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Daniel Levy: Can You Say Power? Emasculating Terms in Higher Education
March 4, 2012 - 7:17pm

Why might a political scientist writing about higher education employ the concept and term power less than he did in the early years after getting his political science degree? It’s only a relative difference; I continue to engage the concept and term more than do higher education scholars outside my home discipline, but still . . .

Part of this personal reflection takes me to the consulting I’ve done with international organizations. There I’m involved in discussions of “governance” (better: “good governance”) or “appropriate management,” or “leadership.” These terms steer discussion away from “power” and “politics.” Understandably, international agencies are not meant to meddle in such internal matters, though of course, most observers recognize that agency projects and advice have political implications and affect the distribution of power.

By the same token, terms used more frequently include “sound decision-making” or knowledge-based decisions, or of course “policy.” But don’t say “power” or “politics” much (unless perhaps, referring to those who oppose rational reforms you or the agency promotes). True, terms like “stakeholders” have entered the lexicon (ad nauseam). But don’t say “interest groups” (again unless meaning to deprecate opposition). Do say “the public interest.” The notion that higher education policy is fundamentally an arena—like other policy arenas-- in which power usually determines policy through political conflicts among governmental and private interest groups is often rather marginalized. Especially pernicious in effect is the frequent near equation of government with the public interest, or with the citizenry. (This is not to deny the legitimacy, indeed need for, policy studies that take existing power constellations as givens.)

Further personal reflection carries me back to my main professional world—research and teaching on higher education. Here emasculating terms are less justified than they are in international consultancy work. And here indeed they are less common, but probably still overused.

When I was a political science student, “autonomy” was one of many concepts I learned, along with influence, persuasion, force, threats, authority—and power. Of course, we employ all these terms in higher education study. Yet authors often use autonomy as their preferred term when more raw and provocative political terms would be better. This tendency partly saps away the reality of power and politics. Isn’t autonomy basically the ability or right of an entity (institution, department, professional, unit of government, etc.) to exercise power?

One problem is simply how little serious political science scholarship focuses on higher education, especially outside a few developed countries. We need more studies of interest groups, relationships between political regimes or political parties on the one hand and higher education policy or performance on the other. But the problem I address here is more a matter of the terms and concepts we use for what we do study. Sometimes “autonomy” is indeed the most appropriate term to capture a given reality. Likewise with governance, management, or policy. Sometimes terms are interchangeable with little impact on meaning. But sometimes the most appropriate term and concept to capture a reality is power.



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