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Are We Playing the Game or Have We Become the Game?
April 20, 2011 - 9:45pm

Neoliberalism, Managerialism, Commodification, Corporatization

These seem to be the buzz-words in current critiques of higher education, education, and society in general. In the past couple of weeks, two articles on these topics struck both a personal and professional chord for me. One was an article by the Insecure Scholar in the Times Higher Education (UK) the other was an article in The Journal of Education Policy by Louise Archer (see details below). Both authors focused on how larger changes in higher education and society have real impacts on our daily lives.

As academics struggle to describe what has happened/is happening with the academy (and the world), we turn to buzz-words such as managerialism to describe the following sets of circumstances:

The individual is at the center of the university and their value is determined by the dollar sign — salaries, tuition rates, grant funding, endowment levels, and profit margins – money.

Our space for organized and larger-scale resistance has been drastically reduced through increased dependence on part-time and non-union labor; increased numbers of administrative (non-union) staff; increasingly complex, mystified, and ever-changing tenure processes; the framing of the student as customer and faculty as customer-service; and the constant shuffling and reorganization of units and teams.

Our institutions have adopted punitive corporate practices without shifting to corporate culture and reward structures in a framework that “protects” our institutions as non-profit and/or public entities. (within private institutions in the US this framework allows for minimal transparency with oversight by a board of trustees rather accountability to shareholders.)

Research is valued over teaching, research income is valued as institutional income, and the most valuable research is that which can be transformed into a corporate commodity and sold to the highest bidder for the highest profit margin.

How do these impact our day-to-day lives and what does this mean for us as the next generation of women leaders in the academy?

Do we live our lives pretending to act the part, to play the game of neoliberalism, all the while thinking that we can save our minds and souls from becoming sold out to a world where the individual and his money rule?

If so, is this game more difficult for women and minorities? Are we playing a double or triple-game? And do we really think we can keep this competitive, money-loving self apart from our relationships with friends and family? Can we pretend to be competitive in public and act our true, loving, collaborative, cooperatives selves at home? (see Sennett’s Corrosion of Character)

What happens to our creativity? How does a drive for increased funding, fundraising, revenue impact our ability to think outside the box? Or does this make us even more dependent upon the creative ‘visions’ of our funders?

We live our daily lives and we resist being completely consumed by a competitive drive for more money. Archer does a fantastic job of outlining ways that our generation has partially adopted neoliberal rhetoric while simultaneously telling ourselves that we haven’t fully sold out. In her research, she found the following practices of resistance: 1- people play the game in public but attempt to refuse in private; 2- people speak out in public and pay the price; 3- people create supportive groups of like-minded people; 4- people draw boundaries between work and life and focus on balance; and 5– people create ‘principled projects’ that help them to work beyond or against the individualist ethic.

In reading her article, I was struck by the ways in which the writers at the University of Venus speak to these practices. Is this what contemporary resistance looks like? Will it make a difference? Is it too individualized? Do we ‘resist’ in these ways only to make our day-to-day lives more comfortable? Are we merely playing the game or have we become the game?

Mary Churchill

This post was originally published at on 2010.03.15 and was also included in Hacking the Academy, a project at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Archer, Louise. 2008. “The new neoliberal subjects? Young/er academics’ constructions of professional identity.” Journal of Education Policy. May 2008, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 265-285.

“The Judas Generation.” March 2, 2010. The Insecure Scholar. Times Higher Education. (here)

Gaviria, Patricia. 2010. ” The Global, the National and the Local in Mexican’s Higher Education System: Neo-liberalism Penetrating from Within.” Presentation at CIES 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (abstract here)

Gaffikin, Frank and David C. Perry. 2009. “Discourses and Strategic Visions: The U.S. Research University as an Institutional Manifestation of Neoliberalism in a Global Era.” American Education Research Journal. March 2009, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 115-144.


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