatchiks working in conjunction with spiralists, harden Managerialism’s control. This establishes three defining features:

1) it further entrenches a subconscious belief held by university apparatchiks that all academics are only out for themselves – projecting their own ideological belief-system onto others;

2) the only way to make academics work is by measuring and controlling them through a wide range of assessment metrics; and finally,

3) an overall focus on what is euphemistically labelled “hard numbers”, “measurable outputs” and to achieve that the all important and very controlling metrics must be placed on academics work in the hope that this will lead to an increase in the university’s reputation (i.e. impression management).

For university apparatchiks, the application of the menacing techniques of Managerialism deliberately creates a pervasive culture of intellectual mediocrity enhancing two old favourites of all management: control and intimidation.


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